Sunday with Grandpop

My grandfather has always been the patriarch of my father’s side of the family, the sometimes abrasive and always-loud leader of the family name. Father of 5 kids, he was loved and feared in equal doses when they were children, although he has mellowed greatly in the time I remember him. I do remember him coming home from a long day working at Sunoco, gruff and tired, lean and taut as most hard-working men were back in those days. Sometimes he would ruffle my hair as he walked in before heading to the table for dinner. If I was lucky, he might have brought home some candy. Other times, his temper would be at the fore, and an argument in aggressive Italian would ensue between he and my (saintly) grandmother over things that I couldn’t understand. I was just barely smart enough to know that the comic books downstairs were the better place to be at those times.

Grandpop My grandfather will never be remembered as one of those smiling, happy grandpas. He was a hard-working man who went through a lot of years of being poor and working hand-to-mouth, a veteran of World War II who brought back a disdain for much of authority and for those who would look down on him because of his lack of education but would rely on him for his common sense and hard work. My grandfather is a rough man, but you always knew where he stood on an issue – he is never quiet or apologetic about it; consequently, you also know where YOU stood with him. He has little tolerance for laziness or back talk, but also has a generosity that belies his tough exterior.

He has always been a strong man that pushed past what you expect for his age – especially considering injuries sustained during a fall from an oil tower that ended his career – he has been a source of strength for me throughout my life. Even after having to retire from Sunoco due to his injuries, he found a new life restoring antiques and running a second-hand shop, often putting in 50+ hours a week. He’s been doing that for 30 years, well past his 89th birthday.

But my grandfather is slipping now. Over the last year or two, he’s been getting less strong and focused, more reminiscent and … older. It had to be expected, but it’s still a shock to actually see it happening. It seems so sudden – time has caught up with him with a vengeance. His mind is slower, more apt to repeat stories that have been heard countless times, to rant on diatribes that have become rote in our memories by now. He’s still a curmudgeon (a right earned through a hard life) but with a soft side that shows itself to a certain segment of his family. His generosity is still a mainstay – a dollar and a smart-ass comment for a time of need – but lately he seems … tired. Weak. Confused. Sad. All things that have shown up at times, but only for a short period before the belligerance that defined him showed up again.

Recently, we had quite a scare with him – his blood pressure plummeted, and the doctors couldn’t get it back up. It turns out that he had an E. coli infection that was really doing a number on him. They finally got it under control, but it left him pretty weak. Calling to check on him at the hospital, I could immediately tell how he was doing by whether he sounded irritated (in which case he was fine) or quiet and somber (in which case, I worried about him). Since then, I’ve tried to get down and see him. I finally made it down this weekend. It’s a little over an hour to get there, and our visits are usually not very long – he’s not much on extended family visits and the necessary niceties – but I wanted to get down and see him anyway. Shari couldn’t make it, so I went solo and I’m glad that I did.

He looked worse than I’ve ever seen him. He was hunched over and ashen, tired and worn down – not the man I’ve known my whole life. I had brought him some cannolis but he barely even noticed (he had one to be nice, but usually he wolfs them down). I was really worried. We talked a bit, and he went into his normal points about my father, his other kids and working around the place, but not with the usual vigor. But then I started asking about his history – his family, and he perked up. To be honest, I’m realizing that he might not have much time left, and that if I want to know about his family I had better ask now. I’d gotten a fairly good geneology from him in the past, but when Shari and I had been talking the night before, it became apparent that I knew very little about his parents. I knew quite a bit about his in-laws, but almost nothing about his side of the family.

We jousted vigorously for about an hour, me bring up points and counterpoints, and he reminding me that he never realized I was so stupid that I would believe whatever portion of a point that I was making, and that if I thought (a), then my father didn’t do as good a job as he had thought…

He actually seemed really interested in talking about them – perhaps delving into memories that he hadn’t really gone to in a long time. It wasn’t without the usual diatribes (“your grandmother’s father was a real S.O.B., you know…”), but it was great to hear him speak about things with more energy and interest. Our talk – as it is wont to do – then turned to politics and the way the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and as I watched, the grandfather I knew returned. His posture improved, his color came back, his smile and wry humor returned, all in the span of a few minutes. We jousted vigorously for about an hour, me bring up points and counterpoints, and he reminding me that he never realized I was so stupid that I would believe whatever portion of a point that I was making, and that if I thought (a), then my father didn’t do as good a job as he had thought. It was par for the course, a gentle stab to make sure we really thought about the points we made. Opinionated and willful, my grandfather’s views are shaped by a different time and he doesn’t always have the facts, but that never stops him from making a point. If you don’t agree, well, you’re ill-informed. When Shari or my other relatives are around, there is quite a bit of eye-rolling, but who is going to tell an almost-90-year-old man that his views are wrong or at the least, old-fashioned. You take his views for what they are, and move one.

But for me, I was glad to hear them. Old-fashioned, prejudiced, incorrect or inflammatory, I enjoyed every syllable of our discourse, because every word was a bit more spirit than he had shown the moment before. The fire returned, the spit in his step was there – he wasn’t a feeble man, but my grandfather, an Italian spitfire with a point to make and his foot ready to drive it home, if need be. Before long, he was getting tired, and I took my leave. But I left a bit more content than when I arrived. If he can still achieve that degree of spark in him, he’s still got it. He may be tired, but he’s not worn out.


4 Responses to “Sunday with Grandpop

  • I really enjoyed this post. I’m sorry your grandfather’s health is declining, but it sounds like he’s still got plenty of energy, waiting for the proper outlet. I’m glad you provided that for him, and I’m sure it made him feel better as well.

    Losing my grandparents reminded me of how temporary our stays on this planet are, and how we need to spend time with people while they’re still around. There were times when I could have visited them and didn’t … and now I wish I had. So I’m really glad you went to visit your grandfather.

  • I can tell I’d like your grandpa from this story. I’ve got a grumpy hard working grandfather too. He looks like an Armenian version of Shrek. Yeah arguing with old people is fun, their views have a lot more wisdom and watching them tell stories with passion is great. I sometimes have to try and forget how PC a discussion is with my Pop and forget about lecturing him on certain topics.

  • I read this before but didn’t have a chance to comment. Partially, I wasn’t sure what to say. Your grandpa reminds me a lot my own, and the idea that we’ll both lose ours someday breaks my heart. Here’s to making the most of whatever time we have …

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