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Celebrating A Life

Celebrating A Life

July 24, 2006

Yesterday I went to my step father’s supposed to be a surprise party. Luckily someone showed my mother the error of her ways in thinking a room full of people shouting, “SURPRISE” was a good thing to do to someone who you would like to see turn 86.

His birthdate is actually unclear. He was born at home, the first generation American in an Italian immigrant family. There were eight children in the family, who by my rough estimate had 20 children, a surprising number of whom were named Tony. He didn’t get a birth certificate until years later and by then no one was really sure of exactly the date he was born.

“Why does it really matter? I’m here, aren’t I?” he had said.

His childhood wasn’t an easy one, growing up during the Depression, being poor. There was so much lacking in their lives as children. And yet, when they speak of their time growing up there is great joy and laughter. When I listen to the stories I often wonder if it is because of the harshness of their every day life that the glimmers seemed so particularly sweet.

Can you truly appreciate things if you don’t have that contrast?

Would my children be excited to get an orange for Christmas? Would they hold it in their hand like a treasure, not wanting to eat it because it would then be over? Would they try to hold out for as long as possible before they peeled it and bit into it’s sweet flesh, licking the juice off their hands and forearms. Would they 80 years later still talk about how when they were children the oranges tasted so much better, so much sweeter than they do now?

“Now that you can buy them everywhere, it isn’t the same. I don’t know why, they just don’t taste as good,” he had said.

When my step father was a child they rarely could afford treats, in fact the probably lacked most of the things which we would now consider essentials. Since his birthday was in the summer, his mother would get him a watermelon every year instead of baking a cake. Now that I have seven children, I wonder if she started the tradition because it was just too damn hot to fire up the stove and bake a cake in the middle of summer, even in the summer kitchen, which was in the basement of their house.

But whatever the reason, it became a tradition which he and his siblings anticipated eagerly. I have heard the stories of the watermelon as birthday cake for my entire life. How they would stick a candle on it and sing happy birthday. He said his father and mother would sit back and watch them eat the watermelon. They never ate it themselves. In fact their father never did anything for himself. His children came before him. His wife came before him. He asked for nothing but their happiness.

Such simple pleasure. Such simple joy. Sitting there together, eating watermelon, at a table their father had built himself. They always ate the white part and usually ate the rind. Still do.

“Why do you eat that part?” I once had asked.

“Why not? The bitter balances out the sweet. Also, it seems a shame to just waste it,” he had answered.

His explanations for everything are like that. Simple, logical, the same Depression era mentality that causes my father in law to save and reuse tin foil.

Every day my step father eats a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. Every single day. And has for the past 30 years that I have known him. It is always the same, without variation. Sitting here typing this I can picture the sandwich, sitting on the white corell dishes with the cornflower blue trim– white bread, ham, American cheese, iceberg lettuce, and Hellman’s mayonaisse with the knife still in the jar– sitting next to his glass of RC cola.

“How can you eat that every day?” I once asked.

He had shrugged. “When I was a kid I wanted ham so badly. But we never got to eat it because it was too expensive. Sometimes my father would come home form work with a ham bone or a scrap someone had given him and my mother would make soup. It was always so exciting when it would happen. But I told myself that one day I would have enough money to eat ham, real ham, every day for the rest of my life. And that’s just what I intend to do.”

I was an adolescent, full of my self and my own import. “I’d never do that. I’d rather starve than eat ham.”

He didn’t get angry, he rarely did. Instead he’d calmly laughed and said, “No you wouldn’t. You only say that because you have never been hungry.”

At the party yesterday, people stood up and told stories about him as their uncle, brother, cousin, friend. They were the kind of stories that made us laugh until tears streamed down our faces and made us cry. Cry for what? I suppose for the fact that once you reach 85 there aren’t too many more of these birthdays left. There isn’t too much more time to build these kind of memories. “One hundred and one” became the toast. I guess it sounds more chipper and party like than 16 more years. Mortality with a face sucks.

Then after the party we went back to my parent’s house for an after party. We carried in presents and cards, mostly filled with well-wishes,love, and lots of xxxxx’s because at this stage of his life he has everything he could want. There was one heavy, rather large present I placed on the center of the kitchen table.

He began opening some of his presents. I heard a loud hoot of laughter.

“What?” I asked, “What is it?”

“My brother. He got the perfect gift.” Out of the pile of boxes and wrappings, ribbons and bows, he picked up a watermelon.

He took his handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed his eyes. Most of his brothers and sisters are gone now.

