Sunday, July 31, 2011

Goodbye, Grandpa

My grandfather died yesterday, a little less than a month shy of his 98th birthday.
I’ve been thinking about my grandfather a great deal over the past six months or so, partly because his ailing health brought his mortality vividly to my consciousness, but also because of my thesis project. What does my grandfather have to do with my thesis project? Everything. I’m re-telling his immigration story in the form of a historic middle-grade novel.
My grandfather put his stories to paper almost twenty years ago, when he came to the realization that his mind wouldn’t be sharp forever and that he should document the stories of his youth while he could still clearly remember them.  He dictated stories to his daughters and grandchildren, who typed and printed them. Then he collected the stories into paperback volumes for everyone in the family – a rare treasure for all of us. Imagine the gold mine of stories we would have if all our ancestors did this!
The book starts with stories of his father, my great-grandfather: how he left home twice, first to find a job, and later to escape a war and build a better life in America. He left when my grandfather was a newborn. (The two would not meet again until my grandfather was almost twelve.)
He goes on to tell of his childhood in Croatia, lived with his grandparents after his mother died of typhus when he was only two. He tells of village dances, where he and his friend Tom would earn tips running back and forth to town to buy additional cherry pop; of the hour-long walk to and from church with his grandmother that caused him to nap during the sermons; of his afternoons spent watching the cows so they wouldn’t get into the corn while they grazed. There were less happy remembrances, too: of the grandfather who never spoke to him; of the uncles who resented him for being too small to work; of his own father’s resentment of his ability to learn English and assimilate in the U.S. far more readily than he.
But it’s my grandfather’s immigration story that inspired my thesis. He was placed on a train by his grandfather when he was eleven, supposedly to return home after a doctor’s appointment in the city. His grandfather then left him on the train, which wasn't headed back home at all, but across the continent to a ship in Cherbourg, France. My grandfather had no idea where he was going. He carried only a small care package put together by his grandmother of bread and cheese and some spare clothing. And so he traveled across the ocean to meet his father.
In an era when we don’t like to take our eyes off our children playing in the yard for more than ten minutes at a time, it’s hard to fathom placing your only descendant on a train, alone, for a journey to another continent. Granted, his itinerary had all been pre-planned and paid, but who was to say that some other rouge traveler wouldn’t have other plans for him along the way?
Fortunately, the hand of God led him safely to Ambridge, PA, where he finally reconnected with the father he’d never met, where he put down roots, and where he ultimately fulfilled his dream of being surrounded by pretty girls and having a family. God blessed him with a wife and eight daughters, as well as three sons, over 30 grandchildren, and more great-grandchildren than I can keep track of. He was a World War II veteran, a retired bus driver and steelworker, a devoted Catholic, and one of the finest role models of honesty, humility and joy that I can think of.
You will be greatly missed, Grandpa. Thank you for the stories. Thank you for the memories. Most importantly, thank you for the love. Say hello to Grandma for us. We’ll see you on the other side.

1 comment:

Laurel Martin Rice said...

What a lovely tribute. I'm so sorry for you loss.