When I think of my grandfather’s house I think
of my father looking pointedly serene
in a boarding school photograph
by the standup ashtray that squeaked
in the giant living room that huddled
under the brown and possible dusks
of northern New Jersey, everything feeling
safe and doomed at the same time in 1947. Ialso think:
of a wing chair smelling of the insides of hats,
of my grandmother, who was always dead,
of headaches in the mirrors,
of daughters-in-law desperate in the powder room, and
of a grand piano that smelled like old, old Christmas trees,
with thumpy keys my father played just parts of songs on,
ill at ease.
I think of a kitchen that smelled of hominy and steam—
so did the maids, Rose and Pauline. I think
of Aunt Florry who smelled like a tongue depressor,
and died on Easter weekend, buying cookies
for my sister and me.
Right in the bakery,
right on the floor.
I’ll never eat cookies
on Easter anymore.
I think of 1929 in the radio,
of Kerensky in the martini glasses, of sex in the galoshes,
of fury in the Sunday roast,
of truth in the kick under the table,
of the flame that wandered sluggish
o’er the Christmas pudding,
of a green fluid in a glass swan barometer,
of funny Uncle Peter and puzzled Uncle David,
of the Allen boys’ tuxedos in trolley cars
and how everything happened Before the War,
and especially I think
of Grandpa who smelled like damp foreheads, and was smart;
of Grandpa having a mistress,
and the mistress a son—
when Grandpa died the cancelled checks
would show what he had done.
I think of Our Kind of People
and how That’s Not The Way We Do Things In This Family;
I think how nothing was permitted,
but Everything Was Real;
and of my mother, mean as a scared child,
eating her soup at those holiday dinners.
But mostly I think of my father,
with his face like a lottery ticket,
with his face like shined shoes
lined up in a closet,
of my father’s smile waiting for the shutter to click,
of his smile pinned to me like a medal for deeds Ididn’t do,
of years later, and the big, tired shoulders
of a skinny man gone fat,
of the terrible wisdom of his face under hospital stubble.
July 16, 1998