The Way Things Worked Back Then

I wrote this heavy tale about 4 months ago. Sent it around to some lit maggy-type places. It got a lot of rejections. I think there are some patches of good writing in there, though 🙂

Between 2003 and 2007, my grandfather — that is, my mother’s father – appeared in about a dozen family photographs. Most of these were extended family group pictures, and more often than not he was on one side or the other, his arm disappearing behind someone’s shoulder. He looked gaunt (a result of the battle he was waging with Parkinson’s), but also genuinely thrilled to be present for each of them (a result of, as my mother liked to say, a heart so big it should have had its own zip code).

If you inspected these images for more than a quick glance, you might notice something else. The light did not catch him the way that it did the rest of the family. It was a little like someone dropped him into these shots from some other neck of the universe.

And that was kind of what was going on. Grandpa checked out in March of 2003 when his three-day-a-week nurse discovered his feeble body in his favorite sofa chair in his apartment a few towns over from our house on the North Shore of Long Island. By the time he began showing up in the photos, he had already exited this world — at least in the physical sense.

At 9, I was not yet schooled in the soul-crushing rigidity of the adult world. At the time, my young life was teeming with fiction and fantasy — Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. So it wasn’t an extraordinary stretch when my dead grandpa started showing up in photos. That was just the way things worked back then.


My aunt delivered the news over the telephone. I was at the kitchen table watching a Saved by the Bell rerun, and observing the exquisite beauty of Kelly Kapowsky, one of the characters. My mother, in the midst of preparing my school lunch for the day, began speaking extremely quietly and quickly into the receiver, so that it seemed like she was conversing in a different language altogether. After a minute or so, she took the phone into her bedroom and never returned.

My dad, who had been 10 minutes into his commute to Manhattan, returned and drove me to school.

While we waited at a notoriously long red light, he told me what was going on.

“Shane, you already know Grandpa Mel was sick. Well he passed this morning. He…”

He was going to say something more, but he started getting choked up.

“He’s dead?”


It was difficult to imagine my grandfather not being of this world anymore. Grandpa was sick for so much of my young life that the word itself — “sick,” that is — stopped meaning anything to me.

In my mind, he was just this goofy guy who didn’t make a lot of sense when he spoke, smiled every chance he got, and got down on all fours to play Legos with me. It didn’t even occur to me that he was going to die one day from his disease.

The light went green, and we sat in silence for a few moments as Dad drove.

At the next red, he wanted to know if I had anything to ask him.

“Are you driving me to school because Mom is sad about Grandpa?”

“Grandpa is Mom’s dad, you have to remember. Like I am your dad. She’s going to be sad for a while.”

“How long?”

“I’m not sure. We just need to be patient. She’s going to be doing some soul-searching the next few months, and maybe longer.”

“Okay,” I said, half understanding what he meant.


Later that same day, Dad drove me home from school. When we got in, Mom was at the kitchen table, observing a Bluebird that was perched on a limb dangling from an oak tree in front of our picture window.

“Hi Shaney Shane,” she said, turning her attention to us.

“Hi Mom, guess what? My teacher told me at school today that humans are actually animals — just like bears and whales.”

“That’s cool honey! And true too!”

“Are you sad about Grandpa?”

“Yeah, Shane, I am. He was a good, good man. You know what I always say about his big ol’ heart, don’t you? It ought to have its own zip code.”

I nodded, but I didn’t know what else to say, so I just asked Dad if I could go watch TV in the den.

“Sure, for a half hour, and then we can go over your times tables. I’m gonna talk to Mom for a while.”


Mom began driving us to school again a few day later and things mostly returned to normal. The one exception was that she spent much more time at her computer in the bedroom than she ever did before. From time to time, she would set me up in front of the TV, or with a crafts project, and disappear without explanation.

One time, Dad came home from work and finished an art project with me. We made puppets out of brown paper bags. Dad made a robber, and I made a cop.

As I was arresting Dad’s puppet for littering, we heard a loud “ping” sound from upstairs. It sounded like someone had slapped the computer screen or tossed something at it. Dad went to check on Mom, and I heard them talking quietly, then Mom crying softly, and finally silence.

Mom came out ten minutes later and said: “are you ready for dinner? We are getting pizza!”


In February of 2006, Grandpa made a photographic appearance at my Bar Mitzvah. It happened during my candle lighting ceremony, a time during the reception when the Bar Mitzvah boy honors family members and special friends by inviting each one up to help him light a candle. Our family friends, the Sorens, came up to light one, as did my pregnant Aunt Sheila and her then-boyfriend, Hal, and a number of others. In the midst of these photos, my mom suddenly approached me and whispered into my ear.

“I’d like you to take a photo by yourself, just you lighting this next one.”

I did as I was told, not thinking about what I was doing or why. Probably because my first crush was watching me with Bambi eyes fifteen feet away at the table where I had placed her — mine, of course.

In the photo album my parents later paid to have prepared, my grandfather found his way into that photo op. In our living room as she showed off the contents to my aunt and Dad, Mom explained that she wanted so badly for Grandpa to be a part of my special day. Her eyes found Dad’s as she said this. We all waited for her to say something more.


A few months after my Bar Mitzvah, Mom got another phone call from Aunt Sheila that turned her to frantically whispering like she had when she got the news about Grandpa. This time, though, she didn’t leave the room, and after some time, I could see a look of disgust form on her lips. Her volume began to pick up too, so that I could hear everything shooting out of her mouth.

“He can’t do this to you.”

“That’s not an excuse, Sheila.”

“He’s the goddamn father. Or has he forgotten that?”


A day after Aunt Sheila gave birth, we were seated around the dinner table chowing down on my mom’s Swedish meatballs, the rare dish she made that we all, my mother included, genuinely loved.

“I want to help with Marc,” she suddenly announced.

“I’m worried about her, being alone with her first. I’m gonna see if she wants me to stay with her for a week or two.”

“I think that’s a good idea,” responded Dad, and he turned toward me.

“We’ll be okay here, right Shane?”

“Sure, I’ll take good care of Dad. I’ll make sure he doesn’t go to sleep past his bedtime. Don’t worry, Mom.”

We all laughed.


Grandpa began appearing in fewer and fewer photos during this time. However, he popped up here and there just when you thought he was gone forever.

There was the time Dad and I decided to surprise Mom at Aunt Sheila’s place, where she was helping to care for my baby cousin.

It was a Saturday in December in the early afternoon. There was a strong wind that day, and the sun was nowhere to be seen. I sprinted from our parked car and rang the bell. Dad was still getting something out of the trunk. A few moments later, Aunt Sheila opened the door with my cousin Marc in a pouch across her chest.

“Shane, you’re here! Mom’s in the next room. Go see her! She’ll be psyched.”

I pushed open the slightly ajar French doors just wide enough to enter the den, where my mom was staying. Mom was seated with her back to me in front of the desktop computer, unaware of my presence. I somehow knew immediately what she was doing. A few months before my Bar Mitzvah, I had figured it out.

On the screen was a picture opened in Photoshop of a barbeque in our backyard a few months before in the fall. The image, snapped by my dad, showed Mom and my aunt as they reclined in patio chairs and drank pina coladas. Standing to the right of Aunt Sheila and set back a ways was my grandfather, his hand on his hip and an almost invisible series of dashes going all the way around him. As he peered toward the fence that separated our backyard from the house just behind us, he wore a serene expression, as if looking out on a pristine alpine lake that only he was able to see.


Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: