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  • I found myself with English muffins (decidedly fancy ones) and asked my son if he’d like to try one. “Sure,” he said in his 9 year old “I’m game” voice. I loved English muffins as a kid, and I hoped he would too. Delicious and versatile: butter and jelly for breakfast, Prego and cheese in the oven for an afterschool snack. But what I really loved were mini-sandwiches, an invention (or so I thought) of my grandfather’s that was bacon on an English muffin (later I found out that there was butter on there too and I flipped out because it seemed so gross—I soon got over it). But what made mini-sandwiches so incredibly divine was that my grandfather cut them into four equal triangles and would serve them to me with a curt bow and a click of his heels.

    My grandfather, Haley Urecis Mordecai, always seemed to elevate the ordinary to the VIP. The bow and click was something he’d admired about the Japanese during WW2 when at the end of the war he’d lied about his age in order to enlist. He’d make a swing for me out of his arms and sing “The elephant has a great big trunk / He takes it wherever he goes.” In his clear and lyric voice, he sang “O Tannenbaum” in the German all the way through and he always spoke with crisp enunciation and unimpeachable authority, as a child of middle-class Jamaican immigrants is impelled to do. He made Waldorf salads for me and mini-sandwiches, he called avocados alligator pears, and he’d even bring me brioche from Dumas French patisserie all the way from the upper east side. He did these things when he was allowed in the house.

    Haley was…complicated. He impregnated my grandmother when she was 16 and was in and out of my mother’s life. Family lore has it that the jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy, engaged to my great-aunt Joyce, named his famous album “Out to Lunch” after Haley. Abusive and angry, he developed a heroin addiction in the 70’s. And when we moved into the house where I spent most of my childhood, Haley wasn’t always welcome. One time he came looking for my grandmother, looking for money, and my great-grandmother, Haley’s mother-in-law, wouldn’t let him pass into the house. Nanny stood her ground until he wrapped his hands around her neck and attempted to throttle her. I was maybe seven or eight and stood there paralyzed. My mom’s cousin Celia, the only other adult in the house, was able to pull Haley off Nanny. For a long time after that whenever I heard his signature doorbell ring—three quick buzzes (everyone else rang twice; strangers usually rang once)—I’d run to the kitchen for a knife and keep it close, determined never to be so unprepared.

    But grandfather was charming and strong and in the 80’s managed to kick his addiction. Despite all the strife he caused everyone else, I knew he loved me, held me in a different esteem. As he always told me, “You been nothin’ but good news your whole life, baby.”

    On May 1, 1999, I was newly pregnant, and my grandfather was diagnosed with liver cancer. Once it’s been discovered death is pretty close behind. I visited him in the hospital and he lay gazing at my mom with wet apologetic eyes. When he thought I wasn’t looking, he said to her in a low voice, “I got this for this,” and he rubbed his forearm where he used to inject needles. My mother replied, “That doesn’t matter now.” And when she took him into her house and made a hospice out of the tv room, I realized it really didn’t matter. In the most profound act of forgiveness I had witnessed to that point in my life, my mom taught me that “complicated” can mean that anger and compassion can live in the same place. Haley died in my parents’ house on June 1, 1999.

    I toasted the English muffin, microwaved the bacon and told my son right off that there would be butter. (“Butter makes it better,” he said). I assembled the mini-sandwich, cut it into four perfect triangles and handed the plate over with a bow and click of my heels. I watched intently as he took a bite. “Mmmm,” he said. “Delicious.”

    Happy Birthday, Grandfather. With love to you, dear Haley.
    9 february 1930 – 1 June 1999
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