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The Box (Something My Grandfather Told Me)

My mother received a box one day. I remember it was large and shrouded in suspicion. It wasn’t so much the box that alarmed my mom when it arrived, it was the name written on the return label that unnerved her. It had come from Luke Holtz, her dad. I never referred to Luke as granddad because I never knew him.

I remember the commotion in our house the day the box arrived… Mom was afraid to open it because she thought it might be booby-trapped with a bomb. It was typical of my mom to imagine the worst possible scenarios and nothing was worse than a box blowing up in your face while your children stood by with gleeful anticipation. It was Christmastime, I couldn’t imagine anything in that box but presents.

box

We lived in Flint, Michigan at the time, which is where I was born and attended kindergarten, so I would have been no more than five and much too young to understand why a box would cause my mother so much fear.

I must have wondered what her daddy could have done to her that was any worse than what I had already seen my daddy do. Whatever he did, my mother was brave and strong and I knew she could take a punch. Not even a telephone smashed against her skull could keep her down. Often battered and hungry with her eyes swollen shut, she still managed to take care of her seven children.

As far as I know, mom never heard from her father before the day that box arrived. When she finally mustered the courage to open it, she found it filled with children’s clothing in various sizes.

I remember how mom cried after opening the box

I hated seeing my mother cry but her tears didn’t make me sad that day because I knew there must be something in that box for me. It was much too big to be filled only with things that make mothers cry.

I never heard my mother speak of her father before or since that day in the winter of 1962. The mysterious box was my only introduction to a man I would never know.

I recall a conversation I had with mom before she passed. She told me her dad had visited at least one other time since then, but I have no memory of his visit.

I recently came across a photo of my mom standing beside a spectacled old man not much taller than she. They were two strangers standing side-by-side with years of forgotten memories between them. Their smiles told contradictory stories. Luke, the man she once called dad, wore a smile more fitting of a man reuniting with an old army buddy. There was no fatherly pride or reassurance for the daughter he had abandoned 35 years earlier.  In mom’s smile I saw an innocent little girl who seemed happy to have finally won her father’s approval but also indifferent to the thought of ever seeing him again.

As I studied the photo I wondered if it had been taken at a family reunion. But I didn’t recall ever being invited to one and I never even knew they had reunited until I saw the photo.

It was many years later when mom heard from her father one last time. His words were delivered via message from his deathbed.

“Tell Verona she and her kids can come to my funeral if they want to.”

But there was a message delivered along with his that wasn’t inviting at all. Luke’s current wife made it clear in her message that Verona’s children better not to show their black faces anywhere near her husband’s funeral.

We didn’t attend Luke’s funeral and neither did mom.

I later heard more details of my mother’s estrangement from her father and learned it was she who had hurt her father so many years ago.

It was the winter of 1953, not long after turning 18, when she ran off with a black man; and that unspeakable disgrace was an offense Luke Holtz could never forgive his daughter.

Black man

I didn’t cry when I heard the news of my grandfather’s passing because I never knew him. I did cry a few years earlier when my own father passed; but I quickly dried my eyes considering I did know him. He was mean and hardly worth my tears.

I sometimes wonder what sorts of things my grandfather might have said to me in a different world or a different time; but in our world in those times he never said a word… Although his silent shame spoke volumes.

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