By Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter
I am making pasta sauce from scratch, and, in doing so, I’m stirring up a family ghost. The man I see comes from an Italian family. He misses his mother’s cooking, the smell of marinara—the smell of home. I want to offer him this, and, in some way, prove my domesticity to him. I have a history of trying to show men that I can make a home and care for them, which has earned me criticism from my feminist friends, but I can’t help it. Something makes me feel that a man is always on the brink of leaving. That if I try harder, if I do better, he will stay; he will be good to me; he will love me.
I call my grandmother for her recipe. It is the recipe of her father—a man I never knew, the family ghost—the same one from whom all of her other Italian recipes come. He is the reason why my grandmother is who she is; why she puts so much emphasis on family; why she feels so easily abandoned by each of us; why she is stronger and fiercer and occasionally scarier than any man I’ve ever known. She is like a tree, planted as far into the ground as she stands above it. She cannot be moved, or bent, or broken. When a tree is wounded, it either gives up and dies, or it grows over the wound. Her husband, my grandfather, had a favorite tree in the woods behind their home. I think of it now and am reminded of my grandmother. Lumpy was the named he crafted for it. He taught me the name in English first, then in Spanish. Grumoso. Lumpy looked like it had a nose as big as a basketball. My grandfather said the tree had been damaged when it was young. Perhaps it had been cut, hit by lighting, or just snapped by the force of a strong wind. After losing its limb, the tree grew thicker and stronger at the point of injury, forming a lump that masked its past. This tree is my grandmother.
I coat the pan in a thick layer of olive oil and begin to dice the garlic and onions. My grandmother’s kitchen was never one for baking like other grandmothers’ kitchens. Hers was of the savory, not the sweet. Hers was one of spices and sauces that she calls “gravy,” olive oil, cheeses, meats, and pastas.
As I smell the garlic begin to sauté—the fleshy parts of the pressed cloves turning golden, the thinner areas around the edges beginning to char—I imagine my grandmother’s kitchen on a cold day in December, just before Christmas, roughly forty-five years ago. The door to my grandparents’ home opened directly into a tiny 7’ by 5’ kitchen (including counter, sink, and refrigerator space). On that day, her missing father knocked on the door, and my grandmother answered. I imagine her standing in shock, a thin white dish-towel thrown over her shoulder, as her four little ones, Catherine, Nanette (my mother), Jerry, and Johnny all peeked from behind her to see this man at the door. He was wearing a Santa costume, beard and all. My mother and her siblings, all born within five years of one another, still believed in Santa Claus. They spent a few moments introducing themselves, and then my grandmother made them say their goodbyes and closed the kitchen door. They never saw the man, this Santa, again, but my mother remembered feeling so special that Santa had come to her house while none of the other children in the neighborhood had gotten a visit. She didn’t realize, until over thirty years later, that the man in the Santa costume at her front door that day was actually her grandfather.
My grandmother assumed for years that her father was dead. Then, that December afternoon, my great-grandfather showed up in a Santa suit on her doorstep. She never told her children it was their grandfather. She never mentioned it to anyone. She continued to believe he was dead. Maybe she wanted so badly for him to be dead.
My grandmother grew up on Chicago’s West Side in the forties, in neighborhoods that were made up primarily of first or second-generation Italian families. It was a different city than the Chicago I live in today, where some of her old neighborhoods are the stomping grounds of hipsters wearing overpriced clothes made to look vintage and riding expensive fixed-gear bicycles. She’s taken me on tours of her old neighborhoods, shown me her old homes, many no longer standing. She lived in the basement apartments of most of these buildings, apartments that often housed rats in addition to her parents and their five children. Her father would sit in his recliner and smoke cigarettes, ashing them on the armrest. He was “in business” with a series of grocery stores around the West Side and was supposedly a trained butcher. I’ve always thought he was better trained at conning than butchery. He would work at these stores for a time, embezzle money, gamble it away, and disappear. Threatening men came to their door looking for him and they moved to avoid these men whom my great-grandfather cheated. The family also moved frequently because they couldn’t pay rent. Eviction was common.
My grandmother was the second youngest of her siblings, and one of only three who learned how to read and write. She was forced to drop out of school at fifteen, and began working at a greeting card factory with her mother, hoping that with their two small incomes they could afford rent and groceries for the family. They hid their money, but when the time came to pay the rent, the stash still managed to disappear and my great-grandfather along with it.
