short story

Many Grandfathers

Eliana, who is four-years-old and three months, and lives near the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, is going to be in a movie made by a famous director.

She has never seen a movie, but she has seen television shows at Grandpa Jose and Grandma Rosa’s house, and Uncle Fernando showed her on his laptop some of the video he made of her, the video that got her the part in the movie. Grandpa Bertram, who is going to be in the movie, too, explained to Eliana that a movie is like watching a story book come to life on a gigantic television screen.

Eliana’s mother Conchita, who is Grandpa Jose and Grandma Rosa’s daughter, is very excited about Eliana being in the movie and is taking a week off from selling houses to help Eliana with whatever being in a movie entails. When Eliana asked her father Zeke what he thinks about her being in the movie, he said he will help in any way he can and he is very much looking forward to the filming being over so life can return to normal.

During a Zoom visit on the computer with Grandpa Blake and Grandma Marjorie, Zeke’s parents who live far across the ocean in Hawaii, Grandma Marjorie said she was “tickled pink” Eliana was going to be in a major motion picture, and Grandpa Blake said the director of the movie, Jason Somebody Somebody, made another movie called Tiny Giant Changes that is one of Grandpa Blake’s top ten favorite movies.

Eliana assumes Tiny Giant Changes is about a tiny giant who changes into something else, probably a larger giant. When she told Grandpa Bertram what she thought Tiny Giant Changes was about, Grandpa Bertram laughed until he cried. And when Grandma Alison came to see what Grandpa Bertram was laughing about, Eliana told Grandma Alison what she thought Tiny Giant Changes was about and Grandma Alison laughed until she cried.


Uncle Fernando, who is twenty-four, has worked for the famous movie director Jason Randle Jones for five years now and lives in England where JRJ is based. Fernando comes home to Mercy a couple times a year to visit family and friends, and on a recent visit he filmed Eliana doing a variety of things: picking flowers in her family’s vegetable and flower garden, building a sandcastle at the beach, and having a conversation with Grandpa Bertram, who is British. And whenever Fernando filmed Eliana, he asked her to share her thoughts.

Eliana, extremely sophisticated for a four-year-old, is exquisitely beautiful with long raven black hair and huge brown eyes. She speaks both English and Spanish with gorgeous fluency and an impressive vocabulary courtesy of the many adoring elders she spends time with, and her favorite thing in the world is acting out stories with her friends, her mother and father, Grandpa Bertram, Grandma Alison, and Grandma Rosa.

When Jason Randle Jones, a spry seventy-seven, saw the footage Fernando shot of Eliana, he asked Fernando if he thought Eliana’s parents would be willing to bring Eliana to Spain to be in the memory sequences for the movie he and Fernando are making from a script they wrote together – working title Mystery Child.

Fernando shook his head and said, “Not a chance.”

JRJ graciously accepted his protégé’s verdict and declared, “Then you and Carlotta and Olaf and Pearl and Andrini will go to Mercy and film Isabella’s early childhood memories there, which means dear old Bertram can play the part of Tristan, and Alison can play Clarice. They’re perfect for the parts, don’t you think?”

“No one could be better,” says Fernando, who owes his job with JRJ to Bertram and Alison who are both seventy-seven and have known JRJ since they were in their early twenties and were in the first feature-length film JRJ ever directed, the extremely low-budget comedy Crime Wave In Dover.

“I’d love to come with you,” says JRJ, sighing heavily, “but as you know better than anyone, I’m too bloody busy.”


So in early September, Fernando arrives in Mercy with JRJ’s renowned film crew: Art Director Carlotta McCray and her two assistants, Cinematographer Olaf Dorfmier and his two assistants, Sound savant Pearl Templeton and her two assistants, and Lighting wizard Andrini and his two assistants, along with Olaf’s precious 70-millimeter movie camera and Pearl’s state-of-the-art recording equipment – lights and reflectors and such to be rented in Oakland and trucked to Mercy for the shoot.

