Aunt Nettie's Clam Chowder
Photo: Jeff Harris
Life at home was scary, precarious. But her grandfather had a recipe for security that included five boxes of cereal, a pink shovel, and one killer clam chowder. Suzan Colón offers a taste.
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.

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.

Inside our apartment, things were less dramatic but still unsettling. Mom's salary as a secretary/apprentice perfumer at a fragrance company just didn't go that far, and when my biological father missed even one of his $60-a-week child support payments, my mother's brow would furrow with worry. The difference between worry and panic was about $120.

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 Get cooking:
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.


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