We sat at a restaurant seventy people strong to celebrate, but many of the people he started out with in this life are dead. He must think about that too, making birthdays more bittersweet with each passing year. The stories are different now. There are ghosts in them, empty pauses in the stories. Freddie is no longer there to interject his part of the story, or Dominick to tell his part about how Tony would always try to steal a bite of his watermelon. Dominick is gone now. So are Rose and Caroline. And so is Pat, the youngest, the baby who had spent the first month of his life precariously clinging to life in a wooden box next to the stove and later went on to storm the beaches of Normandy. There are only three now.

And yet the stories still beg to be told.

“A watermelon?” my daughter asked, “a watermelon isn’t a present.”

“No, honey, once upon a time it was.” I stroked my daughter’s hair, and put a chunk of it behind her ear. “Go on, Poppi, tell us the story.”

He leans back in his chair and begins.

Grandfather and Grandson

One Hundred and One, Poppi. We’re counting on One Hundred and One.

Posted by Chris @ 8:38 am  

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Comments

  1. Jeanelle Paige says:

    So touching and throught provoking. I have tears reading it. Great post! Happy Birthday to your Poppi!

  2. Jenniffer says:

    So many parts of that reminded me of the Little House books we’re reading before bed every night. My MIL makes pickles from watermelon rind. And they’re so *good*.

  3. Susan says:

    Oh, you made me cry, Chris.

    Here’s to many more birthdays for your precious Poppi.

  4. Melanie says:

    Wonderful post! Happy birthday to Poppi!

  5. TC says:

    Touching amazing story. i have tears in my eyes.

    I am one of the few people I know who has experienced some degree of real poverty. I remember one winter when I was a kid, we had run out of money and dad was a seasonal worker. But we did have some caplin (small fish) dried and stored. It was all we had. We ate caplin every meal, breakfast, lunch and supper and never told anyone we were doing it. I remember never asking for any of the things that the other kids were getting in school, because we couldn’t afford it. I remember babysitting after we actually had food and saving all my money so I could buy the first pair of new jeans I had gotten in years. I remember one day coming home to a gift wrapped present on my bed, (the only time I remember seeing a gift wrapped present as a kid). My dad had gone out and bought my sister and I new dresses. We were so excited, I can still remember the breathless excitement and wanting to wear it everywhere. I remember later, when I went to college, money was again really really short and we hadn’t had any at all come in for two months. All we had left was this big bag of rice and soya sauce. So that is what we ate. I remember bringing it in to college for my lunch. A container with rice and soya sauce. And I remember one day my parents came to visit and they surprised us and filled the freezer on top of my fridge with food. We were thrilled.

  6. Jamie says:

    Well you’ve gone and made me cry. Beautiful story and such a beautiful photo to accompany it. Here’s to many more years (and watermelons) for Poppi!

  7. Beth says:

    Congratulations to your Poppi! What a touching story. One hundred and one years!

  8. Heather says:

    That’s the most beautiful and touching thing I’ve read in a long time. I’m sobbing and wishing I could know Poppi.

  9. Rachel says:

    Oh my goodness! You made me cry. That is such a beautiful post, and the pictures is just as beautiful. Thanks for the reminder of what is really important.

  10. Sarah says:

    Now I’m crying! It feels okay to have a good cry… what wonderful writing. Thank you!

  11. nabbalicious says:

    What a beautiful post and picture. You’re such a talented writer! Poppi sounds like a wonderful man, too.

  12. peepnroosmom says:

    Oh wow. I am crying. What a beautiful post and a touching picture.
    That makes me think of my Nana. She would always save little bits of leftover food in tin foil. After she died we were cleaning out her room and we found a shriveled up orange that she had saved and stuck in her closet.
    Happy Birthday Poppi!

  13. rachel says:

    Happy Birthday to Poppi! What a beautiful story. Another person in tears here.

    My step-grandfather (grandmother’s 3rd husband) will turn 92 this fall. My girls can’t wait for his 100th birthday! I’m hoping he makes it, but he’s still driving, gardening, etc. - even with cancer!

    You have a wonderful family, thank you for sharing. I need to go call my grandmothers now.

  14. Jessica S. says:

    Ok, now I am crying. That is beautiful and touching. Makes me remember my hubby’s grandmother who also grew up during the Depression. It is amazing what these great people can teach us if we just listen.

  15. Jess says:

    Oh that is so sweet. What a lovely post. Hope the 101 mark is hit.

  16. Lilly says:

    That is a beautiful, beautiful photo. How wonderful that Poppi is still here to tell your children his stories and to laugh with them for a while.

