My Grandfather’s Ear

Creative Nonfiction
Linda C. Wisniewski

I hold in my hand a shell, brown and white. It curves inward; light purple colors the shadow inside, like the dark depths of my grandfather’s ear. I long to crawl inside it.

I want to know him again and for the first time. Who was he, what were his innermost thoughts behind that shell-like ear I remember?

I believe I could get to him, his essence, through his ear. At the end, he lost his hearing. The details of his final illness are vague to me now; I was only fourteen. I knew he was ill. He was seventy-four. Standing together in the middle room of the second-floor flat he shared with my grandmother and their son, my uncle, I was almost as tall as he was.

“I can’t hear you anymore,” he said, waving a hand toward the side of his head. Did I comfort him? Probably not. By then, I was already practiced in the stiff upper lip, never “breaking down” if I could avoid it. I may have said, “It’s all right.” I felt his love in his grieving.

We weren’t alone in the room. There was always someone else, my mother, grandmother, sister, uncle. My mother, trying to cheer him, told me to show Grandpa my nails. I had polished them in the popular color for eyeshadow and nails that year. “Blue!” he said and smiled. But then we were silent again, not having the words.

My grandfather was a small, quiet man, a peaceful presence in the life of my extended family. When I was a child, he was often in our house, taking care of me and my sister while our parents worked. One day, she and I got into a fight over something I’ve long since forgotten. We ran around the house, yelling and crying. Grandpa was at least as upset as we were. He followed us from room to room, pleading, “Stop,” “Don’t cry,” “She didn’t mean it.”

My grandfather’s ear was well-trained in Russian. He learned the language as a boy growing up in Poland. Which words did he learn first, the Polish or the Russian? I wish I knew more. Polish at home, I think, and Russian at school.

Once he read to me from the New York Daily News. In a page one picture, people carried signs printed in Russian. It was during the Cold War, 1960. Americans were interested in what was going on in Russia, but I’ll never know what it was that day. Grandpa was pleased, I know that. He pointed to the signs and carefully pronounced the Russian words for me. If I sat here forever, I would still not remember what they were, or the sound of his voice reading them to me. I wasn’t interested, then. Fourteen, and head of my class, I didn’t need to know any of the things he tried to teach me. The Old Country stuff was for old people like him, and though I loved him, it was a patronizing kind of love for an old man whose time had come and gone.

At the end of a typical day at St. Stanislaus School, I walked into the little club where Grandpa tended bar. Dark wood, sparkling bottles and a big mirror behind him, he reached under the bar and brought out a Hershey chocolate bar. He took me as a toddler on his lap, and showed me liquor ads in men’s magazines like Esquire, teaching me to recognize Old Crow, Four Roses and others.

My grandfather’s ear was small, like him, and always open for me, like his face. A half-wreath of black hair encircled the back and sides of his otherwise bald head. Even at the end, his hair never turned gray.

My mother told me a story that happened when she was a child. Grandpa worked in a butcher shop and one day, a man walked in the door with a young lamb in a sack. He asked Grandpa to butcher the lamb. Grandpa didn’t like the idea, but he agreed. Alone in the shop, he cautiously peered into the sack. The lamb looked up at him. After a bit of time, he gathered the courage to put the sack on a table. He then removed the lamb from the sack, took out his knife and quickly cut the throat of the lamb, but not before the lamb looked at him again and baaed.

Grandpa later told me himself that it was a true story and that the lamb was crying “Mama.” He told the man to never again bring a live animal to the store.

I saw him smile, I saw him cry, but I never saw him angry. With him, I felt safe. I wish I could feel that way again.

My grandfather’s ear was clear, translucent so that light came through the outer shell and lit the tiny black hairs inside.

Now that I am sixty, I have time. Done with school and career, my days are my own creation to do with as I wish. And what I do now is sit and look at this little brown-and-white shell in my hand, turning it over.

What I am now is a woman frustrated by my inability to know the only man who loved me without condition, who died the year I was fourteen, long before I realized that who I was might have something to do with him.

“I am a librarian living with my family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where I teach memoir workshops at the local community college. My work has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, Mindprints, The Rose and Thorn and the Philadelphia Inquirer. I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Mindprints. In 2008, my book-length memoir, Off Kilter, will be published by Pearlsong Press.” E-mail: lindawis[at]

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