My Grandfather, A Stranger
by Sydney Cavanagh
Runestone, volume 2
The letter was addressed to me. Miss Sydney Cavanagh, the envelope read, in handwriting I did not recognize. My eyes carefully traced the unfamiliar inky strokes.
Peeling it open, I found a single page inside, neatly folded. The paper was cold but it warmed beneath my fingertips as I smoothed out the creases and laid it flat.
My father’s name is George Jefferson Cavanagh, but he rarely answers to George. For as long as I can remember, he has been Jeff. His real name appeared sporadically in my childhood memories of airports and doctor appointments, the six-letter word popping up strangely on passports and insurance cards.
Before I found out about my father’s biological father, I had only known one man as my paternal grandfather. He had a round pink face with a toothy smile and he called me Sydney Catherine! with such enthusiasm as if my name ended in a permanent exclamation mark. I had never pictured anyone else in his place until I started asking questions.
I discovered slowly who George was after eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations. My grandmother would occasionally mention a time in the past when she was a “single parent,” but as a child I didn’t understand what that meant. After I learned why my father refused to go by “George,” I began to notice my grandfather’s vague existence, small and hushed, within our family life; his phone number scribbled in my mother’s address book; the grumbled mentioning of the child support money decades late in paying.
I’ve seen many pictures of my father as a child. His baby portraits sit in my grandmother’s house, collecting dust as his toothless grins fade behind glass. I’ve seen pictures of my grandmother. Younger, but with the same wispy blonde-white curls and wrinkles that she has today; even then she wore the tired lines of an old woman. My aunt is there too, in a photo album, leaning against her older brother. I have never seen a picture of them with their father.
The envelope in my hands included a photograph of George with his two dogs. He stood facing the camera on a wooden deck in front of a massive cabin. He wore a grey quarter zip-up sweater and black pants. One hand awkwardly sticking out of a pocket at his hip. He was bald, round, and fairly short. He looked nothing like my father, yet his gaze captivated me, squinting up at me from the snapshot as if I was someone he knew he should recognize but didn’t.
The first letter I wrote to him was exciting. I was around fourteen and had learned enough about him for my curiosity to take action. I wanted to tell him everything about my family and myself to make up for the time he had missed. I explained my high school studies, my hobbies of horseback riding and ballet, my sailor boyfriend, the volunteering I did in the community.
I had nothing to lose to this man I’d never known, yet it was crucial to me that I sounded impressive on paper. I wanted to be the perfect granddaughter he could’ve had but didn’t. My father sat quietly while I wrote. I had assumed he simply didn’t care, but I imagine that it was just too hard for him to talk about.
A few weeks later, a response arrived in our mailbox. I expected it to be a heartfelt attempt to connect with me, a rekindled familial bond. Instead, it was a simple handwritten note, kind and complimentary. Just a page in length, it informed me that he and his wife of twenty years, a teacher, were living happily in Safety Harbor, Florida, occasionally retreating to their secluded mountain cabin in Tennessee with their two dogs. He said I sounded very mature. He praised my achievements and talents and wished me luck in my next year of school. He wrote that he hoped my family was doing well. He signed it Grandpa George.
He left my grandmother for one of his students. He was teaching music at the University of Michigan. My father was seven years old when George packed his things and took off, sending my grandmother divorce papers a few weeks later.
When I decided to attend the University of Michigan, I wrote to him. Not long after on an afternoon in May, a package came in the mail.
“Who’s it from?” I asked my mom, who had pulled it from the front porch. I munched on potato chips and avoided my schoolwork, the senioritis in full force.
“Tommy Hilfiger,” she responded, squinting at the label and then eyeing me. “Did you order something?”
Shaking my head, I dropped the chip mid-bite and rounded the kitchen corner where she was standing. Tearing the box open, I pulled out a plastic bag. Inside was a cable-knit cardigan, my size, with a small yellow block “M” on the left chest. There was no note.
I glanced up at my mom. “George?”
The word hung in the air between us, lingering over the ripped packaging. She shrugged. We both knew it was from him.
That night over dinner, I told my father. He listened silently as my mom pushed her potatoes in circles around her plate and my sister cautiously watched.
“That was thoughtful of him,” he responded quietly, as sincerely as he could. His head was down and his eyes were focused on the chicken breast on his plate. I realized, looking at the top of his head, how white his hair had become. Once thick and jet black, it had grown thin and almost entirely white, with the occasional dull black strand dotted throughout. He looked pale and old in a way I’d never seen him before.