  17. Rob says:

    Absolutley great story. Brings back memories of my grandfather who was a teenager during the depression.

  18. Miss Peach says:

    Such a beautiful post! And a reminder why grandparents are so special. Happy Birthday to Poppi!!

  19. Tammy says:

    Now that was one of the finest things I’ve read online for some time! You are such a talented story teller. Your Poppi sounds like a wonderful man, who isn’t bitter about his poor upbringing, but thankful for what he DID have. That’s what we should all aspire to be. It’s so much sweeter to the soul, being thankful.

  20. Jamie says:

    Such a beautiful story, and picture.

  21. JustLinda says:

    Wonderful writing, beautiful story…

  22. Jennifer S. says:

    My Nana just hit the 82 mark, and though she’s been ill for the last few year, I expect that she’ll have many more birthdays. At the same time, realizing how precious life is brings me back to the thought that each birthday could be her last! I was the oldest grandchild from her biological children (my grandfather who’s first wife died, had 4 daughters) so my memories are very fond - I still remember the songs we’d sing at night while keeping my Papa awake…all of the giggles we shared…such wonderful memories I’ll always treasure.

    Happy Birthday Poppi!!!!

  23. Mary says:

    Thanks for a great post. It is an excellent reminder to appreciate the simpler things. And that picture. It is truly precious. What a blessing to be a part of that family.

  24. Jennifer says:

    What a beautiful post. I loved the picture. I hope your Poppi has many wonderful years ahead of him, full of watermelon and ham sandwiches :)

  25. Elena says:

    That was beautiful!

  26. InterstellarLass says:

    That is so touching. I’m feeling a bit misty.

  27. Jennifer says:

    “When I listen to the stories I often wonder if it is because of the harshness of their every day life that the glimmers seemed so particularly sweet.” When I hear my grandparents’ and my father-in-law’s stories, I sometimes wonder the very same thing, but I have never been able to put it into such beautiful words.

  28. meritt says:

    I love the whole post and could understand the feeling behind it as I have similar conversations with my 92 year old Grandmother.

    However I had to laugh at the part about not knowing for sure how many kids there were because so many were named Tony… OMG I know! In our family the name was “Pete” and there were either 5, 6, or 7 boys… not sure because they were all named Pete!

    Too funny. I love family history.

  29. Meagan says:

    Well gee whiz, if I’d known you were going to make me cry I would have at least grabbed a tissue! Thanks so much for sharing that touching story.

    Meg

  30. Jaybird says:

    *sniff sniff* I want a picture of Poppi EATING the watermelon, too!

    Good stuff….good stuff.

  31. Cheryl says:

    So very beautiful and moving, Chris - Happy Birthday to Poppi

  32. ben says:

    That’s wonderful. Around here, I guess we take watermelon for granted, too. We don’t have any idea how fortunate we are.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  33. Chris says:

    Crap. I’m crying. Truly a great post!

    I am sure with your seven, you do a lot of cost saving tasks around the house. With four chidren, that never stop eating, I do a lot of freezing and canning. I am wondering, do you think our kids will ever look back and remember it all fondly? I think sometimes that having a larger family makes everyone appreciate the smaller things. Don’t ya think?

  34. Erin says:

    What a beautiful post, you truly have a way with words.

    Happy Birthday to Poppi!!!

  35. Antique Mommy says:

    My MIL is 80, the youngest of seven. She is losing a sibling a year. We have had these kind of gatherings a lot lately. It’s sweet and sobering at the same time. The picture says what words cannot. Great post. As always.

  36. Nicki says:

    What a wonderful story!! It reminded me of family reunions before my grandmother died. I was doing ok, till I saw the picture. I’m still crying. There really are no description for the wonderful feelings it brought up. Thank you.

  37. carrien says:

    Add me to the list of criers.

    My granny left us last year at 94. I’m always amazed by how much joy she could dredge from the very ordinary and the very sad in life, and how much she enjoyed the life she had. It’s beyond my ability to imagine being anything like her, or living that long.

  38. margalit says:

    Oh man, this made me weep. Your Poppi would be just a tad bit younger than my father (Z”l) who died 5 years ago. Although my family isn’t italian, so many of the stories are the same. The joy of oranges, what a treat watermelon was back then, how hard things were during the depresssion, and how the depression influenced their lives forever after. My younger friends can’t understand what it means to grow up with parents of the depression era, so frugal it’s almost insane, and yet so easy to please with small things that meant so much to them as a child. For my father, who attended TWO high schools at the same time (Soston Latin and a Yeshiva) and worked delivering ice ever morning and evening, the joy of his life was the horse that drove the ice wagon. For the longest time he longed for such a horse, and then, in his 50’s he adopted a 20+ year old percheron, who was never driven or worked at all and did nothing but live the good life of a retired horse loved dearly by my father. Simple things.

