By Jeffrey James Higgins
Published November 2018
I wrote My Grandfather’s Eyes many years ago, after the death of my grandfather. It was chosen as a finalist for the best essay of 2018 and published n the Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2018 Essays. You can buy the anthology on Amazon or read the digital magazine for free: Anthology.
I watched my grandfather, known to my family as Baba, as he sat in a wooden chair, appearing uncomfortable and out of place, and stared across the room at his favorite armchair. That overstuffed, worn chair—the one Baba inhabited every day, the one he wore like a favorite sweater—was occupied by my younger cousin, seemingly unaware of the privilege afforded him.
Baba wore a mustard brown cardigan sweater and an old, grey fedora hat. Black rimmed glasses, hung low on his nose, beneath his dark eyebrows and warm, brown eyes. The corner of a newspaper peeked out from under his sweater, stuffed inside to warm his aging bones. I caught Baba’s eye and his bottom lip curled slightly into a sad smile. The wall behind him was covered with family photographs and his own wooden carvings and paintings.
The house busted with activity as Baba’s wife, Najla, their three sons and one daughter, their children’s spouses, and their grandchildren told stories and laughed. Every Sunday the family gathered in this house where Baba and Najla had raised their children. In the kitchen there was a flurry of activity as Najla made dinner with three generations of family, filling the house with the velvety aroma of tomato sauce and Arabic spices.
I returned my gaze to Baba and I saw him watching the women in the kitchen. I was only a young man with my life in front of me and when I looked at Baba, I saw a man nearing the end of his journey. Much of the man that I was becoming, had come from him, passed down through his genes and learned from his character. My love of writing was his. My respect for my elders and what came before me developed because of him. My strong belief in free expression and in my own convictions mirrored his. My love of family, his.
I sensed Baba knew how I felt, that he realized I understood more of life than my age allowed. Or did he? I was certain he felt my love for him and that was enough. Another cousin walked by and patted Baba on the knee. It was an affectionate gesture, but also patronizing. In the kitchen, I heard two of my aunts talking about Baba as if either he wasn’t there or a child unable to understand what they were saying. Again he caught my eye.
“If you only knew me when I was your age, when I thought I could conquer the world,” his eyes seem to say. “If only you saw the way I could make girl’s swoon. How I won long debates over politics and religion, as my friends and I sipped Turkish coffee and watched the warm nights slip away in Broumana, Lebanon. You should have seen me when I boarded a ship and came to America, full of hope and sadness.”
He gave me a look filled with pride and love. His mind was still sharp, hidden behind the stroke-damaged muscles in his face. His look communicated so much. I could almost hear his thoughts.
“I wish you knew how I risked everything to stand up for my ideas. How I printed my own newspaper and delivered copies by hand to people who were closed to new ideas How your grandmother made me suffer for making us outcasts in a small Christian Orthodox town. My secular, philosophical writing almost ruined us. But it didn’t. If only you knew me when I was strong.”
We crowded around the kitchen table, young and old, and eyed enough food to feed the entire neighborhood. There was baked chicken, grape leaves stuffed with rice and lamb, squash, and fresh, steaming loaves of Syrian bread. There was always warm bread and my mouth watered from the smell. A wooden bowl overflowed with salad, filled with dandelion stems cut in the backyard and vegetables picked from the garden.
That garden. It took up more of his land than the house. Tomato plants were staked with branches, coat hangers, and scraps of wood. Grapevines sprawled across an arbor which my father helped build. The arbor was never needed, but was welcomed as a gift, as an expression of love. The warmth of caring, loyalty, and security was tangible in house and the garden. It enveloped me. It was the gift of a family’s love, always present, seemingly infinite. Even now I can feel it.
A small piece of food was stuck on Baba’s lower lip. I want to tell him it’s there, that it may make him look feeble, but I knew that it didn’t. His dignity and his strength was in his eyes, not his failing body. He had earned our respect and love and nothing would change that.
Not long after that, I walked into my parent’s house. They lived hundreds of miles away from Baba, but he was never out of our minds. I entered the kitchen and I saw my father standing awkwardly and wearing a strange look.
“What’s wrong?” I asked
“Bad news. Baba died today.”
“Is Mom okay?” I asked, trying to be strong for my father.
My father always made the effort to talk with Baba about Lebanon and Baba’s life in that foreign land. The way he used to be. My father showed him affection the way one strong man respects another.
I drove to a pond near my old high school in the town where I grew up. I sat in my car, staring at the water, surrounded by childhood memories, but all I could see was Baba’s face and that loving gaze. The thought warmed me and I could almost hear Baba saying, “I’m all right. This is the way it happens. You will see one day.”
I was overcome with the grief that accompanies losing someone irreplaceable and the realization that I have to go on without him. I grieved alone because my connection to Baba was mine alone.
As I write this, my breath becomes labored and my eyes burn. I miss him. I let a tear roll down my cheek, because the emotion is real and pardonable, not a source of shame. I loved him and I always will. I feel him with me now. I see him sitting in his chair, with papers sticking out of his sweater, surrounded by family and watching me. I see his curled lip and that sad smile and I wonder if he knows.