Kathleen Rooney Mara
940

Nonno’s voice echoed in my ears as I looked up at the entry doors of 940 North Lincoln Ave., which were made of fine new oak and thick leaded glass.

My, oh, my. These here doors cost more money than this whole house did when your grandmother bought it!

From the outside, the red brick Victorian didn’t look any different than it had always looked to me. Inside, I knew, everything had changed.

“Nonno” was a strange name for an Irish grandfather, but my maternal grandfather, Joe, was a first-generation Italian-American, and “nonno,” which means “grandfather” in Italian, was my very first word. When my paternal grandfather, Art, heard me say it, Irish or not, he wanted to be called Nonno, too. And so he always was.

I rang the doorbell. The strong Westminster chimes let 940 know I was there. My grandparents had come to live there during the Depression. While the rest of the country was struggling to make ends meet, Nonno—a successful horse gambler and boxing promoter—sent my grandmother Kathleen, whom everyone called Kass, out to buy a house for their growing family while he was away on business. She chose one on what used to be one of the best streets in the old city of Allegheny, now known as Pittsburgh’s “North Side.”

In the late 19th century, the neighborhood was considered “Millionaires’ Row.” More millionaires lived on North Lincoln Avenue and its neighboring streets than in the entire United States of America combined. The neighborhood fell into disrepair as the wealthy moved away from the soot-filled air of the steel mills to the cleaner air in Sewickley. Both my grandparents had grown up on the North Side and wanted to stay put.

I waited for my great Aunt Alice, who had lived with my grandparents for more than 30 years, to answer the door.

Come on in, honey.

She always looked elegant in her figure-hugging black dress and pearls, her bottle-brunette hair flawlessly coifed in a tight bun. I walked into the familiar salmon-colored hallway. The smell of expensive cigars permeated every crevice. As I headed for the kitchen, the black needlepoint carpet that Kass loved tried very hard to muffle the squeaky 100-year-old floors, but I creaked with each step.

I thought I saw Kass peek from the corner to see who it was. If it were kids from the neighborhood, and not me, she would have sworn under her breath. Those kids rang the bell almost daily to say hello to Nonno. He’d open the door, chat a bit and hand them some change.

“Here you go. Go buy yourself an ice cream cone,” he’d say.

This little ritual was passed down from generation to generation. If the kids were lucky, which happened often enough, they’d get a ticket for a game that week. But Nonno wasn’t home often during the day, so my grandmother was the one always answering the door.

I looked again. She was gone, but her Shalimar perfume lingered behind.

Can you make me a milkshake, Aunt Alice?

Aunt Alice’s shakes were always in high demand. I reached into the mustard-colored cabinet for one of the familiar ice cream parlor glasses. The green Hamilton churned loudly as it melded vanilla ice cream with cool, bubbly milk. I sat on the Bentwood chair and sipped it slowly out of a paper straw. A little slurp of heaven.

But Aunt Alice couldn’t make me a shake. She had died years ago. Kass was not in the hallway or the kitchen. She was gone, as well.
Where did the time go? It seemed like only yesterday that we were all sitting around the kitchen table, chatting about nothing at all. But I wasn’t there to chat, now. I was waiting. Waiting for something to happen. Waiting for the end, trying to make the present disappear, filling my head with good things to make the bad go away.

I was almost 16 years old in the summer of 1975. It was my turn to go with Kass and Nonno on their yearly pilgrimage to Canada to visit Catholic shrines and racetracks, a trip they had made each year since my dad was a boy. Like him, I had grown up on church, racetracks and football. Those were the constants in our family.

They traveled in a big black Buick La Salle with a Steelers sticker on the back bumper. Nonno was in the driver’s seat, Kass by his side. My great-aunt Alice, Kass’s sister, sat with my cousin Rita in the back. Rita, a year older than I, was quiet and observant, unlike me, the loud one of the bunch. Nonno had nicknamed me “Lady Kathleen.” Wishful thinking on his part, I suppose.

