I am sitting here late on a Thursday night, unable to sleep. Unable to sleep because tomorrow I have to attend the calling hours for my grandfather who passed away on Sunday night. I can't sleep because memories of him keep washing over me and I feel like I need to write them down. So here I am.
My grandparents have 11 children. An Irish catholic family through and through. My mom and her siblings tell me that my grandfather was strict with them growing up. He had a lot of rules and was a what-I-say-goes kinda guy. My grandmother never worked outside the home and so I can imagine being the sole provider for 11 children on a carpenter's salary could not have been easy. It could not have been easy at all. Being a working parent to only three children myself, I can only begin to imagine the stress and sense of responsibility he must have shouldered all those years. His tough exterior bore not out of unkindness, but necessity.
But aging must have softened those rough edges of his personality because, as his grandchild, I never saw that side of him. The man I knew was easy going, incredibly funny, a little bit ornery and adored by every single person who knew him.
Being only one of many, many grandchildren it was not easy to get a lot of one on one time with either of my grandparents, so I'd be exaggerating if I said we were exceptionally close. But even so, he was a constant in my life that I don't think I ever fully appreciated until now. During my life growing up my mom, sister and brother and I never lived more than a two minute drive from my grandparent's house. An easy walk on a nice summer day. My grandma used to babysit us kids while my mom was at work, and my grandpa was never more than a phone call away when the washing machine stopped working or a bat got into the house and needed catching. One middle of the night phone call and there he was, 10 minutes later on our doorstep with a broom in his hand ready to rescue us from the nocturnal nuisance.
I remember he liked apple pie and milk. He liked swordfish steaks. Coffee with a splash of irish cream in the morning and wild turkey - no ice - in the afternoon were his drinks of choice. I remember big brunches at my grandparent's house on Eastland Avenue, Leo in the kitchen at the helm. Polachintas with cottage cheese and cherries, omelets with bacon and mushrooms. On thanksgiving he always carved the turkey. His homemade stuffing was my favorite. I remember him always joking, always smiling. I never heard him raise his voice. I never saw him truly angry.
I remember as a little girl standing beside him in church at his brother's funeral and seeing him cry for the very first time. I remember my stomach sinking and the sight of my grandfather in tears shaking me to my bones. I remember looking straight ahead, unable to watch him cry for one second longer. I remember slipping my hand into his and his fingers squeezing me tight as we held on to each other for the rest of the service. I know I'll be thinking about this moment on Saturday when I'm standing in that same church, in those same pews, listening to his funeral mass.
As a teenager, before I had a car, I used to take the bus to work. And as a typical teenager with poor time management skills I would often find myself running to the bus stop, breathless, just in time to see the back of the bus disappear down the road without me on it. On those days I would curse myself, run the two or three blocks back home, dial my grandpa's number and there he would be, five minutes later, in the driveway. My savior. My ride to work.
As an adult I remember Josh and I buying our first house, having him over and showing him all the things I needed done that I, frankly, had no skills to do or money to do it with. I remember him coming over with wood floor boards that he just happened to have as well as some base board and quarter round and fixing up my living room floor. I remember watching him set up a table saw on my deck and go to town cutting and installing. He was 70 some years old and strong as a horse, I remember watching him work and thinking how toned his calf muscles were in his work shorts and tennis shoes. Nothing ever stopped him, nothing ever slowed him down.
Until now, at 83 years old cancer finally got the best of my old grandpa. Watching him deteriorate over those last months and weeks and final days was heartbreaking. Seeing him whittled so far down from the man he once was - it wasn't right.
That's not who he was.
So I will choose to remember him with the broom, with the tool box and the truck. With the glass of whiskey and the strong legs and the warm hand that held mine when we both needed it most.
I love you grandpa. I already miss you so much.