The Everyday Extraordinary with Papa.
My grandfather passed away recently. Life was wonderful with Papa; full of fun; full of love, always, for all of us. Here are a few memories I shared with my family so we could all always recall what a great time we’ve had together over the years. ❤ ❤ ❤
Way back when I was little, when I wasn’t ever sure where we going when we got in the car, I’d look out the window and search for signs I knew, or houses I recognized along the road, and try to guess where we were headed. Often, my mom would drive into this run down old industrial neighborhood with hundred-year-old three-story apartments and little stone buildings with no signs on them. She would turn right and the car would start climbing what my child’s mind thought was the biggest hill in the world. When she would turn, and I would know. We were going to Nonnie and Papa’s house. We would pull into the driveway and if it was a nice day outside, I would search the uphill slanted front yard for Papa. As soon as spring came and the sun was warm enough for a t-shirt, he would be sitting in the front yard with a giant cup of iced coffee sitting in a lawn chair waving at the cars that went by. “Hey Ziggy!” he would yell, smiling, with his hand high, waving as the cars zoomed past. I thought he knew everyone in the world. It didn’t occur to me until years later he personally knew few of the people in any of these cars. Upon jumping out of the car and making my way past Nonnies flower garden up the hill, I would find another lawn chair, sometimes a mini chair, and set it up right next to his. And we would sit there together. He would take these long gulps of iced coffee and once satisfied he would sigh, “ahhhhh,” and settle into his seat. I would do the same from my sippy cup and like some deranged pirate, I would aggressively proclaim, “ARRRRRR.” And we would wave at the cars going by. “Hey Ziggy!”
There was always a spot next to Papa. Sometimes some of my cousins would be around and Papa would have a line a little lawn chairs, and we would all wave at strangers driving by until it got dark or we got distracted by the game of the day. I had no idea what we were doing or why, but it was tons of fun. Inevitably, some people my grandfather actually knew would also pass by. They would honk their horn, or sometimes stop to say hi. They’d pull over and jump out, let their kids run around the yard with us for a second. Everybody liked Papa, but everybody’s kids loved Papa. They would gather around him like he was Santa every day of the year. He would make rumbly noises and always had a smile on his face. When I was older, I would challenge him by asking if he knew the person he just waved to. He always said yes. “That was Bessie Baloo,” or “Nicky,” “Frank,” or “Pete the milkman” or sometimes he would just say, “there she goes,” or “alright then,” as the car passed. I had no idea what was going on, but I went with it. Everybody did.
Papa had his own language. His own unique way of communicating. A lot of people are saying he was a man of few words, and that’s true, but he was more than silent. He communicated a lot and people understood him despite the fact that a good deal of what he was saying was pure gibberish. His gibberish was consistent over many years. Everyone in my family has been caught telling another person in the world to “diggle it” only to get suspicious and incredulous looks back. I know I have tried to explain to numerous friends that “diggling” is a harmless verb associated with the culinary arts. The deeper the explanation I give, the more weird and wonderful I know my family is. I’ve never successfully explained Papa, but it doesn’t matter, because those friends of mine who were lucky enough to have met him in person, got it as soon as they said hello, and loved him thereafter. Everybody always asks me about Papa. Even ten years after they met him once, they ask.
A big part of Papa’s legacy that lives on in the hearts of everyone he knew and loved is his gibberish language that we all share. I’ve taught my friends, and someday I will teach my children, to “shishe la porte,” or the more commanding and abbreviated “shishe” in its various forms and interpretations, meaning “shut the door,” “get that,” “get out of the way,” “move along,” and/or “keep going.” Why say “thing” when you can say “ring dinga doo” or in a pinch “ring dinga?” Part of the joy of being with Papa no matter how old I was, was joining in with this fantastic imaginative speech, while Nonnie protested that it, and we, were all crazy. Sometimes I would catch her smiling and laughing too as she was walking away. He would look at me and shrug, saying “I don’t know.” Or dismiss Nonnie with a hand wave, whispering, “She’s the crazy one!” Papa really delighted me as a child, so it’s totally clear to me why everyone he knew would stop on the road to say hello, and why friends whom he only met once would ask after him a decade later.
