When he died, my grandpa left me his copy of The Complete Illustrated Kama Sutra. I suppose it is wrong to say he left it to me, when in reality he just left it, sitting on his bookshelf beside an old VHS tape called "Nude Yoga."
We didn’t know what to do with all my grandpa’s books, so my dad and I brought them to the funeral, laid them all out for people to peruse. On a sheet of paper, I wrote "PLEASE TAKE THESE" and duct taped it to the wall. My dad made a valiant effort to filter out the books with naked bodies. It embarrassed him, I think, that his father was so clearly a sexual being. It had been easy to come out as a lesbian to my grandfather; to him, my declaration about preferring women was akin to announcing my love of Fruit Loops. “Good for you, sweetie,” he said. “Now pass the tequila.” It was a refreshing change from the rest of my family, who all reacted to the news as if I’d told them I had stage four cancer.
It wasn’t just the books about sex my dad tried to hide from the public eye. He was also embarrassed by the books about spirituality: Buddhism and chakras and reiki. These books were shoved to the back of the pile, whereas beekeeping and birdwatching were pushed to the front. In her sermon, the preacher presiding over my grandpa’s memorial remarked, morosely, that “Tony really loved the birds and bees.” I was the only one to laugh.
The only books my dad favored over the animal books were the instructional manuals on learning Italian. It was fascinating watching him try to curate his father’s life by arranging the books he left. My dad pushed the Italian books to the very front, as if trying to remind everyone that his father had gradually lost the ability to speak his native tongue. The books were sad reminders that he’d been shipped here at age five, had to wear a tag that said "ORPHAN," which was not, in fact, true, and create a life all alone. They were reminders of loss, dead ends, failed attempts. I took one anyway.
Along with Kama Sutra, I also took four of my grandpa’s old watches and a necklace his third-to-last girlfriend, Fa, had given him. My sister didn’t bother coming to the funeral, and my only cousin didn’t want it. J-Me didn’t like Fa, even before she walked in on my grandpa and Fa having sex in a hospital bed.
“Fa is just too heady,” she told me. “That lady is just not tethered down!”
J-Me was right, but it struck me as odd coming from someone who had legally changed her name from the traditional spelling of "Jamie" to J dash M-E. No one was less tethered than J-Me was. She ran away from home ten years before I did, and she lived with my grandpa her entire life. She was his weed dealer, his confidant, the protector of his two parakeets he sprayed with water until it dripped off their beaks.
“These birds didn’t give you cancer!” she’d say to him. “Stop taking it out on them.”
J-Me inherited the birds, and I was glad for that. Those parakeets were savage. If I had my way, I’d set them loose in the Amazon, the Andes, somewhere so far from home they’d never come back. My grandpa and I never talked about the fact the birds would outlive him, even when it was clear they would. We never talked outright about death, even when he was dying, unless it was through the lens of rebirth.
“I’ll be back,” he told me once. “In this life, I am your grandfather, but in the next life, you could be my mother.”
“If I was your mother, I would never have sent you away,” I said, “even if I promised I’d come to America to get you. She shouldn’t have made that promise in the first place.”
He looked at me like I’d pained him, so we didn’t discuss it further. Instead, he told me his theories on cancer: "The whole cancer enterprise is a scam," he said. Paprika and positive energy: that’s what those damn doctors should be prescribing. Hydrogen peroxide and dandelion root. Rare Australian berries that shrink coconut-sized tumors into peas.
Just months before he died, I came across a plea for donations my grandfather had posted on the internet. It was a fundraising page with a $7,000 goal, and it described how his insurance refused to cover homeopathic remedies. “Please donate TODAY to help Tony heal so that he can return to being a contributor to humanity at this precious time.” They'd only raised $1,756, so I donated $20, opting to remain anonymous. The money paid for his herbs and flaxseed oil for a few months, but then his plump, Italian body started to deflate as if someone had let the air out. Not long after, he was forced to come to terms with the fact he would die in a hospital.
At the funeral, I found three of my grandpa’s condoms. They expired in 1993 and were stuffed into a book called Rediscovering Catholicism.
“Hey!” my dad said. “I sent him that book!”
He snatched it from me and flipped it open. His letter to my grandpa was still inside. “This book changed my life,” it said. “I hope it changes yours too.”
I’m sure the irony was not lost on my dad—the expired condoms stuffed in the book—the line from my grandpa’s will that said, “I want my memorial to be happy like New Orleans. Nothing Catholic.” Evidently, despite the book, despite my dad’s reconciliation with Jesus, my grandpa had failed to rediscover Catholicism.
Three of my grandpa’s ex-girlfriends came to the memorial. Two hugged me. Only one knew my name.
“I wish you would have married him,” I told her.
She was young—far younger than my grandpa, who had my dad at 18. Her hair was still red—naturally red—and there were bees on her sweater.
“I wanted to marry him,” she told me. Then, softer, “Do you want to know what he told me the night before he died? He told me even though he wasn’t an orphan when he came to the U.S., he felt like one his whole life. He said he never got over his mother sending him here, alone. It wasn’t the only time he was abandoned, he said, and he told me some of those too, but he said he never got over that fear. That’s why he couldn’t marry me, couldn’t create any lasting bonds. He said he was afraid of being left alone again.”
The red-headed woman wasn’t crying but she was close.
Gabe Montesanti holds an MFA creative nonfiction student from Washington University in St. Louis. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has been featured in Sinister Wisdom, The Offing, Devil's Lake, and Crab Creek Review. She is currently at work on her first full-length manuscript, a memoir about roller derby.