Just yesterday, I was reading Frank Ocean’s very thoughtful, very insightful interview with GQ, when I stumbled across a sentence, a revelation about his own life that reaffirmed a truth in my own. In speaking about his absentee father, Frank Ocean, talked about how his maternal grandfather stepped in to become the father figure he needed.
“Her father was my paternal figure. He’d had a really troubled life with crack, heroin, and alcohol and had kids he wasn’t an ideal parent to. I was his second chance, and he gave it his best shot. My grandfather was smart and had a whole lot of pride. He didn’t speak a terrible amount, but you could tell there was a ton on his mind—like a quiet acceptance of how life had turned out. He was a mentor at AA and NA, and I would go with him to meetings.”
Though my own father has always been very present and active in me and my sister’s life, I knew from a very young age that there was tension where my grandfather was concerned. One could argue that when my grandmother turned up pregnant, he wasn’t ready to be a father or a husband. But in the 1940’s in Jamaica, it would have shamed my grandmother and her family to have a baby born out of wedlock. So he entered into two roles he was no where near ready for: husband and father. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the greatest at either one of those jobs.
As a husband, he was still living like a single man, a single, often mean-spirited man, who expressed his anger or frustration in violent ways. As a father he was present physically (for some) but not often emotionally. He was discouraging when he should have been supportive, deceptive when he should have been forthcoming.
Some would argue that I should have never known all these things about my grandfather; but I was an inquisitive, very observant child. So when I saw something, heard something or sensed something going down between he and my grandmother or between he and my mother, or her siblings I asked questions… persistently. And fortunately, the women and men in my family told me the truth, all while reminding me that at the end of the day, no matter what, he was my grandfather and I had to respect him.
So, as a child I had to come up with a strategy to do so. I’m not going to say that I never looked at him differently, there were times when I’d recall the latest story I’d heard about him and internalize it as my own pain, my own resentment toward him. But eventually, I got to the point where I realized that wasn’t my pain to carry. When I think about who my grandfather had been in my life, he was the man who drove us around Indianapolis, explaining the history of our city and expounding on the beauty of trees. He was the man who took us to the Christmas tree lighting on the circle, driving us around and around until we were dizzy. The man who bought us ice cream. The man who made a church a priority. And though semblances of his old ways would sometimes resurface, I could see that in a lot of ways, my grandfather was two different people. So I learned to split him.
When my beloved grandmother died, several members of our family, wondered morbidly and maybe even cruelly, why my grandfather hadn’t gone first. After all, my grandmother was an angel and a lot of times, my grandfather was nothing short of a hot mess. It took me years to understand it.
The answer came to me almost a decade later. My mother, who had just overcome a bout with breast cancer, called me to tell me that my grandfather came to see her at her job and in the midst of talking about her condition got caught up in a wave of emotion, embraced her and shed tears as he explained to her that he loved her, that there was a purpose for her life and that God had blessed her.
My mother couldn’t figure out why he’d acted out of his normal character, why he’d said those things to her. For me, it was obvious that there were things he needed to say. Despite his litany of flaws, anyone who’s around my grandfather for a few minutes, will recognize that he’s a blessed man. And after my mother told me what he had done, it became clear to me that God had kept and continues to keep my grandfather around because there are lessons he still needs to learn at 94 years old. Lessons, that maybe my grandmother didn’t need or had already acquired. Either way, I can appreciate his growth.
Being that my grandfather is in his 90’s, I always want to make sure I get to see him when I’m home. And over the past several years, he’s become much more than the man who took us on drives or bought us ice cream. My grandfather, who devoted much of his life to driving sickly elders, people younger than him in most cases, to the hospital, taught me about the importance of community service. His humble beginnings, immigration story and his successful business, have shown me that things these days aren’t as tough as they could be, that I can always work harder. When I moved to New York, without a job and into a triflin’ apartment, my grandfather sent me away with words of encouragement, confidence and five English pounds, just in case I needed to convert it to US dollars if times ever got too tough.
If I’m called upon, to speak at my grandfather’s funeral, I’ll take a note from my grandmother and keep it real by saying he might have had a rough start, but God spared his life and allowed him to grow into the man he was supposed to be.