[Update 3/22/15: My grandpa passed away on March 18, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. Three days later, my grandma joined him. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to interview him before he passed. Listen to the full podcast at http://Soundcloud.com/GrandPodcast.]
My grandfather turned 88-years-old earlier this month, but could easily pass for 25 years younger — with a full head of hair, and underneath, a brain as sharp as the wide variety of nails he keeps in his basement workshop.
Sure, he’s slowed ever-so-slightly, from the incredibly active senior citizen of the last 20 years. He’s no longer digging massive tunnels under his porch — “Shawshank Redemption” style — to house various yard supplies (it was completed to the point where you can now stand without crouching). We’ve thankfully convinced him to stop climbing massive ladders to do I’m-not-sure-what on his 3rd story roof. He’s no longer playing in raquetball leagues (although he did that even after both knees and a shoulder were replaced).
But one activity he hasn’t slowed one iota is the speed with which he moves from a thought to that thought making its way out of his mouth (to the horror of family members, on occasion). And he has lots, and lots, and lots, of thoughts.
I’m blessed to be a 31-year-old with two grandmothers and a grandfather still with us. As I reflected on this good fortune, I wanted to find a way to capture their lives, their stories, their advice. Podcasts have exploded — from the freeform interviews of Adam Carolla and Bill Simmons to the fascinating and addicting “Serial.” So this is the beginning of what I hope to do with each of my grandparents, and what I hope you do with yours, if you can — a GrandPodcast. Listen here, or keep reading and listen at the end…
“I was born without having a father figure in my life,” he said. His parents didn’t really divorce, they just…separated. And he was raised almost exclusively by his mom.
“My mother was a very strong, independent person,” he said.
“Working class” is how he described his upbringing in Newark, New Jersey, on welfare, for a short time…but: “I did not feel any kind of needs, that I was deprived in any way.” [14:00]
You could say there was a sort of extended family within the neighborhood, the way the Italian immigrants (and other immigrants) in Newark banded together for all sorts of reasons. Including, interestingly, making their own wine in the basement of the apartment building where they lived. “A joint effort,” he said.
Of his father: “He was institutionalized. That’s all I ever knew.”
He got emotional discussing his brother Neil — “my best friend” — who died last year. “The first person to go to college on that street,” he said of Neil. “Very very smart…a good mind, and a good purpose in life.” [24:00]
Growing up, he and his siblings didn’t just get jobs — they learned skills, they started careers. He praised that “kind of forethought that a mother had for her children.” In his case, it was working in the store of someone who refurbished plumbers tools. “I can remember that job like it was yesterday,” he said. [26:00]
That led to a job at a plumbing supply house, a candy bin supplier, and later to jobs working at, and later managing, department stores — Woolworth, W.T. Grant, Rickel’s.
We traced his jobs managing stores outside of New Jersey, and the stories that came out of those experiences — in Manhattan and Harlem.
It is in this discussion that led to the story of becoming “Victor Frette” — when originally he was “Victor Onofrietto.” Why the name change? His mentor at work suggested he do it in order to help get promoted. The very Italian-sounding name might hurt his chances, he said. “It did bother me a little bit,” he said. But “you can’t please everybody. You have to do things for yourself, knowing it’s the right thing, for the right reasons.” [42:00]
Work was important, but it was equally important to spend time away from work. “We always had church on Sundays, right after church we would go to the park,” he said. “That was a routine on Sundays.” [1:02:00]
He reflected on his relationship with his wife, my grandmother. While they’ve been married for more than 60 years, there are some things he still wishes they could communicate better. “I wish to hell I could have a better relationship with your grandmother,” he said. “There’s no question about it she cares for me, I care for her, but it doesn’t always come through that way.” [1:15:00]
And on being a grandfather: “What you guys do is what gives a grandparent the satisfaction and the feeling of being a good grandparent.” [1:18:00]
“The enjoyment that we feel now is strictly out of our hands, it’s now all in your hands.”
“You’ve got to do the work. If it’s going to take you a little bit longer, there’s nothing wrong with taking a little bit longer.” [1:13:00]
“I think what you are comes out of those that you deal with.” [1:08:00]
“You can bog yourself down with plans and ideas and everything else, but just do one thing at a time.” [1:14:00]
“If I see a picture out of line, I want to improve that, even as small as it is.” [1:14:00]
“When the hell are we going to learn that you’re only getting from life what you’re putting into it? What you put into it, if it’s positive, hopefully it’ll be returned to you as positive. Memories are the only thing we really have left.” [1:21:00]
Listen to the full GrandPodcast here — and:
So! Do your own GrandPodcast if you’re also blessed to have your grandparents still with us — email me at GrandparentPodcast@gmail.com or tweet me @SteveKrak using the hashtag #GrandPodcast. These were the question prompts I used:
- Where and when were you born?
- Where were your parents born?
- What was your first memory?
- What was your first job?
- What is your best skill?
- What did you learn being a father?
- What’s one trait you have you hope your kids and grandkids inherit?
- What’s one trait you have you hope your kids and grandkids DON’T inherit?
- What does it mean to be a grandfather?
- What advice would you give on getting older?