When I was small, there were only really two things I was truly afraid of. The first was singing in front of people, something I happily got over in my early 20’s. The second was the inescapable fact that everyone I loved would one day die. Dramatic, I know.
I was with my grandfather the day I realized what death meant. The permanence and blindness of it. I was seven. We’d come to visit Lee, Poppy to us, at his home in Palm Desert. If the dream of the 90’s is alive in Portland, the dream of the bourgeois 90’s was alive in that house. It was somehow both small and modestly furnished, while also having a sunken living room with a white leather couch and white carpet everywhere. A self playing grand piano. A marble entryway, hungrily waiting for for young grandchildren and their soft teeth.
Like most mornings, Poppy was sitting at the kitchen table, reading. He was always reading. I was outside with my parents and little sister, splashing about in the pool. I remember seeing him through the sliding glass door. His hair white, brow furrowed as he moved on to his favorite section, the crossword puzzle. I remember trying to count the wrinkles in his concentration.
Then, my small, nervous, mind suddenly took a sharp left turn. I thought of the ongoing Bosnian war we’d read about in our first grade issues of Scholastic News. Terms like death toll and civilian casualties. I remembered the the small glimpses of bloodied children I’d caught through the upstairs railing when I snuck out of bed to find my parents watching the 10 o’clock news. War didn’t spare anyone, but death? I wasn’t sure of his rules just yet.
It scared me that Poppy looked older than the last time I’d seen him. His hair was whiter, his glasses thicker. My grandmother had died five years before I was born, to the day. To the very minute, I knew.
I turned to my father, who at that moment, was throwing my happily squealing four-year-old sister Molly into the air.
“Does everyone die,” I asked? Clinging to the warm terra cotta of the pool’s edge. Molly seemed to kiss the sun before plummeting down into the water with a swift kerplunk. “Yes,” he said without hesitation. I held my breath as Molly bobbed to the surface, red faced and laughing in striped water wings. “Again! Again!” She demanded. “Even Poppy?” I managed quietly, choking on the words. “Yes. Even Poppy.”
Much like the day I began to understand the undiscerning reach of death, there was also a day I learned who he was. That he was much more than the just man who always had a Butterfinger for me in his coveted leather briefcase, who let me rummage through his coat pockets for change for yet… more candy. The man who gave the warmest hugs and would show up to see us, across the country, often and on the slightest whim.
It was Mothers Day, I was nine now, and he’d come out to Boston again. We were finishing our French toast in some restaurant near Faneuil Hall when a group of kids from MIT awkwardly stumbled over, asking for an autograph. He lit up, he told them to keep up the good work, he thanked them for making the world a better place for future generations. Meanwhile, I was confused as heck, thought it was cool, but then likely went right back to my pile of bacon. His role in the world has felt the same to me ever since, mystifying. Just beyond true comprehension. As an adult, I logically grasped the magnitude and gravity of what he accomplished, but the beauty of his humanness always cast a soft halo around every mythic story.
He was just Poppy, a notion that’s undoubtedly a testament to how I was raised (thanks Mom!) and how he himself approached his notoriety. He was a huge personality, but he didn’t deify himself. He was truly and unshakably humble. As big as his persona became, he was just as happy sitting in a Dunkin Donuts in Needham Massachusetts as he was sitting with Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office.
Now, It’s 9:30 in the morning on July 2nd of 2019. I’m at home in LA, engrossed in an hours long staring competition with the word “is” in the first sentence of an ancient Wikipedia page. I am thinking that, maybe, just for a little while longer, the presence of this “is” can stay the reality of things. I repeat it in my head, like a tic, or like I’m trying to cultivate a Tulpa, the physical manifestation of a thought, a reality born out of sheer collective belief.
Still logic hasn’t left me completely, I know that before the sun goes down in Los Angeles, all that will remain of “is” is the “s” is was. We’ve come full circle. Twenty-four years after I feared to ask the question “does everyone die?” the answer repeats itself. “Yes. Even Poppy.”
It is always a strange and terrible thing, the death of a loved one, but even stranger when you share that person with the world. Mourning is public, an open wound to be salted, then tended to by unfamiliar hands. The outpouring of love from strangers feels comforting, but then you find yourself wishing they knew the rest. Wanting to shout out ridiculous anecdotes to people on Twitter so they can see some of the softness behind all the bravado. A window into the humanity of the man I thought immortal until my sister hit the cold chlorinated water of that pool. The quiet, small things that made Lee, Lee. The things he did that didn’t change the world, but sure as hell changed mine.
I find myself now, reading every obituary, secretly hoping to learn something new. One last tale, a detail forgotten, anything to hold onto him in the present tense. But they retell the same stories I’ve known since I was small, a thousand times over, in slight, occasionally inaccurate, variation. They recite quotes from the books I read after high school. The ones that make me feel like he’s still in the room with me. His familiar syntax another warm hug from the great beyond. Then they tell you the bad stuff. They’ll talk about an exploding car, the messy divorce, the pushback to emissions regulations and government mandated seat belts, about how abrasive he could be. Awkward footnotes in his story, uncomfortable yet essential reminders of the inescapable imperfection of existing. My grandfather would be the first to admit he wasn’t perfect, that he made mistakes. What mattered is that he always strove to do better, for his family, for his parents, for his devout Catholic faith.
