The old man and the sea of change

Note: This column appears in the 11/18 issue of The Glendale Star and the 11/19 issue of the Peoria Times

Like many men of his generation, my grandfather held strong—often stubbornly strong—to his worldview.

God only knows what he experienced and witnessed during World War II. He wasn’t the type to talk much about it. Post-war America was a much different place than it is today, and all of this helped shape his ideals and opinions.

When we were kids, my grandfather was a larger than life presence, sitting on his throne, which doubled as a recliner, watching golf on TV and generally not wanting to be bothered. The underlying threat of my grandmother telling Pop of our misdeeds was enough to redirect us to better behavior, though I’m now certain that the last thing he ever wanted to do was get out of his chair to discipline us.

All would have been well should things have proceeded as expected in his world, but life had other plans. It began when his eldest daughter married a Jewish man and later converted herself. It continued when his home inadvertently became part of a growing, urban, somewhat depleted neighborhood. It culminated almost a decade ago when we lost my grandmother.

Pop was forced out of his cultural, spiritual, and idealistic cocoon. Without my grandmother as the conduit, he was going to have to become a more hands-on patriarch—one that was going to need some help of his own. This could have gone one of two ways.

Pop chose the higher, less-traveled, emotionally introspective road. The knots of angst were loosened. He began to, slowly but surely, open up to all of us. I would mow his lawn on summer days after work, and find myself sitting at his kitchen table, sharing a cold one with him, and we would talk. When I had to go he would insist on “one more.” The man who once didn’t want to be bothered didn’t want me to leave.

Thank God for this softening, because in that time my sister, his granddaughter, married an African-American man. Pop came to the wedding. It was there that he met for the first time my future in-laws. Having always had a distaste for Frank Sinatra, my grandfather remained skeptical about Italians in general. As the party was winding down, he told my father-in-law that he “wasn’t so bad…for an Italian.” Progress.

Time brought my grandfather a Jewish daughter and son-in-law, an African-American grandson-in-law, and two-mixed race great grandchildren. Italians had infiltrated the family on his watch. He also now had an adopted great granddaughter. We brought our daughter to see him on a trip home this summer. Pop was impressed with the way she smiled and jumped on the bed in his nursing home. He commented, “She’s a special baby.”

Before we left that day, as he had each and every time we went to see him over the past few years (something he did rarely if at all when I was a kid), he hugged me and said, “Love ya’, pal.”

My grandfather passed away last week, the day before Veterans Day.

A Navy man set in his ways for most of his life, he rode the sea of change instead of going against the current. As a result, the grandparent who I most feared as a child ended up being the grandparent with whom I had grown the closest to as an adult. It didn’t have to be that way, but he made it so, because Pop was a special man.


Anonymous said…
Mike, what a wonderful tribute to your grandfather. I know that he is smiling from above & saying, "that's my boy I am so proud of him".