They picked me up in Scarsdale, NY, where my family had moved from the North Side three years earlier. New York had not been an easy place to break into: Bell-bottoms were already passé; no one there called Pepsi “pop” or lollipops “suckers”; and rubber bands were not “gum bands.” I was an odd ball, with a funny accent.

The most difficult part of the move, though, was adjusting to the absence of my big family. There was no more popping over to 940 just to say hello, no more weekly family football gatherings every Sunday. And so I looked forward to our times together.

I climbed into the back seat, and we were off.

An AM radio station blared as we headed up the New York State Thruway toward Canada. Nonno had perfect hearing but insisted on blasting the radio. He was the king of the road and the king of the car—and of all those who were in it.

Static smothered the baseball announcer’s voice.

“Let’s say the rosary,” Nonno said.

Good idea.

No static. No baseball. No radio. Just the melody of prayer. Reciting the rosary in the car was a familiar command of Nonno’s. We were his well-practiced rosary road warriors and dutifully recited the five decades, completing the meditation.

Nonno lit a match. His right hand held the cigar steady as he puffed again and again with his chubby, thick lips. I started to cough.

“Is the cigar smoke bothering you, Lady Kathleen?” he asked me.

“No, Nonno, it’s ok.” I sighed.

“You going to ask me to put out the cigar?”

“I wouldn’t do that!” I waved the smoke away from my face.

“Oh, boy, you certainly would. Remember what you told me? How old were you—4?”

“Yes, Nonno, I was 4.”

“You told me I had to put out that cigar because you were allergic to cigar smoke.”

Was I the only person to have ever told Art Rooney—“the Chief”—to put the smelly thing out? Probably. He must have been flabbergasted with my candor because he told this story every time we were in the car.

He cocked his head a bit to look back at me.

“And I said, ‘Well, young lady, you better get used to it ’cause, allergic or not, I’m smoking this here cigar.’”

I nodded. “That’s what you said.”

We both laughed. My stomach felt a bit queasy, but I loved the kick he got out of telling the story. I looked over at Aunt Alice. She rolled her eyes.

The wind blew hard into the car, but the breeze was welcome on the hot July day. Somehow Kass’s hair, a helmet of shiny gray, stayed perfectly still. She sat regally in the front seat. In the back, Aunt Alice read the newspaper.

Nonno hocked from the depths of his throat.

Rita and I looked at each other. Gross.

Without batting an eye, Aunt Alice maneuvered the newspaper from her gaze to cover the open window beside her as tobacco juice flew by. Both were pros at their craft: he at high-speed spitting and her at dodging the slimy goo.

“Simple son of a bitch,” she mumbled as we sped down the road toward the border.

I looked at Rita, and she at me. Her blue-green eyes laughed with my brown ones, and we spoke silently of the hilarity of it all.

From the time I was a little girl, I got on my knees each night and prayed to God to bless my entire family and to please not let Nonno die. It was a constant fear of mine that my grandfather Art would die.

My other nonno, Joe, who was a year older, was full of energy, never sitting still. He had a slim physique and barely a gray hair on his head, but Art seemed frail to me. He walked slowly. He had a big belly and smoked cigars constantly, and his hair was almost white. I mistook his calm demeanor and his way of strolling through the day as frailty.

Now Nonno had suffered a stroke. For a while, he was holding his own, and we thought he was going to make it. Then he went into a coma. I was told the end was near. And so there I was, back at 940, probably for the last time.

I walked into the den, Nonno’s inner sanctum. The deep blue walls were filled with family pictures. I sat down in his black leather reclining chair. His old brass spittoon was sitting right next to it, as usual. I looked down. Who does that? Who keeps a place to hold tobacco juice for all to see? I shook my head. I leaned over and reached for the heavy linen curtains behind me, pulling them away from the wall. I wondered, Were the cigars there?

He had always kept his many boxes of them in a hidden shelf behind his chair. When I was a girl, one of my favorite things to do was to sit behind his chair, looking into each box. Taking in the aroma, I would feel the soft texture of the wood, look at the beautiful artwork and gently put each box back where it belonged. Nonno had so many different kinds of cigars, not only those he bought for himself, but many that he had received as gifts from friends.

