Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
His hair is silvered and his eyes are green. As he walks through the city, the water slick on the cement, the leavings of a torrential downpour that had taken place slightly earlier, causing many New Yorkers to unfurl their umbrellas and pull out their colorful rain boots, his eyes roam across the stores. He spots Crumbs and licks his lips, remembering the sinful taste of a chocolate cupcake, how he had tongued the whipped cream and lapped it up as though he were a cat, then brushed the back of his hand across his mouth, allowing a few scattered crumbs to fall to the ground. As he trod over them with his shoe, he had felt perfectly content.
He is stately and he walks in a stately manner. Slow, measured steps reveal a man of distinction; he wears a black greatcoat and a grey fedora, a small green and yellow feather tucked into the band. He is distinctive and handsome; men and women pause to look at him as he stands outside Papyrus, musing over the tinseled decorations, there just in time for Christmas. He notes the emphasis on red and green, thinks of the gold and white that he prefers, and passes on, but not before giving the friendly black man at the register a nod of recognition through the window.
His walk through the city is a ritual, a deep, cleansing practice he has begun in order to achieve serenity. He likes the feeling of walking through people, hoping as he does that one of them will know him, perhaps recognize him. What a meeting that would be! He has imagined it many times, the man on the street who would pause as he looked upon him and inquire, doubtfully, “Are you Mr. A—?” at which point he would nod gratefully, with a large, foolish smile pasted on his face. The smile would indicate the relief he would feel, the relief that he matters when it happens that someone at last, at last, knows him. Such recognition would mean that he has not, after all, lost everything, separated himself from everyone who ought to love him.
He lives in a walk-up in Washington Heights, a lone aging gentleman in the midst of Spanish Harlem and Yeshiva University students. He watches them as they go about their days, their beanies stuck closely to their heads with bobby-pins and clips, their ritual fringes flapping in the wind. He has begun to feel a close affection for them, one which was born from afar. He only ever sees them from his window, as he does not dare to actually speak to them. As for the local color, he becomes tired of the loud music which disturbs his sleep, but he does not want to leave. This is the last place for him, the place of all the memories. It is here that he must remain.
Every so often, however, he makes this expedition, coming into the city so that he can roam about, dressed stylishly. He often muses to himself that perhaps today will be an exception to his rule; he will meet somebody, whether it is an interesting young lady with laughing eyes and long brown hair, or a fellow senior citizen, and he will strike up a conversation, perhaps take them to tea- and how companionable that would be! As he pauses outside of a Barnes and Noble, wondering whether he should go inside, he thinks about the way in which he is perceived. He is rarely noticed, rarely seen.
A Salvation’s Army worker jangles outside of the Barnes and Noble, his bell ringing steadily. “Merry Christmas, sir!” the worker cries and he turns, surprised. He offers a rare smile in return, and feels his mood lift; someone has noticed him, even if it is only to ask him to spare a dollar, someone has realized that he exists.
He continues down the sparkling block, noting the chips of mica in the sidewalk, smiling at New York’s excesses. As he wanders he knows how he will conclude his journey; he has done it many times before. At last, having seen his fill, he ducks into a half-hidden nail shop, walking up the three steps and smiling at Kim before saying “Buff and polish, please.”
There is something so intimate in having someone touch your hand, knead the skin, apply lotion, cut your nails…this ritual is one he has created in his loneliness; it comes of his need to connect. He and Trisha have soundlessly connected for the past two years; he comes, requests his buff and polish, has her touch his hand, turn it over, knead it, clean it and otherwise minister to it, and in return for this intimate contact, he need pay her only $7. To him, it seems like a bargain.
He closes his eyes, opening to her touch, which is professional and gentle. The fact that someone alive touches him deliberately makes him glow with pleasure, and a blonde-haired girl who is getting a pedicure and reading Glamour looks up at him, smiling. She must find the sight of him amusing, an aging gentleman extending his hands to have them cleaned and prepared for his next encounter with the world. He smiles at her as well, retaining his dignity; there is no need for her to know what he does, that this is his last connection to a world that abandoned him long ago, that his age has betrayed him, and that he has come here to escape his loneliness by paying for this gentle touch.
