June 21, 2014

Nothing Lasts Forever, but We Got Closer Than Most

Nuno at his 100th birthday party, February 2014

I know I've said this before, but I will say it again because it's just as appropriate now as it was then:  It's sad, but not tragic.  My other grandfather, my father's father (we called him Nuno) passed away Tuesday afternoon.  He lived to be 100.  His wife (my Nana) and two of his four children were in the room with him at the time, and he was comfortable and peaceful to the end.  Really, it was all that any of us could ask for ourselves or for a loved one; so again, sad but not tragic.  Also complicated, but I'll get to that in a minute. 

Like a lot of things, grandparents are the sort of people you don't truly appreciate until you're an adult.  As a kid, grandparents (and great-aunts and -uncles) at family gatherings are mostly kind of obstacles: the gauntlet of hugs and cheek-pinches you have to get through in order to go find your cousins and go play.  They were in the house or on the deck, you were in the yard playing tag and hide and seek.  It isn't until much later, when you have (hopefully) graduated from the kids' table, that you get to know and appreciate them as people.  If you're lucky, they're still around, and we've had that kind of luck in spades in our family.  I've written about them before here and here, if you're curious.  The posts are a few years old, but the sentiment remains.

I knew Nuno for my whole life, obviously, and I was and will always be enormously fond of him.  There are plenty of reasons for this, but here are a few that are worth sharing.  As I would imagine is the case with a lot of us with regard to our older relatives, some of these things I didn't learn until adulthood, and one or two as recently as this week.  But they're all good, and all impressive, and all things that I appreciate about the man who ultimately gave me, among other things, my last name and my hairline (I don't really hold that against him, though, I promise.  Like any sensible person, I blame my dad).

Nuno grew up in the Boston area, and his parents were both tailors.  His mother was renowned locally for her skill at sewing button-holes, to the point where garment makers in the city would often (weekly, if I recall correctly) send a car to the house, to pick her up and bring her to their facilities so she could work her particular magic.  It's impressive, even if I find the idea of sewing button-holes to be kind of funny (how do you sew something that isn't there?  Word nerd, table for one, please).  She also made suits for Ted Williams, which considering it was Boston, meant she was essentially clothing Jesus.  If Jesus was batting .400.

Nana and Nuno were married for 71 years.  71 years.  Think about that for a second.  That is literally a lifetime in and of itself: according to the World Health Organization, my grandparents were married longer than the 2013 average life expectancy of, appropriately, 71 countries (they place just behind Guatemala and Azerbaijan, and just ahead of the Ukraine and Moldova), and equal to the worldwide life expectancy from birth.  Technically, they would come in a little ahead of that, since they celebrated their 71st anniversary in May and were therefore in their 72nd year of marriage.  From an actuarial standpoint, Nuno played on casino money for 23 years (U.S. male life expectancy is 77), so his bonus time could have grown up, gotten a college degree, a job, and probably gotten married itself.  That's insane, and awesome.  And that beautiful, beyond-happy 71 years of marriage might never have happened if Nuno hadn't needed a car.

My wedding, 2010
My grandparents met at a car dealership.  Nana worked there as a secretary or something, while Uncle Mote (her uncle, who I talk a little bit about here) was a salesman.  Nuno was a customer of Mote's, by virtue of the fact that Nuno made him a deal: Mote teaches Nuno to drive, and Nuno would buy a car from him (growing up in Boston, he had no need to drive before he got to upstate NY).  So at some point in that process he saw Nana, and the story goes that when he asked Mote who she was, he replied, "She's my niece, and forget it."  Nuno did eventually order a car, but the trouble was that at time, during the war, they just weren't making much in the way of cars, so they weren't going to be able to get Nuno the car he wanted.  The good news was, coincidentally, Nana had preciously ordered a very similar car which had come in.  Clearly there were some negotiations, and as Nuno liked to say, with no small amount of self-satisfaction, in the end he got the car and the girl. The two of them together more or less defined adorable.  They were so sweet to (and on) each other.  It was a wonderful model of what a happy marriage looked like.

