Everyone is shaped, first and foremost, by family. By kin. Either the abundance of it, or the lack. The joy or, sadly, sometimes the horror. Loss and love. It is our immediate family, our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandmothers and grandparents, who, if fate allows, shape us the most. While Mom and Dad are always at the forefront today I’d like to talk about my grandfathers. The men who made it possible for me to exist.
I never knew my paternal grandfather. He died before I was born. Struck down by that ever-present scourge known as cancer at the age of 49. However, even from the grave, he had a profound impact on me through my father, grandmother, his family, those who knew him in life and came to know me, and the stories and tales that surrounded him. He is, in my eyes, a man of myth, of legend. A part of me that I have never known and yet feel connected to regardless. He was Papa.
My maternal grandfather I knew very well while he was alive as I grew up not 5 driving minutes away from his house. He passed away when I was 14, also laid low by cancer, but in those brief years in the sunshine of my youth he taught me much about being a man, about the world, about life. Pa, as I named him being the eldest grandchild and struggling with the word “grandpa” as a toddler, also impacts me to this day in much the same way Papa does. Through family, friends, and acquaintances both professional and personal.
Pa and Papa. Two men as different as they were alike.
Papa was the son of Italian immigrants. He grew up as one of four boys first learning Italian and then English. He was, by all accounts, always very social, quick with a quip, and outgoing. He had swagger. He met my grandmother over the phone. What had happened was he had gotten into a bar fight the night before and broke his hand. When he called his insurance company, the switchboard operator he connected with had a nice sounding voice so he kept talking to her and they ended up going out and, eventually, getting married. That kind of swagger.
Pa was the son of immigrants but ones who arrived maybe a century, or longer, before Papa’s did. Raised in an Irish Catholic family, Pa was the second of five children, three boys and two girls. He grew up stern and dutiful with an underrated sense of humor. His father, a GE engineer and navy man, use to make him and his older brother box in the garage when they got into scraps as children, even though Pa’s older brother had years on him. At first, Pa used to get the crap kicked out of him but as they grew, Pa grew taller and stronger and, eventually, the tides turned, much to his father’s amusement and older brother’s chagrin.
Papa went to work at the age of 16 to help support the family. He worked for the Boston Globe from then until his death. He wasn’t a journalist but worked in the mail room. For those not familiar with newspaper jargon (you are forgiven) the mail room isn’t for mail but is instead where the printing press sends hundreds of thousands of papers to be folded, placed on pallets, loaded onto trucks and then delivered to stands all over. After years of working he eventually was able to join the Teamsters union the mail room workers at the Globe belonged to and began rising in the ranks, eventually becoming one of the more respected union officers.
Pa lied about his age to join the navy at 17 in 1945 (Papa was only 7 at the time). He actually joined too late to see any action (his older brother had served as well in the Pacific earning a purple heart when a kamikaze crashed into his gun emplacement killing his entire gun crew but him) and spent most of his enlisted time in Louisiana. After the war and his term of service was up he used the GI Bill to attend Miami University in Florida where he played football for the Hurricanes and graduated with a degree in civil engineering. He went on to work on the satellite system in Greenland for the army before returning home and going to law school.
As their professional lives grew did their families as both men married in the early sixties and now, with young brides, bought and lived in houses in the same town. Pa buying the family home from his parents and Papa buying a home across town where he quickly had the Virgin Mary in a half shell proudly displayed (I think a rule back then for Italians) in the front lawn and an in-ground pool put in the backyard. Then, in the same year, only six months apart, both men welcomed children into the family. Papa my father, and Pa my mother. For Papa, Dad was his first child. For Pa, Mom was his second but first daughter. Papa would go on to have three children in total with my aunt following my father and my uncle following her. For Pa, the family was a bit bigger with five children. My uncle, mom, another uncle, an aunt, and a final uncle only 14 years my senior.
As families grew, so did careers. For Pa, after earning his law degree, he opened his own law firm, began investing in real estate locally, and eventually won a seat on the Board of Selectmen, the governing body of the town. After that, he continued to grow his law and real estate business even being elected King Lion of the local Lion’s Club chapter.
For Papa, his influence in the Teamsters grew and along with it his network of friends and associates. He use to throw open house Christmas parties where hundreds of visitors would come over the course of the day. Papa would be in the basement, playing cards, smoking cigarettes with the fellas, being bartender, or walking around the house entertaining guests with a monkey hand puppet. He was, for lack of a better term, beloved. He use to get all sorts of things delivered for free where he responded in kind with free papers from the Globe which he would deliver himself with a joke and a smile.
Both men have what are, to me, legendary tales surrounding them. For Papa him meeting my grandmother is one of my favorites. Another story I like of Papa is him going out on a hunting trip (he liked to hunt) during bear season. A black bear got the drop on him and Papa, unceremoniously, had to scramble up a tree as it charged. Once there he shot and killed the bear and proudly had the bear skin rug in the living room where, invariably, he got to tell the tale of his brave retreat to inquiring visitors.
For Pa, my favorite tale was a story from back in his college football days. While in class at Miami a professor caught him looking out the window as the Hurricane cheerleaders practice. One of those cheerleaders was his college girlfriend. The professor, annoyed, told Pa in front of the class to pay more attention to the board than to his floozie girlfriend. Pa stood up, walked to the front of the class, grabbed the professor and hung him out the fourth story window of the classroom until he apologized for the insult to his lady.
Both men loved family. For Papa, his younger brother graduated from college with what was then a new fangled degree in “computer science”. He was struggling to make money and, with a new wife, couldn’t afford a place to live. Papa opened his home to his younger brother, rent free, until he could get on his feet. His younger brother went on to join a brand new computer company, eventually become its President, and is now a multimillionaire. It’s a story my great-uncle has told me many times, with tears in his eyes, and the amount of respect he shows to my father, to me, and to my family as a form of repayment is something that still deeply touches me.
For Pa, I cannot even begin to guess the amount of free legal work he had done for family and friends. He also helped out his older, former boxing rival brother in raising his 8 children. Teaching them how to drive, work on cars, and a myriad of other things. He supported his younger sister when her husband died young and left her with three small daughters. He financially supported his youngest sister who joined a convent and moved to Hong Kong as a missionary. He opened his home to his wife’s youngest brother when he was down on his luck. He gave and never wanted credit.
They were pillars. So it should come as no surprise as these two men, whose children met and fell in love in high school, upon meeting one another, instantly got along.
The year prior to my birth, Papa was diagnosed with cancer. He ended up not surviving to see his eldest son marry or his first grandchild to be born. His loss was a devastating one to his family and friends. Hundreds, if not a thousand, people showed up to his funeral. A man who’s charisma was infections and who’s generosity was renowned. My Dad had followed in his father’s footsteps and also worked at the Globe, starting a the same age. I would follow suit as well, though it wouldn’t end up being my career, at 18 during a college summer. When I showed up, on my first day, no less than 15 men came right up to me upon seeing my dad and I, shook our hands and told me how great of a man Papa was. It was humbling. He had been gone for almost two decades and these men felt compelled to warmly greet me because of a legacy Papa had started and Dad had carried on. It was, even then, a powerful reminder that through your children and your children’s children you live on for far longer than when you die.
For Pa I was lucky enough to know him in life although those 14 years now seem all too brief. He quickly instilled work ethic in me and from a young age had me helping around the house or working in the yard or at one of his real estate properties. I remember building concrete forms for a foundation with him when I was 12. He was also very funny in a blunt sort of way. I distincly remember a conversation with him that went something like this;
“Do you like women?”
“I do, Pa. Yup.”
“Good…good. Wear a condom. Kids are expensive as shit.”
I was 13.
Only a little more than a year later, after being diagnosed with cancer and Alzheimer’s Pa taught me a hard lesson. One dealing in death. While I had had other family members pass away before (two great grandmothers for example) I was far too young to grasp the concept. With Pa it was different. It was the first wake I went to. Open casket. I was a disaster. It was the first time I was a pall bearer. The first time I spoke at church, reading a poem my Mom had written that I, somehow, got through before weeping. The first time adults in grief talked to me like an adult. It was a jarring, life altering experience but one that taught me the value of life. Of how fleeting it is. Of family. It was a seminal moment in my transition from child to man and although I know its not a lesson he wanted to teach, it was one that I will never forget and one, in more tender moments, which still brings a tear to my eye.
I visit their graves as often as I can, just to say a few silent words over them. To ask them for their blessings and to watch over myself and my family. To thank them for all they did for the family and for me, both knowingly and unknowingly. For their service and sacrifice. Their generosity and love. Their ambition and skill. Their charsima and their senses of humor. It is why, for me, the modern call for white men to disavow or belittle their forefathers ring hollow. Do these men sound like men to be ashamed of? To abandon? To demonize? No. Never.
These men were Men. Pater familii. They were my grandfathers and both of them helped, through blood and toil, to make me, me. I won’t turn on them because they NEVER would’ve turned on me.
I love you Pa and Papa. Forever and always.