Back in the 1950s my grandfather, John, walked across the street in his work clothes. In his hands under chin was a pot. While spooning pasta and beans directly into his mouth he visited family. That is what they did back then. Our extended family and our neighbors were the same people. It was true then, and it remained so when I was a child.
Infamous black and white photos of my grandfather fell into my hands for the safe keeping and trust of our history: blurry and sleeping with a fried meatball in his mouth; posturing in a wool suit and fedora next to his new 1932 Plymouth; chest thrust out in pride on the Aleutian Islands during World War II; shirtless and at home with my grandmother on a New Jersey beach; and the honeymoon photos at Niagra Falls which feature relaxation on an old porch of an old house surrounded by high and calm country grass.
My grandfather's people gathered together from foreign farms and humble homes. They worked the jobs which wrestled America into the modern age.
Growing up, the men in my family often spoke about my grandfather to me. They walked into our house as he often walked into theirs. They missed him. Ever since I was walking they celebrated my resemblance--I walked like him, and my husky frame matched his. Reminding them of him provided opportunities to share:
"He was good man your Pop-Pop John."
I grew up in the house that my mother was raised in. The house my grandfather paid for with hardened hands. His friends, my Aunt and Uncle Joanne and Joe, lived with my grandfather and his family. Joanne and Joe couldn't yet afford a house after they married. Working and hoping to raise a family, a house was in the future. During his lifetime, my Uncle Joe shared a lot of my grandfather with me--my memories and understanding of him come from many places, but Uncle filled in the color of the man.
"You'll live with us."
The offer to Joe and Joanne from my grandfather included more than the use of a room. A testament to the willingness to transform a house, a family, a friendship, and a future, it eased some of the difficultly of family. For Joanne and Joe that home became their home. A modest row house transformed into a home for two families.
"We fix the upstairs."
Grandpa John, Joe, and our Uncle Carmen labored together on Saturday and Sunday mornings—completely redefining the upstairs. Carmen arrived first on these morning--with coffee for all. Slowly, they shifted walls and sledgehammered doorways into new purpose. They roughed out separate living and sleeping spaces with only their hands, modest tools, and their time.
Years later, my mother and I reinvented it into our home.
"Your Pop-Pop John, he used to say, 'Come on down to my bar.' and we'd all walk down into the unfinished basement...this gray, damp basement...and drink. He'd point to the oil tank and say, 'That is my bar,' then he set his beer on it proudly and offered us his world."
My grandfather hauled a tractor trailer all over the county to put food on the table. He found the one job which allowed him to explore and come home again. After hearing his stories, seeing his pictures, and understanding what it meant to drive a truck across the country, I wanted to be a truck driver too.
"He actually said to us, with beer held high, 'I offer you the world!' We always got a good laugh out of that. We didn't have a pot to piss in between us, but...he found a way to deliver on his promise."
I remember the musty concrete basements of so many homes. Our Beppa's basement hid her trunk that she and her husband emigrated with from Italy. Her gray basement resembled ours. My split-lipped aunt's musty cobwebby basement resembled ours.
"We did not have much. Nope. But your Pop-Pop, he made us feel like kings."
After Uncle Joe would tell me about my grandfather he'd overpower me with a hug and planted a kiss on my face. Every time. His rough scruff scraped my cheeks.
"I miss that man."
Tonight, I set an empty can of beer on my oil tank and toast not only my grandfather, but also my Uncle Joe who passed this week. I'm grateful for what he shared, just as he was grateful for what my grandfather shared.