My grandfather, Papa Moïse (pronounced mo-eez, the French equivalent of “Moses”), as he was affectionately known, didn’t like me playing on his gravel driveway.
There was a time, when I was between eight and ten years old, when my mom took me and my two younger sisters every Saturday afternoon to visit my grandparents on Saranac street. I would often end up on their driveway, idling, observing, and indiscriminately tossing the rocks onto the pavement, sometimes clustering them into groups and pitting them against each other in a crude battle of war. I would play there until Papa Moïse made his presence on the porch; he didn’t have to say much to get me out of there — his look spoke volumes. It was time for me to go.
My grandfather wasn’t an imposing man, but the patriarch of the Benlolo family, who’d emigrated from the rustic neighborhoods of Morocco in the early 70’s with his young family, was a towering figure in the eyes of his children and grandchildren. His horned-rimmed glasses magnified his already big brown eyes and was always seen in dressy pants.
* * *
On one Saturday afternoon, I had found an odd-looking rock hugging the edge of the driveway. It had a smooth surface, glistening even under the weak sun that day. I had named it “Dalmatian Rock” for its tiny black spots on its bleach-white surface.
When compared to the other rocks, the contrast couldn’t be more striking.
I was ecstatic as I was going to showcase it as part of my geology project the following week. But before I had a chance to tuck it in my pocket, I heard the porch behind me squeak — he was there. I impulsively tossed the rock back into the rubble and scurried like a frightened squirrel.
I ended up off the premises, wandering aimlessly near the end of the road, avoiding eye contact with my grandfather. I had thought of climbing the fence behind the dead-end sign to see if there were any cool-looking rocks or plantation, but too many prickly branches would have made my mission a perilous one.
By the time my grandfather had entered the home, a taxi arrived to pick us up. This was my chance to retrieve the rock and bring her home. My mom yelled at me to get in the cab. I would have to wait until the following week to look for the rock. As the cab drove off, I stared glumly through the rear window, my eyes unfocused at the checkered black-and-yellow Dead End sign.
* * *
The following Saturday, the rock was nowhere to be found. I combed the driveway, spending nearly an hour looking for it. It was clear that I was not going to see it again. It began to rain and Papa Moïse was due to arrive soon from the synagogue. It was going to be another dull Saturday indoors.
A black two-seat convertible Spit Fire drove up in front of the home. The 1980’s hit song from Duran Duran, “Hungry Like a Wolf” was booming from the radio. Driving was my uncle Victor, one of my grandfather’s youngest sons, accompanied by an attractive lady donning a vividly colored blouse. Victor had an enviable head of hair that reached halfway down his neck and he was what I called a “super greeter;” that is, his eyes would light up and greet you with unbridled excitement, whether you were a family member or close friend. I soon found out that most of my uncles aunts shared this trait.
“Hey buddy! That’s my nephew,” he proudly pointed out to his girlfriend. “Are you studying to be a Rock-ologist or something? I saw you play on the driveway.”
“I think you meant to say a Geologist, his girlfriend said while shaking her head in dismay.
“Yeah, you think I didn’t know that?! Rock-ologist sounds much cooler. Listen Buddy, can you do me a quick favor; can you bring me me my hair dryer that’s on the kitchen table?” he asked.
“Ok, I’ll be back.”
Once inside, I took a shortcut through the dining room. Among the numerous wedding portraits, baby pictures, and Judaic paintings on the wall was an early black-and-white photograph of Papa Moïse accompanied by his wife sitting on a armchair holding their firstborn, a baby girl. The photo revealed an unsmiling man with chiseled good looks that exuded an unshakeable confidence.
* * *
After my grandmother had passed away from cancer, Papa Moïse was no longer the person I had known. He softened, replacing his stern look with smiles, laughs, and tear-less cries. Nothing had fazed him when my grandmother was alive, but now that he was without her, he had become sensitive to even the most trivial of things, like loud thunderstorms or getting news that one of his grandchildren was going to be late visiting him. The once stoic man that I knew was showing his true colors, and they were warm and vibrant. I couldn’t help but feel relieved that he had a tender core. I had the urge to call him by his first name — Moïse, or Mo.’
I hated watching the news back then. But watching it with Papa Moïse — one of his favorite programs — grew on me. It was like watching the cartoons with a young child; you got to appreciate it that much more in their presence. Like the news, my grandfather grew on me, and I’m pretty sure I started to grow on him, too.
At 93, Papa Moïse passed away of natural causes.
One day, I was waiting at my uncle’s salon to get my hair trimmed. While glossing over the pages of a National Geographic magazine, I looked to the wall behind where my uncle was working and noticed a more recent photograph of my grandfather. He was smiling ear-to-ear, his face bathed in warm sunlight.
I recalled the early the black-and-white photo from his home on Saranac street while staring at the one before me.
The contrast couldn’t be more striking.