by Lisa Lebduska
Standing in front of a produce wagon on a tree-lined street in Bay Ridge, dazed but smiling, a swarthy teenage boy holding a basket of onions and swiss chard guards my kitchen. He makes an unlikely sepia angel, poised over a junk drawer in Connecticut. Some days he watches me watch chickadees squabble over thistle; on others he listens as I argue with my mother over the phone about why we need to retire her Honda, and with it, though I do not say this, her ability to drive.
Somewhere under the boy’s wave of chestnut hair is my grandfather.
Cinched by a belt circling his waist almost twice, Pop’s pants jut out above his ankles and dusty broken shoes, inherited from his younger but fatter brother Tony. He holds the bridle of a horse that is wearing blinders. At sixteen he bought the horse without realizing that it could not see, discovering its dark truth in an epiphanic tumble that landed him, the horse, the wagon and twenty-five watermelons in a roadside ditch. Often have I stared at the picture and wondered if my grandfather had yet discovered the animal’s secret. He gazes out at me, far into a future that has outlived him, not knowing the woman who would be looking back at him, someone he would know only when he was an old man and she was a child, the granddaughter who had inherited his yellow eyes.
That blind horse, a parable for Poppy’s life, served as the center of Thanksgiving conversations that began with my mother’s declaration: “Pop never worried. He was no businessman. He bought the horse thinking he was getting a bargain. Women came to buy cucumbers and ended up with free strawberries and carrots. It’s a miracle we didn’t starve.” Whenever she said this, I would look at the ziti trays, roasted turkey and vegetables crowding the table and think the real miracle was that no one had exploded.
Pop left the produce business to drive a taxi. One night, a man approached his cab at a stoplight, and when my grandfather rolled down the window to see what he wanted, the man reached in and tore off shirt pocket loaded with change and bills. The second time he was robbed, a passenger jammed a gun into the back of his neck.
“Pop never worried,” my mother says while heaping mashed potatoes on to my Thanksgiving plate.
“Didn’t he get held up?”
“Yes, but it didn’t faze him. He came home and said he was on the evening news. He never mentioned it again.”
Pop made Camels his daily passengers. Thoughts of his passengers’ vagaries may have played a role in his decision to smoke; likewise, careening cars, buses, trucks and other taxis, along with his need to support a growing family. Despite regular prodding by my mother and grandmother, he refused to quit. More evidence, my mother said, that he didn’t have a care, though sometimes she provided a denouement to his smoking tale in the form of a nurse who showed him an x-ray of blackened lungs. The next day he traded his Camels for sourballs.
In his later years, Poppy resembled a smooth-shaven Italian Santa Claus: a prodigious belly braced by suspenders, full cheeks of baby skin and a twinkle in his cat’s eyes. He would eat a whole chicken in one sitting, smiling contentedly until the cannoli platter appeared, when he would announce he had “just enough room for dessert” and request two tablets of saccharin for his coffee.
Another picture, imprisoned in a Gimbel’s shopping bag at my mother’s house, once told a story similar to my sepia angel’s. I had not seen this picture in over a decade, but last month I rediscovered it during a search for the powder blue Dearfoam slippers my mother had bought but could not find. There’s a horse in this one, too, but it’s a pony, and a tiny girl, banana curls framing her face, sits upon its back, beaming. I recognize her, but I need my mother to tell me. I tell myself that if she can identify the girl, she will be more whole than not, more present than gone. If she passes the quiz, I tell myself, she will be happy and I am doing the right thing leaving her in this house with the wobbling toilet bowl and the crumbling roof, where she wants to be, with the mice and her memories.
When she sees the picture, my mother pipes up, “What a day that was. Aunt Aida was giving birth to Tony. They wanted to get me out of the house, so Grandpa brought me to Prospect Park. Just the two of us. We ate charlotte russe.” She smiles, satisfied with the joy that only the deep past now brings. She knows this story, where it will go, who the heroes will be, how it will end. It is all hers.
“I was so excited. I had never been on a pony. Pop spent a week’s salary to have my picture taken. Grandma almost killed him.” I imagine my grandmother, renowned for her ability to cut any size cake into enough slices for seventeen people, asking her husband how they would pay their bills. On this particular day, I do not want to go there with my mother, so I return to the photo that I have studied on and off for the last forty years, hoping that it will save me, save us from that dark alley.
“Mom, what is that?” I ask, pointing to her girl self.
“That was my party dress. Grandma made it for me. I was so proud. It was yellow and edged in lace, and she did my hair. Those were the first pair of shoes I got that hadn’t been handed down from Aunt Susie. I loved those shoes.”
“No, not the dress,” I say. “Over there, down by the saddle.”
She reaches for the magnifying glass and squints. There, where the back of my mother’s frilly dress meets the worn saddle, is a man’s roughened thumb, the sole trace of a vigilant father in heroic contortion to avoid the camera.
“Is that Poppy’s hand?”
My mother presses the photo close to her face. “Oh yes. That’s right. Pop was holding me up. He was absolutely terrified that I was going to fall off.”
Her memory belly full of sweet sponge and raspberry, she smiles. “I remember now.”