“Grandpa’s Glasses” by Carol Otte
Two months before my sixteenth birthday, Grandpa mailed me a pair of his old glasses. The black leather case was cracked and worn. Inside I found clunky black frames which might have been fashionable decades ago. Dust specks coated the lenses like an accumulation of years made visible.
“Why would he send you those old things?” Mom said. “They belong in the trash.”
“Maybe they’re valuable,” I said.
“More likely he just couldn’t stand to throw anything out, so he sent them to you. You know Grandpa.”
I clutched the case protectively. “They might have some special family history behind them.”
Maybe I could sense the magic in them, but more likely I acted on reflex. Mom hated anything dirty, old, or out of place. Over the years she’d thrown away pine cones, meticulously decorated paper airplanes, school art projects, letters, and old birthday cards. We still fought over comfortable old sweaters and childhood stuffed animals I wasn’t ready to part with.
But Mom knew I treasured any gift from Grandpa, no matter how odd. We’d always been close, and as I hit my awkward teen years and thought I’d never master the art of being a girl, his steady acceptance meant everything to me. Mom agreed to let me keep the glasses until we could ask Grandpa why he sent them. I never got the chance. He died of a heart attack before I saw him again.
Grandpa left me fourteen more pairs of glasses in his will. I could tell from the variety of cases and lens styles that they’d belonged to many different people. Some of the cases were plain and weatherbeaten like Grandpa’s. These offset the colorful ones: beaded macrame, paisley cloth, bright red plastic. An inlaid mother-of-pearl goldfish swam across one especially fancy black lacquer case. The frames ranged from simple wire-rims to ornate lavender ones, and the lenses varied in shape and thickness. One small pair must have belonged to a child.
Ever since I was a kid, I’d played something I called the spot game. I would close one eye, focus my other eye on a single speck of dust, and watch the speck while I drew my glasses toward my face. The speck would slowly blur beyond all recognition, then disappear completely. The moments of transition from discrete shape to blurred blob to invisibility always fascinated me.
I took out Grandpa’s clunky old glasses and played the spot game. The dust speck blurred as usual, but instead of vanishing, it grew and grew until it encompassed everything I saw. I fell into the dust.
A boy (me) (not me) stands ankle-deep in a mud puddle, holding a wriggling worm. Another boy (Uncle Albert) (my brother) shrieks in glee. I chase him, laughing and splattering muddy water under the hot summer sun. I catch him and we wrestle. I threaten to put the worm down his shirt. He screams in mock terror.
The moment passed, leaving me in my own room. I took the glasses off, my hands shaking so hard I nearly dropped them. The speck of dust I had chosen to watch was gone. I know that sounds like an impossible claim, but I had a capacity for noticing small details, and I’d been playing the spot game since I was a child. I knew which dust speck I had chosen, and it had vanished.
I tried it again, choosing a different pair.
I look up at the night sky. The grand expanse of light fills me with deep awe. The stars came before me and will endure after me. My little sister is with me. I show her how to find the Big Dipper and trace the line to the North Star.
The vision faded. I had never seen the stars fill the sky so thick and bright. I wouldn’t have recognized the faint line of the Milky Way if I hadn’t seen it through Grandpa’s eyes.
Once again the speck of dust was gone. I’d just lived two moments of Grandpa’s life, and somehow those moments lay bound in the dust.
Grandpa left me a wonderful treasure, but he left Mom an apartment filled to bursting with random crap. That’s how Mom saw things, and even I had to admit she had a point. He’d stacked unlabeled boxes from floor to ceiling.
While Grandpa was still alive, Mom would have loved nothing better than to help him clean. Now that he was gone, she kept putting the job off. Mom, who I’d never seen procrastinate in her entire life. Intuitively I feared that my small box of leftovers would make an easier target. I had no place to hide them. Mom always found all my secret spots. I didn’t want to take them to school – what good would they do there? Nor did I have any friends close enough to trust with them.
I knew I’d have to fight for them or they’d disappear. I brought the box down to the kitchen and plopped it on the table in front of Mom. “I’m keeping these forever,” I said. “If you throw them away, I’ll never forgive you.”
“Honey, what are you going to do with them? I can’t even imagine how he ended up with them all. They’re just dirty old junk.”
“You never let me have things,” I said. My voice came out loud and shaky; I was trying very hard not to cry. “These belonged to Grandpa. I don’t see why I can’t ever just have anything. Why do you always ruin things?”
“I know you’re upset about Grandpa,” Mom said in a careful tone. I could hear the implied but. I forged on before she could say it aloud.
“Mom, please, just promise me! What harm will one box do?”
“Okay,” she said. Reluctance covered her face. “Since they’re from Grandpa. Go ahead and keep them if it’s that important to you.”
“Say it out loud,” I said. My voice trembled and my words came out louder and louder. “Promise me forever. Promise me you won’t sneak into my room a month from now and say you forgot, or you thought I wouldn’t mind, or that I’m too old for them now. You always lie! Promise me for real.”
“Don’t raise your voice to me,” Mom snapped, and things went downhill from there. I don’t remember everything I said, only that I shouted until my face turned red and threw every last missing pine cone in her face. I stomped off to my room and bawled into my pillow from a bewildering mix of rage and shame.
I’d never yelled at Mom like that before. She gave me everything. Clothes, a computer desk, a bookshelf full of my own books, framed pieces of art which I had been allowed to pick out myself. She worked hard as a real estate agent to support me. Her sharp mind never forgot an interest rate or a client’s name. Her high heels always made a brisk snapping noise as she walked, and I was sure if I could hear her thoughts they’d sound just the same. Clack clack clack, one two three, make the deal and keep on moving.
But I knew she loved me. It wasn’t her fault we were so different. Hours later I slunk downstairs and told her I was sorry. I was still angry, but I couldn’t bear to be at odds with her. To my astonishment, she apologized too and gave me her promise.
For two weeks I did nothing. I held two thoughts in my head: that I could use the glasses to visit Grandpa whenever I wanted, and that the visions were just a fantasy. In reality the grief of his loss was too new and raw for me to poke at.
But one morning I woke with tears on my face yet also filled with a sense of warmth, a memory of his kindness. I had to be close to him. I picked another pair and found myself sharing the first bite of a juicy ripe peach.
After that, I used the glasses most mornings. The visions showed me primarily everyday moments, but the sort which are precious and treasured despite their ordinary nature. I sat with Grandpa at the family table while his father carved the Sunday roast. I watched a newborn foal take its first steps. I tussled with my brother on the winter’s first snowfall.
Then one morning I stumbled across a rougher part of Grandpa’s life. When he was young, he’d worked for two years as a coal miner. I joined him underground.
I crawl on hands and knees through a side tunnel to set an explosive charge. If the coal vein runs narrow, the tunnel runs narrow, and that’s just how things are. Only the coal gets pulled out of the mountain. No one’s going to blast away worthless rock just so miners can have room to walk upright. The weight of the mountain presses down on me, but as long as I stay focused, I’m fine.
A low boom shakes the earth, and my throat closes in raw panic. The tunnel vibrates as if an earthquake is shaking the ground, but more likely it’s a methane explosion. Pebbles strike my helmet. I have no room to turn, but I can’t stay here. I wriggle backwards as fast as I can. My friends (my Jason) could be dying, could be burned to a crisp and already gone.
I came back short of breath and unnerved. I knew mining was dangerous work, but Grandpa never said anything about being in an accident. I didn’t even recognize Jason’s name.
I had to find out more. By now I’d realized that each pair of glasses showed visions linked to the original owner. That first pair had actually belonged to my Uncle Albert, not to Grandpa. I put the same pair on again. I didn’t end up underground, though.
Sunlight filters gently through young spring leaves. After being underground so much, the fresh air feels heady as wine.
Jason (Janet) is with me. (No, Jason. It’s better if I think of him that way, so I don’t give him away. Besides, Jason says he’s a man at heart, even though he has a woman’s body underneath those floppy clothes.)
The trees shield us from prying eyes. Jason says, “Shall we have some fun?”
I nod, and he reaches for my zipper.
For a moment the sensations drew me along: Jason’s smell against the sharp tang of pine needles, the rich spring air, the sun on his hair as he bent down. But I didn’t want to feel those things, not in relation to my own grandfather and in truth, not at all. For the first time, my own sense of self broke through the vision before its natural completion. I tore the glasses from my face.
I sat there shaking from a strange mix of confusion and betrayal. In Grandpa’s time, coal mines wouldn’t hire women, but as I sorted through the leftover snatches of memory, I realized that Jason hadn’t merely been passing in order to find work. He’d thought of himself as male.
And Grandpa hadn’t cared. If Jason had been born a man, he still wouldn’t have cared. When Jason reached for him, he’d been thinking of other times.
Grandpa had touched men too.
If I’d known while he was still here, I would have been proud of him. Instead I felt a growing fury that he’d kept silent all his life and left me to face this all alone.
Every morning at school the locker doors slammed and everyone talked at once and somehow the only words that cut through all that babble were the bad ones kids used to cut each other down. In one school in Minnesota four kids killed themselves in a single year because of those words, but the school administration said it was because they were gay.
