“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.
I had assumed that my son would nap on the way there, but he didn’t. As I watched him get more and more glassy-eyed and cranky, I started to feel that the moment of connection between my son and my grandmother (and, through her, my grandfather) that I was hoping for wasn’t going to happen. That my cranky, sluggish, no-nap baby was going to be kind of a buzz-kill.
My uncle, who lived nearby, met us at the nursing home and led us to my grandmother’s floor. My son was in his stroller with the sun visor covering him (my last-ditch attempt to get him to nap). We found my grandmother, seated in a wheelchair outside her room, her once impeccably coiffed hair now hanging limply down her back, her eyes unfocused.
“Oh hello!” she said, when we greeted her. She looked at us politely, but I don’t think she recognized us. Not really. “Hi Grandma,” I said, giving her a hug. “I brought someone to meet you.”
I turned and lifted the sun visor off of the stroller. My son blinked a few times, looked around the room, and locked eyes with my grandmother. And then he smiled. A huge, warm, sun-coming-out-from-behind-the-clouds smile. As if to say, “Oh hello, I know you!” And, at the exact same moment, my grandmother pressed her hands to her chest and said, “Oh! A baby!”
“This is your great-grandson,” I told her, glad to be busy unstrapping him from the stroller so no one would see my tears. “My great-grandson?” she said, visibly puffing up with pride. “Hey!” she said to the assorted old people sitting around. “This is my great-grandson! Isn’t he handsome?”
They couldn’t take their eyes off each other, my grandmother and my son. I had to keep reminding her who he was to her. But, while she couldn’t keep it all straight in her head, there was no doubt she knew it in her heart. And somehow, he knew it too.
She died two weeks later. I was sitting in my empty apartment in my new home miles away, holding my son in my arms when I got the news. I kissed his head, held him close, and cried.
A few months later, as I was pushing my son down the street in his stroller, I caught a whiff of my grandmother’s perfume. I stopped and breathed in deeply. It wasn’t just her perfume I was smelling. There was another smell too. A sort of new-car smell, one I’ve always associated with my grandfather. With Paba. It was the smell of both of them, right there on the street, far away from where they lived. But where I was now living, with my son.
And I did a strange thing. I spoke to them. “This is my son,” I said. “I wish he could have known you. I miss you every day. But we’re okay. And we love you.”
Yesterday, as I was rushing through Times Square (where so many years ago my grandparents took me to the theater) I felt the air shift. And I found myself remembering, with complete clarity, as if it had happened only yesterday, being with Grandma and Paba here in this exact spot.
And, today, my son asked for the book with Paba in it. To look at a picture of a man he never met. Whom he loves.
So, tonight, I’ll make my son some tricolor pasta with butter and salt. I’ll see if he wants to read Eloise. I’ll sing a silly song while he plays in the tub and I’ll do my best to tap dance.
This is my son. We miss you every day. But we’re okay. And we love you. I wish he could have known you. But I kind of think somehow he does.