He also caught flounder—which looked cartoonish, like they'd been flattened by a falling anvil—and when the tide was low, he'd take me clamming. His equipment was a pronged clam rake and a gray laundry basket with an inner tube around it, which he'd tie to his middle with a length of clothesline. My tools were a diving mask and a toy shovel. We'd wade out until the water was waist-deep on him—and over my head. I'd hang on to the floating basket.

"Think this is a good spot, kid?" he'd ask.

"I'm not sure," I'd say, frowning. "Let me check." And I'd take a deep breath, dive down in the murky water, and attack the sand with my pink shovel. If I resurfaced with a clam—"Found 'em!"—Grandpa would start digging, tossing the mollusks into the basket. He never took too many, about two dozen or so, but they went a long way. After a successful expedition, I knew we'd be having clam fritters, spaghetti with clam sauce (always red, never white), and his variation on Aunt Nettie's clam chowder recipe.

When I had nightmares, or woke up crying after a dream about Nana, Grandpa would set up a makeshift bed for me in his room. He'd park his command-post lawn chaise next to his bed and fix it up with my pillow and blankets. "Okay, kid, all set. And I'm right here. Did you say your prayers?"

"I don't know any," I said.

"What?" I could practically hear him making a mental note to talk to his heathen daughter. His grandchild didn't know the rosary, or even the Our Father? Grandpa was what Mom called a Christmas-and-Easter Catholic, but he still thought I should know a few prayers. "Never mind; I'll teach you. I'll say a line, and you say it back. Ready?"


"Now I lay me down to sleep..."

On Sundays, Mom would come up from the city to get me. First she'd go to Cake Masters and pick up a blackout cake—chocolate cake covered with dark chocolate frosting—and a seeded rye. Then she'd take the 6 train to the end of the line, Pelham Bay in the Bronx, and take a Crosby cab to the house. We'd all go for a swim or a walk on the beach, and after dinner, Grandpa would send us home with quarts of clam chowder and beef stew.

Back home in Manhattan, I was a fearful kid. Life was occasionally scary, stable only in its instability. A friend from school had a schizophrenic father, and one day all the children's parents were warned to watch out for him because he'd been seen wandering around the neighborhood armed with a hunting knife and a Bible. Another friend was evicted from the apartment she lived in. The landlord threw her family's clothes out onto the street, and she had to fight off our schoolmates as they tried to take them. A boy in my third-grade class told me that a neighbor had been murdered during an attempted robbery: "They beat her up and killed her for a lousy dime," he reported flatly, with none of the childlike glee that would indicate a fib.


Next Story