Details of my paternal grandfather’s death unspooled sparingly. I overheard bits of conversations. My parents’ glances were too obvious. I begged for information. Why is it a secret? On a wall of family photos, my grandpa’s portrait was my favorite. He looked ancient to me then. So cool. He was only in his twenties in that angled fedora. His 1940s gaze is still a challenge. A mystery. A cigarette is anchored to his lips — to him, to that moment before I was born.
“A disgusting habit,” my parents said.
I ached that I never knew him. I believed that I missed him. Please tell me, I told my parents. How did Grandpa die?
“You’re too young,” they said. “We’ll tell you when you’re older.”
My grandfather smoked three packs a day. Nonstop, my dad told my brothers and me. My dad often snuck a pack. Each time, he unrolled a cigarette and on a shallow bed of dried tobacco strands, he layered a blanket of match tips. No wood. That would’ve burned too slowly for my dad; he needed a faster payoff, a bigger statement. With tobacco stuffing the cigarette back into shape, it was resealed and rejoined the pack — a Trojan horse. My brothers and I giggled as we pictured our grandpa’s eyes bulge, flames licking his mouth. I imagined my dad, a few years older than me, bolt from trouble.
I was maybe seven years old when my dad sat down next to me on my bed one night. He would share what happened to his father. I was old enough. I was elated. “He killed himself,” my dad said. What? I yelled. “He shot himself.” In the head? I sobbed. It hadn’t occurred to me that my grandpa might have ended his own life, that he had taken himself away from me. “Why are you crying?” my dad asked. “You didn’t know him.” He stared at me. My throat hurt when I tried to answer him. It’s just so sad that he didn’t want to stay alive to meet us. My dad patted my head and walked to the door. He looked back at me and turned off the light, then pulled the door closed, all but a ribbon of light from the hall. Alone, I told my grandpa, You would have liked us. I told him my siblings’ names. I whispered after closing my eyes, I love you.
The next afternoon I went for a walk in our quiet neighborhood, chatting to the grandpa I never met and crouching every couple of steps to inspect cigarette butts. If a stub wasn’t squashed — if it still had its form — I picked it up. I stored my collection on the second floor of the playhouse.
Illustration: Clare Rosean, “A Crack in the Sky, and a Hand Reaching Down to Me.”