 When the team members are settled in three adjacent vacation homes on the Mercy headlands, Fernando guides them around Mercy to acquaint them with the places and people they’ll be filming.

On the second night of their Mercy sojourn, Fernando takes the crew to Big Goose, the largest of the three pubs in Mercy, for what Fernando promises will be superb fish & chips and fine local ale, and they happen to go on a Thursday evening when Ricardo Alvarez is playing piano on the little stage as he has every Thursday for the last twenty-four years. Pearl and Olaf are drawn to Ricardo’s exquisite music as moths to a flame and stay for all three sets after which Pearl asks Ricardo if she might record him so she can share his music with Jason Randle Jones.

To which Ricardo replies, “I know just the piano.”


Given the iffy nature of weather in Mercy, when Day Three dawns sunny and clear, Fernando decides to take advantage of the sunny day to shoot the two memory sequences set in the big vegetable and flower garden at Eliana’s house, the garden in fabulous bloom.

As the crew is setting up in the garden, Bertram and Alison arrive, Bertram to play the role of Tristan, the deceased grandfather of Isabella who is the main character in the movie, a middle-aged woman undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis – Eliana to play Isabella as a young girl.

Eliana and Bertram have rehearsed the seven memory sequences many times over the last few weeks, their rehearsals essentially long sessions of play-acting to prepare them for improvising the scenes in front of the camera.

For the first memory to be filmed today, Memory Sequence Three, Carlotta McCray, the art director, deep-voiced with a mild Scottish brogue, dresses Eliana in the pretty blue pinafore created especially for this memory. After consulting with Fernando and making a quick call to JRJ in London, Carlotta has Conchita capture Eliana’s long black hair in a loose braid.

Carlotta dresses Bertram in gray slacks and a pale green shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, leaves his wispy white hair somewhat unruly, and sends him to the garden so the crew can use him to position their equipment, run sound checks, shoot some trial video, and so forth.

Eliana’s father Zeke is on hand to do any shaping of the garden landscape Fernando and Carlotta may require, and he is in awe of the swift proficiency of JRJ’s famous crew.

When all is ready, Carlotta escorts Eliana to the garden where Grandpa Bertram smiles down at her and says, “So this is the scene when we’re making a bouquet and…”

“I ask you if it hurts the flowers when you cut them,” says Eliana, eager to begin, her speech tinged with the slightest Scottish brogue because she is a preternatural mimic and has just been speaking with Carlotta. “And then we keep playing until Fernando says stop.”

“And you are Isabella,” says Bertram, winking at Fernando to begin filming. “And I am your grandfather Tristan.”



Tristan and Isabella are in the garden. Isabella is choosing flowers for a bouquet and Tristan is cutting the flowers for her. Isabella asks Tristan if it hurts the flowers when he cuts their stems, and their conversation springs from this question.

Isabella touches the petals of an enormous yellow chrysanthemum, and with a charming British accent says, “We’ll definitely want this one, Grandpa.”

Tristan comes close to cut the flower.

Isabella frowns gravely as Tristan snips the stem. “Does it hurt them when you cut them?”

“I doubt it,” says Tristan, handing her the flower. “And besides, I imagine they like being in bouquets.”

Isabella ponders this. “More than they like being in the garden? But the bees can’t visit them when we take them inside, and I know they like it when bees visit them.”

“How do you know?” asks Tristan, smiling warmly at his granddaughter.

“Well you can see how happy they are when the bees land on them and snuggle them,” says Isabella, watching a bee land on a flower. “Just look. They obviously love each other.”

“Yes,” says Tristan, watching the bee on the flower. “It is rather obvious, isn’t it?”

“The problem is,” says Isabella, finding another flower for the bouquet, “if we don’t pick them now they start to turn brown and their petals fall off, and who wants flowers like that for a bouquet?”

“The way I see it,” says Tristan, cutting the flower Isabella has chosen, “flowers have the best of both worlds. They get to be born in the garden and grow into their beauty and be loved by bees and butterflies, and then they get to be in bouquets for everyone to admire.”

