Perry passed away two months after his 80th birthday, on the day of his wedding anniversary, just a few years after after Grandma and Howard landed in Freeport.
I was in my first year of college. He and Dorothy had moved to Florida to be closer to their children. Perry had begun to display some early, but worrisome, signs of dementia, and Dorothy needed help before things spun out of control. He regressed quickly, and was gone before I could even quite grasp it. Things had been accelerating at a steady pace for me during those years. Sports. Work. School. Girlfriends. And once life starts spinning like that, it’s near impossible to slow down.
It seemed like fiction that he’d passed when Mom told me. Perry always struck me as a man who was too ornery to give in to Death, but it claimed him just the same, as it will all of us. Though it isn’t fair for me to say, especially for those who can’t say the same, I’m glad I didn’t see him unravel during those last foggy years. My memory of him as a painter, a craftsman, pool shark, businessman, and all around cheapskate is just as clear and concise as he would have liked it.
His presence has carried through this story for a few reasons, mainly because of his connection to Howard and Bonnie, but another fact that keeps coming back to me, is that he might be as close as I ever got to meeting my paternal grandfather, Harold. That may not make any sense just yet, but bear with me. For decades he was simply Perry, Dorothy’s husband. A man who told it like it was. A man with whom I found a limited connection between the bristles of paint brushes and an eclectic assortment of hobbies. I liked the confidence he possessed in both what he knew and what he wanted to learn, in construction and art. In the pride he had for the home he’d molded with his own hands. We often split by gender when we visited their home in Hardy, men (and boy) in the pool hall, women (and my sisters) in the house, though my sisters would inevitably wind up in the pool hall, too. I don’t recall a lot of conversations during my time watching Howard, Pops, and Perry shooting pool, just the laughter, and the friendly banter. Too young to be interested in things I didn’t really understand, I hung to the outskirts, studying the brush strokes of Perry’s recent painting of cats, or an in-progress Arkansas creek.
It was during a roadtrip with my father a few years back, driving past the many places he called home when he was growing up, that he mentioned how his uncle Perry, who had already passed away by then, had a few similarities to his own dad. I made some sarcastic joke about the fact that it probably wasn’t that far-fetched, that we are all distantly related somehow.
“No, Ben,” he said. “Perry was my uncle. He was my dad’s brother.” He sat quietly, driving through a light rain, the wipers chasing each other across the windshield, waiting for my reply as my stomach sank down my left leg.
“But I thought Grandma and Dorothy are sisters,” I responded.
“They are,” he said, patiently. “Perry met Dorothy and they got married. My dad, his brother, liked the family and took a liking to your grandma. Then they got married a few years later.”
It had all the makings of a Hollywood movie. Cue the violins. Two brothers fall for two sisters. The roofers take a shine to the farm girls. It shed quite a bit of light on some things for me. It illuminated how very little my father spoke of his family, outside of his brothers and Grandma Bonnie. Harold was an appendage that Pops had completely severed, so cleanly, in fact, that there was only a simple anecdote every few years. I learned that Perry, too, had cut off all contact with this man, and didn’t see him for many years before he died.
Honestly, I thought, how could I have missed this? Even one of my sisters knew. I didn’t expect this to be such an important point when I set out writing this month, but the closer I look, the longer my eye lingers on the memories of Perry painting and building, the more I wonder if there’s a bit of that somewhere in the folds of my own fabric. And, while I’m excited to get to Howard’s interview with me, the more I write, the more I realize this has become my story as much as it is Bonnie and Howard’s. And it’s only fair that I pause to spend a little bit of time writing about the grandfather I almost met…Harold.
There weren’t any other Laffertys in the city of Rockford beyond my immediate family, a couple cousins and my aunt and uncle, so when a friend of mine passed along his regards at my grandfather being sick, it struck me like a block of concrete to the forehead. His tone sounded morose, like condolences, like I could pick out any one of the potential grave diagnoses from between his teeth.
“Yeah, my mom works the hospital floor he’s staying on. Harold, or something, right? Harold Lafferty? Yeah, she figured he must be your grandpa.”
I played along.
“Yeah,” I said. “Doesn’t sound too good.”
“My mom says throat cancer or something. Sorry, man. That sounds awful.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled, letting the shock soak in, masking bewilderment with manufactured grief. “Thanks.”
I couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup. Couldn’t tell you what his voice sounded like. How he walked. Whether or not my father looked like him. I didn’t know any of it. Even his name felt funny in my mouth. I’d never looked him up online, if you can believe it. Just a few clicks of a mouse. So simple. Believe it or not, his home was barely 5 miles from where I grew up. I could have loaded groceries into his car without knowing it. Pumped gas next to him. Waited in line behind him at the movies. I was floored.
The letter came out more easily than I anticipated. “Dear Harold, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get in contact with you for some time now, and decided that this was probably best…”
It was short and to the point, asking nothing. Simply a way to forge correspondence if he wished to pursue it. I dropped the letter into the mailbox without thinking twice about it. There was strength in the fact that I knew so little, that so much was cloaked in mystery. I had no expectations. There was something taboo on the fringes of the whole thing, however. While I didn’t care whether or not I’d be able to establish a relationship with this man, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I felt like I was violating some sense of trust with Pops. We’d had no written agreement, no spoken contract about this reaching out to my grandfather. But my heart was a bit heavy knowing that I was doing this without telling him. Without telling Grandma Bonnie. Or even my mother.
Life went on as usual. I was loving urban living in Chicago, where I was a very small fish in a very large pond for the first time in my life. No car. Long, creaky apartment layouts. Clanking steam-radiator heat. New cultures and languages. Record shops. Rats crossing your path in the alleys. Subway stations and art galleries and piano bars. Summer festival and parks. The beach with a historic city skyline at your back. Writing, all the damn time.
And then, about a month after I sent it, there was a letter waiting for me in my mailbox…from my grandfather.