I’ve been looking at this photo a lot today.
My brother-in-law snapped this image of my grandpa and me two years ago, capturing a tender moment between us. It was a Saturday evening in April, and we were all gathered at my aunt’s house in Pennsylvania celebrating my grandfather’s 95th birthday.
It was the first time in a very long time that the whole family was together. Four generations under one roof. There was a giant sheet cake and presents, old stories and new grand-babies, laughter and tears. We traveled from five different states to celebrate the life of this amazing man, our grandpa.
I do not recall what we were talking about the second the camera clicked and froze this moment in time, but the photograph warms my heart every time I look at it. I love the way my grandfather is leaning in closer to talk to me and how whatever it was he was telling me was making me smile. But what I love most about this photograph is the intimate moment we’re sharing in a room packed with aunts, uncles and cousins engaging in multiple conversations simultaneously while seven great grandchildren were whirling around us. But here we were — my grandpa and me — in the corner of the room, talking as if no one else existed.
That was the last photo taken of my grandfather and me.
At 1:30 p.m. today, my mother called to tell me he had passed away earlier in the day. I knew this call was coming. My grandpa was declining quickly this past week, and it was only a matter of days before he would leave this earth and the telephone would ring. Still, there’s no way to brace yourself for the news you know is coming but that you don’t want to hear, or for the sound of your father’s voice on the other line, cracking with grief and pausing between words as he tries to collect himself. There is no greater sadness than hearing your parent mourn the loss of their parent.
My grandpa was 97 and lived an incredibly full, rich life. He was hands down a rock star. He lived independently in his own home until he was 91, and then moved into an assisted living center, where he lived up until one month ago when his health began to decline and he had to relocate to a nursing home. We all knew the end would be near.
Last week, he told my aunt he was ready to go and not to mourn him but to remember all the good times we’ve had with him. So that’s what I’m trying to do today — remember the good times. Memories of him have been running through my mind all day like a carousel.
My grandpa drank manhattans, loved scratch tickets and smoked cigars.
In my family, we called him “The Chief” — kind of like our version of the Godfather.
He wore shirts with #1 Grandpa written on them and loved to brag about his grandchildren and great grandchildren.
He stapled money to the inside of greeting cards and never forgot a birthday.
Growing up, he’d sometimes take my sisters and me to the movies and treat us to Wendy’s after. He was a bit clumsy when it came to lighting his cigars and would sometimes set things on fire – including a restaurant napkin at Wendy’s and even his own vehicle.
When I was a toddler, I loved playing with a pink rubber ball he kept in his garage – I can still hear the hollow sound it produced with every dribble I made in his driveway.I thought it was the best thing in the world.
My grandpa had huge hands — I mean, huge — and whenever he’d see my sisters and me, he’d cup our faces in his hands, kiss us and say, “How’s my tomata?”
He loved the Yankees and listening to ball games on the radio on his front porch.
He taught me how to play solitaire on the coffee table in his living room and before each hand he’d bless the table with holy water that he kept in his kitchen cabinet.
I loved going to his house as a kid because he always had Andes mints stocked in a candy dish and an antique adding machine that I swear weighed a million pounds, but he would carry it down from the attic every time we came over because we loved playing grocery store with it.
When my sister Gina and I were old enough to legally drink, my grandfather took us to his hangout — the Polish Club — where you could get a shot and a beer for $1.50. This was a rite of passage for us.
My grandpa had no filter, which I always envied, and would say whatever he wanted as loudly as he wanted — subtlety was never his strong suit, but it was part of his charm.
I’d often study him deep in thought at family functions and holiday gatherings. I can still picture him at the end of our family meals seated at the head of the table with his chair slanted and pushed back just slightly from the table, his legs crossed and hands folded in his lap as he gazed off in the distance thinking. About what? I never asked him, but now wish I had.
With my grandpa, life was an adventure. He was a glass half-full kind of guy, a terrific storyteller and a comedian. His stories were the kind that would make you laugh so hard you’d cry. He’d even crack himself up, and when he did, he couldn’t speak. He’d rub his eyes filled with tears as he struggled to release each syllable and finish his story. Meanwhile, the rest of us at the dinner table would be doubled over in laughter, gasping for breath.
My #1 grandpa, he’s #1 for a reason. He brought joy to so many peoples’ lives. He was #1 son, #1 brother, #1 veteran, #1 boss, #1 husband, #1 dad, #1 great grandpa, #1 Yankees fan, # 1 friend.
And that’s how I’ll remember him.