But that had nothing to do with me. I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t straight either. Whatever fire had sparked in my classmates had failed to kindle in me. I was nothing. Nada. Zilch. Empty.
Sometimes I thought of school as a battlefield. I knew that was stupidly self-indulgent, because no one was my enemy and no one was hurting me. I told myself that even if people knew, they mostly wouldn’t care. The nicer kids would laugh, the meaner ones would call me frigid or bitch, and maybe some guys would say I needed a good fucking to set me straight. But no one would really hurt me, because I wasn’t doing anything anyone objects to. Still, on bad days that’s how I thought.
But that morning I strode through the doors full of confidence. An edge of anger lay under everything I did. It spurred me to recklessness, which in practice meant I looked people in the eye and spoke audibly with no mumbling. To my surprise, people liked me that way. Kids who usually ignored me smiled and said hello.
I made it through morning classes and lunch period, and no one even noticed that anything was wrong. In fifth period I asked for a restroom pass. My friend Amanda must have asked for one too, because a few minutes later she showed up. The room was empty except for us.
Amanda wore her hair cropped short and dressed like a boy. She favored plaid flannel shirts, worn jeans, and big clunky hiking boots. Actually, the boys didn’t dress like that. She wore an exaggerated imitation of boy’s clothing, like she was doing it on purpose.
A couple of months earlier, I’d kissed a boy and hadn’t liked it at all. After that I tried hard to convince myself of two things. First, that I might be gay and second, that Amanda wasn’t attracted to me anyway. I liked my friends just fine, but I often felt a veil lay between us, as if I was only half there. Amanda and I traded little touches, secret looks, and jokes no one else got.
She sneaked a look at the door and hastily said, “I really like you.”
“Me too,” I said.
“You know, as more than a friend.”
Although I knew it was stupid, I said, “I don’t think I’m like that, but we could find out. Do you want to kiss?”
I’d never spoken so boldly. It felt good to take the brakes off, but a sinking feeling in my stomach told me I was doing something stupid. Amanda’s face wrinkled in uncertainty.
“Are you –” she asked, but she couldn’t finish.
“I don’t think so, but we could try.”
My response wasn’t what she fantasized about, and I could see she didn’t really want to do it. I should have stopped things right there, but I was so tired of drifting passively through life.
“Come on, one kiss. Then we’ll know for sure.”
Kissing her was better than kissing a boy. Her lips were soft and hesitant, and I felt so much relief that she let me take control. I put just the tip of my tongue in her mouth.
Nothing and less than nothing. I pulled back and thought, I hope she can tell, I hope it was nothing for her too. Instead hope shone in her face along with confusion and hurt.
“I just don’t feel it. I’m sorry.”
Her face slowly crumpled. “I didn’t think you were the kind of person to toy with me like this,” she said, her voice shaking. She rushed out of the room. My face grew hot with shame. I wanted to run after her and explain that I wasn’t playing, but part of me said maybe I was.
I should have known better after what happened with Toby. He was the boy I kissed. Toby was smart, funny, and had curly black hair that he grew just a little too long. Sometimes he would look straight into my eyes and smile just a little, which gave me butterflies and made me think, maybe it’s finally happening.
On Valentine’s Day I gave him a card even though we’d never been on a date. His face lit up and I felt like the bravest girl in the world. He bought me bubble tea, held my hand, and at the end of the date he leaned forward and brushed his lips gently over mine.
One day after school I invited him over to watch a movie. Mom was out showing properties. Toby kissed me, but not like before. He grabbed me with both arms, mashed his lips firmly on mine, and shoved his tongue in my mouth like some wet slimy slug. I recoiled, but he gripped me harder, so I turned my head aside to break contact.
He laughed a little. “First kisses are always awkward. Let’s try that again.”
When he moved back in, I tried to control the angle so he couldn’t get his tongue in so deep. I overshot, and we met nose to cheek, lips to teeth. We tried twice more but I kept pulling back.
“This isn’t working,” he said, his voice dripping with resignation. He picked up his jacket. I hated kissing him, but I couldn’t bear the thought of him walking away.
“I really like you, it’s just that I’ve never done this before,” I said in a small voice.
“Oh! I didn’t realize.” He looked deep into my eyes and said with absolute sincerity, “We can take it slow.”
I never had anyone speak to me so tenderly before. My heart warmed. He leaned in again, and I met him fully, relaxed and trusting. He shoved his slimy tongue in again, and I froze. He doesn’t care if I like it, I thought, he just wants me to hold still. I couldn’t reconcile that thought with the tenderness in his voice.
