My Grandfather’s Lamp

One of the finest things I own is a lamp with a stern brass pirate, one hand on his hip and the other gripping a long sword.

This pirate is a landmark in my mind, a mythic figure who haunts my first memories. For decades he stood on a spindly desk in my grandfather’s basement that smelled of spider poison and Saginaw Bay, and I was fascinated and frightened by the lamp’s strangeness, oftentimes afraid to look at it, perhaps sensing it was a relic from a different world yet unable to imagine it would one day become part of mine.

My grandfather inherited the lamp from Queenie and Hazel, his spinster aunts. My father remembers seeing it on a nightstand during his childhood visits to their home. They say Hazel bought it at a Detroit pawn shop in the early 1900s, but nobody knows for sure. They said a lot of things about Queenie and Hazel: that the sisters hopped a fence and walked across a military airstrip in Kalamazoo, determined to register as nurses in World War I. That Hazel grabbed her rifle and chased after a man when he tried to kiss her. She even fires a couple of shots in some versions of the tale. I never knew Queenie or Hazel and today their images are scattered in attic boxes, their faces unseen on glass Kodachrome slides. For me, this lamp is where they live.

The pirate watched over my grandfather’s spindly desk for nearly thirty years, switched on only when he went downstairs to putter in his wood shop where he produced elaborate vases, bookends, and chests. When he moved to a retirement home, most of his belongings were packed up, divided among family, or sold. He took the lamp with him. To make it easier for residents to find their rooms among the long halls of look-alike doors, the nursing staff encouraged each patient to place a memento on the little shelf mounted next to each door. Plastic flowers, birthday cards, family snapshots, and woodland figurines lined the halls because it’s easier to recall a photograph of your grandchild than room 27b. My grandfather placed this lamp outside his door, where it threatened the tiny shelf with its brass weight and the pirate looked as if he might murder the ceramic kitten next door. The lamp unnerved some of the residents and they complained. When he asked my opinion, I told him that I loved it. “Me too,” he said with a relieved grin. “I think it classes up the place.”

He taped my name beneath the lamp before he died. Today it sits on my desk and although I still see the stern pirate that frightened me as a child, I see many other things as well.

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