Do manicurists know that they are also angels? he wonders. If he had to choose a figure to appear as his angel, it would be Trisha, simple and clean with her dyed brown hair and loose, striped apron, her Vietnamese background and her smile. The kindness she shows him is shocking. While he does not deserve it, he revels in it nonetheless. Each touch of her finger, the firm pressure against his palm, suggest in a way that has meaning that he still has purpose, that there is someone alive who can bear to interact with him.
He closes his eyes as she dabs oil onto his cuticles, then takes clear polish and applies it. It has a strange, biting smell, somewhat acerbic and yet cloying. He inhales it, breathing deeply, then stands up, placing his hands underneath the heater so that his nails dry. He seems composed, ever the gentleman. No one knows of the private sorrows that lie within.
He observes the others carefully, noting the blonde girl, looking at the various scandalous headlines on magazine covers. He smiles in amusement as he recalls one time when the magazines were delivered here; the lady in charge of the establishment, Kim, had taken off the rubber band binding them together, then thrown them here, atop this desk. She had not even bothered to read them. That distaste for the American culture and its shallow vapidity remained with him.
After ensuring that his nails were completely dry, he stood up, wishing everyone a courteous good day. As he left, he heard the blonde girl speaking to Kim, “That man reminds me of my Grandpa.”
A smile lights his face for a moment; if only he were that girl’s grandfather! If only he were anyone who had the right to interact with anyone like her. He shuffles slowly, his shoulders bent under some unimaginable burden, and makes his way to the 1 train, wandering off to his life in the solitary apartment within the graffitied walls of Washington Heights.
Tea and toast and pastrami, an invention he has created in his old age. Now that Maria is dead, he has no one to care for him, so he lives on odds and ends, every so often attempting a recipe, but more often than not, creating peculiar sandwiches which satisfy him. He looks through his newspapers, more out of force of habit than because he actually cares about the world around him. He stands up, carefully combs his hair, and changes into pajamas, a matching set in dark green with stripes and lines. He pulls on his thick white socks and places his feet into his orthopedic slippers, walking to the den, where he turns on the news. He has found that the voices lull him to sleep; the quiet bothers him. He sits down on the couch and waits until it is time to drift off.
Memories assail him. He remembers his past. More than that, he remembers his sons, and the lone daughter. Three strapping sons and the one golden girl, with her dark hair and wide, vivid eyes. He remembers Maria, of course, his loyal, faithful wife. But all his memories are overcast with regret. Regret has seeped into the color of the pictures that flash through his mind, turning them to sepia, burnt brown. His son has told him he is past all forgiveness. And at the same time, crying, those traitor tears flowing from his eyes, his son has told him that he still loves him. He loves him but won’t allow him to hurt their family anymore, which is why he is going to cut himself off from him. Those were the words his son used in his anger, in his youthful fury. He had thought those words would wear away. Well, they have not.
The others simply hate him. They remember the fights, they remember the times that Maria would lock herself in the bathroom and cry, silent tears that would escalate into real ones, after she had begged him not to discipline the boys. He never had the strength to tell her, or the words, of what his father had done to him. He was teaching his sons for their own good, and he was teaching them gently by any standard. He did not make them bleed, which ought to make them grateful. He had bled.
He would break them, force them to understand the value of attaining a superior education, of ensuring that they were the best at everything. His sons were slated to be the best athletes, the top scholars, the ones who would succeed at everything. It did not matter if they did not have enough money; when the Abraham clan went for a walk, it should be clear to all that they were the most handsome, successful, educated and scholarly people around. He would burn that into their flesh if they dared to disobey him, would discipline his wife for being weak. She was too merciful; she was too interested in her boys growing up to be kind. It was not kindness that he was after; it was productivity, hard, well-earned productivity, and simultaneously, success.
He was a man who had had nothing and had to earn everything. He had worked his way up, and he had given his children everything they could possibly desire. He would go without a new suit, without a new pair of clothes, for years in order to ensure that his sons and his girl were dressed presentably. His family mattered to him; he was a family man. He put food on the table, paid for their education, and made sure they had a roof over their heads. What more was there for them to demand?