Frank Sinatra sent him a box regularly. More often than not, when I mentioned someone famous, Nonno would say the person was a friend of his—Mae West, Imogene Coca, Jimmy Durante, Cab Calloway. Half the time I thought he was telling me a story, but I came to know, the older I got, that he really did know all these people and that they really were his friends. Once he met you and got to know you a bit, you were his friend for life. It was a truth he lived by.

I answered the knock on our hotel room door. It was Nonno.

“Girls, come in my room and help me, would you?” he asked.

“With what?”

“My cigars.”

“Your cigars?”

“Yeah. I think I might have bought too many. Your grandmother and I can’t do them all ourselves.”

“Ok, be right there.”

Closing the door, I looked at Rita and shrugged my shoulders. “Does he want us to smoke them?”

“I don’t know. I sure hope not.”

What the heck?

We walked into my grandparents’ suite at Le Chateau Frontenac. The historic hotel looked like a castle perched high on a hill in Quebec. Rich wood paneling reached up to the carved ceiling. The view over Old Town below and the St. Lawrence River beyond was substantial. I felt like a princess in a palace. And Nonno, of course, was the king.

Lying on the king-sized bed was a huge pile of cigars. There must have been hundreds.

“Hello, girls.” Kass sat at the edge of the bed in her leather slippers and satin robe. Her bright red nails worked quickly to get a cigar out of its wrapper.

“Hi, Kass. What are you doing?”

“We have to get all these wrappers off the cigars. Then you slide off the cigar ring and put the cigars back in the cellophane wrapper.”

“Ok.” I looked at Rita. “Why are we doing this, exactly?”

Nonno chimed in, a little irritated. “We can’t go over the border with these here cigars looking like this—we’ll be arrested.” He was sitting by the window, putting on his shoes.

“Arrested?”

“Now, don’t worry, dear,” Kass said, patting the bed, inviting us to sit. “We’ve been doing this for years now and haven’t had a problem yet.”

“Those blasted politicians.” Nonno grumbled. “I don’t see why we have to be penalized for what went on. Those poor Cubans still have to make a living.”

He walked over, picked a cigar out of the pile, unwrapped it and smelled it fully. “There’s just nothing in this world like a Cuban cigar.”

I sat hard on the bed, looked at them all and dug in.

I waited at 940 for the dreaded phone call from the hospital, already in the grief spot I had occupied before, where time and space were not clear. I didn’t want them to be clear. I wanted to go back. And so I daydreamed, trying to push away the gloom.

I walked out the doors of 940 and down the front steps onto the sidewalk below. Was that him? The noise from Nonno’s shoes against the cement had always made a crunchy sound as they hit the mixture of sand and glass.

I loved that sound.

No one else I knew wore taps on the bottom of their shoes except when tap dancing. Why did he? Was it to draw attention to himself? Was it his way of dancing in the street without dancing at all? He didn’t like to dance. He had told me so. A woman got gum in his hair while he was dancing once, long ago. His hair! He hated gum, and he hated dancing. But he wore shoe taps. Looking back now, I realize he was thrifty and wanted to save the soles of his shoes, but to the 9-year-old me, he was being Fred Astaire.

Some leaves that had fallen too soon dragged their edges along the shady road.

Lady Kathleen, where have you been?

My heart sang at the thought of his voice, and I walked quickly down the street, trying to catch up with all that I had missed. Walking down the street with Nonno meant hearing choruses of “Hello, Art,” “Hello, Mr. Rooney,” and “Hello, Chief.”

“How ’do?” he always replied.

I walked and listened, hearing stories in my head of days gone by: how he almost drowned in Exposition Park, right where Three Rivers Stadium later stood, during the big flood of 1913 while paddling in a skiff to school with his brother Dan and friend Squawker Mullen; how, as a football player himself, he once played against the legendary Jim Thorpe, but he fumbled the ball, and Jim scooped it up for a touchdown; how he was supposed to be a professional baseball player and was pursued by both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees but decided to become a pro boxer instead.

