My maternal grandfather died in 1958 when he was 60 years old, although I remember him as an old man. I was ten when he died. My brothers – then eight and five – and I are the only ones now living who knew him and those memories capture only snippets of his life.
Until shortly before his death from lung cancer, he was heavy-set in a Santa Claus sort of way. His face was round, albeit clean-shaven, and I always envision him with a smile. He had a hearty, hoarse laugh and an intense Greenpoint, Brooklyn accent: I was his “goyl,” he used the “terlit,” and hailed from “Toyd” Avenue. I didn’t know anyone else in Queens who spoke that way. Nanny, his wife, was an immigrant from Ireland. Hers was a shrill Brooklyn-Irish accent, but Papa, as we called him, spoke pure Brooklynese. Even as a child, I suspected that it belied a poor education; much later, I learned he never finished elementary school.
Papa was a chain smoker. I seldom saw him without a cigarette in his hand or his mouth. He had the absurd idea that if he cut a cigarette in two, he could cut the cost of his habit as well. The halved cigarettes, all Pall Malls because he liked their ads, were stacked in a pyramid on his desk. I have no recollection that he or his room smelled like cigarettes but they must have. We didn’t worry about second-hand smoke in those days.
Papa also kept a glass bowl of pennies on his desk. When we visited the Rego Park apartment that he and Nanny then occupied, we were allowed to reach into the bowl with one hand and grab as many pennies as we could hold. When I turned nine, Papa would try to even the playing field for my younger brothers by shaking my handful of coins. This significantly reduced my take. I thought it wasn’t in the spirit of the game, but Papa laughed as the pennies slipped between my fingers.
As the oldest grandchild, I thought myself privileged to take several Greyhound bus trips with him and Nanny. There was one trip to Asbury Park, New Jersey, where I discovered Skee-Ball. I loved rolling those heavy balls up the alley at just the right speed to pop into a 20 or 60-point pocket, 100 points if I got really lucky. There were other boardwalk treats – I recall extra-large gumball machines – but Skee-ball was by far the best.
My favorite trip was to Pennsylvania Dutch country. Papa indulged my wish for an Amish-style bonnet made of gray and yellow printed cotton. I was quite taken with it, though I wore it only in my bedroom at home. The bonnet disappeared a long time ago, but I still have the small black lacquer footstool he bought for me. It’s painted with red and yellow flowers that are now slightly chipped. What tickled Papa was the stamp of origin on the underside of the stool: Intercourse, Pennsylvania. He pointed this out to my mother with some delight when we got home. Such were the amusements of the mid-1950’s.
One of the few things I knew about Papa before he died was that he was estranged from his two sons and a daughter. Only my mother remained in his good graces when I was a child. I didn’t know why, it was just how it was. When I heard much later how brutally he treated his sons, I understood, though I could never reconcile it with the gentleness he showed me.
Papa’s death in 1958 was the first I experienced. About two months earlier, shortly before Thanksgiving, he telephoned to speak to my mother. I answered the phone and heard him coughing and gasping. He didn’t ask “how’s my best goyl?” I called for my mother and, with a strong intuition of death, went to my room and cried in my pillow.
The eve of Papa’s passing, with my mother at the hospital, my father introduced me to several ideas of death. I remember only his explanation of reincarnation. It was clear to me that he wasn’t a believer, but he was kind to offer me a gentler option that appealed to my imagination, if not my spirit. I fancied Papa reincarnated as a squirrel, leaping from branch to branch, silly as that seemed to me even then. It didn’t mitigate the impact of my mother’s grief, however, which hollowed me out. Nanny cried, too, sitting on the living room sofa, and said, “It was awful sometimes, but I’ll miss him.” My mother told her not to say that around other people.
The next year, Nanny took me on a boat trip on the Saint Lawrence Seaway. She was chatting with a fellow passenger on the deck and mentioned Papa’s death, then lowered her voice and whispered “cancer.” Why cancer was a secret confused me and darkened my muddled feelings about his death.
There have been many other deaths in my family since 1958, including my remaining three grandparents, my parents, my two husbands, an aunt and two uncles, and a cousin. Each brokered a new grief, and the residual sorrow became cumulative and deepened. Each of them leaves a story, some well-documented by a trail of news clippings, letters or photos, amplified by fragments of oral histories. But there is little more than a few black and white snapshots, and an inch-long death notice, about Papa.
One endearing sepia portrait survives. He is pictured with his mother, a second woman, and two younger brothers, when he was, perhaps, five or six years old. He is wearing knee pants, a short jacket, and a peaked newsboy-style cap. He poses jauntily with a walking stick, and a broad, impish grin. This is the boy who, a half-dozen years later, left grade school to support his mother and two brothers by selling blocks of ice from a hand-pulled wagon. That boy in turn became a young man who upgraded to a horse-pulled wagon, and then an adult who built a rigging business in Brooklyn and bought a car when none of neighbors could afford one. But I can’t fill in the outlines of his life with feelings, beliefs, joys and heartbreaks that I never knew.
What is Papa’s share of the legacy my brothers and I, and our children and grandchildren, represent? He is as much a part of our DNA as the three grandparents who deeply imprinted their thoughts, culture and narratives on us. Papa is, in contrast, a short series of plot lines. I write this so that others will know, when they see that jaunty little boy in the sepia photo, that he is part of our story too.