He was a firm man, but to his mind, a fair one. He disciplined only when his rules had been broken. He expected his sons to be the best, and if they did not live up to their side of the bargain, it was their failing and it must be recognized. A dark love, stony and firm, lived inside him. His blood ran in their veins, and he’d be damned before anyone else in the world walked over him. It was only he who had the power to lead, the power to make them follow. He was the breadwinner in the house; it was governed by his rules.
He forbade Maria to work. What kind of a household was it where the woman worked? A man needs to be able to provide for his wife and for his children. If she worked, she would be taking something away from him, something deep and needed, something that made him who he was. She would be undermining him, emasculating him. She only asked once, and after that, she never asked again. He had made quite clear to her what his expectations were.
He ran his house and kept it in tip-top shape; he was a man of honor, a man of his word. He was a man of steel, or perhaps of iron. He believed in numbers, mathematics, in everything that was sensible or logical. He had no respect for pipe dreams, for foolishness, for everything that was not authentic. Authenticity and hard work were the two things that he respected, that, and his very essence: honesty. Anyone who told a lie was immediately banned from his circle of acquaintances. Lies were the devil, the very bane of existence. A liar was not a man.
His sons adapted and they adapted fast. Sam received top grades and was valedictorian in high school, making it into an advanced college program which would allow him to start medical school early. Jonathan followed suit. It was the last one, Rob, who made everything difficult. Rob was a dreamer, with his deep dark eyes and his thoughtful questions about the stars and the sky and the existence of God. Rob and his sister Rose were the difficult ones, and by God if he would not make them strong enough to survive this weak world.
He began that by destroying their fantasies and illusions. Rob had a strange quality about him, a girlish quality, even, this desire to believe in the goodness of people. Well, his father was an accountant and would teach him better. He showed him the lies people told, well-respected people, priests and pastors and rabbis, religious officials from across the spectrum. He taught his boy to know the meaning of honesty and to respect it in people, to realize that it was a rare gift and given only to a few. He taught his boy to recognize what it meant to be a man.
As for Rose, he let her entertain her silly thoughts a while longer, but then he taught her, too, telling her to set out and get a job as a typist, because at least that would keep her from spending too much time with all those foolish friends of hers. She was hurt when he told her that, hurt also when he didn’t care for the frippery and gewgaws she adorned herself with. He told her she looked mighty nice and she told him he hadn’t even stood up to glance at her. He’d stood up then, all right, stood up to tell her that her neckline was too low and there was no way his daughter was going to fraternize with boys in that dress; that would happen over his dead body. And he sent her upstairs to change her clothes, and didn’t notice if she was crying while he did it.
He didn’t notice Rob sneaking out of the house with his backpack, didn’t realize that Rob had taken Rose’s dress and given it back to her, that she had changed in the bathroom before attending the school prom. He found out later, though, when a picture of Rose was published in the school yearbook, and he beat Rob for that, took off his belt and whipped him with the strap, because disobedience was the same thing as a sin in his book.
He had raised his children the only way he knew how, with his love transmitted as a gruff, strong thing, present in the clothes he bought them, the school he sent them to, his expectations for them. They knew he loved them but they hated him, silently, secretly, in ways he could not see. Fear and hatred lived together in Rob’s innocent eyes, in addition to an overwhelming guilt. What was there for him to do? He could hear his mother sobbing in the bathroom and he wanted to keep his father away from her, even though he never laid a hand on her. Maria was the one woman in the world for his father; he would never hurt her. It was his voice that was a killing thing, that angry, harsh voice that managed to shout with a fury that took the flames of hell and gave them shape.
Rob lived within himself, a secret world that he shared with Rose. There was a strong age difference between Rob and Sam and Jonathan, and while they had been close as children, they had grown apart, especially as Rob became interested in religion and pursuing religious studies strongly. While his brothers had attended Hebrew school, they did not have the same natural curiosity that flared within Rob, that made him seek a different kind of education. They were hardened and strong, the kind of men who could face the world with impunity, their tempers high, their eyes never allowing tears to be shed. Rob could not live that way but neither could he live as he was; his father thought him too frail, delicate and thoughtful even now; it would be worse if he understood his son’s aspirations. What Rob desired, more than anything else, was to become a Rabbi, a man in touch with his people, leading them and loving them and guiding them, easing their pain and comforting them when tragedy struck. His soul was bound up with people, and they with him. Fresh and sensitive like the newborn dawn, he remembered the slights that had hurt him, and willed himself to pay attention to others so as to save them from that pain. He began with Rose.