As I’ve grown, I’ve come to understand the sad reality that so many “great” people, aren’t “good” people. Some people defend this notion by saying it takes a certain level of narcissism or selfishness to do important, world changing things. Well, I think my grandfather proved that’s (in the words he would use) total bullshit. He was, above all things, good. So yes, he saved Chrysler, he turned down a Presidential bid, he created the Mustang and the Minivan, he spearheaded the restoration of a then decrepit and abandoned Ellis Island, and a crumbling Statue of Liberty. He partied in Versailles once. He was friends with Sinatra, and was too nervous to ask out Sofia Loren. He travelled the world. He and my mother started a foundation that raised over 40 million dollars for diabetes research — the work of which is on the verge of breakthrough. He was a great man, but more importantly, Lee Iacocca was a good man.
It’s a bit of the story of that “good” man, that I’d like to share with you now.
Lido loved his family more than anything. He was always home for dinner with his late wife Mary Katherine, and their two daughters Kathi and Lia. He worshipped his parents. Growing up a child of the depression, and watching his father work five different businesses to keep the family fed left its mark. He wanted to repay them, to take care of them, to make them proud — and he did. He and Mary had weekly poker nights every Friday with their friends, and loved hosting costume parties.
He was incredibly close with his sister Delma. They loved to go out dancing. As teenagers they snuck home late one right, thinking they were being sly, but clearly causing an intoxicated a racket. Once they were snug in their beds, on the doorstep of sleep, their father stomped around the house banging a pot with a wooden spoon. The point was made.
He was bedridden with Rheumatic fever for a year when he was 15, but kept on top of his schoolwork the whole time. It kept him from later fighting in WWII, and that devastated him. He lost his cousin Tony in the war just before D-Day. They were close as brothers.
In college, he joined a frat that had a secret bar hidden in a reversible wall panel. He and my grandmother struggled through five devastating miscarriages before finally being blessed with two healthy daughters. My grandmother was sick from the day they met, and would pray daily that she’d make it to see her children reach five — eight — ten. In the end she saw 18 and 23 before she died from complications of diabetes. She’s buried under a shady tree back in Michigan, waiting for my grandfather to come home. It’s been 36 years. She always did have the patience of a saint.
Poppy had a dubious taste in women after that. “A bad picker” we would call it. It was the one thing he was truly terrible at. There were a few notable exceptions to be sure, but lord did it cause a lot of drama when it went awry.
After his first divorce, he spent a week hiding in Florida with his family to avoid the tabloids. It rained all week. One night the group saw on the news that a local, newly opened “Topless Coffee Shop” was facing imminent shut down due to public outrage. My father, tired of the moping and ever the adventurer, insisted they all go check it out. As one of the waitresses leaned over the table to pour my 86-year-old grandmother another cup of coffee, the table fell silent. When the waitress was out of earshot, Antonia exclaimed to her son in heavily accented whisper yell, “She look like a cow!” From then on out, there was no more moping.
The day I was born (on his Mother’s birthday, and the 5-year anniversary of my grandmother’s death, to the minute strangely enough) He ran down Park Avenue yelling to anyone and everyone “I have a granddaughter!” He was at the hospital in less than an hour. I will maintain until my dying day that I am indeed, the favorite. Just kidding. (Kind of)
The telltale sign that Poppy had come to visit was always the thick, billowing cloud of Cuban cigar smoke winding its way out of the open garage door. Growing up in the chemical haze of two smoking parents herself, my mother made it clear very early on it wouldn’t fly in her house.
That’s where I picture him most often. In the dead of winter, sitting in a beach chair, wearing a hounds tooth scarf and a newsboy cap. Swearing about the cold, but smiling at the crunch of the fairy-frosted grass beneath my feet as I run to great him. He sticks his tongue out of that tooth-hiding smile and mock punches me on the mouth. “Pow! Right in the kisser.” I have zero idea where it came from but we all loved it.
He called all his grandkids Snapper Dan. He ate black licorice by the handful and loved Dewer’s, with a splash of water. He gave the loudest MWAH’S of wet Italian kisses. He came to every Grandparent’s Day at school. He’d sit quietly on the floor of in my first grade reading class with everyone else. Eat the sad, limp, school pasta and garlic bread. Push me on the swings. Play a round of tag.
He treated every person he met dignity and respect. There was no bullshit, no pretense, no acting. It didn’t matter who you were, what you did, or where you were from. He believed us all to be equally important, unique, and deserving of compassion.
He worried about the people he loved. A lot. I lived with him in LA for one summer in my early 20’s. One night, I fell asleep at my boyfriend’s place. I woke up at 3am to a dozen missed calls and a frantic voicemail asking where I was. When I got home I found him pacing in his kitchen. He just wanted to make sure I was alright. It was always like that, a chorus of “do you need anything? Are you happy? Will you please call me when you get there?”