I got to Gus and Yia Yia’s orange pushcart at West Park in record time. How many times had we walked there together to get an icee ball, the North Side version of a snow cone? Fifty? 100? What was his favorite flavor again? The bees hovered overhead, waiting for a drip or two to slide off the mixture’s metal spouts onto the pavement below.

I ordered a large icee ball with the works and watched as Gus removed the wet towel from the thick chunk of ice and rhythmically scraped shavings into a paper cup. He grabbed the bright-colored sugar bottles like a painter grabs his brushes and went to work mixing it all.

I savored every bite as I walked toward St Peter’s, my grandfather’s parish since he was a boy, to do what he would have wanted me to do: pray.

“What took you girls so long?” he asked.

“Sorry, Nonno.”

He stood by the curb and smoked his cigar as Kass rearranged the trunk once again. World-class packer, she was.

“You women. You think you’re so fancy. A bunch of big shots, the whole bunch of you.”

I went over and handed my suitcase to Kass, who was shaking her head.

“Why don’t you just piss in your hat and pull it over your ears?” she said matter-of-factly as she stuffed my suitcase into the trunk.

Kass was the best swearer I’ve ever heard. This was an undeniable fact in the Rooney family. Nonno never swore, but Kass made up for her husband’s lack by doing it often and with class.

I laughed at the two of them.

He chuckled. “Me, I just need a toothbrush, some underpants, socks, a suit and a tie. But no, you all are fancy pants now. Especially you, Lady Kathleen. Miss New York. Well, you know what—you’re a North Sider and always will be. Don’t forget it.”

“Don’t worry, Nonno. I won’t, ” I said as I linked my arm in his and kissed him on the cheek.

I had heard this all before, but that was fine with me. He got such a charge out of listening to himself. We did, too.

We got into the car and headed for New York. Along the road, I looked out at cow after cow after cow. Not much to see except Mother Nature at her best.

Somehow Nonno was able to get another baseball game on the radio. Lucky me. I would have much rather listened to the Canadians talk about the weather in French.

He threw a cigar out the window as we drove down the country lane.

I wasn’t going to say a word. I had learned that lesson a long time ago.

When I was 11, there was a popular television commercial that pictured a lone Indian crying a single tear over the litter on the highways—the Keep America Beautiful campaign. One day, as we were riding in the car, Nonno threw a cigar out the window.

I scolded him. “Nonno, you can’t litter.”

He looked at me and took a tissue out of the Kleenex box beside him and threw it out the window, as well.

“What are you doing?” I yelled.

He laughed and said, “Listen here. There are people who pick up garbage on the highway for a living. I don’t want them losing their jobs.”

And he proceeded to empty the entire box of Kleenex, one by one, as we drove on down the road.

He always managed to do something right even when it was something wrong. It was infuriatingly loveable.

Nonno died the morning of Aug. 25th, 1988. That night, my sister Bridget wanted to sleep in his room and asked me to sleep with her. I had never slept there before; I had always slept in Aunt Alice’s room. We would watch a scary movie, and she would paint my nails bright red.

There had been so many sleepovers at 940 over the years. I couldn’t believe this might be my last: no more sitting on the front steps, watching the fireworks above Mt. Washington; no more venturing out to St Patrick’s Church in the Strip District on a Friday night with Nonno, Kass and Alice, climbing up the 28 steps on our knees to pray; no more walks down to Three Rivers for a Steelers game; no more walks around the block or to Gus and Yia Yia’s.

Bridget put on a pair of Nonno’s pajamas. As I lay on Kass’s side of the bed, waiting to fall asleep, I suddenly felt the power of God’s calming grace come over me. For an instant, I understood it all—the mystery of life and death.

