For years, my grandfather’s life could be boiled down to the two most lasting impressions he left upon my mother. The first occurred when she was 10. She and her sisters were sitting around the kitchen table eagerly awaiting the eggs he was preparing at the stove. They were my mom’s favorite: sunnyside up. But as her egg journeyed from pan to plate, its delicate skin ruptured, depriving my mother the delight of puncturing the yolk herself.
The next egg arrived, flawlessly cast, and as any jealous sibling would, my mother reached over and poked her fork into the perfect yellow dome atop her sister’s plate. Naturally, her sister began to cry, to which my grandfather responded by clearing the table of everyone except my mother. “You want eggs?” he told her, in his German-inflected Spanish. “I’ll give you eggs.” And he proceeded to cook egg after egg for my mother, forcing her to eat them until she was so pale and green that my grandmother screamed at him to stop.
The other story that endured was of my grandfather’s reaction when my mother, at age 16, lost his paycheck. He asked her to pick it up for him at his workplace, which wasn’t far from the small house they rented in the town of Bauta, outside Havana, Cuba. When she returned, one of her sisters mentioned that a boy my mother liked had just passed by. My mother sprinted outside to catch sight of him, taking no notice of where she placed the check. That night, when her father asked for the slip of paper that barely covered their food and rent for the week, she couldn’t find it. They spent at least an hour searching for it, and although the check turned up safe under a seat cushion, my grandfather, in scolding my mother that evening, threw her into a chest of drawers and broke her nose.
For nearly four decades, that was how I knew my grandfather. He died about a dozen years before I was born, at age 56, most likely of a stroke. In many ways, I was glad not to have known this severe, rigid man. Though perhaps if he had survived until my birth, my mother would not have felt so free to tell me the truth about him.
The only picture I had ever seen of him frightened me. It was probably one of his last photos, and it seemed to have been taken without his notice. In it he is rising from a chair. His eyes—full-lidded and heavy—are focused somewhere off to the left outside the picture frame; his dark, tanned arms offset by fingers so thick, they resemble cigars. He is wearing a white t-shirt with a glasses case in the front pocket, and a melancholic expression. His cheeks are slack, but his forehead tight, with deep lines arching from temple to temple.
When I initially learned my German-born abuelo was half Jewish, a fact he actively hid from those who knew him in Cuba, I became intensely curious about him. In more recent conversations I’ve learned he was also intelligent and generous. He spoke four languages, loved classical music. Could there have been more to his temperament than his own family realized? It’s a question I’ve been attempting to answer for nearly four years.
At first I thought I had a memoir on my hands. But there was so much I didn’t know—so much that was unknowable about mi abuelo, mein opa, my grandfather. It seemed the only way to reach him across time and space, the only way to understand something approaching the truth, was through fiction.