“I like bouquets,” says Isabella, sighing as she points at the next flower to be cut, “but I like flowers better growing in the garden.”

“Well… not everyone has a garden,” says Tristan, snipping the flower. “Do you think we have enough flowers now?”

“Enough for me, but not for Grandma,” says Isabella, shaking her head. “She likes big fat bouquets.”

“Yes, she does,” says Tristan, laughing. “She certainly does.”


With three excellent takes of Memory Sequence Three in the bag, the sound confirmed to be flawless, the crew takes a break for snacks and coffee, after which Carlotta and Fernando and their assistants set things up in another part of the garden for Memory Sequence Five.

A small wooden table and four wooden chairs are placed next to a patch of spectacular red and gold gladioli, and Bertram in black trousers, white dress shirt, and red bow tie, his hair somewhat tamed, sits at the table with his back to the gladioli. Eliana in a white blouse and red shorts and sandals, her hair in a ponytail, sits opposite Bertram with blossoming snow peas behind her. The small teapot on the table is dark blue, the four mugs the same dark blue, and in the center of the table is a large red plate heaped high with cookies.

In one of the other chairs sits a large white teddy bear wearing a black bow tie, and in the other chair is a small black dog, a real living mutt named Eso, the family dog, sitting on his haunches and waiting patiently for someone to give him a treat.

Olaf beckons Carlotta to look through the camera’s lens at the scene as he has framed it, and after she studies the scene through Olaf’s lens, Carlotta moves the teapot an inch closer to Eliana, makes a bit more space between the mugs, and brushes back a strand of Eliana’s hair.

Fernando studies the monitor mimicking Olaf’s view and says, “Perfecto.”



Tristan and Isabella are sitting at a small table in the garden having a tea party during which Isabella wonders why her mother has been gone for so long.

Tristan watches Isabella pour his tea, nods his thanks, and waits for her to fill the other three teacups before he takes a sip.

“Delicious,” says Tristan, gazing at Isabella. “I don’t think I’ve ever had such marvelous tea. What kind is this?”

“Chamomile,” says Isabella, sipping her tea. “Not too strong for you?”

“No, just right,” says Tristan, sighing contentedly and gazing around. “Perfect tea on a perfect day.”

Isabella nods. “I only wish Mama would come home. She’s been gone for days and days and days now.”

Tristan grows still and pensive.

“She’s never been away this long before,” says Isabella, pouting a little. “Usually she only goes away for a night or two.”

Tristan points at the little black dog and says, “I think one of our guests is longing for a cookie.”

Isabella smiles lovingly at the little black dog. “How rude of me.” She places a cookie on the plate in front of the little dog. “Here you are, darling.”

With remarkable daintiness, the little black dog takes the cookie into his mouth and jumps down from his chair to eat the cookie on the ground.

“Isn’t he so polite?” says Isabella, delighted by the dog.

“The soul of politeness,” says Tristan, his eyes full of tears.


That night the crew convenes in one of the guest houses to watch the video coverage of the day’s shoot, and when the little black dog takes the cookie and jumps down from his chair, Olaf declares, “That scene alone could win JRJ another Oscar.”

“Might win you another one, too,” says Carlotta, raising her bottle of beer to Olaf.

“This child is uncanny,” says Andrini, shaking his head. “As if some Shakespeare is speaking through her. Where do such beings come from?”

“We were all once thus,” says Pearl, sipping her wine. “Before we lost touch with the source.”

“Which she has not,” says Carlotta, exchanging knowing looks with Pearl. “Not yet.”

“How lucky we are to witness what she and Bertram create together,” says Olaf, savoring the moment. “And to capture their magic on film.”


The next day’s shoot takes place on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, the sky overcast, which is ideal from Olaf’s perspective, and the sea is calm, which Pearl appreciates for audio purposes. They set up quickly where the incoming waves exhaust themselves, and Andrini and his assistants deploy several powerful lights to make the scene a bit sunnier.

Eliana and two of Fernando’s nephews, Juan, six, and Leo, seven, armed with little shovels and assisted by Zeke with a big shovel, build a large sand castle fronted by a moat, the castle left to be completed by the children while the scene is being filmed.

