I am sitting in my small Santa Monica apartment when Mom calls. She refuses to take her anti-psychotic medication these days, dozing in and out of sanity. It’s hard to believe if what she is saying these days is true or not. “Charlie, Haliti vdiq.” She speaks very matter of fact. “Haliti died” Grandpa had rarely been sick, he was a tough Albanian country man, who religiously brewed his own moonshine with the grapes that grew in his garden. But I believe Mom. Partly because a few seconds into our conversation my younger brother texts with the news.
But still neither mom’s words nor my brother’s message hit a cord, no tears, no sick feeling in the stomach, nothing.
It isn’t that I don’t care about my grandfather. I believe I loved him. Last time I had seen my grandfather when I visited Albania, I stayed with him and grandma. At 76 he hadn’t slowed down a bit. When the 6ft wall that separated his garden from the neighborhood had been damaged in an earthquake, he dragged his hurt leg and re-built it himself. Brick after brick. He refused any help.
At the end of the trip I remember grandmas last words.
“Call us okay?” she says as we hug one last time and the smell of her warm cooked peppers wafts off the white gauze scarf she wraps around her grey bob. Now guilt rushes in.
I never call my grandparents after that trip. Not once.
“What a cold hearted bitch” I hear my inner voice railing on me. “Why hadn’t I?”
I know being an immigrant has toughened me up in some ways. And it had also numbed me.
Numbing up was a better guarantee of survival. My family’s first many years as immigrants in the US were fraught with so much drama, pain and poverty. When my mother’s mental illness got out of hand, I was the only one in the family to admit there was something wrong and eventually had to make the call that landed her at Bergen Regional, a mental hospital in New Jersey. I was nineteen. Already having spent 10 days in a looney the year prior when I’d called the suicide hotline.
Mom was the one who usually called our extended family in Albania. The last few years the relationship between her and my grandparents had been strained.
Dad had told me that she’d often call my grandmother at 2 or 3am Albanian time and go on one of her delusional rants. Speaking about dead Albanian relatives she’d seen roaming the streets of Hackensack New Jersey, where my parents now lived.
Dad would have to intervene or eventually grandma’s patience would run out and she’d hang up, usually in tears, upset Mom was so delusional. I felt too embarrassed to call grandma. I always felt I had to make excuses for mom.
When my grandparents refused to accept mom’s invitation to come visit us in America Mom had been furious and upset. I understood and was angry with her, but I also realized my grandparents had spent a lifetime dealing with a daughter who seemed too wild, too much for them. For most.
“They never loved me” Mom moaned for days, weeks, months, then eventually her madness got the worse of her. She rarely spoke of them anymore. I never knew what had really happened between Mom and her parents when she was young. I wish I knew.
My grandparents were tough country folks, they were also kulaks. Persecuted by the communist regime because their families had owned lands pre-communism. My grandfather’s dad, my great grandfather had hung himself off a fig tree in his land when the communist came to snatch everything he’d worked for. My grandpa had to learn to fend for himself early on.
I want to cry for my grandfather, I want to be there for him, but I can’t. To cry means to feel the pain and to remember the past. To forgive him and grandma for never visiting us, for whatever I assume they might have done to Mom. For sometimes wondering if his moonshine obsession had something to do with Mom becoming addicted to alcohol from an early age.
I call my brother Ergi in NY. It’s already ten in the evening there. His work as an inner city teacher and his second master’s studies keep him busy. But he answers. “I meant to call you but it’s been crazy.” he says, sounding exhausted.
“I know it’s okay”
“You got my message about grandpa?” he asks worried.
“Yea, mom called too. She didn’t even sound upset”
“Yea that’s mom for you, she’ll panic over the silliest thing but her father dies you’d think she didn’t even know the guy.” Ergi ads sighing in a tired laugh.
“How are you feeling though?” we rarely speak these days.
“Better than I thought. It’s crazy how living apart makes you not as upset, you know. It’s like you let yourself feel and in some ways you’re kinda fucked cuz you can’t do much about it. I mean I haven’t seen the guy in forever. I’ve forgotten what he looks like.” His words are somewhat comforting. I know exactly what he means.
I decide to rummage through some old boxes where I’d hid old photographs of my family. Some from my childhood in Elbasan, Albania. Some from our early years as fresh off the boat immigrants in New Jersey.
Black and white photographs of our family at the beach before life in Albania became a shit show and even those gorgeous beaches were too dangerous to visit. Black and white photos of me as a baby. The first colored photo of my little brother and I posed in a bush in the main park, taken by one of the local photographers since nobody owned personal cameras. Photos of our parents’ wedding, even one of my mother in the special black wedding dress my paternal grandmother had sewn of her.
But no photos of Grandpa. I quickly rummage my memories of him. They always begin in the house he’d built in the north end valley of our lil ol city of Elbasan. His immaculate garden, chickens running around kookooing, the whole property surrounded by his all organic white and red grapes. So many you’d bump your head thru the bushels as you walked through the front gate in the later summer months. The time when I was seven and sat on his lap curious as to what that wood oven in the middle of the garden my dad had built for him was being used for.
“I wanna try grandpa” He doesn’t hesitate.
The small shot glass smells like rubbing alcohol and grapes. It’s warm, immediately comforting but also nauseating. I take a small sip feeling the heat burn up my insides.
“Yuck” I pucker my lips and run off. Grandpa laughs.
Then there is Grandpa sitting on the veranda, writing in his mysterious notebook in the early afternoons. A notebook he keeps locked in an old wooden box at the foot of his bed. Grandpa was a serious man. He spent hours watching the news. Yelling at the politicians on the screens for making empty promises. Then I remember grandpa, who wasn’t one to give compliments, telling me one hot summer afternoon when I am twelve: “You’re smart, you know. You can make something of your life.” I don’t know what to make of it. “Did he mean it? Or was he trying to make up for the times when he’d make fun of my dad for not being able to hold his alcohol well.”
My heart is softening up but my mind is still fighting it. I wish I could’ve been closer to my grandparents. I wanted to know them better, as an adult. I wanted to ask them about mom. Sometimes I’d blamed them for her madness. “They must’ve done something to her.” I remember feeling upset as a teenager when mom’s madness hit its peak. But I would never know. I close my eyes and realize I don’t want to live with anger in my heart for a dead person. I have to let it go, all of it, the questions and the silent accusations. I imagine his soul somewhere between the living in the dead. “I hope you hear me. I didn’t know you so well but I want to wish you a good afterlife. Goodbye Moonshine Man.”