"Your grandmother, Yvonne Spencer," he'd sometimes begin. "You know, Spence."
Spence was his ex-wife, my mother's mother. They'd divorced long before I was born, when my own mother was a child. I'd lived with Spence and her friend Dee until I was four years old.
"Well, she was half Hawaiian, on her father's side. He was full-blooded. Cliff diver. Can't remember his name." This, he explained, was why I liked to swim and why I turned so dark in the sun. "He was an alcoholic, though. Lost all of his money on some water deal in Palm Springs. Married to an absolute bitch. Spence's mother. She hated me, of course."
My grandfather, who spoke with the accent of English movie stars, told me he was related to the Earl Grey of tea fame and Lady Jane Grey of beheading fame. Somewhere, in England, our family had a house named Fallodon. This was important, he told me, because it meant we had noble blood. "Blue blood, they call it. Don't know why. Everyone's got blue blood. They do! Your blood's blue until it comes out of your skin." He pulled his sleeve up to his elbow, exposing his forearm and tracing the blue vein under his wrist.
"Of course, you've got Norman blood too. All over England, little old ladies go looking through churchyards to see if their ancestors are Frogs. You know the Normans, right? 1066? King Harold got his eye speared by an arrow. Bloody fool. Shouldn't have looked up."
I did know, but only because he'd told me before and because I'd read about the Bayeux Tapestry in one of his books. Our house's entire southern wall was lined with my grandfather's books: thrillers and spy fiction, the adventures of Hornblower and Hollywood biographies, Miss Marple and Poirot, tomes on navigation and marine architecture, books on the Louvre, pirates, and English castles. Up on the highest bookshelf was a lone car-racing trophy from the Paramount Ranch Racetrack, engraved to "Richard 'Dick' Grey, Second Place." I asked to see it sometimes, and my grandfather would obligingly bring it down and let me run my finger along the pewter car. "I quit racing not too long after I won this trophy," he'd say. "Too many near misses."
Sometimes my grandfather told me he was a baronet, which I knew must be true because his checks and credit cards were all imprinted with "Sir Richard Grey." I wasn't sure, though, if he was called "Sir" because of the baronetcy or because he'd been knighted for his bravery by the Queen herself after World War II.
"You look at the ceremony and you think she's just tapping them lightly on the shoulder," he'd tell me. "But, no, she gives you a bloody good wallop."
When we went shopping, sales clerks would sometimes call him "Sir Richard" or "Sir Grey." Sometimes they called Marilyn "Lady Marilyn" or "Lady Grey," although she hated it and would ask them to please never call her that again.
On some nights, my grandfather told me the story of his own childhood, how he was an orphan, how his parents had been killed in 1918 by the Spanish flu when he was a baby, just after the First World War. The Spanish flu sounded exotic to me—something prettier, rarer than the regular flu. He'd tell me how he was raised by many different people—a bishop in the Church of England, an uncle, a cousin—moving again and again all over England.
"I had a nanny once," he said. "Her name was Frieda. Good old Frieda. Taught me German."
To show me how he spoke German, he'd run his fingers along my side and whisper a rhyme in German about a mouse: Here creeps a mouse, without a house...
"Frieda taught me that," he'd sigh. "It's why I ended up in secret operations during the war. I could speak it fluently."
All of these things were important to know, he told me, because where you came from was important to know. Of my English, Hawaiian, and "blue" bloods, the most important was the English: the blood of Shakespeare, Nelson, and Churchill ran in my veins, and I must always remember that. On some nights, he'd tell me that I was half English, because he'd forget I wasn't really his daughter; he'd forget that my mother, Michele, his dead daughter, had ever come between us.
When I was little, before he'd finally told me the truth about her death, my grandfather would tell me how my mother had been killed in a car wreck. I was three weeks old when it happened. It was a story I'd heard for so long, I couldn't remember a time when I didn't know it.
"She never knew it was coming," he assured me. "It was painless, fast. You were just a baby, so of course you can't remember it."
And then, after he'd finished telling me stories, he'd put his glasses back on, his eyes once more obscured by the lenses.