Photo: Jeff Harris
My grandfather's hands were as big as oven mitts, their palms worn smooth by years of farm and construction work. I remember how precisely and delicately those huge hands poured his nightly shot of whiskey or gutted the bluefish he'd just caught for our dinner. And I can still feel the jolt of one of them clapping my burning ear after I pulled my birthday cake too close and my hair caught fire.
That was in 1968, the year I turned 5. From the time I was a toddler up until I was 13 years old, I spent every weekend with my grandparents in the Bronx, and whole summers when school was out. Long Island Sound lapped against their backyard, so at high tide we could swim or take the dinghy out for a row, and at low tide there was a quarter mile of beach to walk on.
I lived with my mother the rest of the week. She would come home after a long day at the office (I thought her boss's title was "That Bitch"), make dinner, and help me with my homework. When Friday nights rolled around, she'd say, "You're spending the weekend with Nana and Grandpa."
"What are you doing?" I'd ask, every time.
"Going out," she'd say as she brushed her long blonde fall and pinned it to her head with bobby pins. Then she'd climb into a pair of hot pants and boots made more for dancing than walking. I had been born when she was just 21.
The honk of a car horn outside would signal that my ride had arrived. Grandpa always sent a cab for me, but not a Manhattan taxi; he had a Crosby cab come down from the Bronx. He trusted only that band of men who Mom said handled their cabs like getaway-car drivers. They smelled of cigarettes and referred to me as "Chollie's gran-dawtah," and they were not averse to driving on the sidewalk to cut around a traffic jam. They always got me to Agar Place safely and in record time.
After Nana died, it was just me and Grandpa on the weekends, and I'd sit on his lap while he wiped tears from his eyes and sang to me: You are my sunshine, my only sunshine / You make me happy when skies are gray....
Grandpa was a tall, barrel-chested Irishman with blue eyes and wavy hair the color of iron. He was robust and strong well into his 70s. Mom gave him a fishing-captain's hat one Father's Day, and he wore it always, tilted at a rakish angle. My grandfather's command post was an aluminum lawn chair with a woven plastic seat; he parked it by the windows in the living room, where he would scan the sea with his binoculars. If he saw the water start to churn against the current, he'd jump up, shouting, "The blues are running!" He would grab his fishing rod, go tearing downstairs, shout to his friend and landlord, "Ted! Ted, the blues!" and head around the house, out to the concrete patio at the end of the yard. He'd cast his line before he came to a stop, knowing he didn't even have to bait the hook—the bluefish, in a feeding frenzy, would bite down on anything. Grandpa would expertly haul up one for me, one for him, maybe one to freeze; if he hooked another fish before Ted arrived, he'd drop it off for him on his way back upstairs. As he caught them, the fish would slap around angrily on the patio, flashing their dagger teeth. I'd jump away. Then the churning school would move on to another part of the bay, the whole event taking less than five minutes.