Not long after she began working, my grandmother met my grandfather. It is a romantic love story but also one of chance and practicality that so many love stories leave out. It is head and heart, not one or the other. They worked in factories that backed up to one another, where employees took breaks for fresh air or cigarettes on the fire escapes. For weeks my grandparents would wave to one another—a way of flirting without language—before they actually met. Then, one day, my great-grandmother spotted my grandfather in a small cafeteria under one of the factory buildings where workers often took their lunches. He was sitting at a table by himself, wearing a wine-colored shirt that brought out the olive complexion of his Spanish ancestry. My great-grandmother demanded that her daughter speak to him. My grandmother was shy at first, but eventually, she and my great-grandmother sat with my grandfather who spoke only a handful of English words. Soon, they began dating, were married, and shortly after, my grandmother gave birth to my aunt, the first of their four children, before she turned seventeen.
My grandmother is proof against the saying that women marry their fathers. She had been seeing another boy when she met my grandfather, a boy by the name of Billy Williams who was more like her father. My grandfather, on the other hand, was a shy and gentle man. He worked two or three jobs, and sent most of the money he made home to take care of his parents and sisters in Mexico. He was honest, hardworking, smart, and capable of love. Most of all, his mother was his best friend, and he respected women. “Billy used to yell at his mother all the time,” my grandmother told me recently when we were discussing the early stages of her relationship with my grandfather. “But your Papa,” she said, “he loved his mother more than anything in the world. You have to find a man who loves his mother. If he is good to his mother he will be good to you.”
I crack the ribs with a knife. They are tough, and the bones splinter a little. My grandmother says you can’t put the ribs in the sauce whole, but instead you must break them to expose the marrow. The broken pieces add to the flavor. “Ask the butcher to crack them for you when you buy them,” she says. I choose not to, finding something satisfying about breaking them open myself.
We had been driving for hours and the air inside of the red Chevy pickup was stuffy. My grandfather and I were sitting in the backseat, our knees touching the front seats. We were on our way to visit him, my great-grandfather. It had been an emotional few days, and I had laid awake in a hotel in Cincinnati most of the night before. As we sat, crammed in the cab of the truck, I silently questioned my great-grandmother’s actions. My grandmother tried her best to defend her mother but the conversation turned into an argument, and it ended with both of us solemnly looking out our respective windows, wondering when the ride would be over.
It wasn’t just the money-stealing, the laziness, the scamming that made my great-grandfather a bad man. He was also abusive, a cheater and a drunk. He beat his children, but, mostly, he beat his wife. My grandmother defends her mother by saying my great-grandmother took the brunt of the abuse, protecting her children by sending them to bed and dealing with his wrath on her own. But, when he hit all of them, my great-grandmother couldn’t protect them. For that, I cannot look at her in the saintly way that my grandmother does. Instead I see her as a coward and wonder why she didn’t leave him. She was the one keeping them alive and fed, she was the one raising the children. There was nothing he was providing them that they could not do without. Why didn’t my great-grandmother pack up her children and leave? If she was afraid he might find them, why didn’t she change their names and move far away? My great-grandmother loved him—she must have—and that made her weak. My grandmother saw her mother as this martyr, but all I see is a bad mother, someone selfish enough to put her children in danger so she wouldn’t have to be without a husband, a coward who was afraid that a man was always on the brink of leaving.
I was trying to understand the abuse. It was obvious my great-grandfather was guilty, but I wanted someone else to blame. There was too much damage for there not to be another at fault. I remember my great-grandmother at eighty, in her wheelchair, surrounded by her horde of cats, dying. I remember the tenderness my grandmother showed her mother in those last years when I was very young, too young to know the kind of lives they’d lived, and the things they’d seen and experienced together.
I didn’t care that my great-grandfather had finally left her in the early sixties. I didn’t care that my great-grandmother had suffered bruises and broken bones at his hands. I didn’t care that she had contracted STDs from him. I didn’t care that she found another man after he left, and that this second man also beat her, and that he forced her to sever the relationships she had with her children so that when he died, and she was so frail and had nobody, the daughters she’d cast off were the only ones there to care for her in the end. I didn’t care that she eventually died from the toll all of these things had taken on her body, that, in a way, my great-grandfather had killed her.
I am angry at myself for caring so little about this woman because I know if it weren’t for her, my grandmother would have never met my grandfather, and she would have never gotten away from that life. If it weren’t for my great-grandmother demanding her daughter eat lunch with my grandfather in that cafeteria under the factory, my grandmother might have repeated her mother’s mistakes. My great-grandmother did something right by her daughter. She didn’t let her repeat her mistakes.
