Wood, Amber, Smoke

In the den at my Oma’s house, I found Aunt Olivia smoking grandpa’s meerschaum pipe. She was allergic to smoke, yet here she was, taking deep drags, a small light glowing from the bowl. The smoke eased out of her nostrils, and she sighed.

“I see him,” she said, pointing to the old woven chair in the corner. The springs on the cushion had molded to grandpa’s bottom, and no one sat in it now.

Olivia turned to me, green in the face but serene. She smiled, and more smoke snaked between her uneven teeth.

“He’s lonely,” she said. “He misses me. I was his favorite, you know.”

* * *

In the den at my Oma’s house, I found my eldest cousin, Charlie, smoking the meerschaum pipe. His parents, Aunt Olivia and Aunt Claire, insisted he didn’t “partake” in such activities, but he held the pipe as if it belonged on the ridges of his teeth. The lone window to the den was open. Laughter floated up from the pig roast Oma hosted outside. 

Charlie shivered despite the summer heat.

“I see him,” he said, pointing to the large, framed illustration of a shot duck falling to earth. “There’s blood coming out of his fingernails, like that time he hit his thumb with a hammer on accident. He built my playhouse.”

That same playhouse sat rotting under the willow tree in Oma’s backyard. Now, she used it to store mulch.

* * *

On Halloween, I crept to the den to take the pipe off the shelf. It felt like my turn. Most days, it nestled on a soft velvet cushion. I dragged a stool from the bathroom to reach it.

Mother swept in. She hooked an arm under my armpits and grabbed the stool with the other.

Mother pressed her cheek against mine. “That pipe’s not for you, Bug.”


That had been Grandpa’s nickname for me. 

Later, downstairs in the kitchen, while she mixed egg salad with her hands, licking mustard dressing off her fingers, I asked why.

“Why is it not for me?” I asked. “Everyone else smokes it.”

“I have no idea what you mean,” she said.

Lick. Lick. Lick.

“You smoked it yesterday,” I said. “When we came over to help with Oma’s laundry. 

Her lips scrunched up in a frown. “You have a cruel imagination.” 

* * *

At Thanksgiving, Oma sprawled on the couch next to the woven chair, the pipe held loose between two fingers. The bowl smoked; thick tendrils orbited her face like a caress. 

“It’s all wrong, Spiro,” Oma said to the air.

She held up the meerschaum pipe as if to inspect it, then she jutted her chin at me in the doorway.

“Did anyone ever tell you where this came from, Liebchen?” she asked.

I was told that when she married my Greek grandpa, they threw both sides of their families into disarray. They’d reveled in it. 

I stepped toward Oma, overcome by the smell of tobacco smoke and something pungent, like sweat and fresh fertilizer. 

Oma chuckled. “His father won it in a bet coming to America.”

The pipe smoke thickened.

“He cheated, your great-grandfather,” Oma said. “He wanted this damn pipe so bad that he cheated at cards. The other man had carved it with his own hands and was a better cardplayer. Your great-grandpa was a slimy bastard.”

She sniffed. “Runs in the family. ‘Well, darling,’ he’d said to me after we married. ‘When one is desperate, one can be forgiven to cross lines.’”

Oma’s voice sounded exactly like Grandpa’s when she told the story. It was as if he had crawled into her throat. 

“The man knew he’d cheated and still handed over the pipe. He told your great-grandpa the pipe would be a sword in his back. It would never leave him. If he got rid of it, it would come back. Anytime he tried to sell it, pawn it, or give it away, it came back. Here it is, Liebchen. Your legacy.”

Oma laughed. It did not sound like her laugh.

She rolled to her side and slid off the couch. She walked to the edge of the den, where the shelf was, and placed the pipe on its velvet bedding. The smoke disappeared. Oma’s hand hovered outstretched above the pipe, as if she might grab it again. Then her fingers clenched into a tight fist, and she dropped her hand to her side with a grunt.

“Damn him,” Oma said, staring at the pipe. “Did you know, during each birth, your mother’s and your aunt’s, that your grandfather left my bedside?”

Of course, I knew. Oma told this story as constantly as a prayer.

“I knew he was smoking that pipe,” Oma said. “Oh, eventually he came back. Eventually. But there I was, bleeding rivers out of my uterus, milk bursting from my breasts, baby screaming, and he’d cry about his goddamned father. ‘I see him,’ your grandpa said. ‘He’s lost.’ Then he’d take on a voice that wasn’t his own, a bounce to his walk he had no energy for. You know who had that bounce to his step, Liebchen?”

I nodded, knowing she meant my great-grandfather.

Oma trembled, her peppered curls a shroud over her eyes.

Oma patted the pipe like a child; she’d meant that pat for me. Without another word, she went downstairs. Soon, I heard her arguing with my mother and Aunt Olivia. Aunt Claire had to step in to mediate. Apparently, globs of butter had leaked from the plate of Greek pasta baking in the oven.  

I smelled smoke.

“It’s all wasted,” my mother yelled.

* * *

No one came for me this time. 

I grabbed the stool, dragging it to the shelf where the pipe waited. My fingers found the smooth surface of the pipe, its sculpted curves. The mouthpiece felt wet with saliva. 

My fingers curled, lifting. 

At first, I thought I might not be able to lift it, surprised at its heft, shocked at its warmth. 

At first.