That night I dreamt about Nonno. I could hear his voice and see his face. It was so real. He was sitting in his chair, talking away, alive as anyone could be. In the dream, I was aware he was dead, and so was he, but it didn’t seem to matter to either of us. A simple conversation about nothingness. And it was that nothingness that was something. I woke up the next morning, smiling and peaceful, with his voice still ringing in my ears.

His voice woke me from my nap. “We’re almost there.”

I could see the border crossing ahead of us.

Oh, God.

He doesn’t know what he’s doing, I thought. He’s just a bit eccentric.

My heart beat faster.

He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. That’s what I’d tell the police.

He’s good. He helps people all the time. No one I know is as kind and generous and good hearted.

My mind raced, and my stomach turned.

We pulled up to the border police, and he rolled down the window.

Please don’t hurt my nonno, I’d beg them.

I took a quiet, deep breath and looked down at my bitten nails.

“Well, Mr. Rooney. How are you?"

“Thanks, Jim. I’m good. And you?”

I looked up from my hands. How did he know this guy?

“Couldn’t be better.”

“And your family?”

I slowly looked over at Rita. The family, too. What the heck?

“They’re doing well. Thanks for asking.”

“Be sure to tell them I said hello.”

“I sure will. And congratulations on the Super Bowl win this year!”

“Thanks, Jim.”

“No one deserves it more.”

“Well, now. It was a long wait, wasn’t it? Here’s some stickers for the kids.” And he handed him some Steelers emblems.

“Thanks, Mr. Rooney. See you next year.”

Good God.

“Will do. Good luck to ya.”

And off we went.

“You know that guy?”

“Of course, I do. That was Jim.”

I took a deep breath and dropped my head back against the seat.

“You’re really something, Nonno.”

He chuckled, pleased.

The morning of the funeral, I sat at the kitchen table, sipping tea, waiting for the hard day ahead to begin. I could almost see Aunt Alice sitting on the radiator, as usual, sipping her coffee, and Kass at the stove, monitoring the boiling water. How did they handle all of my silly questions throughout the years?

“Kass, do you still kiss Nonno?” I asked when I was 21 and pregnant with my first child.

“Of course, we still kiss,” she said in a “That’s preposterous” tone. And she walked straight over to him as he sat eating his poached eggs. They shared a long kiss.

Then she looked at me and said, “Don’t you know, Kathleen, the older the violin, the sweeter the music?” She smiled and messed up his fine white hair before going back to the stove.

Nonno didn’t say anything but chuckled as he continued to eat his eggs. Once again, I had opened up my big mouth, and they filled it with a big surprise.

Now that they were gone, I had so many more silly questions I wanted to ask.

Instead, I pulled myself together for the funeral.

Even in death Nonno was the boss. When I settled into the pew at St. Peter’s, I learned that he had planned all the details before he died. Instead of the Catholic Mass of Christian Burial, he wanted the Mass to be dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a devotion he held deeply.

The funeral was televised live on all three local network stations. Thick black cables ran down the side aisles, and bright lights hung from the wooden choir loft above.

This was not part of his plan.

I wasn’t quite sure what he would have thought of this three-ring circus. I had a feeling he would have been pretty angry at the spectacle. I wasn’t. I saw it for the honor that it was.

The August summer day filled the church with natural light, and the stained-glass windows sang a chorus of Hallelujas from above. The church was packed with people and with flowers.

Nonno didn’t believe in donations in lieu of flowers.

“That’s the way florists make most of their money,” he often said.

They made a month’s worth that day.

Listening to the songs that he picked and the prayers that he wanted said was moving but hard to bear. The sanctuary was damp with tears.

As I sat with my sisters, praying quietly along with the multitude of priests at the altar, there was a loud noise behind me. I saw a woman coming down the side aisle.

She seemed to be homeless, with raggedy clothes. Her hair was uncombed. She was talking to herself, oblivious to us all. It was as if we weren’t there. I thought she might have been part of the whole funeral production. Had he hired a clown to come in during the middle of the ceremony?

I looked around to see if anyone was going to stop her or ask her to leave. But no one was there. Then she sat down right in front of us, in Nonno’s designated place, where he sat each day when he went to Mass. It was a single seat separated from the rest of the pew by a large pillar. My sisters and I looked at each other and started laughing uncontrollably.

