first person

Losing My Grandfather Meant Losing Part of My Heritage

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

My mother called me on a Saturday morning. I picked up expecting something typical — Did you know you can freeze garlic and keep it fresh for months?, Neutrogena’s sunscreen doesn’t work! Which one do you use?, Did you receive my dog photos?, but instead heard a matter-of-fact tone:

Benny is gone.

Not Dad or Grandpa or Grandfather, things he both was and was not to us, but Benny. She said what I already knew: he had lost his battle with cancer, it was peaceful, and that was that.  It was a brief conversation, and afterwards I hung up and sat on my bed in silence.

When you lose somebody you aren’t sure how you feel about, you discover the unpredictable nature of mourning. There is sadness, but it is the kind of sadness that comes with something that never was. It is sadness at an arm’s length. I try to remember him, and it comes mostly in snippets. A visit in the winter, followed by years of no visits. A life without him, most of the time.  The Christmas when he visited and told us he had no presents because they were all stolen from him en route. It only occurs to me at this specific moment that he was probably lying.

I think about that memory, and then I push it aside to go apartment hunting. When somebody who wasn’t so much a part of your life leaves it, it is still business as usual, plus the added guilt of how true that can be. I tell some of my friends, and their “I’m sorry” feels like it should be directed to somebody else.

My grandfather came into my life like he burst through a wall. Never expected, and when he did, a hole remained. And now he had left for the very last time. He was gruff and giant and cold, and was first defined in my life by the fact that he had abandoned my grandmother when she had my mother and then my mother when she was a preteen. My mother reconnected with him to let him know she was married with children, where he was redefined by the fact that he sent checks to my brother and I to try to make up for the absence. He was also funny, obsessed with baseball, loved taking us out to big dinners when he could, and looked exactly like my brother.

When you lose somebody you aren’t sure how you feel about, you tend to make it more about yourself and those who are living. How do I feel? Is my mother okay? What does his exit mean, and what about my life will change now?

My grandfather was one of the only ties my mother and I had to Puerto Rico, an island and ancestry I held so near to my heart, but always experienced at a distance, mostly through infrequent visits and home cooking. My mom and I both traveled there as young girls, to sit under the quenapa trees in Benny’s yard, to visit people we didn’t know too well, to watch crabs walking on the shore and men with machetes cracking coconuts in two pieces. To hear the coquí frogs, and to explore where we came from. My grandfather was not a gracious host in this regard. We learned little about who we were, spending more time with his girlfriends rather than whatever blood relatives we might have, and left understanding more about the beauty of the island itself than how we fit into it. I could always count my Puerto Rican family on one hand. Most of my relatives barely knew who I was.

Soon, of course, I realized I was making his death mostly about what a lot in my life comes down to: my ethnicity, and what it means. Benny was one of the only living ties I had to Puerto Rico, and now he was gone. And the people that were left in my life, my other family? Well, they were all white folks. White folks I loved dearly, but white folks that left half my history unanswered.

Welcome to the duality of being biracial.

Being biracial is so often about who you are at a particular moment. Mostly, your life is split in two pieces, pieces that don’t always fit together. When I leave my house, for instance, I pass as white. White, I think , with a twist. Off-white. Eggshell. This means I get questions from strangers like “so, what are you?” They try to answer before I can even open my mouth. Greek? Italian? Armenian? Instead of saying “excuse me, let me speak,” I just let them finish their guessing game, because by this point in my life, I am used to it. When I say “Puerto Rican and Irish,” I feel less like it defines me and more like I am explaining myself.

And still, I wanted so badly to feel Puerto Rican. Or Irish. Or anything tangible. Instead, I felt like I was intruding. Intruding in white people spaces, and intruding in Latino spaces. To white people, I’m not white. To others, I grew up in a suburban town with organic hamburger restaurants and stores that only sold expensive kitchen things, things at the butt of “white people” jokes. And to me, I just didn’t really know. I felt like I was standing on a rooftop, looking down at each side of the street, with no real way to know where I would land.