Rose was a delicate child, graced with the beautiful aspects of a flower. Thin and dark in her beauty, her mother ever endeavored to fatten her, feeding her on chicken soup and meat and bread and watching as her daughter did not gain a pound. Rose lived in a fanciful world that provided her with an escape from the violence she saw practiced in her house; she withdrew as well, but farther than Rob had. She lived in a world completely of her own imagination, an while her beauty, simplicity and kindness brought her friends, she would not invite them home, or would make sure to do so only when her father was not around. She was secretly embarrassed of her father’s treatment of her mother, did not want anyone else to bear witness to it. And while her mother had made herself a member of the Women’s Aid Society, and was involved in planning projects to help the poor and otherwise benefit others, it was clear that she too felt a secret sadness, which she hid from her husband.
Rob sensed her secret existence and it worried him, so he made sure to make himself a part of her world, listening to her ideas and thoughts as they presented themselves to her. “I think there is a world beyond this one,” she would often say dreamily, “and I dream of it, and I think there Father will be whipped just like he whips you, and the marks will stay on his back…and you’ll hear him cry, the way that you cry…and you’ll take joy in it!” She was fierce in her hatred, unrelenting in her anger. Her father to her represented the most vile, the most cruel of all men. Her brother was more sympathetic; he had seen his father’s back and the scars; he knew there was a history he did not fully understand. But he listened to his sister nonetheless, and did not interfere; if her words gave her pleasure, than so be it.
Rose took to writing, hiding her thoughts in a notebook, black poems full of references to herself and her family in symbolic form. Rob was the Prince; she was the Burnt Rose, crumbling at the edges, withered and blackened from the fire. She was secretive, but sometimes, crying, would creep into Rob’s room and share her poems with him, after which he would hold her tightly to him and try to comfort her. He did not know why their family life affected her so; after all, their father was a good man even in his cruelty. What he did, he did to help them; he did it to make them stronger. Rob had made peace in his heart, although sometimes even he felt himself flare up angrily, the burning hatred ignited. Yet he had struggled to understand his father, to comprehend the man behind the actions that threatened to destroy his whole family, but most of all Rose and Rob, and he had forced himself to acknowledge the good, the strength the man possessed, his iron will and determination. He was the son of a good man, a misguided, angry man, but a good man nonetheless. That was how he struggled to think of it, in his effort to stop himself from killing the man.
It was his mother’s tears that killed him. He would see her after she had fought with their father, usually in order to try to allow her children some harmless form of entertainment, and the tears would flow alongside the sharp intakes of breath, where she would try to calm herself. Rob would see her then and he would feel useless, as though he was standing by and watching her hurt. And yet, she didn’t leave his father; she wouldn’t; there was something in her that refused to let her. Did she love him? Rob had often wondered. He believed that somewhere inside herself she did, not his mastery of her or the way he used her, but the strength that emanated from him, his protective powers, the fact that in the end, he did provide them with enough money for all their needs, and he was a hard-working, persevering man.
Rose could not bear to watch her mother cry. At those times she locked herself in her room and buried herself under the covers in order to muffle the sound, doing her utmost to block it out, to save herself from hearing it. Rob would come in to comfort her; he would stroke her hand, her hair, make soothing noises and try to take away her pain. Rose had a way of taking all the world’s pain and holding it within herself, in a vast, torturous repository of unhappiness. She was sensitive to everything, to everyone, to the plight of the sparrow and the disappearance of someone’s world. She shed tears, not for herself, but for the tragedy of a world at war, and she felt herself incapable of fixing it.