  39. dollymama says:

    I think that may be the best thing of yours I’ve ever read. Wonderful.

  40. Shellbie says:

    Oh man, tears are streaming. I miss my Grandmother even more now and want so badly to be closer, distance wise, to my family. What a joy that you are able to be at the celebration table.

  41. Mom on the Gulf Coast says:

    I too am crying. Beautiful post, thank you for sharing.

  42. liz says:

    I’m all verklempt.

  43. Maddy says:

    That is by far the best post I have ever read, sniff sniff sniff.

    Happy Birthday and many more to come.

  44. tara says:

    what a beautiful story about a beautiful person! i know i’ll think of it every time i eat watermelon from now on :)

  45. kristarella says:

    What a beautiful post and it sounds like a lovely party too.

    I wish I knew more of my grandfather’s stories but maybe I’ve got some time to hear my Dad’s stories.

  46. jm says:

    That was such a lovely tribute…

  47. Jen says:

    I was holding it together until I scrolled down far enough to see the picture. It makes me miss my grandfather and all his stories so very much….

  48. Wicked Stepmom says:

    ::sniff::

    How lucky your children are to have him in their life! My step-dad, whom we also called Poppi, passed away 3 years ago just before my son turned 1 year. We have a picture of The Boy with his Poppi on his dresser so he can always remember what a great man he was.

    Happy Birthday to your Poppi! Thank you for sharing His story and photo.

  49. kathy says:

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who chased a lump from her throat and a tear from her eye. What an incredible tribute and one of the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever seen.

    I’m stunned into awe.

  50. Amanda says:

    What a wonderful story and beautiful photo. Thanks for sharing. Here’s to 101 for your Poppi!

  51. Crys says:

    My husband lost his father this morning. My heart aches for the stories my children will never hear…

  52. Julie says:

    Beautiful. Best wishes for a 101st. Or a 102nd for that matter.

  53. Novaks8 says:

    wow Chris.
    I just lost my Grandpoppy on Tuesday.

    I wish he were still here so I could listen to more stories from him.

    off to get a tissue now…

  54. Amanda says:

    So amazing how a story of complete stranger can bring tears to my eyes. Poppi very much reminds me of my sister’s father-in-law, who lived through the depression, saves everything and enjoys the simple pleasures of life. I often think of how hard it would be to grow up in those days, but how rewarding every day was. I respect your step-father and I have never even met him. Now, THAT certainly says something. I am glad he has stuck around long enough to pass these stories on…. our history is so important and you just wouldn’t know it by looking around today.

  55. Sweet Pea says:

    Such a touching story and the picture is absolutely beautiful. I know I’m not the only one with tears in her eyes. Amazing!

  56. mommyHAM says:

    Chris,

    What a blessing you’ve been able to experience such a wonderful man in your life! Tears streaming down my face, as I sit here thinking of the legacies we can leave our families.

    I hate poverty….btdt and now I’m fighting it as a social worker. But, the rainbow in the storm is seeing people who are so pure in heart in the midst of such struggle - and watching them hold onto that, long after the struggles pass.

    Your children are blessed to have such a storyteller in their family - legacies that they would otherwise have long forgotten will undoubtedly live on through your talented passing on of history.

  57. Sock Girl says:

    What a beautiful post and photograph!

    I knew a man about his age who used to tell me his mother pickled the rind of the watermelon and it tasted exatly like dill pickles.

    Happy birthday to your step-father. And many many more.

  58. Aubri says:

    Way to write a post that made me cry! You’re so lucky to have such a step-dad! He sounds so much like my dad’s dad. Well, step-father if you want to get technical, but he raised my dad and his siblings… Happy Birthday to your wonderful Poppi! One-hundred and One!

  59. Lacy says:

    What a beautiful post. I love reading your blog. You’re such a fantastic writer! Happy Birthday to Poppi. What a sweet man he is.

  60. Frauke says:

    This is a beautiful post. I had tears in my eyes. And it reminded me of my 91 year old grandmother, the keeper of my past and countless stories I will be telling to my grandchildren.

