I wrote this years ago, in honor of my grandfather's 100th birthday. He's on my mind today, so I'd like to share him with you. This is a long one. Find a comfy chair if you're interested...
Papa’s would be 100th year snuck up on me like my son does in the wee hours of the night. At first I was shocked and then comfort and warmth settled in as I realized I would live through a tree, four, ’07 of my own. March 3, 2007, that is.
As the date drew nearer by the minute, he held front and center in my mind. Standing at 5’4 and weighing in at 180 pounds, my little Italian grandfather always stood larger than life in my eyes. He held my attention for hours as he sat with me, cards in one hand, Lucky Strike’s in the other teaching me the ins and outs of 7-card stud, 5 card draw and his favorite, in-between. I loved the rapid fire way he dealt the cards and the slow, careful way he told his stories. I loved the smoke swirling above his head and the privilege to be in his company. I loved the way he said the number three.
“Tree a diamonds to you darlin’,” is all it would take to make me giggle while I held the red card with the prety diamond. It was a quiet giggle, slowly released with respect, for fear he may think I was making fun of him. Each time I asked him why he said tree instead of three; he just looked at me and smiled. And he would then say “Tree, four, ’07, dat’s my birtday.”
His kitchen table was home to the poker games, family feasts and family fights. A typical Sunday began with my mother, brother and I driving to Adison after a long, boring, meant to inspire church service. We drove up what seemed then to be a long driveway, and always looked for the loaf of Italian bread defrosting on the window ledge. We inhaled the sweet parade of scents; tomatoes, basil, oregano and garlic as we walked through the kitchen door. The taste of gravy and meatballs was always worth the drive. Upon arriving, we would be starving, and since the pot wasn’t “on yet” Nana would dole out some gravy and bread on a small dish and say “go ahead, but don’t getcherselves too full.”
Nana stood, wooden spoon in hand, breaking up the tomatoes in the pot or breading chicken ready to be deep fried. My mother put on an old, green apron made from an out of date towel and helped Nana, my brother vanished into the backyard, and I sat down across from Papa at the small, round formica table.
“Hiya Herman!” was his standard salutation to any and all of us. Rarely, he would stand to greet us with raised hands in mock fighting stance. Not today though.
“asdf jkl semi-colon,” rolled off his tongue as his sturdy, soft fingers glided across the imaginary typewriter keys. I was too little to know what he was doing, but later in life, in a crowded dorm at 4 am, I understood the value of knowing the keyboard and typing at a quick pace. “asdf jkl semicolon”. His nails were neat, clean and trimmed, although they looked long because of his long nail bed. My mother’s hands are the same, soft, yet heavy, tired but functional.
I reached for the jar on the microwave cart next to me, and grabbed as many pennies as I could for a round of penny poker. Today, the game was ‘in between’.
“You remember dis one?” he asked.
“Of course. We each put in 10 pennies and then bet on the number in between the two cards laid out.” I looked at him, confident, with a crooked smile.
“Okay, here we go. King and…… a five ‘a spades.”
“I’ll bet two pennies!” I yelped.
“Only two pennies? Fer cryin’ out loud?” He flipped the middle card and it was the nine of hearts. “Dere ya go. Two pennies to you!”
I slid my pennies across the table, gathered them in my pile, then it was his turn, then mine and then his again.
“Ace and……. A deuce! Woah Nina. Whaddaya tink I should do?”
“Bet the pot Papa, bet the pot!” I anxiously screamed.
“And….it’s a…..tree! Dere we go, da pot goes to me!” he winked and I laughed and clapped and the game went on while we chatted easily.
“You know darlin’, I always liked the short ones,” he said one Sunday in response to my complaint stemming from my 8th grade physical. Dr. Ganchoff told my mother I would never grow past 5’3, (which, by the way, proved true). My Nana was only 4’8, so he smiled as he said this and she rolled her eyes at him.
“You know, when I would go to the dances at the Aragon , my dance card was always filled,” he said proudly, looking at the mock dance card in his hand, his mock pencil in the other.