Was that him beneath the shabby dress for one final stand? To see what all the hoopla was about down below in the ’Burgh he loved so well? Or was he sending a hug from up above, with a warning, as well: Do not judge; do as I say and as I do; see the person from the inside out, not from the outside in.

The ceremony ended, and we all filed solemnly out of the church. My eyes were swollen from tears. Then something amazing happened.

The streets were brimming with fans, as far as I could see.

Black and gold everywhere.

I was unprepared for the astonishing spectacle. It was almost as if the city was holding a pep rally for him. It was utterly brilliant. It lifted my spirits so high that, for a moment, I felt myself floating in the middle of it all.

People lined the streets as the funeral procession drove toward the cemetery. Men stood at attention, with their hats off. Horns honked. A sign said, “Thank you, Mr. Rooney.” One man stood on the roof of a car, with one hand on his heart and the other holding a football. People were waving Terrible Towels, throwing one final party, a send-off for The Chief.

I could almost hear him say, “Boy, it was a good one. …”

The days of our trip followed a consistent pattern: Breakfast. Drive. Church. Lunch. Drive. Racetrack. Sleep.

Every night, Nonno handed Rita and me each $20 for the track and then preached to us about the hazards of betting.

“Let me give you some advice, ladies. Take this here $20 and put it in your purse and don’t take it out. Now you’ll be up $20 for the night.”

“That’s not any fun,” I said. “ Stick it in my purse? What will I do here for all these races?”

“Awl you. You kids think you know it all.” He shook his head. “You can’t beat the system with all these gimmicks. Trifecta here, quinella there. It’s not like the ole days when you placed it all to win. Then you could really make the money.”

I had no idea what he was talking about till we made it to our final stop, Saratoga.

My mother had painted a beautiful picture of Saratoga in August, in my head: people dressed up daily, with hats and suits—a sort of modern day scene out of “My Fair Lady.” Since it was July, however, the famous thoroughbred track was not open for racing, and I was disappointed that we would miss the scene. But I was curious just the same.

On the way to our motel, I asked, “Hey, Nonno, are we near the thoroughbred track?”

“We sure are.”

“Can we just drive by it? I’d love to see what it looks like.”

“Of course we can.” He became energized at the thought.

We entered the complex through the back, in the stable area. He drove us right through the dirt horse paths, weaving here, turning there. The green wooden stables went on and on. He clearly knew his way around. Groomsmen waved to him and hollered hello as we drove by. He did the same. I could tell he was loving every minute.

All at once, we were heading toward the entrance to the racetrack itself. “Want to see the track?” he asked, not really waiting for an answer.

I was nervous that we would be arrested for trespassing. Was he nuts?

“I don’t think so. I can see it from here.” Me and my big ideas. I crouched down low in the back seat.

Then a man yelled out, “Hello, Mr. Rooney, how’ve you been?”

He called back, “I’ve been great, Sam. How ’bout you?”

And Nonno waved as he steered us right onto the dirt track!

I stared out the open window and took it all in. The clubhouse awnings looked like candy canes. Red and white geraniums fell down like rain over the window boxes. The smell of wet dirt, cut grass and horse perfume filled the car as we whizzed along the historic track.

Afterward, as we drove back to our motel, I asked him. “How is it that everyone knows you there at Saratoga?”

He was amused. “Do you think I’ve been living off the Pittsburgh Steelers all these years?”

“I don’t know. I guess so.” I had always taken that for granted.

“Well, I didn’t. I was a horse gambler. That’s how I made my money. That’s how I kept the Steelers through all those lean years.”

“Oh.” I was speechless.

It finally clicked.

“One time when I was here, I hit it big. Real big. When your dad was born.” He looked over at Kass. “Right, Kathleen?” He was the only person who ever called her that.

“That’s right,” she said proudly. “The press called your dad The Million Dollar Baby.”

“Really?” This was news to me. I pulled forward to hear more.

