May 19, 2009

Sad, but not tragic


There's no tragedy here.

This is what my father said to me when he called this morning to tell me that, late last night, my grandfather passed away. I mean, he said a lot of things, but that's what does (and probably always will) stick out.

I know that sounds like a strange thing to say to someone under those circumstances, but it made sense to me. And all in all, he's right: it's certainly sad, but nothing about the man or his passing is or was tragic. Far from it. Nearly everything about both went more or less as well as anyone could have expected or hoped.

I've written before about my family, although all of those stories have been about the Italian side. Much of the same sentiment applies my Irish family as well, both in terms of my affection for the people and the running theme of longevity as well. Gramps was 92 years old at the time of his passing, and he packed those years full, believe me.

There would be too much to tell, and too many stories left out, to try and biography the man; but here are some things that will always come to mind when I think about my grandfather:

- His voice. Gramps had a great voice, and he used it well. The perfect mix of gravel and Brooklyn, and the man could tell a story. I have tried on occasion to mimic it, but I can't get close. Even his recording on the answering machine is guaranteed to make you smile.

- His relationship (or lack thereof) with technology. He never owned a computer, wrote many letters by hand, and was over 80 by the time he got a cell phone. Not that he ever bothered learning to use it, mind you. My mom programmed the two numbers he would need into the thing and showed him how to get to them, and that's about it. I'm not even certain he used the voice mail. He didn't' like his answering machine, either, and said so in the recorded message. "Sorry I missed your call, and I hate to make you talk to one of these stupid machines, but I do want to get your call, so leave me a message and I'll call you back." In the Brooklyn voice. Priceless.

- From the "You're Only As Old As You Feel" Department: he took flying lessons, and very nearly if not completed the requirements for his pilot's license. In his seventies.

- When we were kids, my brother and I used to jockey for who got to pour his beer at dinner. Partly, I think, because of the fizzing bubbles, and partly because, well, it was our grandfather. But later on, when it turned out his sister had a drinking problem, he quit with her in a show of support. As far as I know, he didn't take a drink for most of my adult life.

- Hard candy. He always kept a supply of mixed hard candy with him, at home and when he traveled. Think Brach's butterscotches, sour balls, starlight mints, caramels, you name it. If you had a hankering for a Werther's Original, this was the man to see.

- My desk. He and my father built a pair of desks, one for me and one for my brother. They're easily 20 years old now, and more solidly built than anything you're likely to find at IKEA.

- Eating Italian food in France. When I was in college, my cousin spent some time studying in Aix en Provence in France. Gramps took my mother and I over there for a week, to see her and to do some sightseeing. We had exactly one French meal that trip, our first. See, Gramps, being an Irishman, was very much a meat-and-starch kind of guy, and the French menu had too little of either (mostly the starch) to satisfy him. So from about our second day on, we ate mostly Italian food. In France. He did enjoy the tea, though.

- Traveling. Gramps was a customer of Cunard cruise lines for something on the order of 70 years, going back to when he would go see his family in Ireland as a kid, and continuing right up to the end. For as long as I've been aware of it, he has made multiple trips back to Ireland every year, for the longest time taking the QE2 over and British Airways back. Plus the occasional cruise to Alaska, or the Med, or the maiden voyage of the QM2 (he preferred the QE2, if you're curious). And he did all of his reservations by phone and mail, so he got to the point where he basically had friends at the various travel companies who he would call and talk to when he was planning a trip. And I do mean right to the end; he was over in Ireland as recently as about six months ago. He took me over there in 2004, to see the family estate and meet some of the Irish cousins. The picture at the top of the post is from that trip, from the original house on the land, in front of the fireplace where he spent a lot of time when he was young.

What was funny about that trip (or rather, among the funny things about that trip) was the circumstances under which I made it. My mother said to me, earlier that year, that if I was interested in seeing the family land with Gramps, then I should get to it, because he was 88 and slowing down, and would likely stop making those trips by the end of that year. So I went. And then he continued his trips for another five years. So much for predictions.

- Grad school. Gramps put me through grad school. That wasn't the intention when we started, but that's basically how it ended up. So there will always be a little tribute to him hanging on my wall.

All of this doesn't even touch on his service in the Army or for the state of New York, or any number of other things about him worth telling. Like I said, it was a full 92 years. Oh yeah, and he and my grandmother raised my mom, too, which I personally think turned out pretty darn well, myself. Perhaps the most vivid thing about the man, to me, was how he physically embodied the proverbial twinkle in the eye. Always ready with a grin and a wink, always happy to see you, that was my Gramps.

Not that everything went perfectly; we lost my grandmother to cancer when I was about 10, and he lost another partner to cancer years later. But on balance he had it pretty good, and so did we for having him around.

When his time came, I understand that it was relatively quick and painless, and my mother was there with him through the end. And now he gets to be with his wife and sister, and countless other people I'm sure he's glad to catch up with over a cup of tea.

Yes, we're sad to see him go, and yes, he'll be missed. But no, there's no tragedy here; just a large group of people who got to know and love a great man for a long time.

But I will miss talking to that stupid machine, if only just a little.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful tribute to your grandfather! I remember some of your stories about him being quite a character, but this was a much fuller picture of him. My condolences on losing such a vivacious person who had such a strong impact on your life. Hugs to you,
Krista

Leah said...

Masterful writing, cuz! I found the pictures from the '97 Provence trip this morning. If I ever own a car (it's not looking likely at this rate) I'll definitely have a bag of mints and Werthers on the seat next to me. POSSibly in a small tupperware instead of a plastic bag. Nah, should stick to the original.

Carrie M said...

I'm so sorry, Brian. But it's a lovely post, even lovelier memories.

Brian said...

Krista - Thank you. Yes, quite a character. Hugs back, and hopefully I'll see you soon.

Leah - Thanks. There's something about the giant plastic bag, no? It just seems right. :)

Carrie M - Thanks, I appreciate the note. Many memories, and all of them good. :)

tootie said...

He sounded like a wonderful man! How lucky you are to have these memories.

Anonymous said...

Brian-
I stumbled upon your blog through Facebook. I just lost my grandpop in April. He was 97 and lived with my parents (in my old bedroom). So many of your stories remind me of my grandfather, who we lovingly called Bill. He passed away suddenly while my husband, two kids and I were there. My husband tried to save him, but couldn't. BUT he died doing what he loved--watching the Phillies game (in the comfort of home). I saw him daily and miss him every single day. I love your tribute to your grandfather. We are both so lucky we had them in our lives for so long.
Thinking of you,
Meredith (Vinokur) Rosenthal

Brian said...

tootie - Thank you. He was, and we are. He will be missed.

Mere - Thanks for stopping by. Wow. I can't even imagine what that must have been like. I'm sorry for your loss, but I agree with you. Most people don't get that much time with their older relatives.

 
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