My Grandfather's Granddaughter

My granddad was an extremely funny man.

He died when I was only nine; far too soon, stolen from me quite suddenly before I ever got to know him as a grown-up, which is one of the saddest facts of my life. But my memories of him are quite vivid, and when I mentioned to my mother tonight that after telling someone a bit about him, my correspondent had noted, “Now I see that what you are is your grandfather's granddaughter,” my mother nodded with wide-eyed mock exasperation: “Oh, yes.”

He was NYPD, a detective, but he never looked like a cop. Nearly always sporting a goatee in his later years (and known at the precinct as “The Fuzz with the fuzz” for it), he also favored black turtlenecks, ever looking more likely to recite Ginsberg than arrest a perp. In fact, I never saw his gun, not once. It was out of the holster and into a locked drawer in his dresser the moment he walked in the door, and we were allowed nowhere near that dresser. Guns were serious business, and when he was home, he was anything but serious.

His father, my great-grandfather, had been a Vaudevillian—a contortionist acrobat clown, to be precise—and my granddad was the star of his own mobile stage. He always had a joke for every occasion; in his wallet, he carried a tiny notebook full of punch lines, for which he could remember every set-up—hundreds of jokes ready to go at a moment’s notice. My mom is fond of telling the story of how, on the plane home from a visit with my grandparents in NYC when I was 18 months old, I was already repeating the punch line of a joke I’d heard my granddad tell. She was convinced her child was a genius. Nah—just a sucker for a good joke, even then.

My granddad was also the most captivating raconteur I’ve ever met in my life, asked to tell the same stories over and over, by both adults and children alike; one of my favorite series of pictures that my compulsive shutterbug of a mother ever took was of me, on Christmas Eve at age six, dressed in green footie pajamas, sitting on the floor with my granddad, who was telling me the story of Noah and the Ark. It was hours long, or certainly seemed like it, and his descriptions of Noah’s furious but futile attempts to keep the ark free of poop produced by his thousands of animal passengers had me in such fits of laughter; in picture after picture, my head is thrown back, giggling uncontrollably, or raptly staring at him, hanging on his every word, a giant grin of anticipation on my little face.

He was wickedly clever, but would do just about anything for a laugh, no matter how asinine. Each day, he went on long walks through the city, and he loved buying complete bullshit, as long as it was a bargain. He once bought a pair of size 18 sneakers because they were only $2, so long on his feet that he had to walk up the stairs sideways when he came home. When my grandmother saw him, she burst into gales of laughter. He took them off and dumped them in the trash, commenting, “That was worth two bucks.”

His favorite purchases, however, were rubber insects, gelatinous globby creatures of various shapes and sizes, and facial prosthetics—the uglier the better. Sometimes he would come in the door sporting not just a fake nose, but a fake lizard dripping down his head, too.

You wouldn’t know it from that picture, but he was actually quite a handsome fellow.

Eager to be in on his gags, I would join him in pretending to be asleep when we heard my mom or nana coming, only to jump up to startle them—and good sports that they were, they always acted surprised. We’d watch TV in their living room with small rubber monkeys hanging from our noses, until my nana noticed and laughed, or I’d spend hours with him trying to teach me to wiggle my ears, like he could. I never managed it, but I can raise both eyebrows independently of each other, which he could never do.

I remember that he was a great cook, especially his Italian sausages (in spite of his decidedly not Italian lineage), that he looked after thousands of guppies kept in huge tanks in the cellar, that he collected stamps, that he always stuck gift bows to his forehead every Christmas, and that called me Lisser. And I remember walks with him through the city, during which he would hop over parking meters in a single bound.

His long walks through the city he loved, and made me love as I came to associate its wonder and beauty and madness and fun with the sidewalk strolls spent with my tiny hand in his, were, in the end, what killed him. He never learned how to drive, as there was no need, and skipped the bus or the subway whenever he could. The 20 block walk to the doctor got his heart pumping, and left undiagnosed the dangerously low blood pressure which led to his fatal stroke at age 63.

I didn’t attend his funeral—I was too young, it was decided. But I’ve been told that, laid in his casket, he had a smile playing at the edges of his mouth, and everyone expected him to sit up at any moment and announce it had all been a gag.

I miss him still, so desperately, and I wish more than anything that I could know him now. Even though I’m sure he was a flawed man, he is perfect in my memory—a circumstance I’d happily exchange if it had meant more time to know him. I wish I had just one more walk with him. It would be nice to find out what he thought of how I turned out, and whether I could make him laugh.

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