“I saw ‘em across da floor, and I raised my hand,” he demonstrated, pointing his index finger at an invisible girl, then three fingers indicating which dance that girl could have.
“Then, I would write it on my card, and I was set for da night,” he put down the fictional card and pencil.
“But, I always liked the short ones Nina, always the short ones.”
At this, he lit a cigarette, re-opened his newspaper, and I sat staring at the back of the paper feeling quite special, stunted growth and all. I caught him peering at me from his left and caught a quick, mischievous smile. His job completed.
“You know, yer papa here was quite the man in my time,” he mentioned, as if answering a question. “I was president of the Holy Name Society at Holy Guardian Angel. Holy Guardian was the first Italian parish in Chicago ya know. All Italians, then some a’ da Irish came. But dey were all right.”
“What did you do there?” I already knew the answer, I just couldn’t help my yearning to hear it over and over again.
“What didn’t I do? Dat’s da question. We held fundraisers to raise money forchurch, we held raffles and picnics and helped priests communicate wit all the parishioners. Lou, where is that picture?” he called to Nana.
“Which one Pete?,” she answered, clearly annoyed by the interruption.
“Da one wit me and the guys at the dance.” He sighed heavily, exasperated with her as always. Nana disappeared upstairs and just as quickly danced back down and handed him what he wanted.
“Here, ya see.” He showed me, pointing out his friends. Now this, I had not seen. “Who are these ladies papa?” I asked him.
At this he smirked and laughed his sarcastic ‘I know more than you’ laugh, and Nana howled and cackled, which made me jump as usual. He told me the names of the men in the picture. They were dressed like women. I have no recollection of their names now…
“I don’t get it, why is that funny?”
“Ah kid, someday you’ll get it…” Someday I’d get it. He always said things like that with the same snide laugh. He knew this frustrated me. I remember once, when we discussed some of my mom’s teenage boyfriends, Papa told me he always thought she’d marry Mickey Brennan, the “mic” from across the street. “Ah, but then we wouldn’t have you now would we?” He said.
“Well, you’d have part of me, the part that was mom,” I said. This made perfect sense to me.
“No,” he smiled. “No, no”. Oooh, that sly, almost arrogant smile really got me frustrated. I didn’t get it and I didn’t like the implication of being wrong.
“Papa, I wouldn’t be exactly the same, but I would still be here, I would just have a different dad part,” I breathed out. I had to make him understand. Clearly it was me who didn’t understand - the birds and the bees had yet to descended upon my world.
“No, you wouldn’t Nina. Let’s just leave it at that.” He picked the paper up again and left me with the photo and a feeling I couldn’t quite figure out. He knew I’d forgive him quickly.
I examined the picture carefully. Those men were ugly women, I thought. But Papa was young and handsome and thin, and he had hair. Wow. His eyes were deep set, his suit fit him splendidly, he stood proud with the “women”. As if he knew what I was thinking, he said:
“Not a bad lookin guy eh Herman? I was a looker alright. I used to wear Florsheim shoes, bought all my suits at Turner Brothers, right Lou?” I wondered why he asked her, knowing he wouldn’t get any response. “Yeah, Florsheim. And all da furniture here, it’s all John M. Smyth. All good stuff Nina.”
“Papa, why didn’t you dress up like a girl?”
“Dat wasn’t my ting. I ran it all, so I had to be somewhat respectable. Not a big education, but I did alright.”
I knew he had to leave school as a freshman in high school to go to work and support his mother, two brothers and three sisters. They were poor, but respectable. And he went to work doing odd jobs like typing for the local newspapers, filling in as a deliver guy where he would literally run documents, letters and even lunch from office to office in the city. This lead him to his career path of truck driving. He only drove locally though, he liked his Chicago roots.
He valued education and talked about its importance any chance he got. That’s why he enjoyed seeing my weekly stash of schoolwork every Sunday. “Gotta go to college kid. Ya get good grades, ya get a good job and a good Italian husband.”