Then he looked up. “Write him a thank you letter. Maybe he’ll send a big check to contribute to your college education!” The moment was gone and he was chuckling. We chuckled too, shaking off the chill of the conversation.
As I got older, I often sat at my grandmother’s dining table on Sunday afternoons, having tea and cookies. Recently widowed, she spent most of her days wandering her house. The stereo blaring symphony classics and the cat watching her pace. She was a story-teller. A nostalgic reminiscer, and my family had grown bored and annoyed with her preoccupation with the past. On especially lonely days, I kept her company and listened patiently to her stories.
One afternoon in early October, she must have had my father on her mind. We sat at her table, facing the giant windows that overlooked Lake Macatawa, which sprawled out just a few yards from her sliding door. That day it was brisk but sunny, and the lake was dotted with sailboats; we watched as the little white triangles dipped around each other in circles like a slow motion merry-go-round.
“Your father used to love to sail,” my grandmother said. I smiled and nodded; he had always been a lake lover. She paused to sip from her cup, the steam swirling up and making marks on her glasses, and her next words were loose and slow, the tea still warm in her throat: “I only wish he’d had a father to sail with.”
I stared at the corner of the scone in my hand, unsure if I should drop it on my plate or continue bringing it to my mouth as if she hadn’t spoken. It was rare that she brought George up, especially with me. My mom had mentioned once that after he left, my grandmother, a practicing Catholic, had the marriage annulled through the church. According to her faith, George never happened to her. This also meant, my mother pointed out, that my father and aunt were technically illegitimate.
My grandmother chewed her lip and looked sideways at me. Her glossy gaze escaped the space between her eyes and the frame of her glasses. She got this look sometimes as if she’d done something bad and felt sneaky talking about it.
“Did you know he drove to New York when he was sixteen to visit his father?” she asked, raising her thinning eyebrows. I had heard that story, but since it was probably one I had eavesdropped on, I immediately shook my head.
“After George left us, he moved to Oneonta and taught music at Hartwick College. Your father and Dave —or was it Dan? I think they were brothers — Vandyke took his VW bug to New York to tour the college. That was the last time Jeff saw him. Your father thought he might go there for school—” she paused to dab the crumbs from her upper lip with a paper napkin “—but he didn’t get in. I think Jeff’s dad was disappointed. He was supposed to help pay for the kids’ educations, you know.” She was watching the sailboats again. “I couldn’t help them, so they paid for school on their own.”
My teacup was empty and my scone long gone. I watched the boats too, admiring their ease in the water. Finally my grandmother smiled sadly and reached over to pat my hand. “Gah – why are we talking about this? Come help me feed the kitty.”
George had been married before he wed my grandmother. His history before my family is unclear, except that he had a son and a daughter with his first wife. My father and aunt met them before, and I’ve heard they have the same square lower jaw and slight overbite that my dad has, an unlucky inheritance from their mutual missing father.
When my parents were first married, they visited George’s mother and stepfather, the Hermans in their home in Florida. My mother recalls that the Hermans lined their walls with photographs of their grandchildren, framed like keepsake postcards from places they’d visited once or twice. There were several of my father and aunt as kids, as well as the children from George’s first marriage. My mother says they were kind, hospitable people who sent birthday cards to their grandkids in an attempt to make up for George’s abandonment. In the years that followed, Mrs. Herman made many phone calls to our home to keep in touch, and she and my mother became friends. When she died, my parents received a phone call from George to notify them of her death and an unexpected $20,000 that was written in her will to my parents. It was the only time he’s ever called our home.
In a faraway memory of a summer day spent out on Lake Michigan, I wear my dad’s oversized baseball cap and laugh when it flops down into my line of sight, resting on my sunglasses and making my vision fuzzy. The lake is calm and we’re drifting through the channel, waving at people on the beach. Next to me, in the captain’s seat, my dad sits with one hand on the steering wheel and the other around my shoulders. Fastened securely inside my life jacket like an oversized orange marshmallow, I squint up at him as he softly sings our favorite song, Jimmy Buffett’s “Grapefruit, Juicy-Fruit.”
“I’d strap you in beside me,” he sings to me, tugging lightly on my jacket straps. “Never ever leave you, leave you at home all alone and crying!” I chime in on the last phrase, emphasizing every syllable over the hum of the engine. Out on the lake but close to the shore, he drops the anchor and we stick our toes in the water.
My childhood memories blend together like this. Jimmy Buffett lyrics leak into visions of sand dunes accompanied by the soundtrack of seagulls cawing and lake water sloshing against the boat, rocking me to sleep as my parents dab sunscreen on my reddening cheeks.