“Bueno,” says Fernando speaking Spanish to Eliana and Juan and Leo, “I know it’s a little cold, but we must have your shirts off. In the movie this is supposed to be a hot summer day.”

The children take off their T-shirts so they are only wearing shorts. Carlotta musses up the boys’ hair and does away with Eliana’s ponytail to let her hair fall freely where it will.

“Now in this scene,” says Fernando, speaking to the boys, “Isabella, that’s what you call Eliana if you want to say her name – Isabella – is exhorting you to build the sand castle.”

“What’s exhorting?” asks Leo, frowning at Fernando.

“She’s commanding you to build the sand castle,” says Fernando, nodding. “She’s like the queen. This is her castle and you are the workmen.”

“Why does she get to command us?” asks Juan, wrinkling his nose. “She’s just a little girl.”

“I explained all this to you,” says Fernando, giving Juan a warning look. “If you won’t do what I tell you, I’ll get another nephew.”

“Okay,” says Juan, shrugging. “I’ll do it.”

“Remember,” says Fernando, stepping out of the shot. “En Español.”

Now Fernando gestures to Olaf, filming begins, and the children resume their work on the sand castle.



On a beach in Spain, Isabella directs two boys in the building of a sandcastle.

The children work zealously.

Now Isabella surveys the ocean and says urgently, “The waves are coming. We must build the walls higher.”

Leo stops working and says, “Of course the waves are coming, Isabella. That’s what waves do.”

“We can defeat them,” says Isabella, defiantly. “We will build the walls so high the waves will never get through.”

“We could build the walls ten-feet-high and the waves would still knock them down,” says Juan, giggling. “It’s only sand.”

“When the tide comes in,” says Leo, pointing out to sea, “this beach will be at the bottom of the ocean.”

“Then why are we building the castle here?” asks Isabella, looking around. “Why not over there?” She points inland.

“Because it’s fun to try to stop the waves,” says Leo, smiling at her. “Even if we can only stop them for a little while.”

Now a wave rushes in, fills the moat, and touches the front wall of the castle before receding and leaving the castle intact.

“We did it!” shouts Juan, shaking his fist at the retreating wave. “We defeated the ocean!”

“Quick!” says Isabella, leaping into action. “We must build the walls even higher, for now the ocean is angry and will try even harder to defeat us.”

“When the queen tells us to do something,” says Leo, smiling wryly at Juan, “we must obey.”


The next day, for Memory Sequence Seven, Carlotta dresses Eliana in a lacy white dress, brushes her long black hair so it tumbles over her shoulders, places a red rose in her hair, situates her on a small sofa in Bertram’s studio where he makes his sculptures, and gives her a small guitar to hold as if she is playing the instrument. Eso the little black dog sits on the sofa beside Eliana and gazes at Bertram who is wearing a paint-spattered smock and standing at an easel bearing a large blank canvas.



Isabella, holding a small guitar, sits on a small sofa posing for a painting Tristan is making of her. At some point in their conversation she learns from Tristan that her mother is dead.

Isabella gazes at her grandfather. “Do you want me to be happy or sad in your painting?”

“I want you to be thinking about the song you’re playing,” says Tristan, sketching the scene with charcoal.

“What song am I playing?”

“What song would you like to be playing?”

She thinks for a moment. “‘El Cancion de la Luna’.”

“Then imagine you are playing that.”

Isabella closes her eyes and purses her lips.

“I would rather you had your eyes open,” says Tristan, sketching swiftly.

Isabella’s eyes open. “Do you know ‘El Cancion de la Luna’, Grandpa?”

“I do,” he says, nodding. “Your mother sang it to you all the time when you were a baby.”

“And we will sing it together when she comes home,” says Isabella, trying not to cry. “She’ll come home soon, won’t she?”

Tristan bows his head and weeps.

“Is my mama dead?” asks Isabella, tears spilling down her cheeks. “Is she, Grandpa?”