He hated cats, something I’ll never understand, and polenta because it was all his family could afford during the great depression. He had really great nails. He loved Schnauzers.
He adored Disneyland. He would take us every year, and stay til closing. The last time he went he was 80. He insisted on going on every ride, but when it came to California Screamin’ — the 60 miles an hour upside roller-coaster — none of us would sit next to him, terrified he’d have a heart attack. He didn’t, and I have the souvenir photo to prove it.
He counselled me through my first big break up. “It’s a big cast out there!” he’d say. He had the decency not to comment when I got a nose ring at 19. He had the mouth of a sailor, and I attribute my love of colorful language to him, though I have more tact on when to use it. He struggled to have a filter, but it was never malicious. One time my dad came down for dinner and Poppy asked, laughing, “Is that your idea of a good shirt?”
He read like nobody’s business. His favorites were spy thrillers by Tom Clancy, John Le Carre and Nelson Demille novels and historical biographies of leaders he felt he could learn from. He insisted we all drink Manhattans on holidays and special occasions. He’d make them strong, and we’d be drunk by the second sip.
He was from Detroit, lived in LA, but rooted for Boston. He loved Nantucket like a second home. Spanky’s oysters, the old Club Car and Ice Cream at the Juice Bar, long lines be damned. It was always chocolate plain, or mint chip with sprinkles. He could often be found in a Red Sox hat and swim trunks on Ladies beach. The only place he felt happier was in Tuscany, playing bocce at the centuries old farmhouse he bought for his parents at the height of his career.
He sent postcards wherever he travelled, and piles of letters to us at camp and later, college. There was always comfort in his angular, jagged handwriting. You could feel him in every pen stroke. He said “I love you” constantly.
He bought me my first car, and my last before he passed. This one is electric, and American made, and he loved that. He loved this country. America was family, and just as he pushed us to be the best versions of ourselves, he pushed this country to toward growth, change, and progress. He was the child of immigrants, and a survivor of poverty and discrimination.
He was proof of the power of the American Dream, and he worried as he watched that dream become less and less accessible to the the masses, “huddled” or otherwise. He was proud to be a child of immigrants and believed in opportunity for all. He was incredibly concerned about the “environmental and economic” mess he felt his generation had left behind, but had an unwavering faith in the resilience and perseverance of the American spirit. He believed that generations to come would fight to make the world a kinder, healthier, more prosperous place. He wanted to be remembered for what he did for others.
I look to his example often these days when I feel lost, or scared about the future. I remember how much he survived, how hard he fought, how much he accomplished, how much he lost. In all of it, he never faltered in his hope, in his belief of the power of love and hard work. I want to have that much faith. I want to fight even half as hard. I will.
Parkinson’s is an awful disease. Sometimes it comes on like a tsunami, taking the person you love out to sea overnight, leaving nothing but anger and confusion in its wake. Other times it shows more mercy. For Poppy it was a long slow wearing, like ebb of the Atlantic on the shore, it wore away his edges. He became softer. As his short term memory went, he spoke less, and listened more. For the first time in his life, he slowed down. He sat in quiet awe of the life he’d created, of his wonderful daughters, his eight growing grandchildren. Of the adventures they had, the songs they sung, the things they learned. In them, he saw the same hope he’d carried all his life. He knew things would be okay.
The last time I saw him was a few days before he died. I live across town now, not the country, and for the last eight years we’d have dinner together one night a week. In December, Dinner transitioned into just sitting together. Just being.
On this particular visit I brought with me a flash drive my father had just sent me. Home movies transferred from stacks of clunky VHS tapes uncovered in a recent move. Poppy was sleeping more and more these days, but his eyes lit up at the sound of my voice. He smiled. “Wanna see something cool?” I asked. He nodded.
And there it was on my tiny laptop screen. Life. In all of its grainy, meandering wonder. Him walking my mother down the aisle. Singing happy birthday at my first birthday party. Cooking dinner with his mother in our tiny Nantucket kitchen on Fair street, her thick Italian accent coming in loudly though this twelve inch time machine. He beamed. As we watched, I held his soft hands in mine, adjusting the gold signet ring his mother had given him for his 60th birthday. Making sure his initials faced out again. Then I told him I loved him. Over and over and over. I told him we’d all be fine. That we were grateful for the unconditional love, and opportunities he gave us up until the last. His eyelids grew heavy then, and I watched, wet-eyed, as he fought the call of a greater sleep.
But I didn’t cry, not this time. Instead I sang. The song he’d asked my mother to promise I’d sing at his funeral. The song I’ve been practicing for years, fearful. Now sung in pure celebration of the man who changed the world, and who changed my life. There’s nothing to worry about anymore Poppy, no one to fret after. It’s time to find your love again, waiting under that shady tree in the city that made you mythic.
Ave Maria, gratia plena.
Maria gratia plena.