In many ways, I built my identity up with things that felt familiar to me, and things that felt like home. My grandmother was familiar, and comfortable, and defined Puerto Rico to me as much as its sandy beaches. Her death granted a curious grief to me, one that only expanded the more she missed out on: me publishing a book, graduating from college, meeting a man, learning to pluck my eyebrows. In the wake of my grandfather’s death, I felt even angrier at her death than his. Why did he last so much longer? Why did I even think like that?

As a half-brown girl, one with both deep-brown skin in the summer and the bright red nose of a gringo, I also learned to build my identity up around the personalities of those in my family, as if this would give me some sort of answer to who I was, considering I didn’t look like anyone. Biracial kids like me are usually a patchwork of identities — “mother’s eyes, dad’s hair,” and that’s about as close as we get. I looked at the traits of my father and saw plenty of overlap: the dry humor, the affinity for cheese, the attention to detail, the love of reading. I drew comfort from that. But what distressed me was that I saw very little from my grandmother or mother, the two Puerto Rican women that nurtured, and were selfless, and giving in ways that I didn’t know how to be.

After Benny’s death, I began to suspect I was more like my grandfather than I had realized. We both have the tendency to take love away, to be warm initially, and then remove the affection without much warning, the kind of rip associated with a Band-Aid. I remember him turning cold to me often — calling me a princess and then telling me I would be fat if I kept eating Snickers bars, or suddenly growing impatient with me in a store and handing me over to my mother. I think of myself, how I lose interest in people, how when they would reach out to me, I often turn away. This realization triggered another memory:

I’m brought back to my grandmother’s funeral, in the Old San Juan cemetery that overlooked the colorful shacks by the ocean that she grew up in (La Perla, the most beautiful slums in the world, they called it). The day was cloudy but hot, and I stood facing the water, trying not to cry because I was standing next to my mother, and I wanted to give her strength. I was 17 years old. I loved Puerto Rico for the ocean, for its dishes dotted with avocado, for the way I could see girls that had wide noses and short statures just like me. I felt connected to the island, even in this deeply sad moment. I turned to look at my grandfather, who had not been married to my grandmother for many years, and I watched him walk away from the crowd, stare at that same ocean, and cry. It was the first time I felt connected to him, and most likely the last.

When you lose somebody you aren’t sure about, you think about what that person leaves behind. In some ways, my grandfather left me behind long before, with no answers to who I was or where I came from, and in some ways, he showed me those things. When I visit Puerto Rico, I don’t always feel biracial. I feel at home. And when I live my life in New York, I don’t always feel at home, but perhaps that is the biracial way. I will always be both. I will always look white. I will always be safer because I look white, and when people find more about who I really am, sometimes they like me a bit less. I am also never quite sure where I fit in, but when I find little pieces of my home, I know it. Biracial kids find those little pieces everywhere. I find it in coconuts, in Irish beer, in mangoes, in my Irish grandmother’s tuna melts, in Boricua! and four-leaf clovers and in Washington Heights (my mother’s birthplace) and the Bronx (my father’s).

Funny thing is, I live in a Puerto Rican neighborhood now. One night, I walked past a local baseball game. A bunch of older men are sitting, Puerto Rican flag hats and all, and I think of my grandfather’s dear love for baseball. I look up into the sky, maybe for answers, and I feel my eyes well up. I walk away from the crowd, and I let one tear fall. I may not be sure how I feel about my grandfather, but I am sure I bring a piece of him with me, even now.

Maybe I will fit those pieces somewhere whole one day and maybe I will not, but for now, the pieces are enough.

Adapted from YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIKE ME: Essays on Growing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding Feminism by Alida Nugent. To be published on October 20 by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Alida Nugent.

Losing My Grandfather — and Part of My Heritage