Thinking back on my interactions with Papa, I can’t remember a time he was ever angry with me, or anyone in the family. Now, I was a rambunctious, defiant, and odd kid, that lots of people found lots of reasons to be angry with. I didn’t eat often or when I supposed to. I didn’t do things the way everybody else did. I often walked off alone on my own adventures without regard to being six. I dug holes where no holes were supposed to be and I spent a lot of time in people’s basements rearranging and organizing their old things. When I wouldn’t eat, my family would request that I stay seated at the table. You know, until I ate. I'm not sure this was ever a winning strategy with me. Often times I would just sit there for a long time. The table would be cleared, the dishes done, the leftovers put away and finally the lights would be turned off. Everybody would migrate to the living room. But when Papa was around, he always stayed at the table. Papa always just stayed sitting at the table, whether I was there in trouble or not. He would sit and do his crossword puzzles, or read military thriller novels. He’d say, “What, you don’t want eat?!” And I would say, “No!” He’d say, “Well alright then, I’m going to eat all the macaroni myself,” and then pull a gigantic platter toward him in an animated exaggerated fashion proceed to gulp down macaroni. He would open his mouth super wide and make wild dragon noises while eating. It was funny and I would laugh. He would remind me, that being in trouble again for not eating wasn’t the end of the world and he liked me if I ate or not. His goal was never to get me to eat, it was to make me smile. He made everyone smile.
Making people smile was seemingly his goal in most situations. That’s amazing to me. No matter what craziness was happening around him, no matter what others were trying to accomplish, he was pleased and happy with himself if we were giggling. He was very successful at it. Screaming baby, give them to Papa. They will be dazzled in wide-eyed excitement in a moment. Going through a tough spot in life, sit with Papa watching the cars go by. He wouldn’t even say anything but you’d feel him there. Solid. He would hide candy in his hands and I would always choose the wrong hand. He would smile and wave a single finger in my face saying, “Nope, not that one.” I would choose the other hand and it would also be empty. Growing agitated, I’d run a full circle completely around him. As he opened his hand amidst accusations of trickery, pleas for candy, and hoots of excitement he’d say, “What? It was here all the time.” I’d get all ready to play outside, or walk to the big rock in the woods, and he would grab my arm and stop me at the last minute asking, “Do you walk to school or carry a lunch?” “WHAT?! Papa!” I would squeal. “Alright then, I'm just asking” he would reply while quietly laughing with his smiling eyes. I never knew the answer. I think I spent ages 5–8 determined that this question actually had an answer and I just couldn’t come up with it. I’m still not sure where it all came from or where it was going. Papa taught me to appreciate the absurd. He is why I love crossword puzzles. I always think of him when I do them. I drink iced coffee and interact with strangers too. It’s hilarious fun for my friends to watch. It makes them smile and shake their head in joyful disbelief. To them, it makes me, me, but I know it’s really all from Papa.
We all looked up to him. He taught us so much about how to be graceful and live in acceptance. As Papa and I got older, the magnitude of what abundance and love he created in the world began to crystalize for me.
He was an average guy, a regular joe. He worked hard all his life, for 46 years for the Providence Gas Company, driving his baby blue van all around everywhere. Everybody has a memory of Papa and the van. He provided for his family, my mom, aunts, uncle Ralphie, and Nonnie. He weathered storms with temperance and quiet strength. One time, a long time ago, my mom told me how lucky she felt to have had a father like Papa. She told me that he was always there for her and supported her no matter what was happening in her life. She said she compared every guy she met to Papa and few would measure up. Papa was her strong male role model. I thought a lot about what my mother had to say to me then. I realized that silently, he acted as a substitute father figure to anyone in the family who might need one. I understood why my mother was so grateful. He was a strong, quiet, superior man. He never ever made me feel like I was too much, or not enough, like have so many others in my life. I never witnessed him judging the character or behavior of anyone in the family ever. He was always okay with whatever anyone chose for themselves at any point in life. He was a rare, solid, joyful, comfort in an uncertain world for my whole life and I will miss that dearly.
