grandfathers

I DON’T KNOW much about my grandfathers. Or rather, I know probably a lot of things about them, but I don’t know much about the experience of being around my grandfathers, especially when they were younger because all of the people who were around them when they were young are dead. My father’s father was born in 1916. That was during the First World War. And my mother’s father was born in 1923. That was during Prohibition. Their children have varying memories of them, and like most things, people don’t bother to talk about the dead. There is no great circle around the fires where memories are fondly recalled, perhaps with some teachable moment baked in. In the case of my maternal grandfather, Frank, there is a good reason for this: he died tragically at the age of 44 of a heart attack, creating a hole or wound in the family. In the case of my paternal grandfather, Jerry, the reason is just that we don’t gather, period, except maybe at funerals, and so there are few moments to share or impart any memories. But I do know that circa 1960, my father’s father, Jerry, that sly rascal, would bring home a pizza and watch Sea Hunt starring Lloyd Bridges as retired Navy diver Mike Nelson, with my father. I can imagine those rainy nights, the music on the car radio, the hot pizza lifted from the box, the black-and-white television. I say Jerry was a sly rascal, because when I was a boy Jerry, now an old man who walked with a cane, would hide bags of coins in his office and then tell me to find them. If I found the money stash, I was allowed to keep it and Jerry would give me one of those heavy grandpa hugs, where they slap you on the back several times as if you are choking. That Jerry, he had tricks up his sleeves. I know that Jerry would take my youngest uncle to see Jimmy the Cricket sometimes, a local bookie, who had a lawn ornament store as a front for his betting business. I’m rather fond of these tales of my grandfather, stealing around in his car, heading to the bookie to bet on the ponies and then checking the paper the next morning to see what his winnings might be. I did also find a newspaper clipping years ago from 1947 regarding my maternal grandfather Frank’s older brother, Vinny, who was arrested for racketeering with three other Long Island men. This filled me with strange pride. See, the men of my family had no respect for law and order. My mother’s father doesn’t seem to have been the gambling type. He had an artistic inclination and worked for a company that sold print machines. To make some extra money, he would help clients with their print orders. On the weekend, he would make a visit to the stationary store to pick up the Sunday paper. Then he would pop into the bakery for donuts or rolls. At night, he would be up late while everyone slept, doing paperwork on his typewriter, listening to West Side Story or the Everly Brothers on his record player. These kinds of details I love: what music people were listening to. Supposedly my grandfather Jerry used to love James Brown. I can imagine them simultaneously, one listening to “Maria” from West Side Story and tinkering with a typewriter at night, and the other listening to “Night Train” and navigating the back streets in his car, pizza on the passenger side seat, wondering if that big bet would pay off. Maybe it would. Maybe his pick would be the big winner in tomorrow’s race. And that’s really how those stories end for now, with the sound of typing and “Night Train.” “Miami, Florida. Atlanta, Georgia. Raleigh, North Carolina.” The horns blaring. That’s how those stories end.

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