He looks at her and nods.


They shoot Memory Sequence One in a room in an inn featuring antique décor, the room appointed with a small Bird’s Eye Maple bed and matching night table. Carlotta makes up the bed with a gorgeous old comforter and has the enormous lamp on the night table replaced with a smaller one.

Eliana in a white flannel nighty is sitting up in bed with the large teddy bear who attended the tea party in Memory Sequence #5. Bertram sits on the edge of the bed reading to Eliana from a large storybook.



Tristan, Isabella’s grandfather, is reading a bedtime story to Isabella about a dragon named Malthius. It has only been a few days since Tristan and Clarice brought Isabella to England from Spain to live with them.

“Once upon a time,” begins Tristan, “there was a very friendly dragon named Malthius who lived…”

“Why do they always say once upon a time?” asks Isabella, thoughtfully pursing her lips. “We don’t stand on time, do we? Why not just say Once there was?”

“I suppose they say Once upon a time because it’s an expression left over from a long time ago and people liked it so much they kept using it,” says Tristan, looking at Isabella. “I’m happy to say Once there was if you like that better.”

“I do,” says Isabella, nodding. “And Mateo likes it better, too.” She turns to the teddy bear. “Don’t you, Mateo?”

The bear says nothing.

“He does,” says Isabella, nodding to Tristan. “He whispered to me.”

“Good,” says Tristan, starting to read again. “There once was a very friendly dragon named Malthius who lived…”

“I love the name Malthius,” says Isabella, snuggling down under the covers. “When I go back to Spain, I’m going to get a puppy and name it Malthius.”

“What if the puppy is a girl?” asks Tristan, arching his eyebrow. “Will you still name her Malthius?”

“Don’t be silly,” says Isabella, yawning. “Malthius is a boy’s name.”

“So you’ll be getting a boy puppy,” says Tristan, closing the book.

“Maybe not,” says Isabella, yawning again. “If I get a girl puppy I’ll name her Constanza.”

“Why Constanza?”

“Because,” says Isabella, closing her eyes. “I think Constanza is the most beautiful name.”

“I think so, too,” says Tristan, giving her a kiss on the forehead.


For Memory Sequence Two, they use the kitchen in the oldest of the three houses where the crew is staying.

Alison, Bertram’s wife, her silvery gray hair in a bun, a blue paisley apron over her billowy white blouse, stands at one end of the kitchen table overseeing Eliana making balls of cookie dough, while Bertram sits at the other end of the table sipping coffee and leafing through a newspaper.



Tristan’s wife Clarice and Isabella are making cookies while Tristan has coffee and reads the newspaper.

“Make them a little smaller, darling,” says Clarice, hovering close to Isabella. “They will flatten out and double in size as they bake in the oven.”

“Show me how big,” says Isabella, looking up at Clarice.

“Please?” says Clarice, expectantly.

“Please show me how big to make them,” says Isabella, who takes her cookie making very seriously.

Clarice makes a small ball of cookie dough and places it on the tray.

“Ah, pequeño,” says Isabella, nodding. “I see.”

“Pequeño means small?” asks Clarice, who speaks no Spanish.

“Sí,” says Isabella, smiling at Clarice. “Pequeño means small.”

“Says here,” says Tristan, reading from the paper, “the price of gold has tripled in the last six months. And you know the world is out of whack when gold does something that. Doesn’t bode well for the future.”

“The world is always out of whack,” says Clarice, watching Isabella work. “That’s wonderful, darling. You’re a fabulous cookie maker.”

“And this is my very first time making cookies,” says Isabella, placing a ball of dough on the tray. “Imagine how good I’ll be the next time we make cookies.”

Clarice and Tristan exchange looks and laugh, and Isabella laughs with them.


The beginning of Memory Sequence Six was shot at the same time Memory Sequence One about the dragon named Malthius was filmed, with Eliana sleeping in the same bed and bedroom at the inn. The second half of Memory Sequence Six is filmed in a hallway in the house where Memory Sequence Two, the cookie scene, was filmed.