By this time Rob had set himself up to attend college; he had requested to go for a year in Israel, to a yeshiva, but under no condition would his father permit it. His farher felt he had gone far enough in allowing the boy to attend Yeshiva University as opposed to a prestigious medical school the way his other brothers had done, and he warned Rob that he must major in something practical and find himself a job. Glad to have even this much granted him, Rob set off for the wild world of New York, while Rose entered Northwestern, beginning school a year early.
Rose was majoring in English but told her father she planned to become a nurse, a profession he could approve of even while he looked down on her slightly, seeing as women ought not to work in his view. She found herself within the lyrical verses, reborn amidst the poetry that danced within her. She found herself thrilling to the words, responding to them more than she had to any boy’s touch. What comparison could be made between a boy’s tentative fumbling in the dark and these grand, glorious words which filled her an fulfilled her? She set herself up to become whole, luxuriating in the beauty of a world that consisted entirely of the beautiful thoughts of others.
But the sickness of the world still touched her, infecting her newfound Paradise. Rose was curious about her brother’s life and would write to him often, fascinated by the Talmud he was learning, unwilling to believe him when he stated that he was one of the less advanced students in the grade. He had always excelled at everything he had chosen to do; who could believe her Rob was struggling? She laughed off his troubles with a smile, choosing to believe in his modesty instead. But then she became aware of a troubling undercurrent that ran between Rob and their father; he had been granted a fifth-year scholarship, absolutely free, and he wanted to pursue it, after which he would go onward to rabbinical school. Their father had absolutely vetoed this move, stating that Rob had already spent enough time on his foolish Jewish studies, and that now it was time to move on, to settle down and get himself some sort of job, although of course no job would be as good in his eyes as the one his other sons had achieved- that of doctor.
Rob fought with their father about this decision, trying to use his mother to argue his case, the Rabbis at his school, and finally, Rose. This was ill-thought out on his part, but he had told her his heart and she decided to come home of her own initiative to plead his case, begging her father to have mercy. Her father looked at her and told her he would be damned if his son would grow up to be a preacher who stole money from people in order to finance his expenses, and Rose felt the chill in his eyes. She stood up, took her pocketbook and walked out of the house, back to her dorm. There was a high bridge that had to be crossed to reach her dorm, charming and picturesque, with trees all around, overlooking a stone pathway. Nobody knew what had happened and nobody could ever tell for certain whether she had jumped or been pushed (the thought was that perhaps she had been mugged), but three days later she was found, fallen upon the concrete, and she was dead.
When Rob found out, he went wild with grief. Crazed, he called his father vile names, and his brothers had to restrain him from physically attacking the man. To make everything worse, he heard whispers about the death in his college classes, with people arguing over whether someone who commits suicide can be buried in sanctified ground. When he returned home for the burial, he would not even look at his father; so angry was he. It was not the fact that his father had forbidden him to apply for the rabbinate; he did not believe Rose had killed herself over that one fact. It was all the pain and grief in the world that had gotten to his little sister, that and the fact that it was too much to bear. Her quicksilver poems no longer illuminated her universe; she saw it as a dark, ugly place. He could remember a phone call, a few days earlier, which he saw as being her goodbye to him; she had told him several times that she loved him very much, and he should always know that. Accustomed as he was to her poetic flights of fancy and expansive choices of phrase, he had seen nothing untoward in that call, but now, under the weight of this crushing grief, he felt like he should have known, and that her death was his fault.
He had failed at protecting her, just like he had failed at protecting his mother from the darkness that lay within his father. He had failed and it had cost him the ultimate price, so that his beloved sister, beautiful and wise and sad, had died for it. This undid him more than anything else, so that he cried, and hated his father for not shedding a tear. His father’s grief was a stony thing, just like his love, and it found expression in managing the details more than it did in any public form of expression. Rob hated him more for that than he thought he ever could; it was the darkness in his father that terrified him, because he did not want to be like that in any way.
People had a peculiar way of stating that Rob was like his father, even though he knew himself to be the most distinct from him. They seemed to see in him some of the same perseverance, determination and intelligence; they felt like his entire body betrayed him, in his physical resemblance to the man. Rob hated that, a feeling of terror rushed through him whenever he was told of a different way in which he was like his father, the man he worshipped and despised, the man who had made him who he was and had destroyed him forever. And beneath the feelings of hatred there was a love he could not root out, strong and thorny as it grew, because there was much he did owe his father even as there was much he could not forgive.