I remember looking forward to bragging about my school work all week long. One week, I wrote a perfect paper on the making of a sound government, and Mr. Miller presented it to my class as an example of neatness, story content and overall good writing. I handed the “4++ paper” to Papa and watched as he slowly pulled out his reading glasses from their case. He lifted them to his head, secured them over his ears and began to read. I waited, so excited about the forthcoming compliments, imagining the extra game of cards we would play, the stories he would tell about his school experience.
“What’s dis word?” he asked. I walked over, enthusiastically, ready to help him decipher my writing.
“Government,” I said. “Government”.
“You spelled it wrong. You forgot da n. It’s not goverment, it’s
g-o-v-e-r-n-m-e-n-t. How can you get an A+ if you don’t spell da words right.” He set the paper down, a bit carelessly for my taste, and I felt my cheeks turn tomato red.
“Dad, it’s about the content, she got a 4+, come on,” my mother pleaded from the stove.
“A 4+ is a 4+, it means perfect. If you spell it wrong, it ain’t perfect,” he said. And with that, the newspaper opened again, and I sat there, unfazed by my mother’s pat on the shoulder. He was right. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t. I didn’t deserve the 4+.
We didn’t talk much the rest of that visit. I sat next to him, as always, passed the gravy, the salad, and brought him coffee after dinner. I didn’t have anything to say.
The next Sunday was Easter Sunday. A very big deal in our household, and not because we were celebrating our Lord and Savior rising from the ashes. It was an excuse to eat something other than macaroni and gravy on Sunday. My mother and Nana began cooking on Holy Saturday. We would have lamb (the only time during the year), calzone, ravioli (not macaroni!) and gravy, stuffed artichokes and a delicious little frosted cake shaped like a lamb.
Still not too keen on seeing him, after my non-deserving 4+ was rebuked the week prior, I walked in, kissed him hello, got my “Hiya Herman” and got to work helping my self to some gravy and bread.
“Sit down dere darlin’,” he said. I sat and he shuffled two steps to the refrigerator, opened it and looked for something. As I was on the other side of the fridge, I watched his hand grip the handle, fingers drumming against it while he looked for whatever it was he needed on the other side. The small Green Bay Packers magnet that today hangs on my fridge sat prominently at the top of the freezer. Once when I asked him why a Chicago man would favor the Packers, he looked at me like he didn’t understand why I didn’t know. “Vince Lombardi? He’s Italian and he was da greatest Coach in da game.”
He rummaged through a few pieces in the fridge and pulled out a clear plastic box that looked like a container for a leftover slice of pie you couldn’t finish from the restaurant.
“Here, look here,” he said.
“What is it?” I looked at the box curiously and saw some sort of white flower. He sat at the table and said: “It’s an orchid. It’s the official flower of Easter. We used to give em to all the girls. Now, you can tell everyone you gotchyer first orchid from your grandpa.”
“I love it Papa, thank you!” I hugged him hard. “What do I do with it?”
“You wear it, geez,” he said, playfully exasperated. He gently pulled the orchid out of the plastic container. It smelled like fresh air and crisp water. It was white, surrounded with babies’ breath. He reached for my hand, slid the wristband of the corsage over my clumsy fingers and onto my wrist. It sat there perfectly. It didn’t dangle to one side. It belonged with me. I loved it. I loved him. I didn’t care about the 4+. No one has given me an orchid since.
While nana and mom did the dishes and my brother fell asleep in the basement, I jumped rope on the driveway, keeping Papa company as he listened to the White Sox on the radio. The Sundays of my life are lovingly littered with memories such as these. The food, the smell of fresh cut grass and Papa drinking his coffee outside, sitting on a lawn chair in front of the garage.
These Sundays continued, even through my college years. And slowly, they lessened, instead being filled with Sunday morning hangovers, needing to sleep in rather than visit. Brunches with friends and boyfriends took precedent, but I always made room for one Sunday a month. During this time, dementia took hold of him and slowly escalated to Alzheimers. How sad it was, when after a “Hiya Herman” he would ask my name and then ten minutes later start talking about how he wanted to visit his mother, who had died 40 years prior. Even when his mind betrayed him by withholding dates and time and names, the typing hands would still strum across the kitchen table.
