A few days ago, a Facebook notification popped up on my iPhone and alerted me that my cousin tagged me in a photo. Knowing that she's been looking at old photos for our grandma's 90th birthday slideshow, thoughts of embarrassing photos documenting my pubescent years flooded my mind. Although I hesitated to view the photo, I did just in case I needed to swiftly untag myself. Instead of finding a picture of myself with wild un-waxed eyebrows, crooked glasses, and a clashing ensemble from Limited Too, I found a vintage photo of our grandfather in his military uniform. Then memories of precious moments that I spent with my grandfather for the first eleven years of my life filled my mind.
I learned that my grandfather died while sitting on the toilet - weird, but something I'll never forget. I was eleven years old, had been awake for about 2 minutes, and was blind as a bat since my glasses were still resting on my nightstand. Finding out about my grandfather's death was a simple process: my mom walked into the bathroom, told me that my Pop died, and walked out. I didn't cry. Instead, I was shocked and confused. This was my first personal experience with death. It felt surreal, like it hadn't even happened. Even with the viewing, wake, and funeral, my feelings didn't change. I remember seeing my dad sobbing over my Pop's casket at the wake, his hands gripping the sides as to brace himself so that he didn't fall into the overpriced box containing a powdery, cold body that was more reminiscent of a stranger than my Pop.
The Pop I knew was the person in the picture, but older. The Pop I knew had the same sparkle in his eyes that the photo captures perfectly. He was a legend in Throop, one of the many suburbs of Scranton, Pennsylvania - well maybe not entirely, but I like to think of him as one. He was a homebody who didn't know the name of the street up the road, but that didn't mean he was some mean, nasty old geezer who barked at kids from his front porch. Instead he was admired by the kids in my grandparents' neighborhood. They'd ask my grandma if he could come outside and play. He had a lighthearted personality and was one of the kindest and most generous men I've known. He'd do handstands in the corner of the kitchen with my older cousins. Unfortunately, he couldn't do that with me and my brother because we were born after his stroke. That doesn't matter though because I have so many other fun memories with him.
We'd sit on the porch and sing simple songs like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or "Old McDonald Had a Farm." He'd pull my brother and I up and down the street in those little red metal wagons. He would tease me by calling my pet parakeet "Minnie the Moocher" and then start singing the big band song by Cab Calloway - hi-di-hi-di-hi-di-ho and all. Feisty four-year-old me would scream back, "Minnie is not a moocher! She's a bird!" I laugh thinking how it infuriated me at the time because twenty years later it's such a fond, distinct memory in my mind. A few years ago before my grandma's health started declining , she revealed all of these details of their relationship that I hadn't known about - little treasures in their own way. One of my favorite tidbits was my Slovak grandmother telling her Slovak gal pal that she was seeing my Italian grandfather. "You mean your parents let you go with an Italian?!" her friend exclaimed in the sewing factory. "I can go with whoever I want," my grandmother sassed back. She told me of all the times they'd go dancing, including the time they saw Louis Prima. Now the "Minnie the Moocher" memories have much more meaning because I knew he and my grandma bonded over that type of music. I imagine them swinging and swaying to that iconic sound of saxophones, trombones, and trumpets.
It took me ten years to sob like my father did. During the same trip where my grandma told me those stories, I decided to go for a run. Towards the end of it, I decided to travel up the road to the cemetery and visit my Pop's grave. I stood in front of the slab of cement with my Pop's name and let go of everything that was held within me for the past ten years. All the shame I felt from not being truly upset poured out of me in tear-form. So I don't think it's necessarily that I was never upset, I just was in denial. When we all sat at the kitchen table eating Old Forge Style pizza without him, I would imagine he was in the living room sitting in his infamous chair. When we had holiday dinners together in the dining room, I made pretend that he wasn't at the head of the table because he had gone upstairs to go to the bathroom. Finally though in that cemetery, I admitted to myself that he was truly gone and that only his body remained here on earth in the ground.
My Pop lived an ordinary life, but to me he was an extraordinary man who I miss terribly.