He accomplished so much and created so many wonderful things in this world one steady step at a time. He went to Okinawa out of Puget Sound and acted as a radio dispatcher during WWII. He had a long career at the gas company, little of which I can recall. I hope others who my grandfather knew during earlier parts of his life will speak to their experiences with him during this time. I can do them no justice, but I bet there are some really great stories floating around out there. If you get the opportunity, please find a moment to relay one to one of my cousins, brother, or me. We’d love to hear them. All of us, have always marveled at Papa. We’ve laughed along with him at things that shouldn’t be funny for years. Only Papa could proclaim “ Jesus Christ all mighty” in utter exasperation and have everyone rolling in the aisles. We love him so much. We are proud to be related to him. He bound this family together in so many ways for decades.
He ate snail salad and drank Michelob Light. He wore the same tie for the last twenty years in every photo. He had epic blackout shades and summer hats. My mom used to go to his house at night to trim his hair and he would ask her why she needed to do that anyway. He didn’t care. He never fussed about the way he looked or the person he was. He was calm, quiet, and steady amidst the chaos of my family.
He was married to Nonnie for sixty-six years. The other night she said he will be her “forever boyfriend.” I’ve often wondered what it was like for them, when they were young. They were married in 1949, and over the course of Papa’s life the whole world has changed around them. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be with someone for so many years. I asked my mom about what it was like when they were young. She said that some Friday’s Nonnie would cook all day and wrap all the food in paper wrapping. When Papa got home from work she would announce that they were going to New Hampshire for the weekend. They would go to Loon or Cannon Mountain or a number of other destinations all over New England. She said, Papa would just say “Alright” with no prior notice and drive everybody up with no questions asked. She said they used to go to the beach and Papa would hold her hand as they jumped into the waves. Mom remembered Papa always playing Santa every year at Christmas and I remember that too, barely. It was always about the kids and their enjoyment. How amazing is that?! Mom told a story about Papa and Ralphie in a father-son hockey game when Ralphie was little. Papa played goalie because he couldn’t skate. At one point in the game, Ralphie gained possession of the puck and headed to make a goal. Mom said, from this point forward the stories about what happened diverge. Ralphie said he shot for goal and Papa moved his stick out of the way so Ralphie could score his first ever goal in a game. Papa protests and says no way. That he defended the goal and Ralphie just got the best of him. My mom went on and on. She told me about going to Rocky Point and sledding in Roger Williams Park. About watching Mission Impossible together back in the day. She commented that that should have been the theme song of his life. We laughed. He used to call the girls “the queens” as he marched up and down the hallway with pots and pans to wake them up in the morning.
I can’t relay all the stories my mom was able to casually rattle off about Papa here. But there are many. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of wonderful memories of a lifetime spent with Papa. Last night, just before going to sleep I remembered that he used to call me over to him and tell me he had a secret to let me in on. I would lean in close and he would whisper in my ear, gibberish, like a snake sounds softly hissing in my ear, and it would tickle. I would run away hollering, yelling “PAPA!” Fell for it every time, for years. Life was wonderful with Papa, full of fun, full of love, always, for all of us. He left the world with few possessions but many people who loved him. It’s astonishing. He was a hero.
The last story I will tell is one of my favorite games to play Papa, that most people might not be aware of. I loved, my whole life, I loved to ask Papa questions. His answers were never straight, most of the time didn’t address the question at all, and mostly didn’t make any sense to me. But it was fun game to play. There were plenty of times throughout my childhood, that I would go to Papa and ask him questions. “When is my mom going to show up?” “Why do I have to go to school?” “How do I know the pasta is done?” I would express impatience and frustration with any number of things I was waiting on. To grow up, to graduate, to move away from Rhode Island. And now, with his passing, I have so many more questions; “When will I see you again?” “How will I know it’s you?” “Will we ever sit and watch the cars go by together again?”
He can’t answer, but I know what he would say. He would say, “I’ll be coming round the mountain when the bell rings.” Papa, Big Papa, Daddy, Ralph, he lives on in a thousand tiny ways in all of us, and we will know he’s come round for a visit, “when the bell rings.”
*I’ll miss you Papa. You did good.