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.
Every Saturday afternoon my mother would take me and my two younger sisters to visit my grandparents who were living at that time in a two-story duplex on a dead-end street marked by more potholes than properties. Massive long-haired trees masked most of the homes, which gave the street a certain aura of reclusiveness.
While most kids would loiter and play on the street, I was busying myself with the rocks on the driveway. I would idle, observe, and toss them indiscriminately 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 thinly carpeted 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 was dotted with tiny black spots and was more round than angular than the other rocks. The contrast couldn’t be more striking. It had a smooth surface, glistening even under the weak sun that day. A space rock? Or perhaps it was a vanity rock produced for a specialty boutique or flower shop. Whatever it was, I had named it Dalmatian Rock after its dark spots on its bleach-white surface. This one was a keeper. 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 away 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 contemplated climbing over the fence behind the dead-end sign to see if there were any cool-looking rocks or plantation, but there were too many branches and weeds sticking through it, making my mission a potentially perilous one.
By the time my grandfather entered the home, a taxi had 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 playing loudly. Driving was my uncle Victor, one of my grandfather’s youngest sons, accompanied by an attractive lady donning a splashy, 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 had 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.
“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 that decorated its walls was an early black-and-white photo of Papa Moïse accompanied by his wife sitting on a armchair holding their firstborn, a baby girl. The framed photograph revealed an unsmiling man with chiseled good looks, one exuding an unshakeable confidence.
* * *
After my grandmother had passed away from cancer, Papa Moïse, in his early 90’s, 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 sadly 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 early the black-and-white photo from his home on Saranac street while staring at the one before me … and the contrast couldn’t be more striking.