This week's Member Pick is the first chapter from the best-selling memoir After Visiting Friends
deputy editor Michael Hainey
's story of his father's death and his search for answers. Hainey was 6 years old when his father, newspaperman Bob Hainey, died suddenly, but questions remained about the circumstances around his death.
We're proud to feature the book. Thanks to Michael and Scribner
for sharing this story with the Longreads Member community.
What You Are
I was home from school, visiting my grandmother in Chicago, when she told me this story, a story that involved an old Polish custom: When a boy has his first birthday, his family sits him in his high chair, and on the tray before him they place three objects—
"Whatever the boy chooses," my grandmother says to me, "that will be his life."
"And I?" I said. "What did I choose?"
"You?" she says. "You slammed your fist on the tray, sent everything scattering to the ground. There was your mother, on her knees, searching, cursing you and all the pieces she couldn't find."
"I never heard that story."
"There's lots of stories you haven't heard."
# # #
Even when I was a kid, and the holiday dinner was over, the plates pushed aside and the adults having coffee and the kolaczki that my grandmother always made, I'd linger at the table, ask her questions about the old days. How, when my mother was a young girl they had no money for medicine, so if she had a sore throat, my grandmother would make mashed potatoes, roll them in a dish towel, and put them on my mother's neck. A hot compress. Or she'd tell me how my mother learned to play the accordion from Mr. Carnevale, down the block. Every Saturday, wrestling her instrument into her red wagon, pulling it to his studio on 63rd Street.
Once, some years ago, we were sitting around my mother's kitchen table playing cards—my mother, my grandmother, and me; the matriarchy and me. (My grandfather was dead by now, and my father had died years earlier.) I asked my grandmother what it was like when she first got married. This was 1934. Middle of the Great Depression. They said their vows on Thanksgiving, so they could cobble together a four-day weekend and call it their honeymoon, such as it was. My grandfather was the only one working in his family—supporting his parents and his eight brothers and sisters—so he was unable to take any time off for the wedding, let alone a honeymoon. Not that they had the money to. Eighteen months later, my mother was born.
My grandmother tells me that she and my grandfather were so poor that they could not afford a crib for my mother, and for the first year she slept in an old dresser drawer.
"Sometimes at night I'd tuck your momma in and then Grampa and I would go to the corner tavern and have a beer. Cost a nickel. That was our Friday night."
"Wait," my mother says. "You left me home in the drawer? Alone?"
"You weren't alone," my grandmother tells her.
"Who was watching me?" my mother asks.
My mother slams her hand on the table, gets up, and starts washing dishes.
My grandmother looks at me. "What's she so hot about?"