One night when I was 8 years old, the pin in our old door bolt slipped, locking us inside our apartment. We couldn't call anyone because we hadn't come up with enough money to pay the phone bill that month, so the line was dead. Instead, we beat on the door and screamed until a neighbor came and called a locksmith.
I was a latchkey kid, and a series of babysitters watched me after school until Mom came home from work. I remember a few lovely ones, like Mrs. Wittick, who kept her support hose up on her swollen legs with rubber bands and read the most violent Bible stories to me as many times as I wished.
But on Friday nights, thank God and Nana in heaven, I'd be sent back to the Bronx. If it had been too cold to fish and get clams, Grandpa would have beef stew bubbling in the cast-iron pot on the stove, or he'd make hamburgers. He'd roll the ground meat out on the cutting board like thick dough and use a tumbler to cut small, perfect burger shapes. He'd serve them with fried onions, two little burgers for each of us, his with a beer.
And the cereal! I had a stash of about five boxes of cereal, which Grandpa made sure I never ran out of. The idea that there were five boxes of cereal waiting in a cupboard in the Bronx just for me lifted my spirits during even the toughest weeks.
For a child being raised by a young woman who was herself still growing up, and with both of us going through a dark period of mourning for Nana, Grandpa was pure security: a strong substitute father who doted on me and could literally catch dinner in our backyard. I was sure he could always keep hardship at bay.
I haven't pulled a clam from the cool muck of a shore since I was 13, my grandfather's last summer. One night in November he ate his simple dinner, took a walk on the chilly beach, and later called the landlord, saying he had chest pains.
For a long time, my mother and I wouldn't make the clam chowder. Without Grandpa? And with store-bought clams? But after a while I knew he would've had the same reaction as when I'd said I didn't know any prayers—not making the chowder is, in my family, near sacrilege.
The salty aroma rising from the pot still has the same effect as when Grandpa soothed me after my nightmares: It's like a strong hand anchoring me to safety. As long as he is with me, nothing in this unpredictable world can harm me.
Aunt Nettie's Clam Chowder
Adapted from Suzan Colón's book, Cherries in Winter, out this month. Copyright © 2009 Suzan Colón. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.