After adding the cracked spare ribs, I stir in another can of tomato paste and spices, and then I let the sauce simmer for a few hours. My stove looks as though someone has been slaughtered on it. Red sauce is splattered all over it, on the wall behind it, and on the floor. The contents of the pot bubble and spit, and I try to keep it all contained, but the effort is futile. When air is trapped within the sauce and rises to the surface, you have to let it escape. You have to boil it down to eliminate the excess, to leave only what is necessary.
Decades went by, and I grew up watching her cook in that tiny kitchen, knowing these recipes were her father’s, knowing he’d disappeared, listening to her talk about looking for him, finding him, wanting to be sure of what happened to him, be sure of where he ended up. So when I was in middle school, armed with the fairly new technology of the Internet, I went searching for my great-grandfather, hoping I could kill this ghost in the kitchen once and for all.
For years I found nothing of him. I’d spend hours looking then stumble upon a lead, only to get an email back from the distant relative letting me know that they also had not heard from him since he’d disappeared. I was told by one to look at the bottom of Lake Michigan. “Got himself a pair of cement boots,” he said to the thirteen-year-old looking for her great-grandfather. “It wouldn’t surprise me,” said another. I looked for several years for him, to no avail. I showed my grandmother the different ancestry sites I’d been using and taught her how to search them. “I found him,” she called one night, sounding relieved and terrified at the same time, like a child.
She’d found him in Cincinnati. All these years, he’d been only a few states away. He had never even bothered to change his name. He’d started over, met a woman, got a job, had a son, and smoked himself to death. We discovered he’d died only a few years before we found him, and that he’d outlived my great-grandmother.
He named his son with this new woman after himself, giving him the same name he’d given to his firstborn son with my great-grandmother, my grandmother’s eldest brother. My mother and I helped my grandmother draft an e-mail to his widow, explaining who she was, and that she wondered if they could talk. They corresponded for a year or two, until we were invited to see where my great-grandfather was buried and to meet my grandmother’s stepmother and half-brother. There were a lot of things we learned on that trip that should have upset my grandmother, things that would have upset me had I learned them about my father. My great-grandfather had lived there since the day he left Chicago. He’d held down a job, never cheated, or gambled, or stole money. He’d said he had no family, never mentioned a wife and children. He was not abusive. I wondered if he had really made the best of his second chance. I thought it would hurt my grandmother since her father was for this woman and this child what he wasn’t for her mother and their family. But instead she looked at peace with it all. She had loved this horrible man, whether he deserved it or not, and the fact he’d found happiness is what let him stop haunting her.
My great-grandfather was the ghost in my grandmother’s kitchen, but he is not the ghost in mine. As I stir this sauce, I feel the ribs at the bottom of the pot, and I don’t know what else to do.
My grandmother seemed restless as we pulled up to the plot, her legs rocking back and forth. She was the first out of the vehicle and hurried to the headstone, her sister not far behind her. My mother, grandfather, and great-uncle stood back on the curb, letting them have their moment with him. I took a few steps up the slope of a small hill, and took a seat in the grass. When they approached the plot, they seemed to exhale in unison as they read his name inscribed on the stone. It was really him, dead. My grandmother slipped her hand into her older sister’s. “It’s Daddy,” my great-aunt said.
It has been quite a few years since my grandmother found her father. His widow died not long after our visit, and my grandmother fell out of contact with her half-brother. I think finding my great-grandfather brought my grandmother necessary closure. However, it stirred up my own ghost, the ghost of my great-grandmother.
I have never been hit, but I fear it. I don’t fear the physicality of being hit, instead I fear that I might be someone who would tolerate abuse, if it meant a man might stay. It is an admittance that tenses my shoulders, raises the hair on my arms, and makes me feel cold. I have been in relationships where the man used me for a place to live, for sex, for money. I knew better, but I let it happen because I was afraid of being alone, and it makes me hate myself. I hate my great-grandmother for my own guilt because I’m afraid I am just like her. I cannot tell my grandmother that the acceptance of abuse will end with her mother because I cannot look at her and tell her I am as strong as she is and will not make the same mistakes her mother did.
Like Grumoso, a branch of the family tree, when damaged, can grow stronger. The rest of the tree, however, is no less susceptible to the elements.
Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter, a native of the Chicago suburbs, holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago where she is Coordinator of Graduate Admissions & Services. Her essays have appeared in Animal Literary Magazine, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine and The North Branch. She can do a one-handed pushup, has potty trained a wombat, and owns over 200 pairs of shoes.