The generational love of your elders.
My great grandfather lived to be 100 years and 7 months old. He was married to my Nanny for over 75 years. They had 4 girls, one of which my grandmother.
In 1914, the flu was devastating the village in Italy where he lived. His father couldn’t afford the flu vaccine for all his children, so he sent my great grandfather (age 12) and his sister with a block a provolone cheese, a full dried salami and a loaf of Italian bread on a boat to America.
Before he made it to America, all his siblings had died from the flu. They were vaccinated.
This is not an indictment on vaccinations, but a testament to how far they have come.
Upon his arrival in America, he worked as a tailor. His best asset was that he spoke good English.
He smoked unfiltered cigarettes for 70 years, ate 2 eggs every morning for breakfast and drank a glass of cheap red wine every night.
He never owned a car. He walked everywhere. For most of his life, all the things my great grandfather needed were in a short walk to the end of the block.
Since he was a tailor, he kept his sewing equipment in his home- the apartment above my grandparents in Queens.
He would look at my Sunday pants and pull up the back by the belt strap. Most of the time it was not to his approval and he would shake his head and say “come”, as hit slowly lifted himself up off his leather thrown. He would walk slowly, with his hands fixed behind his back.
He was meticulous. I remember the way he used to hold the chalk in his hand and the thread in his mouth, with his thick dark glasses hanging on the tip of his nose. My clothes haven’t fit right since he passed.
You may find it strange and inappropriate that every time you saw your great grandfather there was a good chance you would have to take your pants off, but you just never had a tailor in your family.
When we would come for Sunday dinner, my Nanny would always be perched at the window, looking down at the world with wonder and delight. She was at home there. She didn’t watch much TV, she loved staring out the bay window into the concrete horizon over the deteriorating neighborhood. It was her home and she loved it.
I would run upstairs to see them.
We would play hide and seek. I would sneak up the stairs and some days my grandfather would point to where my nanny was hiding, other days he would point to a place that would trap me so she could find me. It was always a gamble listening to his direction, but he would laugh joyfully at either result. He would rub my cheeks and say “nice boy.”
My Nanny was the most wonderful person I have ever known. She never raised her voice, she didn’t have to. We would play cards, ace picks up all. She inadvertently taught me how to count, predict and execute. She would let me win most of the time, but she kept me in check.
We would make bread on Sundays. She always let me add the yeast and knead the dough. It was my favorite thing in the world. My hands still remember the way the sticky dough danced with the powdery white flour. It never tasted all that good, but I savored every bite. She taught me the magic of creating things and then enjoying them.
Their backyard was a massive garden. There was no grass. Just concrete and dirt. They would plant carrots, tomatoes, and cucumbers. I can still smell the soil on my hands from pulling the carrots. You never knew how big they would be. The moment of judgement was always filled with awe and joy.
But the main attraction of the garden was the glorious fig tree. My great grandfather manicured it like a sculpture. He would pick the figs at the peak of ripeness. It was captivating to watch him work. Those were the best figs I have ever tasted. Nothing has come close.
I will always remember my great grandfather as the calm, proud, radiant man at the head of the table. He would look across at my great grandmother and they would smile at each other.
They were surrounded by their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. They never thought they would ever have all these things. They were truly grateful for the simple pleasure of our presence.
My great grandfather never went to doctors. He never trusted them after what happened to his family.
He went to the doctor when he was 97. The doctor said he had a bad heart and he needs to lay off the eggs and wine.
He looked at the doctor and said with his hands “Are you crazy? I’m 97 years old. I’ma do just fine.”
My Nanny passed that same year.
At her funeral, my great grandfather was broken with grief. He went through all the handkerchiefs in his pocket.
My father, the first and oldest male in the family, was his favorite. He didn’t have any boys of his own, so he had a special connection to my father, teaching him with patience, care and love.
My father went to console him. He looked at my dad and said “I go to the doctor, they tell me I need to do this, I have a bad heart, I need to do that… she go to the doctor they tell her she is fine.”
My father nodded and hugged him.
“Why don’t they take me? I am the one with the bad heart. She always had the best heart. Why do they take her?”
I hoped that one day I would have love in my life so great that I could be this devastated.
My great grandfather looked up at me with his tired wet eyes. He lifted his trembling hand, holding the handkerchief. He smiled through the tears at my sullen face. He shuffled his feet toward me. He took his dry hand and slapped my cheek.
“She loved you nice boy. You make her proud.” He stood there smiling at me. He nodded.
My great grandfather lived three more lonely years. He spent the last decade of his life in the suburbs of Maryland. He could no longer enjoy his walk to the bakery on the corner for his loaf of bread. He would wander the cookie-cutter labyrinth of suburban sprawl.
On his 100th birthday, he received a letter from President George W. Bush. The automated signature on government card stock meant nothing to him.
He always said if he made it past the ides of March, he would live another year. He passed at the end of April in his 100th year.
I think of my great grandparents often. Now that I have children of my own, I think about what love is. I am blessed to have had an abundance of love in my life. It is the honor and pleasure of my life to pass that blessing on. I hope to see my great grandchildren, but for now I am focusing on giving my children the timeless love they deserve. So they can pass it down too.