He kissed me and kissed me until my lips felt like mashed hamburger. Whatever was supposed to happen when you liked a boy that made his tongue taste good never happened. I sneaked peeks at the clock above the TV. Mom would be home in half an hour and he’d have to stop. Then we could go back to being friends.
Eventually he stretched a hand down and grabbed my butt. I shoved his hand away. Being groped wasn’t gross like kissing, but I still didn’t want him to touch me that way. A few seconds later his hand crept back down for another squeeze.
Grab, shove. Grab, shove. Grab, shove.
I wish I could say I broke up with Toby, but in fact I dated that jackass for three weeks before he dumped me. He said I was boring and uptight. Now I’d pushed at Amanda the same way he pushed at me. My stomach churned, but I made myself finish out the day at school. I deserved to feel bad. I had alienated my best friend and it was my own fault.
Worse, maybe she never would have been so close to me if she knew the truth in the first place. Maybe that intimacy was stolen, intended only for those who touch skin to skin. My friends seemed like they were behind a veil, but maybe that’s all I would ever get.
I had no business feeling sorry for myself though. I had nothing at stake. In the paper I’d read about how some college students beat a gay boy so hard they cracked his skull and killed him. All day long whenever I started to feel sorry for myself, I thought of him to remind myself what a worthless coward I was.
When I got home, I went straight to my room so I could find out what happened in the mines. I had to know if Jason survived. All day I’d been angry at Grandpa, but I’d also wondered if something terrible happened to Jason. Maybe Grandpa didn’t talk about that part of his life because the past was too painful.
Mom sat at my computer desk with all the pairs of glasses laid out in front of her. She was holding a bottle of Windex. “They were dirty, so I cleaned them for you,” she said. She looked half hopeful and half defensive.
I couldn’t breathe.
“I replaced the cases too,” she said. She turned the box so I could see. Gone were all the beautiful and varied cases, and in their place were fourteen identical black plastic ones.
I wanted to rip into her. To hurl at her every cruel unfair thing I could think of. Warring with that was my desire to see this as a peace offering. The turmoil have shown in my face, because I could see her pulling away.
To keep her close, I said, “I miss Grandpa so much.” The words brought all my pent-up feelings out and I started to bawl so hard my whole body shook.
“Oh honey, I miss him too.” She sat on the bed and motioned for me to sit next to her. I did, and she lay an arm around my shoulders. I cried myself out and let Mom hug me. She shed a few tears herself.
Is it strange that I hid my anger so well? I wanted her embrace even though I was angry at her. Eventually my tears ground to a halt, I blew my nose and washed my face, and Mom left me in my room. I thought that was the end of the magic, but I was wrong.
When Mom said it was time to go through Grandpa’s apartment, I insisted on helping. She hesitated, perhaps afraid that she’d have to fight me over every stray bit of brick-a-brac, but in the end she couldn’t deny me my last chance to visit Grandpa’s things.
Grandpa lived most of his life in a rambling old farm house with a garage and two sheds, and he filled all his space to bursting. He loved ordinary things and things which last.
In his shed he kept a gallon mason jar filled with dark amber honey. I don’t know why he stored it outside instead of in the kitchen, but the slow freeze-and-thaw cycle had let the sugar crystals grow in large and intricate shapes. He solemnly told me that honey lasted for generations, and if the need ever arose, we could open up that jar and eat it. Grandpa collected barbed wire snippets. He said each manufacturer used a different pattern of twists and spikes, and he’d memorized them all. He kept a jar of coal from his time in the mines, and a jar of wheat grains from his brother’s first harvest. He told me the wheat wouldn’t sprout, but as long as he kept the jar closed tight, it wouldn’t mold either. He had fifty fish hooks, a multitude of tools he’d kept after he closed his welding shop, a spinning wheel, a drawer full of antique saws, obsolete radio parts, waterproof tarps, a wooden trunk, and five hand-carved wooden elephants.
Mom was ruthless, and I rarely tried to hold her back. Even I knew we couldn’t keep all of Grandpa’s things. We put aside his clothes for charity, along with his tools and a few other valuable items. Most of his possessions would end up in the city dump. I loaded box after box of unwanted treasures into our rented U-haul, their significance gone with Grandpa’s death.
I did spare a few things though. I found the jar of honey and couldn’t bear to think of it being smashed, so I put it by the curb with a sticky note saying “Hundred Year Honey.” I’ll never know if anyone had the nerve to clean off all that dust and rescue it. I hope so.
For myself I kept Grandpa’s jar of coal and a binder full of newspaper clippings I found behind a bookcase. I showed Mom the clippings, but I hid the coal, just in case.
