As a kid growing up in the seventies, I felt safe when I visited my grandparents for Sunday dinners. It was fun to go there. Their Queens, New York home had a small, manicured patch of grass in the front yard that bordered the next identical house. A row of colorful flowers and shrubs separated the properties.
As soon as my grandpa opened the door, I ran into his arms. He smoked, like my dad, and when he hugged me, he smelled of tobacco and sweet Old Spice cologne. When he forgot to shave, the stubble on his cheeks scratched my face. He wore black-rimmed glasses and had a thick mop of salt-and-pepper hair.
During our visit, I sometimes sat on the front stoop and watched people walk by. Sounds of radios from passing cars and barking dogs interested me. Inside, we sat in a big screened-in porch at the back of the house that overlooked an alley. Dad and Grandpa would reminisce about all the kids that played stickball there when dad and my aunt were growing up. When we talked about Grandpa’s job at Con Edison, I learned that he worked there for almost fifty years. He started out as a line worker and retired as an executive, and even earned an award. I was very proud of him.
Every few weeks, he gave me a unique present from his favorite gift shop in his Jackson Heights neighborhood. A spinning fiber-optic lamp or neat wind-up toy delighted me. In my bookshelf I still have one of the gifts he gave me when I was thirteen. It was a book titled, A Concise History of Ireland. In the inside cover, he wrote me a note about how his journey to America brought him to meet my grandmother, get married and start a family.
In the corner of the dining room, I sat at a little table which held a heavy black rotary telephone. Next to it was a pile of newspapers with names like, The Irish Echo and The Irish People. I enjoyed flipping through the pages and learning about events that happened all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.
From his worn easy chair in the living room, Grandpa told me stories. His lips curled around his filterless cigarette and his blue eyes would light up. Bits of nicotine and ashes dropped on the coffee table while he held the cigarette with his wrinkled fingers. He told me about how he used to play the trumpet when he was young. And about his life on a farm that he left behind to come here when he was only nineteen. In his hometown of Armagh, he helped out his father who was a farrier, or a person who made horseshoes. It sounded like a world so different from the city life here in America.
He was so fascinating; I felt like I was the only kid on earth as he gave me his full attention, which I missed during the week because Mom was in and out of the hospital and dad worked all the time.
One Sunday, he showed us a picture of a bombed-out building he passed by on a recent visit to his hometown. When I asked him what happened, his expression turned serious, “Well, this is a result of ‘The Troubles,’ a dangerous time when many angry people used violence as a way to solve problems. It caused a lot of Irish people much heartache. It’s why I had to leave.”
“Oh, that’s just awful,” I said, and wondered what kind of problems could cause that kind of trouble. “I’m sorry. But I’m really happy you’re here!” I hugged him. “My life wouldn’t be as good if I didn’t have you and Nana to visit on Sundays.”
“You’re a good lass, Elizabeth,” he said.
When my grandmother called us in to the dining room for supper, she turned on the stereo and played music by bands like, The Molly Maguires and The Chieftans. In the cabinet along the wall were pieces of Waterford crystal glasses. At the table, on his plate next to either meatloaf or ham steaks, Grandpa made a perfect pile of mashed potatoes. He pressed the spoon and made a little well on top for butter and gravy, which dripped down the side like a tiny white volcano.
Once, while he saw me watch him eat his potatoes, he looked at me intently. “In the old country, we called these praties. We grew them on farms and relied on their crops to live. During the great famine when the potatoes stopped growing, almost a million Irish people starved to death and another two million came here to the United States. It was a very sad time in our history,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say. As if to read my mind, he continued, “But, many who came here helped build the bridges right here in this city. The ones who built the tunnels and subways were called sandhogs, because they dug through the sand under the rivers. They were a very brave bunch that risked their lives to support their families.
I suddenly felt very proud of my heritage.
When it was time to go home, grandpa hugged me and always shook my hand. For a long time my parents wondered why he took my hand along with the hug. They never found out that this was his way of slipping me ten dollars. Grandpa sure was a smart man. When I had enough money to buy a purple Schwinn ten-speed bike, I had to ‘fess up.
Years later when I was in high school, he finally quit a fifty-year smoking habit cold-turkey because his doctor said it was going to kill him. When I visited him, his hands shook like a leaf because he had developed Parkinson’s disease. To me, his getting sick was an awful injustice to happen to such a good man.
In the end, my grandfather died in his sleep at age eighty-two. Looking back to my childhood, it wasn’t his handshakes and hugs that I missed the most when I visited. It was his stories.
Elizabeth Papazian was raised in New York City. Her background includes work in corporate law, travel, and non-profit development. She graduated from Fordham University with a B.A. in English. In addition to publication in several on-line literary journals, her debut novel, Portrait of a Daughter is available on Amazon.