“Your grandmother was home having your dad, and I was here making a killing.”

Nonno was back in 1937, lost in thought.

“Poor Tim Mara. I wiped him out for the weekend. I named your dad in honor of him, so Mara would always remember the occasion. He got a real kick out of that.”

Would anyone want to remember that?

“A Brinks truck had to bring home all the dough. I was one of the best gamblers this place has ever seen.”

“How much was it?” I said, breaking the spell.

“Well, oh, I don’t know. I can’t remember.”

He put his stogie in his mouth and looked at me through the rearview mirror.

“It was a lot, though. I can guarantee you that!”

Eight months after Nonno died, I stood on my front porch, watching a moving van finagle its way up my long, winding driveway. My Uncle Dan and Aunt Pat had decided to move to 940 from their place in Mt. Lebanon, and my grandparents’ belongings were dispersed among their five boys.

My dad gave me the dining room set, which they had purchased after World War II. The salesman told them that the Eisenhowers had bought the same one. As I instructed the moving men to bring in the furniture, it was easy to tell which chair had been Nonno’s. The blue silk chinoiserie was worn along the edges where he sat. Stains of tobacco dotted the fabric.

I placed my china in the cabinet and remembered a ritual that I often shared with him. He would walk with me into the dining room, open the china cabinet door and take out a saint’s relic from his prized collection. Each vessel held its own holy treasure—clothing in some and actual tiny bone fragments in others. He would pick out one, touch my forehead and bless me with all the angels and saints.

Pulling the drawer open for the first time, I was struck with a surprising gift: 43 years of cigar smoke had penetrated the piece of furniture. I inhaled the pungent smell. My eyes filled with tears as I opened the drawers below. The smell had permeated them all and the credenza, as well. I hurried to the phone and dialed my sister’s home across the street.

“Maggie, run over quick and come smell 940.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Get over here.”

And we stood there together, our noses pressing into the drawers, and breathed in our childhood once again.

It’s been 33 years now since that road trip to Canada. I married a guy named Tim, whom everyone calls Chris. He’s the grandson of one of the bookies at Saratoga from whom Nonno won all that money so long ago—in fact, the same bookie Nonno named my dad after in honor of that big win: Tim Mara, founder of the New York Giants. Because of my Tim, called Chris, I bleed not only Black and Gold, but Big Blue, as well.

But I’m still a North Sider through and through.

The roar of the Pittsburgh Steelers crowd as the team runs onto the field gives me goose bumps that can’t be duplicated by any other team. For me, the Steelers aren’t Big Ben, Mean Joe Greene or even Terry Bradshaw. The Steelers are Art Rooney. And when they run through the tunnel onto the field, it is him I see running out there in each and every one of them. They were a little bunch of misfits who took the country by storm, nobodies who became big shots. And whether he liked it or not, Nonno was the biggest Big Shot of them all.

It wasn’t easy being with him at times. He was the boss: No was no, and yes was yes. He broke rules and bent rules and made new rules along the way. He was a pure male Auntie Mame, eccentric and full of surprises. Once part of his world, you hung on tight for every fantastic, unbearable moment—the ride of rides, the adventure of all adventures. And then you’d say, just like a little kid, Can I do it again?

Looking back stirs up questions, regrets, longings and laughter, all bunched up together in one complex package. What would we be without our memories? They connect us to the past and guide us toward the future.

The scents and sounds around us trigger the good memories if we pay close attention. The chime of a Westminster doorbell, the squeak of an old wood floor, a whiff of Shalimar perfume all carry me back, if only for an instant, and I am home at 940 once again. The aroma of an expensive cigar beckons; I breathe it in willingly and settle down into the warmth of my grandfather’s lap. It comforts me. And all is well.


Kathleen Rooney Mara was born in Pittsburgh and now lives in New York with her husband and three dogs. Her work has appeared in The Record Review and Bark Magazine

Copyright © 2008 Kathleen Rooney Mara. All rights reserved, Creative Nonfiction Foundation.