By Leesa Collett
When I was a little girl, I adored my grandfather. He was a powerful, successful businessman with an imposing presence. When he entered a room, people noticed. And he loved me. He treated me like a princess and a grown-up. He never spoke down to me, and wherever we went, when I was with him, people treated me with respect. As a child, I never questioned this. It was my normal. It was also normal for my papa to drive into the suburbs, find me playing outside and bring me back to the city for a few days. At some point he would call my parents. This was the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, a much more innocent time.
Memorial Day weekend, 1962, was no different. Papa drove down our street in his big white Cadillac, picked me up and brought me to his apartment in the city. It didn’t matter that I had nothing with me. My grandmother would take me shopping to get what I needed for the weekend. We had fun together. Papa and I ran a number of errands around the city, saw a few people, went to lunch at a beautiful restaurant… our usual. Then, on Memorial Day we went to see the parade, just the two of us. There were so many people, and they were all taller than me. All I could see was legs. Papa picked me up and put me on his shoulders so I could watch the parade. We had a lovely time. Then he drove me back to my house.
The next day I knew something had happened. There was a flurry of activity. My parents seemed upset about something, not angry, but not happy. Dad didn’t go to work, and he always went to work. My parents left the house early and didn’t return until late. They were gone the next day also.
I believe it was on the third day, Thursday, that my father said he and I were going into the city to my grandparents’ apartment. He missed another day of work. What was going on? On the ride in, he told me my grandfather had died. I don’t remember everything he said; my seven-year-old brain struggled to process this. How could he have died? We were just together. He was full of life! I wanted my papa. I do recall my father telling me that I would see him again someday. I didn’t understand.
When we got to the apartment, it was full of people, all adults. I didn’t know most of them. The funeral had been the day before. This was the Shiva, the weeklong period of mourning in the Jewish tradition. Since I was the last person to see my grandfather before he died, some of the adults questioned me. What did we do? Where did we go? Who did we see? What did he say? I told all I knew and could remember. Then my great aunt, Papa’s sister, pulled me into the kitchen. No one else was there. She always scared me. She was humorless, wore severe clothing that seemed to be from another era and smelled like dust. In the kitchen she yelled at me. She told me it was my willfulness that caused my grandfather’s death. Huh? According to her, I had demanded to be put on his shoulders to see the parade. She said he had a bad heart and would have never done so unless I demanded it. I tried telling her it was his idea, and I didn’t know what a bad heart was. She would have none of it. I had killed my grandfather!
I didn’t tell anyone about this. How could I tell my mother I had killed her father? I was horrified and confused and devastated. It was my secret shame. It took a few years, but I worked hard to not be willful. I didn’t want to kill anyone else. I was determined to be a good, perfect girl. As the years went by, I thought of this less and less, but it was still part of my personal history. Eventually, I stopped equating my penchant for perfection with my grandfather’s death. It just became who I was.
Fast forward about thirty years. That’s when I finally told my mother what had happened. Her reaction was not what I expected. She chuckled, then said, “Your grandfather never did anything he didn’t want to do. If he put you on his shoulders, it was because he wanted to. And that’s not what killed him.” The short version of what killed him involves a hotel, a mistress, unhealthy habits, bad medical advice and a lot of personal stress.
In a perfect world, that would have let me off the hook and I would have stopped carrying around the guilt. But it had become part of me in a way that I didn’t understand or even recognize. Something that I had seldom even thought about in decades still had a hold on me, only I didn’t know it. It wasn’t until a few years later that I started to figure it out. I told the story to a friend. He asked me why I was still carrying it around. Why was this still my story? How did it serve me? At the time it was like asking why I still identified as being born in this country or having had a concussion as a teen. It was part of my history. I can’t go back and rewrite it. It’s who I am. I was the girl who killed her grandfather.
It took a few years, but eventually I understood. What happened, happened. I’m an American, I had a concussion and my grandfather died – not my fault! It’s up to me to attach meaning, significance and emotion to the event, or not. After all, things happen all the time. These things only have the significance we afford them. By investing a great deal of emotion into something, it can come to own us, define us. And, since we create these emotional entanglements, we can take them out. We have the power. I had given decades of my life to a bitter old lady’s fear-driven rant. No more! I’m declaring my freedom from emotional attacks and attachments. OK, maybe I’m not quite free from them all, but I’m working on it.