Grandpa smoked pipes. They weren’t fancy or expensive—just cheap-o, disposable corncobs with plastic stems that stained easily and looked as worn and used as he did after eight decades of simple American living.
Today, you could buy pipes like the kind Grandpa smoked for two bucks. The one I have tucked away in the cigar box in my closet probably cost him a quarter. To me, though, it’s utterly priceless. It’s the only thing I have of his. Somehow, that pipe bears his indelible imprint.
Grandpa was born while Teddy Roosevelt was president. He died the year Bill Clinton was elected. All the big moments of the twentieth century happened on his watch: the Great Depression, the two World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam, but also the flu pandemic, Prohibition, Apollo 11, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. You could say he had a good run. He saw it all.
Grandpa was a Bronx boy, but his was a different kind of Bronx than the one you’re maybe imagining. As a young man he sometimes slept in a hay barn on Gun Hill Road. I don’t imagine there are too many of those left. He was delighted when I got into Fordham.
Although he never got past the eighth grade, he could sing the entire Fordham fight song from memory: “To the Ram, to the Ram, to the Ram for victory!”
Grandpa’s passions were simple. He loved baseball. A lengthy retirement afforded ample evenings in his favorite armchair watching the Yankees on Channel 11. I was lucky enough to see my first game at the House That Ruth Built with a man who’d actually been there while the Babe was building it.
When the Yanks were on the West Coast, Grandpa would gladly put on a windbreaker and his Bear Bryant hat and head for the bleachers of the local middle school to watch a beer league game. He just loved the sport of it all.
Visiting Grandpa meant a suspension of the normal rules governing this boy’s life. There was coffee cake for breakfast and a pigeon coop in the backyard. My brother and I slept on cots in the basement where Uncle Michael had in his hippie days painted a giant American flag on the ceiling. Far out, man.
But the pipe smoke was the main thing. The fragrant, earthy, enveloping smell of pipe tobacco was Grandpa’s trademark. A whiff of pipe never fails to carry me off to the kitchen in that little house in Northern Westchester that Grandpa built with his own two hands and where he and my wee Irish Nana raised seven kids, not counting the orphans, foundlings, and foster children they took in as a matter of simple Christian charity.
How did they do it, I often wonder? How did they manage on his meager salary as a Westchester County Parkway Policeman and, later, her part time work at the A&P?
It’s a mystery of course. How do any of us manage? But one thing’s for sure—they had faith. Every room in that house was adorned with rosaries and religious images. The light switch covers had little crosses on them that glowed in the dark. The Blessed Virgin Mary stood guard in the garden.
But all of that was ornamental. They were truly and completely devoted to Christ and his Church. They were daily communicants, my grandparents. Nana even floated the idea to me of becoming a priest.
Grandpa came once or twice to our house in New Jersey with a training basket full of pigeons in the trunk of his car. He’d release them from our yard and drive back to Westchester to time their arrival. I could never fathom how these primitive creatures could find their way over hill, river, and dale without a map. But something inside was pointing them home.
Grandpa was old when he died and by then we were not terribly close. I was a teenager and focused on many things other than racing pigeons and baseball. But his death rattled me. He was the first person in my little world to fly away.
At his funeral, I asked Nana what she would do with Grandpa’s pipes. “Would you like to keep one?” she asked. Would I ever.
Now, when I open that cigar box and the first, faded tobacco smell hits me, I feel closer to him than ever. It’s a cool summer morning and we are sitting together at that kitchen table sharing a piece of coffee cake. I am thinking about exploring the field behind the pigeon coop. He, of course, is puffing on that pipe.
And something inside is pointing both of us home.