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The Inexplicable Bond Between My Grandfather and My Son

“Want the book with Paba,” my son says, standing on tiptoe and straining to reach a photo album I’ve put on a high shelf for safe-keeping. “Here you go,” I say, getting it for him and turning to the page he wants. “Paba!” he says happily, laying his hand gently on the page.

Paba was the name I called my paternal grandfather. A man my son never met. He died as I sat in a sociology class my junior year of college, nearly thirteen years ago. But that doesn’t seem to matter to my son. From the minute he saw that picture of “Paba” smiling out at the camera with his wide, open smile, he’s adopted him into his life.

Paba’s wife, my grandmother, lived a little over a decade after his death, puttering around the New York City apartment the two of them had shared. A place so reminiscent of my childhood it was often hard to visit her there. A woman who had once been, to me, the height of sophistication and elegance, descending into loneliness and dementia.

When I was a little girl my grandparents used to take me to the theater. We’d all dress up and they’d take me to a fancy dinner on Restaurant Row. Then it was on to the show. I’d sit between my grandparents in the Orchestra level, amongst all the other well-dressed, cosmopolitan New Yorkers. A shiny, glittering world I didn’t belong to. But wished I did. Their world. Grandma and Paba’s.

When I got pregnant with my son, I found myself praying that my grandmother would live long enough to hold him. I knew she wouldn’t be able to cook him tricolor rotini with butter and salt, or read him Eloise while he ate it, like she’d done for me. But I wanted them to look into each other’s eyes. To know one another somehow.

And I think, too, that I wanted my son to have some connection to Paba. A man I miss every day. Who I think I see so often (on the subway, on a crowded street) that I still find it hard to believe he’s gone.

I knew there was no chance that Paba would get to meet my son. But I wanted there to be something. Because, man oh man, would Paba have ever loved to meet him! He would have done funny voices for him, and made up silly songs. He would have tap danced for him in his orthopedic shoes. And they’d have laughed and laughed.

My son did get to meet my grandmother. Just once. When he was about seven months old. My grandmother was in a nursing home outside the city then. It was hard to get to with a baby, but my brother was in town, and I asked him to help me take my son to visit her. I was moving out of state in a couple weeks and I was very conscious that this might be the last chance I had to see her. And the only chance for her to meet my son.