My wife tells me that she never liked her grandfather. He stunk of tobacco – he used to cut up cigars and smoke them in his pipe – ignored her and her siblings, and chased after young women well into his 80s. As a descendant of English-speaking European settlers in a Latin American country, he had a colonialist mindset and was very class and race conscious. He operated a thriving lumber-cutting and furniture-making business on his property.
What irked my wife most about her grandfather was the way he blatantly favored her cousin Roberto over her brother. While her brother even at the age of 3 was outgoing and friendly, the slightly older Roberto was the type of child who did not take to people. My wife’s brother would climb all over his grandfather whenever the old man sat in his favorite leather desk chair, while Roberto would fold into himself whenever his grandfather wrapped his arm around him. Still, the old man would ply the sullen Roberto with compliments, candies, and toys made in the lumber shop.
As my wife grew up, she learned that her grandfather’s affection for Roberto was an extension of his adoration of his second son Edmond. She never found out what Edmond did to deserve favorite-son status. What she did know was that her own father, “Leonardo,” did not enjoy the respect and admiration that the old man showered on Edmond. Just the opposite: in her grandfather’s eyes, Leonardo could do nothing right.
Edmond worked in the lumber shop with his father. Leonardo tried teaching, managing a soccer team, and other jobs before eventually moving to the U.S. and settling into a career on the sea as a merchant seaman. Edmond married a school teacher from a “good” (prosperous) family, while Leonardo married a teacher’s daughter from a family that had known hunger and privation.
Leonardo never spoke much about his father, and he did not complain in front of his children about how unfairly he had been treated. But the lingering effects were obvious. He lacked a deep sense of self-confidence. By being away at sea for months at a time, he grew distant from his own family. Worst of all, according to my wife, was when Leonardo started treating his own son with the same disapproval he had known. Fortunately, by being away at sea, Leonardo was not able to inflict the same degree of psychic damage that he had suffered.
As I have mentioned before, I, too, was a disappointment to my father. If not for my disability, as his only son I would have been the so-called apple of his eye. He would have instructed me on the secrets of growing grapes, grain, and hazelnuts, he would have brought me along to his Sunday card games, he would have gloated about me to his friends. Instead, my father treated my sisters and me the same, with no favorites.
I can’t say the same for my grandfather (the other one died before I was born). He never let me forget that he saw me as the “different” grandchild. I remember one Easter when we all went over to his house. I was about 6 years old. One by one, we kids went up to him, and he handed out the traditional big chocolate egg along with some lire. When it was my turn, he put an orange and a couple of coins in my hands. “What’s this?” I dared ask. My mother hurried me away before my grandfather could respond. I was so hurt, I wanted to cry, or scream, but I didn’t. I went outside and hurled that orange toward the roof of that old man’s house.
I must admit, at times I wish my father had expected more from me. I might have pushed myself to reach meaningful goals instead of drifting from experience to experience. I have held myself back from trying so many things, sure that I would fail.
All things considered, it’s a blessing not to have children to whom I can pass on my insecurities.