  61. Heather says:

    I too am crying. Beautiful post, Chris. I just recently lost my grandparents within a year of eachother.My grandfather just passed last October. He would have been 80. I now long to hear the stories they would both tell during Christmas and birthdays. I try hard to recall all of them, but its hard. They too were children during the depression. It honestly made them appreciate every single material and non material posession they ever had in their life.

    It makes you realize that life is short and so precious. Heres hoping that Poppi has his 101st watermelon. :)

  62. Heather says:

    And the picture, OH MY. So, so precious!

  63. Rae says:

    That was a beautiful beautiful story. And an amazing photo. Thanks.

  64. Laura K. says:

    I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes because my grandpa died last October and he had stories like this and I miss them and him so much. Your family sounds so wonderful. You truly are blessed.

  65. Cathy says:

    Chris, Wonderful post. You ought to submit it to “My Turn” at Newsweek. It’s time to get paid for your writing.
    Cathy

  66. Pamela says:

    That was so beautiful, Chris. Your best yet. I second the Newsweek comment. More people need to hear about Poppy - and get to read your writing.

  67. Lisa says:

    Oh my. Chris, thank you, thank you!

    This brought back sweet memories of the summer I spent with my grandparents and all the stories they shared of their lives during the Depression.

    Wow.

    Poppi, happy birthday.

  68. ek says:

    Heartfelt and profound, and touches on so many levels of life. An amazing life and man, and so beautifully told.

    I heard a comic say the other day - of your Poppi’s generation “They drove back the Nazi’s - and we’re - well we’re afraid of carbohydrates…”

    Happy Birthday to your dear Poppi!

  69. Ashley says:

    That was beautiful. I could tell from how you were writing that you really really love your Step-Dad. Your children are so blessed to be able to meet him and have his wisdom imparting on them. He will be a treasured memory in their memories when they are older, I’m sure of that.

  70. Lylah says:

    What a beautiful tribute. Thank you so much for posting that.

  71. Christine says:

    This was so beautiful. My husband’s grandfather almost made 101. He was shy by only about a month. This post was so touching for me and it reminded me so much of him. We are such an impatient and ungrateful people nowadays aren’t we?

  72. CaliforniaGrammy says:

    Here’s to one-hundred-and-one for your Poppi … great story, Chris. Life is so precious. And the picture of the old and the new is priceless.

  73. Joy H says:

    Wow….you are an incredible writer :*)

    Happy Birthday to Poppi; wishes him many more.

    That photo is priceless!

  74. Salsa Queen says:

    Beautiful story Chris. Thru my tears, makes me miss my beloved Grandpa. Give Poppi an extra birthday kiss. Here’s to one hundered and one.

  75. anthonysmom2000 says:

    …too weepy too type…I wonder what my kids will remember…and what they did without…and what they might be hungry for…we should leave something for them to want…

  76. kate says:

    Happy Birthday!

    What a beautiful post!

    The picture is incredible.

  77. Navhelowife says:

    Frame the picture.
    Frame the post as well. So that one day, your kids can read it over and over again and know it by heart, so the stories will never be lost.
    Wonderful.

  78. Anna says:

    Wow… that was beautiful. Thank you.

  79. Maliavale says:

    That was lovely, Chris.

  80. R says:

    Damn, crying here. That was so touching and real. Thank you for sharing your family with me.

  81. Elizabeth says:

    Well, I was going to post about how lovely the photo was and how much I liked the stories. Then I saw all of the other people saying basically the same thing and decided not to post. Then I decided that just in case you count them, more is better!

  82. April says:

    What a touching story. I’m crying here. Poppi is beautiful.

  83. Antique Mommy says:

    My uncle is about the same age and like Poppi, he was born at home out on the Texas prairie and there was no birth certificate. He fought in WWII at Normandy and The Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded at has a purple heart. We wanted to take him back to Europe but he couldn’t get a passport because he didn’t have a birth certificate. Ironic given all that he gave for his country.

  84. jouette says:

    beautiful, touching tribute to Poppi.
    it truly IS a perfect post.

  85. Notes from the Trenches » A Perfect Post says:

    [...] The first one for was for Celebrating A Life, post about my step-father’s 85th birthday extravaganza. [...]

  86. robiewankenobie says:

    the picture at the end? totally unfair. *cries*

  87. bombaygirl says:

    This post made me cry, and think about my grandfather (dead now 16 years). I love the picture of your Poppi with the grandchild.

  88. becky (misspriss) says:

    chris, going back thru your archives. this post is amazing; it brought tears to my eyes. although my parents are only in their sixties, i dread the day that will eventually come. i sure hope they have until one hundred and one, too.