This morning, for no particular reason, I suddenly thought about a weird incongruous memory from my childhood, something that happened more than sixty years ago. Isn’t it funny how random images appear in our heads, completely unconnected to the narrative in which we are immersed? The memory was of a day when I went with my grandfather to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, just the two of us, which happened no more than once or twice in all of time. I was a four-year-old brat, unhappy for all sorts of reasons I would have been too young to articulate, and my grandfather was preoccupied and quiet. Even at that age, I could sense that he was not particularly fond of me, which in retrospect I can understand, but I didn’t know how to win him over. There was something inaccessible about him, and it would be many years and much too late before I thought about all the questions I wish I had asked him.
I wore a heavy, coarse wool jacket, bomber style, zippered, plaid. The early spring sun felt warm on my face, and there was bird song, the fragrance of blossoms, a lazy feeling. We had wandered through a greenhouse together, humid and tropical inside, and I would forever after love such places and associate them with my grandfather. But now we had exited the greenhouse and nothing was happening; I was bored and antsy and craving a what-next. My amorphous discontent turned to delight when I noticed a comic book lying on a bench.
It was a Felix-the-Cat comic, a special edition, small and thick, the size of a paperback book. I ran over and picked it up, flipped a few pages, and immediately assumed ownership. It would be fun to carry around and peruse at my leisure, a found treasure that even my older brothers would envy.
A young boy approached the area as we were walking away, and somehow I knew that his mission was to retrieve the comic book. He looked beyond us purposefully, certain that he had left it on the bench, not noticing that it was in my hand. My grandfather whispered to me in his bumpy broken English that the comic book belonged to the boy and I needed to return it.
I wish I could tell you otherwise, but I was obnoxious and indignant. Finders keepers, that sort of thing. The book had been abandoned and it was meant to be mine. My grandfather looked at me with a kind of weary resignation, his babysitting duties thankfully almost over, and rather than have to deal with my whining, he deftly took the book from my hand and slipped it under my jacket.
Had he learned this trick stealing bread as a boy from some Neapolitan street vendor, lifting sausage from a butcher shop, absconding with fruit from an orchard not his? He had executed the motion with such cool and expertise. Now I felt the book snug against my chest, and I moved stiffly to keep it in place.
The boy looked at me accusingly. I saw him say something to his mother and point at me. But my grandfather’s presence gave me an aura of innocence and respectability I didn’t deserve. An old man would surely not facilitate a petty theft or condone such dishonest behavior. Neither the boy nor his mother confronted us. I had made my grandfather an accomplice to my crime, and we had gotten away with it.
In the end, of course, I didn’t enjoy possessing the Felix-the-Cat book, and I couldn’t understand why I had wanted it so much. Even as we walked through the gates of the botanical garden, I had an impulse to let it slip from my jacket and fall to the ground, and I would have gladly left it there to be trampled by feet and rained upon. But on some level I understood that my grandfather had compromised his ethics to appease my want and shut me up, and I didn’t want him to see how little the coveted comic meant to me now. I owned it, and I owned the sordid history of its acquisition, and these were heavy things to carry. My grandfather wasn’t proud of me or himself that day, and somewhere in Brooklyn there was a boy who had seen me for the unscrupulous little crook that I was.
It was a lesson in honesty and integrity taught in reverse. I learned that the value and pleasure in a thing is inextricably linked to how it was obtained. I learned that shame has weight. I learned that the stone facade of my grandfather could be worn down by petulance but this would never yield his love or the secrets of his past.