by Jeff Oaks

The grandmother I never knew was a lovely woman, everyone said. Unlike her husband, the grandfather who died a month after I was conceived. He was a bastard, apparently. It was unclear what had happened between the two of them, only that he was the one at fault. He was a monster, my mother said more than once, a control freak, mean.

Vesta was a dear person, says everyone. Although the story also is that she was often sick and depressed in some way–manic-depressed, clinically depressed, or suffering from postpartum depression. I’ve asked and asked but no one seems to really know the truth anymore. Maybe they never did.

I’m suspicious when everyone says something like “what an angel” about a person I’ve never met. I know that Vesta travelled with my mother by train to Chicago to marry my father, that she was the only other woman there at the ceremony at Scott Air Force Base. That she stayed with them, in their small apartment, during their honeymoon. “Imagine,” my mother said, “I’m on my honeymoon and there’s my mother-in-law in the next room!”

I know the story that once, in her illness, she apparently got out onto the roof of their two story house, and my grandfather Albert climbed out after her. She walked off the roof and landed unhurt. He broke his leg trying to catch her.

(My father liked the story, I remember. It had something of a moral to it: the unconscious are protected, the anxious are punished. It justified a whole way of life he had.)

Was it a suicide attempt? Was she simply delirious, over-medicated, hallucinated?

One of the saddest things I learned about my father–so late! but at least I learned it!–was that he was, at least once, tied to the porch “like a dog” as a child. “He never got over that,” my mother said in an unguarded moment not long ago. “Why would he?” I asked, not understanding why she thought he should’ve. Was something going on inside the house? No one knows. No one ever will now. If my mother hadn’t blurted out this bit of information, no one would’ve known even that; her only son tied to the porch like a dog. My sad father who was such a monster to us, who loved his mother enormously and who said in a letter only that he’d had a wonderful childhood and gave no details. What did he see in the kitchen while he was tied up outside it?

I used to catch a nervous tension in him and in his sisters, all of them chain smokers, all of them hard drinkers like most adults were in the 60s and 70s. They were always ready for something to happen. I never trusted their laughter, which broke out of them too loudly. I never understood a thing, I think now, about them, raised children of a monster and a saint. And everywhere around us, butane lighters, sulfurous matches, briquettes in the barbecues reeking of kerosene, ready to burst into flame. The careful touching of old cigarette smolder to new cigarette to keep the fire lit, the hands occupied, the lungs full.

Vesta at the hearth, stirring the fire. The eldest sister of Jupiter, the first one swallowed by her father Saturn, the gentlest of all of them, the keeper of the warmth at the heart of the home. The angel in the kitchen. The saint against which everyone else was a falling off.

She stays at a distance I don’t trust. Not that she’s at fault, but that the whole family never spoke of her as anything other than lovely. No wonder she didn’t hurt herself falling off the roof. She seems not to have been there at all in the first place.

And yet, and yet, as anyone who’s read any, even the smallest scrap of feminist thinking, would think. There had to have been someone there once. Before she became a quality, a thing, like warmth and light and love. Just as her husband became a monster, capable of nothing good.