I read the clippings that night in my room. I recognized many places and names from Grandpa’s memories. To my intense relief, I learned that no one died in the mine explosion. Two men had been seriously burned, but I didn’t recognize either of them. Jason wasn’t involved at all.
Jason did make the papers though. His time in the mines came to an end when an old schoolmate inadvertently outed him. The company fired him – a bit reluctantly, since he’d done a fair job. The paper ran multiple articles which covered Janet’s ordinary girlhood, decision to transform herself into Jason, and post-firing decision to continue dressing and living as a man. What astonished me was their tone of “Gosh-golly-isn’t-it-a-strange-old-world?”
There’s a saying that each generation thinks they’re the first to discover sex. But can you blame kids when adults are the ones who keep everything hidden? I had the vague idea that the gay rights movement started with the Stonewall riots, and every previous generation had things worse. This pre-WWII small town’s easy acceptance of someone who was essentially a transgender man didn’t match my preconceptions.
My anger at Grandpa flared up raw and hot. If people were more tolerant in your time than in mine, why did you live your whole life in silence and leave me to face this all alone?
Grandpa hadn’t lived in some perfect bubble of enlightenment though. I read more articles and found out how rough life was for the coal miners. Many of them died young, either due to accidents or due to the toll on their bodies. Later articles covered a labor strike in which management exploited racial tensions by bringing in an all-black strike-breaking crew. The best thing I can say of that incident was that it didn’t end as tragically as it could have.
All this served as a sharp reminder of how small my issues were compared to the struggles many people face. I once again started to berate myself for a selfish coward. Then I considered that using someone else’s tragedy to verbally whip myself was really just another form of selfishness, a way of making their life all about me.
Most days I think that insight might have become just another thing to be ashamed of. But somehow, on that day, I felt bored with shame. I realized with astonishment that I could just put it all down. I didn’t need to judge Grandpa’s choices. How could I, when I knew so little about his past? I thought instead about how Grandpa used to lay his great hand on my head when I was small, as if we’d been shaped that way just so we would fit.
That’s when Mom came in. She held herself stiffly, her whole body suffused with reluctant tension. “I found one more pair of glasses in Grandpa’s nightstand. I don’t really understand what you see in them, but I thought you might want to put them with the others.”
Joy washed through me. I hugged her fiercely.
I played the spot game one last time, not anticipating how much difference it would make to have the actual pair of glasses which Grandpa wore. I didn’t see one vision. I saw a thousand. A look, a touch of his hand, a stray thought. All the years of a lifetime crammed into one grand moment, nearly crushing me under the weight. My head throbbed and my vision blurred. I held tight to one moment, one I never expected.
I wait by the window, my nose pressed to the glass. I’ve been staring and staring all day. I want Mommy and Daddy to come but they don’t. Mommy’s sick and Daddy sent me away.
Then the visions faded. I took the glasses off. Grandpa’s glasses were now as clean and shiny as the ones Mom polished.
When Mom was four, her mother became very ill and couldn’t take care of her children. Mom got shuffled from one relative to another for almost a year. She rarely talks about that time. I never knew how many hours she spent staring out windows. Did that lack of control lead to her fussiness now, or was I making life too neat? Maybe it didn’t matter. The important part was that I would never forget the glimpse of that small lonely child.
I put Grandpa’s glasses in the bottom drawer of my desk to save forever. Then I packed up the other fourteen pairs and brought them to Mom. “I’m done with them,” I said. “I just needed them for a little while. We don’t need to save them forever.”
Relief washed over her face.
“Grandpa wasn’t a hoarder,” I said. “Remember how big his old house was? Remember how many things he had to get rid of when he moved? He just couldn’t let everything go all at once.”
“Maybe,” she said. I knew she wasn’t convinced, but she didn’t want to speak badly of him.
“Mom, I love you, but I’m growing up now. I’d like a lock for the door of my room.”
To my amazement, she said yes. Mom could remove any lock with five minutes and a screwdriver, but I trusted her. A lock created a barrier she knew how to respect.
Something shifted in me after this. It’s hard to explain why. I didn’t come away with any clear lesson that I could put simple words to, but somehow a sense of possibility opened up. Whenever I got downhearted, I put on Grandpa’s glasses and imagined finding my way in the great and wonderful world, full of mystery and people who were always, always more than what they seemed.
About the Author
Carol Otte lives in misty Seattle and loves its bright summers and wet winters. She has a degree in chemistry and has worked in biotech and medical labs. She is fond of quilting and cooking. She has a special fondness for overlooked and forgotten sources of mystery and for the small moments on which so much of life hinges.