BY LAURA DELARATO
My grandfather was insufferable.
He was the kind of guy that would say he pocket-dialed you while you're at work…but he was clearly calling from the house phone. Like, the coil cord phone that only people born in the 30s would still have.
I am incredibly lucky to have my grandfather in my life for three decades. My mother and father were never very good at parenting. Even now, talking to either of them lacks warmth — as if I’m speaking to family friends who just so happen to have been at the hospital when I was born.
My grandfather inserted himself into my life the moment I opened my eyes for the first time; even naming me. I’m told my grandfather held me in his arms and called me Laura before anyone had a chance to ooh and ahh at how a child of 100 percent Italian descent could be born so pale.
Life with him was tough, though. Overly nervous. Dictative. Obsessed with protecting me from the world. Every little move was more than a move — it was a way I could die. My youngest brother Richie did die in a freak drowning accident. I was 5. He was 3. I was the last to see him before he walked out the front door.
I remember the entire day from the moment I heard a neighbor scream next door to my aunt stroking my hair while I tried to fall asleep. The only thing that breaks my heart now is that was the day my grandfather changed into an overwrought old man. You don’t lose a grandchild and walk away whole.
It began with habitual concerns involving routine seatbelt checks and eyeing the halls in case I caught a motive to run in the house. Then, it was the bellowing outbursts if he saw me stare at a piece of hard candy. “WHAT ARE YOU, STUPID? You. Can. Choke!” He’d follow me in his green van the entire seven-minute walk from his house to the 6 train as a teen; shouting: “YOU’RE GOING TO MAKE ME DO THIS?! YOU COULD DIE OUT HERE!” You know when you’re eating peanut butter and you flip the spoon concave to rest on your tongue? For some reason, it tastes so much better like that. He would get upset, even when I was an adult, if he saw me do that because I could potentially break my front teeth. Suffice to say, driving lessons weren’t an option, dating was an unmentionable, and wearing anything that wasn’t a turtleneck would grant me a very tiring lecture on looking like a nice girl.
College should have given me the room I needed from my grandfather. I went to school in lower Manhattan — just a 45-minute train ride away from him at the tippy-top of the Bronx. Far enough to where he couldn’t just pop over, but close enough to make sure I was reachable.
Within the first few weeks of my freshman year, I volunteered with my university to help paint classrooms at a local high school. I was standing there — paint-clad; trying curb my anxiety to make new friends — when I got a call from the RA saying that two police officers were at my dorm room trying to figure out my location. I already knew who had called them. Silly me for not alerting the coast guard of my coordinates. I laugh about it now but in the moment, I stood amongst my peers stunned and unable to breathe.
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This was an act of dependency. He’s doing this on purpose and he was doing this to me. I keep trying to justify these actions for him to make peace with being stripped of a lifetime of autonomy, but even in my thirties I still hold a grudge. My mother floated in the background while all this parenting was going on. My father was somewhere. No idea where. And I fought my hardest for liberation but never given the resources to properly make a break for it.
This is all such a conundrum. I lived with my mother in Virginia when I was a teen and he would do the 7-hour drive from the Bronx every week just to make sure I was doing okay — then made sure to fill the refrigerator with food before begrudgingly leaving at my mother’s request. He took me to every single soccer practice and school play rehearsal. He made it to every graduation and smiled at me from the auditorium as I walked across the stage. And he always told me that women could do anything a man could do. Despite this, his stress made me so anxious that a month after I moved into my first apartment, a friend looked at me and commented, "Your hair isn’t thinning anymore."
I would make a daily call at 8:45am to him every single day; except the weekends and holidays I spent there. He would never ask about my life. Just say statements at me like, "Lock the door." "Don’t be out late at night." "If you lived with us in the Bronx, you wouldn’t have to pay rent." There were days I skipped that call out of spite just to make him worry about me. When I finally picked up the phone from his incessant "pocket dialing," he would fearfully ask me questions about my life — as if I cut off some part of his nervous system for a few hours and never wanted to feel that ever again. Is it selfish to make your grandfather worry just to be heard?
Don’t misunderstand me in anyway. My grandfather was a great man. I have so many amazing memories of us going to Yankee Stadium, and Disney, and every family party where he would explain how he got to try out for the White Sox. I also have a lot of harsh memories. I lot of memories that cause me to visibly wince at the remembrance. He was so scared of the world that he’d rather me resent him then possibly be in pain from an experience.
I buried my grandfather recently. I gave the eulogy, walked right behind the coffin, and cried uncontrollably. I’ve never felt so alone while simultaneously so calm in my life. No more 8:45am phone calls. No more following me with the car. No more of the man I considered my dad.
Before he died, he stared off at the hospital wall and began muttering through the Yankees game playing on the overhead television. "I’m proud of you." He said he was proud that I was independent and refused to fear the world as much as he tried to keep me to himself. He looked at me with total trust, as if the whole thing was an incredibly tragic test I had to pass.
I keep forgetting that he’s gone. I still have my timed routine each morning so that I can call him exactly at 8:45am. I’ve done it a few times but mostly I stare at the phone at 8:44am remembering that this is not part of the cycle anymore. I can’t forget his fretfulness and the way he’d hover in his chair; waiting for a crisis to strike. But — everything is silent now and there is no one to worry about me anymore. I’d give anything for him to call me even if it was just to talk at me; even if it was just a lecture — just to feel worthy of his worry one last time.
Laura Delarato is a New York writer, artist, and video creator specializing in body image, fitness, sexual health, travel, and personal essays. Her work has appeared in Refinery29, London Glossy Magazine, Kong Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Seventeen, Details, XOJane, Martha Stewart Living, and Martha Stewart Weddings. She is also a staunch body positive activist — beautifully committed to furthering the female cause.