If there's one thing to know about Nuno, it's that he was always good for a laugh. I mean that two ways: first, he was funny.  He was extremely smart, had a quick wit, and knew how to tell a story.  He was perfectly willing to poke fun at people, and didn't mind when the rest of us poked fun at him.  Which brings me to the other thing: his laugh.  Nuno had a great laugh, and he used it often.  He was also pretty easy to get on a roll, which was pretty much the best thing ever.  Nuno laughed from somewhere in the vicinity of his toenails; a belly laugh was kind of his default.  It was immensely gratifying to see him trying to catch his breath, taking off his glasses and dabbing at his eyes after a long guffaw, which again was often.

My favorite Nuno laugh memory also just happens to coincide with the only time my grandmother has ever sworn at me (which may or may not have to do with why it's my favorite).  There's no way that I will be able to properly describe it, but I'll give it a shot.  It was years ago at our house in Delaware, I was in either high school or college (probably college) and they were in town to visit along with my aunt and uncle and cousin (which means it was either Christmas or Thanksgiving).  I have to preface this by explaining something that I will describe later: Nuno was an engineer, and a good one.  Like I said, extremely smart.  Our dinners are long, and the conversation flows almost constantly.  It's a good time, if I do say so myself.  Anyway, somewhere along the way a quick bit of simple arithmetic was required, and Nuno pretty much just fumbled it.  Not in a old-man-forgetting-things kind of way, mind you; he just botched it.  It's true that he was even then a bit of an old man (in his 70s, at least), so I suggested that it may have been a bit of time since his last math class.  It may have been slightly sarcastic.  Possibly.  Again, it's hard to properly describe the moment, but in the context of that dinner, at that time, it hit just right and the entire room basically fell apart.  It was fantastic.  Nuno was half-bent-over in his chair laughing, hardly able to breathe.  As I looked around the table, my eyes met Nana's, who was holding her napkin to her mouth as she's cracking up, but she gave me such a look, and pulled herself together just enough to lower her napkin and say, "You little shit," and go right back to laughter convulsions.  Of course, the whole table heard it and it just made things worse.  Or better.  Definitely better.  But Nuno was always a great audience, and I always figured it was in large part due to the fact that he was simply one of the happiest people I knew.  He smiled pretty much all the time.  And why not? He had pretty much won life by then, and only continued winning from there.

He was also the only person I have ever known to use "Godfrey" in his normal vocabulary.  The phrase, "by Godfrey," only exists in my head in his voice.

For nearly my entire life, if you wanted to know what, "a picture of good health," meant, you just had to look at my grandfather.  He spent a couple of decades confusing people, including his doctors, about how old he was; the guess was reliably 10 or 20 years under.  He golfed into his late 90s, and achieved his goal of shooting his age (sub-50 on 9 holes).  He routinely won the golf outings at family reunions, and I'm pretty sure he was on the golf course just before his 100th birthday.  My brother said it wasn't that he hit the ball very far, it was that every shot was rail straight, so he was just marching towards the green while the younger guys were farther down the course, but off looking for their balls in the grass.  He and Nana bowled together every week right up to the past couple of years.  He was an avid gardener, growing vegetables in a huge garden in my dad's childhood home and a much smaller but still active one in Florida in the later years.  My brother and I spent a couple weeks up in Wellsville with my grandparents when we were kids, and I distinctly remember the garden and the vegetables (and the other time my grandmother probably came the closest to swearing at me, but that's another story). Fresh green beans always remind me of that garden, and it was huge, or at least it is in my memory.  In my head, it would take up the floor space of an average sized living room, and he took care of it largely himself.  I often refer to my family as indestructible, and this is a lot of the reason why.

I mentioned that he was an engineer, and he was.  It turned out to be kind of the family business in a way (him and his siblings, my dad on the business side of it, my brother, me).  He was a mechanical engineer who did work on steam turbines for Navy vessels (and yes, that's about the sum total of my understanding of it).  The examples I was always given were the USS Saratoga and the USS Forrestal, but his work went into WWII ships as well.  He also worked on the NR-1, a very small nuclear sub used for undersea research and recovery missions.  It was 12 feet wide, and he had to figure out how to mount the steam turbine for the power system.  He actually has a small brass model of the sub, which was apparently a gift recognizing his work on the project.