During one of his hospital stays, when I arrived on the third floor and entered his private room, he was sitting straight up in bed, near the window, talking with the nurse and watching television.
“Hey Papa,” I kissed his bald forehead. “How is he today?” I asked the soft faced nurse.
“He’s doin’ great today. He’s very alert! We’re laughin’, oh are we laughin’, right Pete?”
“Ya see here,” he spoke to us both. “We’re just watchin the Bud Billikin parade.” He loved parades. Every November he called me to make sure I was watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. The same on Columbus Day, and even St. Patrick’s Day. I was surprised never to have heard of Bud.
“What’s the Bud Billikin parade?” I asked as I propped up this pillow and grabbed his hand.
“It’s for all the colored folks,” he said to my embarrassment, right in front of his “colored” nurse!
“Papa!” I reprimanded.
“Oh, it’s ok, we’ve been talkin’ all mornin’ me and Pete. We understand each other, right Pete?” the kind nurse said.
“Sheesh,” he looked at me. “It is what it is. It began when the Chicago Defender, the black newspaper, uh, the founder, Abbott - organized the paperboys to gather and then it eventually became the parade.”
“Oh, okay.” I said, relieved. “How are you feeling, you look good.”
“I’m feelin’ good. I should be comin home soon.” He leaned his head back and continued to watch the parade. “How’s yer boyfriend? Is he Italian?”
“He’s fine Pop, and no he’s not Italian. Does it really matter?” I knew it mattered to him.
He did go home that August and the months went by and I visited on Sundays as usual. But the following May, he was readmitted because his blood pressure was very low. And then, I answered the phone at 1:53 a.m. on May 18, 1994.
“Hello?” My mother came running into my room, “It’s Papa, it’s Papa?”
At the same time, a stranger on the other end of the wire was saying “Hello, Mrs. Kushner, I’m calling about your father.”
“I’m his granddaughter.”
“Oh, is your mother there?”
I gave the phone to mom.
“Hello? Yes, Oh…okay, yes. When? Yes.”
“Papa passed away honey.” She handed me the phone. My father joined her at my bedroom door.
My heart sunk. I hugged my mom tight. No tears, yet. My dad, mom and I drove to the hospital as mom told us they checked on him at midnight and he was good, and when they went in at 1:30, he was gone. We drove the rest of the way in silence.
I was nervous to see his body. I didn’t know what to expect. We parked the car, walked in and took the elevator up to the third floor. The inside of my head seemed to slowly plummet, inch by inch down the rest of my body, until all my body weight was in my feet. I don’t know how they kept moving me forward. They felt heavy as steel. We met the nurse who called us at the nursing station. There she sat, doing a crossword puzzle, but looked up with sympathetic eyes before kindly escorting us into Papa’s room. A small dim light was on over his bed. Quiet tears flowed from my mom and I. My father stayed on the other side of the room.
“Oh Dad,” my mom said. “How am I going to tell mom?” “I’ll miss you.”
She walked away for a moment to busy herself with asking protocol questions of the nurse.
I walked toward his body. His skin looked slightly yellow in the artificial light. He looked like he was sleeping, with a small smile on his face. And then I looked at his hands. Peacefully, they rested on his stomach. I reached out and glided the back of my fingers along his skin. He felt soft. I lingered there and memories whooshed through my head - his hands holding mine, his stories, his birtday, his warm and welcoming eyes.
“Goodbye papa, I’ll miss you.” I kissed his forehead and took with me the grace of his peaceful smile and his beautiful, caring hands.
Eighteen years have passed since his death. And yet. I can still see him before me at the kitchen table. His voice floods my mind as I drive the kids to school. I look for orchids in the flower section of the grocery store. I see his smile while I run to my car in the rain. I see him eating macaroni as I pay the bills. I see the twinkle in his eye when he winks at me.
And, always, I see his hands. They shuffle the cards, hold the cigarettes, strum the typewriter keys and wave ‘Hiya Herman’. His hands will forever hold my heart.