Five years ago today, my grandpa Dude passed away. He had been fighting cancer for a few years, a cancer that snuck in as minor and, after being ignored for years, reared its ugly head in the worst way imaginable.
His death did not come as a surprise (my mother and brothers had already flown to Ohio to be with the family), but when the call from my father came in the early morning of April 18, 2004, it was still a surprise (and as a side note, I am terrified of early-morning or late-night phone calls because my first thought is always that someone has died or there has been a terrible accident). The first thing I did upon hearing the news was crawl out of bed, turn on my computer, playFrank Sinatra (his favorite), and cry.
My grandpa – nicknamed Dude from my mother’s childhood (no one recalls why – and my grandma has always been referred to as Mugger) – was one of my favorite people. He is, to date, one of the only people who has made me feel intelligent and capable. I’m not sure if that was his intention, or if he thought I, too, knew I was intelligent and just wanted to reward me, but everytime he congratulated me on stellar grades or gave me a crisp twenty-dollar bill for straight As, it was about more than just gifts. I look back on that and I see that someone believed in me, that someone had faith in me, and that has made all the difference in my life.
It started with my birth. Legend has it, my mom went into labor on Memorial Day (after spending the entire day prior crafting some fancy dessert to bring to my father’s company picnic… which I, apparently, felt she didn’t need to attend after all). After I was born, she or my father called my grandparents to let them know, and Dude, doing yard work, allegedly threw down the rake and ran to the phone – and my grandparents proceeded to hop on a plane and fly what was only a three-hour drive. It was that important. Granted, I was the first grandchild, and of course they wanted to see my mother as well, but I think it was more than that.
All through my childhood, we would spend a week each summer in one of the Carolinas (North at first, then South as the years went on). My entire maternal side of the family would cram into a beach house and spend a week lying in the sun, playing bocci ball, and probably drinking, although my cousin Breanna and I mostly spent our time playing in the water. My grandpa paid for this every year, and only looking back do I realize how expensive it must’ve been, and how much I appreciate it.
Upon my graduation from high school, only about a year before his death, he and my grandma offered to pay the tuition for my first year of college. This was in addition to the college fund they’d set up for me and to which they had contributed at every major holiday. Again, these are things that only lately am I able to understand and appreciate for what they are. Even at eighteen, I couldn’t understand just how big of a gift that was.
Education was something my grandfather believed in wholeheartedly, and he has certainly furthered mine, intentionally and otherwise. I have used him as the subject of many essays and presentations, starting in eighth grade. We were given a fantastic project: pick an older person and write them letters asking about their lives, then making a binder full of letters and pictures. Some people lacked grandparents and used older family friends, others probably didn’t really care much at all, but that binder remains one of my favorite things. I learned that my grandpa was born to poor Italian immigrants, that he was so destitute that holiday gifts consisted of maybe an orange and a small toy, that he was excited to be drafted into the WWII army. I learned that he left for the military halfway through his senior year of high school, but that he finished upon his return – at twenty-one years of age. I learned that he then went on to college, studying journalism and eventually ending up in, what else, Human Resources (I chose that career path mostly because he had enjoyed it and I had no idea what else to do). I learned that he met my grandma at fifteen and that they stayed together, long-distance while he was at war, until eventually getting married. They were together over fifty years when he died.
In eleventh grade, we were given an in-class essay topic: The American Dream. I believe the assignment was to write about one historical individual, one fictional character, and one person in our lives who had achieed the “American Dream.” If I recall, mine were Maya Angelou and Gatsby (we were studying both at the time)… and Dude. Because, really? Going from only an orange for Christmas to a wealthy man with a happy family, big house, and healthy retirement is pretty much as American Dream-y as you get. That same year, I wrote about his experiences in the Second World War for my AP US History class. My best friend told me maybe I shouldn’t, that “a lot of war vets don’t like to talk about it,” but my grandpa? HA. He told me it was fun, that he’d had a great time going off to war. Admittedly, I may never understand that one. I got a very high A on both of those essays.
I wrote about him on one of my college entrance essays, eventually getting accepted – and a yearly $10,000 scholarship (I did ultimately attend a different school). I wrote about him on the application essay for admission to my school’s Communication department (I got in). And I wrote about him, because how could I not, on the essay when I applied to study abroad in Italy (I got into that, to).
He’d always wanted me to have a chance to visit Italy, I only wish he could have gone with to show me all the best places and all the locales of his childhood. When I visited our extended family there, they told me something interesting. I forget the exact wording they used, but apparently, my grandpa had always thought I would be the person to keep our families in contact, to visit Italy, to get to know that part of our heritage. Me, moreso than anyone else in our family.
He wasn’t perfect, to be sure. At his funeral, the priest joked about what a staunch Republican my grandfather had been, and I’m glad we never got to the point of having political discussions. He drank disgusting martinis and, unfortunately, was too stubburn to see a doctor when he first had an indication of skin cancer. And he, like the rest of my grandparents, always thought I should go to law school because I “like to read, write, and argue.”
But the thing that stands out the most? The fact that he had faith in me. That he truly (I think) believed I was intelligent and would make something of myself. I haven’t yet, and I think some people will just look at me and think, “She is one of those people who will never know what to do with life,” but he didn’t see that. I blame him for this idea that I have that someday I’ll be amazing. And I blame him for the tiny inkling of an idea that maybe I already am.
He raised my mother, he took me on vacations, he paid for my school and rewarded me for good grades. He served as fodder for countless essays and projects.
But that love? Those dreams he had to have had for me? The belief he had in me before I was even old enough to understand (and even though I still so rarely share that belief)?
By far, some of the best gifts I’ve been given.