The strongest hands I have ever known belonged to my grandfather, Joe Smyrski. As a child, I would wander through his kitchen and he would drop these mammoth paws onto my eight year-old head. His fingers wrapped around my scalp with ease, holding me in place. He called it “The Claw.” No matter how much I twisted and turned my head, no matter how hard I attempted to pry his tightened fingers off my scalp, I could never break free from his grasp. My grandmother would feign worry, “Oh dear! Oh dear!” as she spread cream cheese on my raisin bagel. Today, I blame The Claw for causing my bald spot.
It was only when he decided to let me go that I would be able to walk away.
My grandfather was an ex-priest who continued to hold confessions at his dining room table while we feasted on pizza and Sprite, singing Muppets songs together. There, over hundreds of games of Uno, Parcheesi, and Backgammon and over nearly thirty years, we would talk about life, of friends and family, or any problem I was dealing with at the time. You could chart every event of my life on the conversations at that table. He listened without judgment. Always there with a sympathetic ear, he would rarely give me answers, but rather asked questions that led me to my own conclusions — which always resulted in the best outcomes. The last day we sat at that table together with familiar pizza and Sprites, I showed him pictures of the immigrant ship and the Ellis Island records of his grandfather’s arrival to America. He thanked me and told me it was an honor to have a grandson like me.
My grandfather was a fan of movies and took me to them as often as he could. To him, no movie was above my understanding. He never balked at seeing flicks like The Mission or The Last Emperor with his elementary school grandson. Sometimes the movies were just beyond my comprehension, but he found a way to explain them to me. These were films that opened my world to new ideas and possibilities. Our movie, the one I will forever connect to him, was Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, which he took me to see when I was eleven years old. After each movie, we would go to the Kuala Mauna where we would discuss universal themes, character development and symbolism.
We saw every Star Wars film during their initial run in the theaters (well, he swore he took me to see Episode IV when I was one year old, but I highly doubt it — I think he just wanted the experience to feel complete). He would read the opening scroll to me, leaning across the armrest to whisper the words into my ears. Much later, when the new trilogy came out, he did the same. I didn’t stop him, despite being 22 years old at the time. We just laughed.
My favorite movie memory with my grandfather was the time we saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This was 1982; I was six years old. About 20 minutes in, the filmstrip broke and the screen went to white — exactly when Khan put that space bug into Chekov’s ear. Picture a theater full of Trekkies reacting to the theater manager telling us to be patient while they repaired the film.
We ended up waiting an hour. As people gave up and left the theater, my grandfather took the downtime to discuss how the movie was actually a retelling of Moby-Dick — how the characters represented good and evil — and how Kahn’s relentless quest to destroy Capt. Kirk was the same as Ahab’s monomaniacal hunt for the whale. He spoke of themes related to the Holy Grail, the things we strive for that remain out of our reach, how anger can engulf the soul and how the film’s core message fits within the theme of Anti-Transcendentalism. We talked of Jungian archetypes and symbols. An hour later they fixed the film and we, now alone, sat and watched the movie — a far more enriching experience than if had it not been interrupted.
Yes, my grandfather taught me about Anti-Transcendentalism and Jungian archetypes when I was six years old. So stop asking me why I became a literary teacher.
Our very last day together was spent watching The Wrath of Khan. Cancer had riddled my grandfather’s body, while late-stage Alzheimer’s wasted away his mind. At times he thought I was my uncle Mike. But when that bug was put into Chekov’s ear, a memory was sparked deep within. “And this was where the film broke!” he said, smiling. “Ah, yes. Right here.”
One day my grandfather came to pick me up for one of our many weekends together. This was after the innocence of childhood and the onset of teenage pessimism and angst. He drove up with a brand new bumper sticker on his car, which read “Magic Happens.”
“Grandpa!” I asked, “What does that mean?”
“Magic Happens,” he replied. He told me he believed that magic was everywhere and magic was everything. All you had to do to see it was look around. The world was made of magical things. “Magic Happens,” he said.
I told him that I thought that that was stupid. His reply was simple and to the point and stuck with me. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, I hope someday you change your mind. And you can explain it to me.”
Twenty-three years ago, my grandfather, Joseph Smyrski, wished that I would find magic and be able to explain it. Like his usual manner at the dining room table, he didn’t offer the answer directly, but rather created the path towards my own resolution.
Magic is a movie theater with my grandfather, where across the screen flicker images of heroes and villains, playing out stories of human struggle and triumph. Of far-off galaxies with closer-to-home life lessons. Magic is a broken filmstrip, an empty movie theater and the hero who now occupies the seat next to you. Magic is the conversation after, over Polynesian ribs and noodles.
Magic is a dining room table and an ever-evolving conversation. Where school problems become work problems that become career problems. Where conversations about girls become conversations about girlfriends to conversations of fiancées to conversations about marriage. Where the problems of being a son to your own father come full circle to conversations of becoming a father, and finally, a grandfather.
How do you find magic? You embrace these moments in life, the seemingly insignificant ones that somehow become embedded into your own soul. You grab them and hang onto them with every ounce of your strength, you pull them close to your heart hoping to not let one slip from your grasp and out of your memory. You squeeze them as tight as you can… just like…
Magic is my grandfather’s unbreakable grip. One that he placed on my head the day we first met and which tightened with every movie we saw, every Muppets song we sang, every conversation we had. A grip that to this day is wrapped around not just my skull, but my entire soul. And it’s not loosening. Magic is that my grandfather, Joseph Smyrski, is no longer here, but he has yet to let go of me, and will only let go when he is ready to let go. A day that magically will never come.
Magic Happens. Magic is my grandfather, Joseph Smyrski.