Sick and bruised as he was, Rob told his father he wanted nothing more to do with him. His father took that statement with perfect equanimity, but questioned him: Where would he get the money to support himself? He had no job and no way to continue living without his father’s help. In that one comment Rob understood his dependency, and he hated it. Abandoning his dream of pursuing the rabbinate, he threw himself into a search for jobs, looking for anything that would set himself up as separate from this man, so that he would no longer need to rely upon him or turn to him for anything ever again.
And then he met Bella.
Bella was like a light in the darkness, throwing off sparks and glittering elusively within his field of vision. Beautiful, accomplished, talented and strong, Bella had come to study at Stern College from Italy, a country that she loved. She was fluent in Italian, the words tripping lightly off her tongue, and her accent was a delicate thing, fascinating Rob, who struggled for a way to capture the essence of her joyful existence and bring it home to him.
It was not that he had never known joy. There had been times where, as a family, he and his siblings and parents had gone to the beach, and when he stood before the ocean he felt a joy and a fury that filed him, something ageless and timeless that granted him strength. He loved the waves lapping at his feet, thought that he would give almost anything to ensure that this feeling never met him. In the shadow of the ocean, he felt like he was invincible, like there was nothing that could vanquish him, nothing in the world. It was with joy that he wrestled with his brothers there, that he raced Rose as they swam in the water, that he covered his siblings with sand. It was his joy made real, even sacred.
But it was not the same as the way Bella knew joy, in her lighthearted, golden fashion. Her hair was rich and auburn, glinting red in the sun; her eyes were flecked with gold and reflected the light that seemed to fill her soul. She was young but she seemed ageless, filled with a wisdom that seemed unquestionable. She knew what the most important things in life were and it was these she strove to accomplish. She wanted to build a loving family; she wanted to bring more beauty to the world. The way in which these things were accomplished meant little to her, so long as it was practical; her desire was to introduce others to the unearned pleasure which had filled her life.
When she first introduced Rob to her family, he was stunned. Stunned because he had never before experienced the easy camaraderie the siblings shared, throwing towels at one another and joking with one another without fear of repercussions or a censoring voice booming out above them all to censor their fun. They were cooking together in the kitchen and he marveled at the girls, all of them older than Bella, who was the youngest, and their skill and expertise. He smiled when he saw the men, handsome and tall and heartbreakers, clearly Italian with their expression and killer eyes. How this house of Italian Jews came to relocate in Queens, he did not know, but he knew that the entire atmosphere was one that was filled with joy and love, and he responded to it and the healing which it caused him.
Rob met Bella while she was in her last year of Stern; he had succeeded in getting a job as a computer programmer at a company in New York. He visited her often and the two of them went wandering through the city, Rob constantly delighting in Bella’s wit and charm. She would make comments about the beauty of the sky, the way that the clouds appeared at that moment, or would graciously stop to converse with a beggar desiring a sweetroll. It was the constant delight of Bella’s unexpected actions that appealed to Rob, that and the fact that her love for life healed him and gave him renewed faith in a world that might be good despite its causing the death of his sister, a world that might exist for him without the gates he had formerly envisioned.
She did not take away his sadness completely; she would not even if she could, as it was clear that it was important to him to mourn his sister and appreciate her, to love her even after death. But she brought him kindness and playfulness and joy, and in these he reveled, taking in the light that was her natural adornment and fashioning a charm of it, one which he hung about his heart. She offered him her magical eyes, and seeing the world through her point of view, he found himself feeling lighter, no longer weighed down by the darkness that had so consumed him.
Rob knew that he wanted to marry her, but she was not yet sure of him. She led him a merry dance, not intentionally, but not thoughtlessly either, covering him over with her golden light while determining whether she belonged with someone so bruised. But there was a good and a kindness within Rob as well, and she was attracted to it, the gentleness of a man who has made himself gentle, who has tried to tame his wild temper and succeeded for the most part. And so it was that after a time, they got engaged, and the question became to what extent Rob’s father would be involved in their lives.
