The night my grandfather tried to kill us, I was five years old, the age I
stopped believing in Santa Claus, started kindergarten, and made real rather than imaginary friends.
Because Grandpa was one of two grandfathers in their family, my cousins called him Grandpa Jerry. For me, he was simply Grandpa. I had only one.
The other--my father's father, the Polish grandpa we called Dziadzia
(pronounced Jaja)--was hit over the head during a burglary in his front hallway seven years before I was born and died after slipping into a coma.
Everyone in Jersey City knew Grandpa "Italian Grandpa" as Beansie, because when he was young, he stole a crate of beans from the back of a truck.
Details about his life started to bubble into my consciousness during the summer of 1970, the year my memory kicked in full force. There were stories about Grandpa "going away" to Trenton for murder. Being arrested for armed robbery. Beating my mother, her sister, and her three brothers.
Grandpa was a well-known neighborhood bully and crook, though the only stolen objects I knew of firsthand were the ones he swiped while working as a security guard at the Jersey City Public Library and Museum in the late
1960s. The fact that Grandpa was able to get a city job as a security guard (through an uncle, who knew a local judge, who was connected to the mayor) says a lot about Jersey City's patronage system and general reputation. Everybody stole. It was no big deal.
My brother inherited most of the objects Grandpa took from the library and museum--the shiny, shellacked coins with Indian feathered heads; a photograph of Abraham Lincoln; small, black Indian arrowheads; a set of encyclopedias. I always wondered if Grandpa stole them book by book or had one of his friends with a car pull up to the library and help him load them in.
The only stolen object of Grandpa's that I possess is a dictionary, a
Webster's Seventh New Collegiate edition, which he inscribed to my sister the year I was born: "From Grandpa. Hi Ya Paula. Year-1965." The call numbers on the spine and the blue stamp on a back page, which reads free public library jersey city, n.j., have been crossed out in blue indelible marker, his attempt to legitimize the gift. Grandpa obviously had his own interpretation of the phrase free public library.
Before I started school, my grandma Pauline baby-sat for me while my mother worked as a clerk at the Jersey City Division of Motor Vehicles office,
three blocks away. When Grandma died in February of 1970, my mother had no one to baby-sit, so she quit her job. Though I'm sure I missed my grandma--a saintly woman with a halo of white hair and small, pretty hands--my world changed for the better. I was suddenly the center of my mother's attention.
With Grandma gone, Grandpa was at the center of no one's.
Because my grandmother had stayed married to Grandpa for four decades, she died fairly young. She was only sixty. She died on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. By then Grandma hated Grandpa so much that on her deathbed,
with the smudge of ashes on her forehead, she made my mother promise that
Grandpa wouldn't be buried on top of her when he died. She couldn't stand the thought of his remains mingling with hers.