Several years ago, my husband and I were spending the weekend out on Long Island, and stopped at a bakery to pick up croissants for my in-laws. I saw a sign for the small town of Sea Cliff, where I often visited my grandparents as a child. Their house was sold shortly after my grandfather died—I was thirteen back then. I hadn’t been there for more than twenty years, but was somehow able to get us there, without consulting a map.
A man was mowing the front lawn (I suddenly had a vision of my grandfather raising the flagpole with both British and American flags. I’m told by my mother he would sometimes wake his five children up in the morning by blaring Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.) My husband encouraged me to get out of the car; the man invited me in and graciously shepherded me, room by room, through my grandparents’ old house—a place, I realize now, that was strangely dearer to me than my own childhood home.
What I most remember is a vague but real coziness: a feeling of autumn, warm shades of amber and gold, and the smell of my grandfather’s pipe. Now, whenever I smell fresh tobacco, I am with him in that house, before I even register the thought “tobacco.” I know little about my grandfather firsthand—my aunts and uncles have described him as eccentric and something of a Walter Mitty character. He was a salesman in Manhattan during the Mad Men era; my mother says he frequently entertained clients at home and managed a prominent account for Campbell Soup. According to her, he was a charming businessman but also a deep introvert.
There were thirteen of us cousins, all boys except for me and my younger cousin Bridget. He hardly spoke to us, and always called me “sis” or “lass.” I got the feeling he saw us as a mess of grandkids and may not have known my name. We knew we weren’t allowed in his study—otherwise known as “the back room.” It was often locked, filled with treasures like an old typewriter and adding machine, and the strong smell of cigar smoke. He also sometimes smoked a pipe. Every once in a while, he’d let me in there, as long as I didn’t touch anything—perhaps he trusted me more than the boys. I always wished I were more like my daring cousins, who climbed trees and sat up on the roof of the garden shed. But I was quiet and cautious, and probably less likely to break something. I liked being there with him, without having to talk. It’s the same way I feel now at parties, when I can steal a few moments to study the host’s bookshelf or cabinet of curiosities, instead of having to strike up a conversation with a stranger over Cabernet.
When I got older, we’d drive up to see my grandfather every month or so; my mother may have felt compelled to check in on him. One Easter, he left us a pot of very spicy chili on the stove and a note saying he wouldn’t be back for a few days. These disappearances never bothered me much. He bought a motorcycle after my grandmother died and would take us on rides around Sea Cliff. Sometimes he’d get up in the middle of breakfast and say things like “let’s blow this popstand and go check out the old ladies at the post office with blue hair.” He once took me out to a beefalo burger joint, where they served hamburgers made out of buffalo.
A few weeks before my grandfather died, we spent the better part of an afternoon laughing over a 1980s movie starring Burt Lancaster about a Texas oil executive who visits a small village in Scotland. We had never laughed together like that before. At his funeral, lots of people came from the bar next door to pay their respects—he’d obviously been a regular. A torn photo of him from World War II somehow came into my possession—he’s handsome and not quite thirty, in fatigues, smiling outside a tent. As it turns out, I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a few blocks from where he grew up, running gin back and forth as a kid during Prohibition, back when the neighborhood was Irish. My son, Henry, plays in McGolrick Park, where his great grandfather and namesake might have also played as a boy. My mother said he worked hard to get rid of his working class Irish accent and spoke like a Kennedy for much of his life; it never seemed odd to me. I barely knew him, but trust the silence I knew in that smoky back room.
- Rachel Safko