My grandfather, my mother’s father was the greatest man who ever lived. Period. Coming from Castellemare di Stabia outside of Naples, he knew poverty. He knew want. He knew hardship. He also knew ambition and desire.
He was born with an internal engine that drove him to strive for being his best. He might not have been perfect but he had a philosophy that anything worth doing was worth doing well. I adored him and wanted to be exactly like him. In family lore, I always hear that if I was missing in action, all anyone had to do was find my grandfather and I would be with him. It was true. I clung to him like a life raft.
He held to the thinking that things were to be done thoughtfully, carefully, properly and to your best ability whether it was work or cutting a melon for dessert; parallel parking or building a spiral staircase with no nails; or cooking dinner and doing the dishes. He taught me to strive.
I wanted to do everything he did. Each morning, he left for work after drinking an entire moka of espresso. I remember the sound of his spoon stirring the coffee to cool it and the glow of his cigarette (one habit I didn’t take from him). I desperately wanted to try coffee, but I was about 5 years old at the time. Finally, he relented and poured me my first espresso in one of my mother’s delicate little demitasse cups. I was horrified at the taste. He laughed and said I’d get used to it. He was right. He was my first espresso partner. Every cup I drink, to this day, is a tiny salute to him.
As a master carpenter, there was nothing in construction that he couldn’t do. I learned from him how to hang doors, plane them to be level; install bay windows and lay brick. One day, in his home in Florida, my Nonna wanted natural gas for cooking. So Pop and I worked all day running gas lines through a very narrow and very hot attic so she could cook as she desired. I remember watching the sweat drip off his “important” nose as he dedicated every cell of his body to the task, regardless of his discomfort.
He taught me to speak Italian (much to my mother’s dismay as she was convinced we were speaking about her. Sometimes we were…). It was Napolitano dialect but it was my first real connection to having Italian blood in my veins. We spoke it only at home, never outside because he was a proud American.
I remember his patience and quiet determination. He never yelled and never swore (sorry Pop, I didn’t inherit that from you. I swear…). He inspired me to be my best and there was something about him that made me not want to disappoint him…ever. I remember doing just that once; yup, just once, but it devastated me. I was experimenting with recreational substances (shall we say…) in college and when I was home one weekend, he invited me to drive to the beach. We did this often. It took us away from the chaos of the family and we always had profound conversations. Not this day. We sat on a bench and he asked me how things were. Before I could answer, he looked at me and said, “I’m so disappointed.” He got up and left. I walked home from the beach gutted by his disappointment but it stopped my “experimenting” in its tracks. He knew me and what worked.
He loved food, his family, coffee, women and football. I endured game watching as he was an avid Miami Dolphins fan and it was another way to be with him. I went with him to Dolphin practice at the University of Miami (where I was a student) to watch his precious team play. I watched him light up when their coach, Don Shula came over and said hello. I celebrated their “perfect season” right along with him.
Watching him live his life, I learned how to be as I am. I learned how to give everything to a task, a job, a mission. He helped me to realize that I have a strong internal engine that powers me to work hard. I don’t need to be pushed or cajoled into doing my job well or following my path.
He taught me that there are no grey areas when it comes to right and wrong. He taught me to be fair and just; passionate and compassionate. He taught me to think. He taught me to take responsibility and to be strong. He taught me to live in the moment and not to fear uncertainty (which surely comes in handy now). He taught me to love without condition and to expect nothing in return. He taught me to serve others and never turn my back on someone in need if I was in a position to help.
More than anyone else, he made me the woman I am.
He died when I was 19, two days after Christmas. I wanted to die with him; I loved him that much. I would have given anything to have him back. He still comes to me in dreams when I have a big decision to make or a challenge with which to cope. He is part of my DNA on so many levels.
On this day, which would be your 113th birthday if you were alive, I thank you, Pop for all the love and inspiration you gave me. You’re always with me.