Isabella wakes in her bed and hears Tristan and Clarice arguing. She gets out of bed and goes to hear what they are saying.

Isabella opens her eyes and listens intently to Tristan and Clarice arguing. She can’t quite make out what they are saying, so she slips out of bed to get closer.

Standing in a dimly lit hallway, Isabella hears Clarice say, “What’s the point of waiting any longer to tell her? The sooner she knows, the sooner she can start adjusting to her new reality.”

“I want her to feel more at home here before we tell her,” says Tristan, passionately. “So she won’t feel cast adrift without any ground to stand on.”

“She’s stronger than you think, dear. You must have faith in her resiliency.”

“Can we please wait another week before we tell her? Please?”

“One more week. And then I’m telling her if you won’t.”


A few days before Christmas, Fernando returns to Mercy from England and takes Zeke and Conchita and Eliana and Bertram and Alison and Ricardo and Ricardo’s wife Lisa to supper at Campeona, the most exclusive restaurant in Mercy. Ricardo is a waiter at Campeona, but tonight he dines here as Fernando’s guest.

During the lull between the sumptuous meal and dessert, Fernando announces, “We are calling the movie Isabella Remembers, and it’s fantastic. Better than we ever thought it could be. And the memory sequences we filmed here steal the show. They really do. JRJ calls them pure magic.” He pauses momentously. “And we are going to use Ricardo’s music for most of the soundtrack.” He raises his glass of wine. “We will premiere the film at Cannes in May, and you are all invited. We will pay your expenses if you come, and we very much hope you will.”


As it happens, no one from Mercy attends the world premiere of Isabella Remembers, which wins the top prize at Cannes and is hailed by movie reviewers around the world as Jason Randle Jones’s finest film.

Bertram returns to his sculpting, Alison to her psychotherapy practice, Zeke to his gardening, Conchita to selling houses, Ricardo to waiting tables at Campeona and playing piano on Thursday nights at Big Goose, and Eliana to pre-school at the Mercy Montessori.


In October, a year and month after the film crew came to Mercy and filmed the memory sequences for Isabella Remembers, the movie plays for three nights at the Coast Cinema. Zeke goes to the movie once, Ricardo and Lisa and Bertram and Alison go twice, and Conchita and her brothers and sister and parents go three times.


 A few days after Isabella Remembers shows in Mercy, Conchita picks up Eliana after kindergarten at the Montessori.

Driving home, Conchita asks Eliana in Spanish, “How was school today, Pumpkin?”

Eliana frowns and says, “Holly said her mother saw me in Fernando’s movie and said I’m famous now. What happens to you when you’re famous?”

Famous just means lots of people know about you because you were in Fernando’s movie,” says Conchita, pulling up to their house. “But nothing will happen to you. Don’t worry. Pretty soon people will forget about the movie and you won’t be famous anymore.”

“Is Grandpa Bertram famous now, too?”

“Yes, he’s famous, too,” says Conchita, getting out of the car. “But he was already famous for carving his statues.”

“What about Grandma Alison?”

“Yes, she is famous, too. But not for long.”

“And nothing will happen to me while I’m famous?” asks Eliana, following her mother to the house.

“Nothing,” says Conchita, who hasn’t told Eliana about the hundreds of requests they’ve gotten from newspapers and television stations and journalists wanting to interview and photograph Eliana, or about the several movie offers they’ve received. “You’ll just live here with us and go to school and play with your friends. As always.”


After her snack, Eliana goes out into the garden and stands where the tea party sequence was filmed last year when she was only four.

She remembers Olaf sitting behind his enormous camera, and Andrini and his two helpers holding long black poles bearing big squares reflecting sunlight, and a huge man holding a long boom from which a microphone dangled above them – how quiet everyone was as they watched and listened to her and Grandpa Bertram pretending to be Isabella and her grandfather Tristan, how she would forget she was play-acting and forget she was Eliana, and how surprised she always was when Uncle Fernando would say, “Cut” and she would be Eliana again and not Isabella.