He had kind of a complicated relationship with the military.  He spent his career supporting them, but that's not what I mean.  He wanted to enlist, like his brothers did and the people who lived in his town, but he apparently wasn't allowed.  The technical work he was doing was considered too important to pull him off of it.  I understand it bothered him then, and continued to do so for most of his life.  The way it was told to me, it was something that he felt a certain amount of guilt about right up to a year or so ago, when he met a guy nicknamed, "the Colonel" at a nursing home, who stressed to him how important the work he did was to the war effort and the soldiers fighting in it.  So about a half century later, he got some closure on it.  I can only imagine how much it meant to him.

Making gnocchi, Christmas 2003
But what meant the most to him, really, was family.  Every time we got together, he made it a point to say how fortunate we were to be together, and to have the family we do.  And he's absolutely right.  We have a few family traditions, most of them food-related (as most things are with us), and the one that I value possibly the most, at least as it relates to Nuno, is making gnocchi.  When I was growing up, every once in a while Nana would make gnocchi for us, and it quickly became something I really looked forward to.  One Christmas my mom asked me if there was anything I particularly wanted to have with Christmas dinner, so naturally I asked whether Nana would make gnocchi.  Now, gnocchi is pretty simple to make, but it takes a fair amount of time and energy.  The response I got was, "Sure you can have it, but you'll have to make it."  To which my response was, of course: Sold.  So that year, and almost every year thereafter, the grandkids got a tutorial in gnocchi making from the masters.  It typically ended up with me working the dough, and Nuno doing the "dimpling" of the gnocchi (some people do this with a fork, which is why store-bought gnocchi usually has those ridges on it, but Nuno used his fingers) and quality control, making sure the dough was right, there was enough flour on the counter to make rolling the dough easier, that sort of thing.  The beauty of this process is that it's crowd-friendly.  There was a stretch of a few years where my brother, having gone to college in FL and having friends within a reasonable distance, invited one or two to a given Christmas at our place, and they would invariably arrive in the midst of gnocchi making and be almost immediately be put to work.  Over the past couple of years, it's been me kneading, The Girl rolling the dough, me cutting and Nuno dimpling and supervising, and it's been wonderful.  So while he won't be there to eat with us next year, he will still be next to me, more than likely saying I'm cutting them too big and to put some more flour on the counter.

And that's where it gets complicated, as death often is.  In the grand scheme, I don't really get sad about Nuno's passing.  I mean, he was 100 years old, and given the circumstances at the time, he really needed to go; it was absolutely the best thing for him.  I was able to spend more time with him than most people get to with their grandparents, and how many people can say they went to anyone's 100th birthday party?  So all in all I'm at peace with it.  The only time I get emotional about it at this point is, well, typing that bit about the gnocchi, but mostly it's about my daughter.  We will be in FL in July for another family reunion, and I was really looking forward to Nana and Nuno meeting their latest great-grandchild in person.  They have 9 now, and Nuno got to meet 8 of them.  But I also recognize that that's about me, not about him.  And we did get to introduce him to her over Skype, and they got to see her a few times that way, and my parents kept him updated with the latest pictures (of which, you can imagine, there are a multitude).  So he got to see her, and that's really the important thing.  And Nana will certainly get to see her and spend plenty of time pinching those cheeks, which may be helpful in its own way.  There is certainly sadness, for Nana especially, and my dad and aunt and uncles and cousins my family and me, and it's there and that's OK. But it's the not-tragic part that I dwell on, because again, 100 years, people, filled with love and laughter and joy and food and family and friends and stories of which I will only ever hear a fraction. I just have trouble figuring out what more anyone could possibly ask for.

So it's true that nothing lasts forever, but he put a pretty serious dent in it. Not the kind of dent you'd get repaired,  either; the kind you leave in because it gives the whole thing character.  And Nuno was most certainly a character. A little of that may have been passed down to me as well.  I definitely give him credit for that.

Me and Nuno, a little while ago

But not the hairline. I still blame Dad for the hairline.

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