“Once you kill the fish, you chuck it over there for my bird friend over there. No use in eating these.” Grandpa flung the remnants of our fishing trip onto his dock, where a bird immediately landed.
My sister Shelly was still crying from watching Grandpa Ray drive a hammer through the fish we caught from his little fishing boat, now merrily rocking on the dock. The thick Florida breeze ruffled my frizzy hair as I watched one of the unfortunate fish’s eyes slowly slide onto the cutting board. I shuddered, hiding my own disturbed reaction from my sweet grandpa.
My mother had brought us out to visit my grandparents in their home on Merritt Island, but for the most part, they were complete strangers. Almost immediately, Grandpa had dubbed Shelly and I as his little helpers and whisked us away on his fishing boat. Delighted, I held the fishing rods and screamed with six-year-old glee when my line had begun to jerk uncontrollably. Fishing had become my new favorite thing.
It was lunch. Grandpa loved bologna in a way that made all nine of his kids cringe. He would grind it up and mix whatever he could find in the fridge into the mash. I finished my food before going in search of my siblings, leaving my grandpa to mutter over his meal.
“What I’m saying is I don’t mind him being around them, but I don’t think it should be regular or unsupervised!” My mother’s voice was hushed but unmistakable. I slowly backed out of the room; I’d never heard my mother argue before.
“Cossette! Don’t forget who you’re speaking to. You have nothing to worry about! He’s learned and he is your father! How can you say you would deprive a grandparent of their grandchild?”
Whatever Grandma and Cossette were talking about, I was doomed to be in more trouble than my eavesdropping was worth; I scampered back out to the dock, where my grandpa was showing my brother Lincoln and Shelly how to feed manatees.
“They live in the ocean but they love that fresh stuff.” Grandpa distractedly muttered, turning on the hose and putting it in the water by the boat.
An enormous creature emerged from the water almost immediately and I fell back in panic; I’d never seen a manatee before. After recovering from the shock of the immensity of the animal, I watched with fascination as it merrily champed on the hose, rolled over, and allowed itself to be petted.
Too afraid to reach out, I noticed another detail about the creatures clustering in the water around the dock: they had deep gashes and rugged scarring along their backs. The scoremarks were inches deep in some places. With tears in my eyes, I looked at my grandpa and pointed with the painful question unspoken. He paused his muttering and crouched next to me.
“We always gotta consider the animals when we make choices. See, no one thinks that it hurts anyone to drive around in a motorboat, but my friends get cut by the propellers when they pass overhead. They’re becoming endangered soon, you know.”
“Why don’t they stop the boats?!” My six year old self appealed to the idea of immediate vindication.
“It’s not that simple, Skye. Sometimes we do things without thinking and those things hurt others. Sometimes we don’t realize it till it’s too late to go back and there’s no way to undo the damage.” He hefted a bucket containing several heads of lettuce to the dock and began to fill it with the hose. “I’ve done lots of things I can’t believe, Skye. But now I know that when I see someone hurt, I can help and make a friend.” Grandpa reached into the bucket and broke a piece of lettuce off, tossing it to what was clearly his favorite manatee. Immediately, the great animal swallowed it and rolled over in joyful appreciation. Grandpa laughed; these animals were his best friends.
14 Years Later
I had just turned 20; having just finished my technical military training, I had taken a couple weeks of leave before reporting to my duty station in Utah. Required to travel in uniform on orders, I donned my Air Force fatigues at a truck stop before making my last visit of the trip: I was going to see my grandparents.
Having had terrible health for several years, my grandparents had moved back to my home state Michigan to be close to their many children. By the time they had made the move, however, I had become estranged from my family. While they had been faithful in sending cards and gifts every year of my childhood, I had never seemed to be able to get the time with my grandfather that I craved. I’d seen him for a handful of days throughout my childhood, each time giggling over bologna and talking fishing. He had started to exclusively call me his little helper through the years, but as I rolled into the retirement community to see them again, my stomach said it had still been eight years since I’d seen them.
Grandma answered the door first, her red Irish afro smothering my face as she hugged me around the waist. Her stature was suffering from osteoporosis, I realized. Grandpa Ray was by the fridge, pouring two tall beers into frosted glasses.
“That’s my girl Skye! Wow you’re a woman now! I served in the Sea Bees you know. I didn’t want to get drafted, so I joined the Navy myself. You’re going to love it in the military.” He cackled and handed me one of the frosted pints.
“Grandpa, I’m only 20!”
Standing in his living room holding the beer, my eye caught my grandma wildly gesticulating behind me. Once she realized I had her eye, she held up a non-alcoholic beer for me to see and discreetly swap out when Grandpa wasn’t looking. I smiled; even if grandpa wasn’t the classiest, he didn’t try to hide his pride and excitement for me. Gushing with anticipation, he harrumphed to the basement entrance and motioned for me to follow him downstairs. As the lights to the basement snapped on, my jaw dropped in shock. The space bristled with fishing hooks, rods, flies and accessories of every kind. I stared at him questioningly.
“Sweet Skye! You need to pick out what you want! I didn’t haul all this gear from Florida to just look at, you know. We need to make a proper fisherwoman out of you and I think we missed some birthdays.” My heart burst.
Hours later it was time to leave. In his usual form, Grandpa made tasteless jokes and clapped me on the back repeatedly. Grandma quietly held my hands and looked me in the face as if trying to say something. After hugging her tightly and stalling, I finally bid them goodbye and drove away.
5 Years Later
The snow had several inches more since I had entered the soon-to-be-my house with my realtor for final inspection. At 25, it was my first house and closing was next week; fraught with nerves and excitement, I hadn’t slept well. As we locked up the house and prepared to depart, I checked my phone before putting my car in gear. There was a text message from Shelly, cold but to the point:
“Grandpa Ray died last week in case no one let you know.”
I closed my hand over the message for a moment, then uncovered it; It was still there. Grandpa Ray was gone. The years following my final visit with him had lent many answers to the mysterious conversation I’d overheard as a child. I’d learned that my grandpa had been neither selfless nor faithful as a father or husband. I learned of many cruelties he’d committed while raising his own family.
Ray had known the carnage he had created long before I had, I realized. Though he was lacking in class, he wasn’t ignorant of what others thought of him and his grave transgressions. He had prepared me for the stories I was to hear about his old self and I wondered if he spent time wondering if his little helper had left in disgust. Doomed to live in the shadow of his past actions, he had shared with my six year old self the only solution he’d been able to live by. Even today, I remember the lesson my grandpa shared with me that day on the dock.
I punched off a message to Shelly asking for funeral details when she had them, but I knew it was likely not an option. After staring blankly at my steering wheel for some time, I pulled out of the neighborhood. On my way home, I picked up his favorite bologna and mix-ins for a dinner that only he and I would have loved while giggling over a good fish tale.