This is a photo of my Grandfather Dembo and I. The date is tentative, but I’m guessing by my haircut and clothes that this was taken during my summer visit during the Bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia, 1976.
A lot of the happy memories I have of childhood or adolescence are associated with this man, his House of Mysteries on Spruce Street, and our travels together around the east coast.
He served briefly in World War II and then had a long career in the Foreign Service. He never walked the same way twice to the post office or any other routine stop in his daily circuit. He had formed the habit of varying his routine during decades as a diplomat, when it made him more difficult to kidnap or kill.
He spoke all the languages of continental Europe as well as Swahili and Urdu; until the last years of his life he remained able to read and translate Urdu poetry. He was an ardent consumer of Russian and Soviet art and literature. He took me to libraries and museums, taught me to love movies, botanical gardens, nature and photography.
His retirement home in Philadelphia had been built in the late 1800’s by an English sea captain and then subdivided into an enormous duplex, each half featuring three floors of rooms, an attic and a full basement. The garden was paved with brick and featured a colossal mulberry tree; I played under it for hours in the warm summer afternoons, or sat in the arbor window looking out through the old cut glass, like panes of diamond, while reading my children’s books.
Throughout the house were scattered the relics of his long career in countries around the world. Hindu gods, African wood carvings, zebra skin drum, thick Turkish rugs, old velvet and bright brass. To this day I would credit that house with my later interest in anthropology and archaeology–in the strangeness of other humans, and the wonder of the things they make. I peered into the cabinets and poked around the shelves, practiced making little pillows out of old scrap velvet and played clumsy little war dances on the old zebra skin drum.
My grandfather was kind to me, and he was as gentle with me as a grandfather as he had been savage with his own sons as a father. I would later hear tales of the terrifying levels of abuse to which my father and my uncle were subjected–broken bones, icy disapproval, emotional torment and brutal judgment that that made their lives hell. I would recognize the echo of that abuse in my own father’s violent temper and his cold cruelty, his surgically effective shaming and destruction of my self-esteem as a child and a teenage girl.
But my grandfather never showed that side to me. Instead, he was my friend, my companion, the person to whom I always looked for inspiration and approval. He delighted in sharing art, books and films with me, asking my opinions and drawing me out into conversation. He would watch any movie that I wanted, and discuss it with me as if it were high art; I still remember his analysis of the scientist character in “Howard the Duck”.
I loved his amazing brain, and aspired in my youth to be even half the scholar and thinker he was someday. He had a powerful, voracious intellect and a joyous engagement with the world of thought, ideas, and communication. He was an Old School writer of letters, maintaining a voluminous correspondence with every member of an extended network of family, friends, and colleagues for decades at a time. I still remember the slant of his ink strokes and the cheap blue paper that he preferred.
The failure of his great mind, the dimming of that blazing light of intelligence, was one of the greatest tragedies of my 20’s.
I should have known that something was wrong, of course, when he stopped writing those letters. But I was young, and terribly broke, and desperate for money, trying to support one child with another on the way in Seattle. When I wrote to him asking for help and he didn’t answer, I didn’t understand. I thought he had chosen to ignore me, that he was turning his back deliberately. I was deeply hurt that he had abandoned my young family to starve–and I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t have trouble believing the worst of him. How many grim transformations had I seen, by that time, of people I thought I could trust? How many people had turned on me and shown me a dark side that caused me pain? His son, my biological father, had disowned me years ago. I was especially used to being treated badly by family members.
In reality, of course, my grandfather never meant to let me down. He had simply…gotten lost in a fog.
My aunt had some of the same concerns I did, when he went silent, but unlike me she had the money and security to simply fly to Philadelphia several months later and see what was going on with him.
She found him suffering from a fairly advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, rambling alone through the halls and rooms of the old House of Mysteries. It was abandoned now by the ambitious young students that he had once rented rooms to, in days past. Now it was a derelict place full of filth and broken glass.
Strangers arrived multiple times a day to lead the confused old man to the local bank machines and have him withdraw money from his accounts and hand it to them in cash. He was writing dozens of checks a day to charity organizations that sent requests for donations in the mail. He had owned two properties just a few years earlier, including a valuable house in one of the upscale neighborhoods around Washington DC. Some unscrupulous person had managed to make him hand over the deed, and now the property was lost, and he was in debt.
My aunt and my father arranged an auction of the house and all of its remaining furniture and assets immediately to cover the losses. I was too poor to attend the auction, and was given no chance to request that anything be held back for me…not even one brass Ganesha, or the silly old zebra skin drum.
They carted him off to a care home in Washington State. I had already moved up to Vancouver with my two young children and their father. My husband and I drove down to see him once, for the first time since my wedding.
Seeing him after he had succumbed to Alzheimer’s was like seeing the sun die. It filled me with pain and existential terror. I still live in dread of a similar fog claiming me as I grow older, swallowing me up and leaving me to wander, confused and lonely, unable to remember where my loved ones have gone or why they don’t come to visit.
I have never really written about my Grandfather Dembo. He is part of that huge, strange hole in the landscape of my art and thought where all of my loved ones and intimate relationships should be.
I seldom try to venture into that abyss of deepest vulnerability, and talk about the people in my life that I’ve loved the most. Perhaps because I find it so difficult to re-live the loss of all these transformations and departures that tear at my heart.
As if the silence, the inability to write about it will make even one loss, one unmasking or abandonment less painful!
But really, it never does.
I miss you, Grampa.
I’ve always been so bloody awful at goodbyes.