The smell of pipe tobacco takes me back like a sensory-fueled time machine. I’m back in the old house on English Road, and Grandpa is sitting on the couch. He’s wearing his blue Buffalo Bills sweatshirt, smoking his pipe, and the old black-and-white Batman serials are on the TV.
I brought over my binder full of Marvel superheroes trading cards to show him, with several new pages of entries since the last time. I tell him who everyone is, and he adds some anecdotes of his own on the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and Captain America; all characters that he remembers fondly from when he was kid like me who read comics and loved superheroes.
Outside in the backyard, I can still smell the faint hint of chlorine in the air and feel the grass under my bare feet. My fingers are damp and wrinkly as I grab another cracker from the small brown bowl on the patio table, and I eat it even though I know it will have a slight pool-water taste.
Grandma has made another batch of her famous peanut-butter chip brownies. There is a whole Tupperware container of them hidden somewhere in the house, a fun tradition that started simply due to the fact that my brother would get into them within seconds of us getting to their house. The brownie treasure hunt only makes them more rewarding and taste that much sweeter.
Val, Josh and I head down to the basement. I can still feel the damp coolness setting in as we walk down the creaky steps. The pool table, the bar with the “Cold Beer” sign, the little old TV, and the bookcase full of mystery novels make it the coolest hangout ever. We stay down there for hours, hiding the pool balls, cracking jokes, playing games and making up stories. When our cousin JD is in town visiting, that basement becomes a whole other world. We have my dad film us with the video camera, making our own zero-budget adventures as we transform the basement into a crime-fighting headquarters, or a seedy underworld tavern where ghetto secret agents do battle with evil scientists.
I’ll always feel a special connection with my grandfather. Not just because we share the same first name or a love of superheroes, but I think because we share the same quiet sense of humor as well. I can still hear him saying “Some joke, eh boss?” and cracking that wry smile. Any time my grandma would ask him to remind her about something, for example if she’d say “Remind me to call Susan,” he would wait approximately three seconds and say, “Hey, don’t forget to call Susan!” I pull that same joke on my wife, Amanda, today. (She finds it about as amusing as my grandma did, which is to say not very!)
Near the end of his life, after he’d had surgery due to throat cancer, he could no longer enjoy the big Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners with the family. He’d sit at the table with just a can of Ensure, which was about all he could reasonably consume at one sitting. I didn’t know how he could stand it, sitting there while everyone else was enjoying such amazing food that he could not partake in himself. I am sure it must have bothered him, but he didn’t let it show. Ironically it would only be a few years later, when I was in the very worst stages of my battle with Crohn’s disease, that I would regularly find myself in essentially the same situation, watching family and friends enjoy meals that I knew I’d never be able to touch. The greatest thing I could have ever taken from my grandfather was the ability to keep that sense of humor. I remember vividly, even drinking something as simple as the can of Ensure, when he’d start to gag and choke, going into a brutal coughing fit. He’d put a hand over his mouth, coughing and coughing and coughing, his face turning red as he put up his index finger as a simple “wait a minute” indicator… and then, when the coughing fit finally passed, he’d clear his throat, blink his eyes a few times, and say “Boy! That’s good stuff!”
It’s been 12 years now that he’s been gone. But, whenever I catch a smell of pipe tobacco, it’s like he’s still there, sitting on the couch, ready to look at my latest batch of Marvel cards and reminisce about the Golden Age of superheroes with his grandson.