Today, my dad’s a successful businessman in the boat industry. His company builds mahogany Grand-Crafts and he always asks for my design input: Cream or red leather for the seat cushions? What do you think of the square windshield? He brings his favorite “Michigan Dad” coffee mug to work and proudly wears my sorority’s “Father Daughter Weekend” t-shirt. He and my mother just celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary with a trip to Disney World, his surprise to her. He’s in the audience at all my sister’s choir concerts and embraces her vegan lifestyle, even if it means enthusiastically eating her tofu-quinoa-kale dinner creations. “Grapefruit, Juicy-Fruit” still plays sometimes on our boat trips, and when it does, I look at my father and wonder how he managed to become such a good man when nobody sang it to him.
Last Christmas break, I again wrote George my bi-annual letter to update him on our lives. I sat at our dining table where I’d written him letters on past Christmases. With a gold pen, I wrote a short caption on the back of a recent photograph of my father and myself: Me and Dad in Paris last summer – this view of the Seine was spectacular!
“Want some eggnog?” My dad was in the kitchen behind me, standing in front of the fridge.
“With Vernors please,” I responded. I flipped the photograph over and bit the end of my pen. I still wondered, even after years of sending him mail, what he would think when he looked at it. I studied my father’s face looking out at me from the photo and wondered if George would recognize his resemblance.
My father placed a glass at the corner of my in-process letter. “For George?” he asked.
“Yeah. If I keep writing maybe he’ll fork out some money for grad school!” I smiled, attempting to keep him lighthearted. Instead he stared down at my pile of papers and photographs, uneasy, and held his eggnog with both hands, as if it were unusually heavy. Then he moved to the couch and flipped the TV channel.
“Did I tell you I called him a couple months ago?”
I whirled around in my chair, incredulous. “You did? When?”
“When I was in Fort Lauderdale for the boat show.”
“What did you say?” I couldn’t believe it. I had lived with the mystery of this man all my life, and felt the loss that my father surely felt but never let us see. A phone conversation was big news.
“I said, ‘hey, remember me? Your son? I’m in Florida, just visiting. What are you doing and can you meet up?’”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘oh, actually my wife isn’t feeling well, so, uh, now’s not a good time.’”
Now’s not a good time? I stared at my father, mouth open. The hand holding my eggnog was sweaty despite the cool glass. He continued, “I even offered to drive all the way to them, but he still refused. We’re not going to get too many more chances to see each other” — by this I knew he was referring to George’s age — “but that’s the last time I’ll try to contact him.” He shrugged and looked at me a little longer, and his expression was empty. Again I noticed his salt and pepper hair and the wrinkles in his forehead even though he wasn’t frowning. He shrugged quickly again, as if dismissing his thoughts, and turned back towards the television.
In that moment my mother walked through the door with a stack of mail. Shutting the door behind her, she held up an envelope and nervously exclaimed, “we got a letter from George!”
I glanced down at my unfinished letter to him. He never wrote us first. My mom passed me the envelope and I stood up to open it.
Inside was a generic Christmas card with a golden retriever on the front. From inside the card fell a folded piece of notebook paper, and I hurriedly opened it. I noticed the handwriting was different than his letters before, but I began reading. The writer wrote happy holidays and hope you all have a good new year and Sydney and Delaney are just so mature, and I realized I wasn’t reading George’s words, but his wife’s.
She sounded sincere. Her cursive words were kindly written. But they were distant and awkward, and not what I wanted. Frustrated, I slid it across the counter to my mom and opened the Christmas card. The simple black words “Merry Christmas” were typed in the middle, isolated by white space except for a scribbled flurry of letters in the bottom right hand corner: –Grandpa George.
Was it the heavy guilt of his absence that made George still so distant? Or was it a lack of interest in my family, people he’d made the decision to forget long before I wrote him my first letter? I stared down at his signature, remembering all the stories I’d collected in an attempt to understand him. I didn’t know this man who called himself Grandpa at all.
My father, who had been watching quietly from the couch, finally spoke: “What’s it say?”
I didn’t know what to tell him. I silently handed the notebook paper and the golden retriever card to him.
“It’s short and sweet.”
He unfolded the paper and cleared his throat. I turned away and made an excuse to go upstairs, afraid of the look that would appear on his face.
University of Michigan
Sydney Cavanagh is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she majored in art and design and minored in creative writing. She finds creative nonfiction to be a liberating way to explore self-identity. Sydney is grateful to her college writing professors for challenging her and for redefining her idea of what makes a good story. She now lives and works in St. Louis, MO.