One of the most alluring mysteries of my life continues to be my maternal grandfather, Papa B.
I hope that I never solve his enigma; I want him to inspire my imagination as I grow old.
Here’s a little vignette that introduces my fascination with his aura of being:
Every Thanksgiving I am most thankful for the memories of my grandfather, Papa Ballard. I can see him arriving on the Amtrak train from Newark, New Jersey. Stepping out onto the unsheltered concrete platform in Trenton.
He was a short, thin Irish man with hollowed features. His face wore a serious, “living-elsewhere” expression like the shadow of a leprechaun. In his left hand he carried his luggage. In his right hand he carried a cardboard box with a pliable white plastic handle. Inside nested a 24-pound turkey.
This was his annual contribution of our family gatherings. His employer gave a large frozen turkey to each company member as a holiday gift. And, Papa B., not having a built-in family, traveled south to share his plucked wealth with us.
He spent the four-day weekend with my parents, brother, and me. He and my grandmother, Toot, were still married. It was their encore marriage. A second chance that appeared reluctant because they chose to live in separate cities. I don’t know that they ever saw or talked with each other except during the most festive holidays when Papa B. grew tired of living alone and ventured off by train. This being the urban horse of inner city dwellers in the early 1960’s.
When I hugged Papa B. at the station, he smelled of damp wool that had inhaled tobacco smoke and captured it like a spider in its web of fibers. His voice was raspy and congested. He always seemed to be overwhelmed by the display of children’s affection. He couldn’t hold a hug for too long. He had to release and step back. Compose himself. Then greet my father with a handshake. My mother, his beloved daughter “Skibus,” was the only person who received a full-length hug.
My brother and I adored Papa B. Mostly because he was quiet and mysterious. Later, I learned that he had abandoned Toot and their two children and run off to California for a while. He also served time in prison for embezzling state money while serving as Tax Collector. But before I knew the details of his criminal past, I was enchanted by his aloofness. I think we all were, but only we children were brave enough to admit it.
Papa B.’s first stop once inside our house was to unpack his small black satchel in whatever room had been designated the guest room for that weekend. People would double-up in bedrooms, or someone would sleep on the sofa, just to accommodate our special guest.
I would creep upstairs and tiptoe around corners, just to peek in and observe the ritual. The hanging of button-down cotton shirts and dark pleated trousers on wire coat hangers. Then, the queuing of personal items along the bathroom sink counter: a toothbrush in a plastic traveling case, toothpaste, a hand razor and shaving cream.
On hands and knees, I watched his brown oxfords with skinny laces and punched-leather toes, crisscross the carpeted hallway. When the feet descended the stairs, I jumped to attention. Once his footsteps reached the end of the hallway, I snuck down the stairs. Sliding along the banister so I could step on the thickest edge of carpet. Silent as a stalking cat, I entered the family room. Then watched Papa B. settle into the corner of the sofa, next to the end table with the reading lamp.
He would pull his reading glasses out of his shirt pocket and place them on the table. From another pocket, he would pull a pack of cigarettes and arrange them next to the amber crackle-glass ashtray. The Newark Star Ledger posed in his lap like a rolling pin. Papa B. removed the paper’s rubber band garter much like my mother unrolled her stockings and slid them down her slender legs.
He unfurled the snuggly clinging paper. Smoothed out the wrinkles with his long, filigree fingers.
Before he had time to begin reading, my mother served him a glass of Irish whiskey. She set it down on the altar of reading materials. It was a short glass, with two ice cubes. It reminded me of the communion chalice at church. Polished and waiting on its hand-embroidered cloth. Waiting for the end of the sermon when the pastor would raise it in his right hand and accuse it of being the blood of Christ. Then he drank the blood and called for the elders to serve sewing-thimble glasses of wine to each congregation member squirming in the wooden pews.
I would wait for my grandfather to mount his reading glasses on his long bumpy nose. Then light a cigarette and begin reading the front page news.
The whiskey glass would stand still, ice slowly melting into its clear liquid existence. By page three – the local news – Papa B. would raise the glass and sip. So softly that it looked like he was kissing a glass lip.
He would read and sip and smoke for a couple of hours. Not wanting to talk. Just wanting to ingest.
When my mother called us all to the dining room table, we took our assigned seats. Bowed our heads for grace. Toasted to our health with the tinkling of crystal wine and water glasses.
My father carved the turkey with the electric carving knife. I chose the white breast meat. Papa B. chose the leg with its moist dark meat. He helped himself to scalloped oysters – a favorite casserole that my mother prepared for her father only on this day each year.
After biting into its toasted Saltine cracker crumb topping, his shoulders slumped. He sighed. He seemed to relax and crawl out of his cocoon.
He began to talk. To talk of all the information he had been accumulating: stories about Newark. Stories from around the world. Historical facts.
Papa B. was a human encyclopedia. I loved to listen to his husky voice as it spoke like an ancient teacher. Like someone who knew more than a few dark secrets of knowledge.