Bella was more than willing to meet him, but Rob could not stand the sight of him. Bella insisted that this was a courtesy they owed his parents, and with great reluctance, they both went to meet both Maria and his father. The man appeared in his best suit, his silvered hair styled becomingly, and it seemed as though he were truly interested in making amends. Rob looked on him with cold hatred; Bella acted like a butterfly, humming around him and finding cautious areas of laughter that acted as peaceable spots of dialogue. Rob watched, awed, as his father warmed to Bella, smiling up at her with something that looked almost like gratitude. At the last, before they took their leave, his father took her aside for a moment.
“I know he will not want me involved in your life,” he told Bella softly. “But I see that you are good for him and I- thank you.”
He said it with dignity, but the admission must have cost him, and Bella knew how grievously he regretted the way in which he had raised his son when he told her. She answered with her eyes, and as she and Rob walked out the door, she knew this man was not bad, only stubborn, and that it was his stubborn inability to change his mind that had so hurt his son.
Bella and Rob were married, and his parents were in attendance, although Rob spent much of his time with his father-in-law instead. The wedding was beautiful, and Bella made sure that it would be a time Rob remembered happily. In time, Bella gave birth to a beautiful daughter, whom they named Rose. Rob had tears in his eyes when he held her, a miracle given him by a God who had not yet abandoned him. However, he forbade Bella to allow his father any contact with the grandchild. “I will not have him ruining her, too,” he said angrily, and so Rose grew up knowing very little of her father’s family.
While Bella acceded to Rob’s wishes, as Rose grew older she told her more of her grandfather, emphasizing the fact that he was a strong, straight and honest man and that he had tried to live in the best way he knew how. Rose remained under the impression that this man lived somewhere far away, on the other side of the world, for all she knew. Rose’s birth was followed by Benjamin’s and then Nathaniel’s, so that she grew up in a family that loved her, and who followed her orders as though they had been issued by a goddess. The princess of the family, she paraded about happily, even as she excelled at her studies and grew older.
During this time, Bella would come to visit Rob’s father, making stops at his apartment in Washington Heights, where he and Maria had moved in their old age, to bring pictures of the children and share stories of them. She pleaded with Rob to allow her to bring the children themselves, but Rob remained adamant in his inability to forgive, and his desire to cut his children off from the man who had almost orchestrated his own destruction. Maria was a frequent guest at her son’s house, and often babysat for her grandchildren, but Rob would as soon have his father there as a monster. He returned the birthday cards and cheques his father sent, and would take no money from him.
When Maria died, all the grandchildren felt themselves bereft. With their grandmother gone, they took solace in Bella’s parents, the Italian family who loved them dearly. Little known as their other grandfather was, they did not visit him or comfort him; Rob did not want them to have any contact with him. He had not forgiven the man and never would, and so it was that Rose graduated high school and began college without knowing that her grandfather lived close by, and she could easily visit him.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, Rose attended Stern, just as Bella had. After she had adjusted to college life, Bella came to visit her one day, looking at her dorm room and taking her out to dinner. Over dinner, Bella told Rose of her grandfather, and the fact that he lived uptown, in Washington Heights.
“Why have I never seen him?!” Rose exclaimed in horror, feeling herself to be a terrible granddaughter. “He must think I hate him!”
“He does not think that,” Bella stated, looking at her sixteen-year-old daughter. Rose was a lighter version of the first version; while she was not thin with the same dark beauty, her eyes were blue and her hair was light brown. But their features were the same, to the point that sometimes her husband would look at his daughter and tears would creep into the corners of his eyes, for he felt like he saw his sister again.
And it was then that Bella told the tale, of the darkness and the magic that was Rose’s grandfather, of the strength, perseverance and iron love that flooded through him, even as he had effectively almost destroyed her father’s life. Rose was troubled, Bella could see, and as she took in the story she had to adjust it, fit it to her image of the loving grandfather she had always imagined existed somewhere in the world- just not so close by.
“Can I go to him?” she asked, and tears sprang to Bella’s eyes.
“Of course you can,” she answered. “I have come to give you the address.”
He awakens in front of the television. Shuffling, he heads to the bathroom, brushes his teeth, then takes out his electric shaver and carefully shaves himself. He takes off his pajamas and steps into the shower, feeling the hot water pound against his withered body, toweling himself off and after putting on pants and an undershirt, then donning a robe, he sets off to make breakfast.
How he misses Maria’s hot cereal! She would always give him oatmeal with cinnamon and sugar and a little milk, but now he contents himself with Fiber One, which he eats with milk. Spooning the cereal into his mouth, he hears a knock at the door. Confused, he wonders who it could be, then shrugs, thinking it must be a neighbor coming by to borrow an egg, or perhaps to ask for the daily paper.
“Coming,” he calls, pulling his robe tighter, then opening the door. A girl stands there, a fresh, breathing, beautiful girl, and she holds three roses in her hand.
He staggers as the color leaves his face. She looks so like his Rose, and yet that Rose is dead. “Who?” he questions, as he struggles to stand his ground.
“Hello, Grandpa,” she says, leaning forward to kiss him on the cheek. “I’ve brought these for you,” she hands him the flowers, and he takes them numbly, barely glancing at their lush red color, his gaze fastened on her.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come before,” she says amiably, cheerfully, “but you see, I didn’t know where you lived, and I didn’t know it was so close by- why, all I had to do was take the shuttle uptown,” and she pauses, then laughs. “Oh, how silly of me, I didn’t introduce myself! I’m Rose, Grandpa; I’m your granddaughter Rose! May I come in?”
Such a silly question. He reaches for her and gathers her into a bear hug, holding her as though he will never let go. “My Rose,” he breathes, and the words are disbelieving, incredulous. “Come in,” he says, and finally he is crying, the tears flowing from his eyes, trickling down his cheeks and onto her hair, her head, which is pillowed against his shoulder.
“Don’t cry, Grandpa,” she says innocently, sweetly, a sixteen-year-old-voice filled with all the love in the world. “I’ve come to stay; I’ll be back again. I want to know you, you see, and all about you, everything I don’t currently understand.”
His tears trickle, salty-sweet down to his lips and he can taste them. He kisses her on the cheek and motions her inside, places the roses in his hand inside a vase and fills the container up with water. He keeps on staring at her as though he can barely believe she is real; he looks at her as though he’ll never let her go.
“Really, Grandpa,” she assures him, “I’ve come to stay.”
“Your father?” he questions, and his voice is filled with pain. More tears come to his eyes as she shakes her head slowly, signaling that the answer is no.
“But I have you,” he says, and the warmth and gladness that fills his voice is immeasurable, impossible.
He keeps the roses she offered him on that first, impossible, golden morning, the roses that have become the symbol of her love and by default, the love of her siblings. They each come to visit and eventually Rob learns of it. While he is not happy about it, he understands enough to let them be. His father hopes, secretly, that he will have a chance at reconciliation with Rob one day. Now that he has met his grandchildren, nothing seems impossible.
The roses she offered him that first morning have withered and died, so that even to touch one of them causes them to crumble. He intends to press them between the pages of a book, keeping them there forever, when one of them crumbles between his thumb and forefinger, leaving the ash upon his sleeve.
He licks his finger, touches it to the brittle ash, then places it within his mouth. He is tasting love, he believes. He is tasting a kinder love than he himself possesses, one which surpasses and transcends the stony, thorny devotion that he always believed to be the most pure expression of emotion. In his old age, he has mellowed. In his old age, he has learned how to enter the world of dreams which always belonged to Rose and Rob.
In his old age, he has learned how to regret, and to feel the aching, impossible sorrow that comes of knowing that nothing can be changed.
Perhaps there are more victories to come, more joys that may cause his heart to melt. But he is content in the love of Rose, and the forgiveness of his grandchildren; he feels like a man pardoned, a man given back his soul. He longs to undo his crimes, well-intentioned as they were, and to reunite with his son, whom he still loves. But in the meantime, the ash of rose contents him, the ash of rose, and all that it means.
Credits: “Meggie’s Theme” from The Thorn Birds, Pat Conroy’s novels