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.

Friday, July 29, 2011


This morning on my walk up the “really big hill,” I got to thinking about journeys.
We just returned from a trip to visit my in-laws in Florida; two weeks in the brilliant sunshine living a life of relative leisure, where we traveled frequently by golf cart, began each day with a swim, and spent our afternoons playing dominoes or visiting zoos and museums. I didn’t have to cook or clean a thing, I barely touched my hairdryer, and I wore hardly any makeup. It’s amazing how freeing life in a retirement community can be. And yet, it was not exactly the trip we had originally planned.
The trip we had been discussing for months over dinner each evening was supposed to be a cost effective road trip to Nana and Pop Pop’s. It morphed into something far greater, with multiple days at Disney World and an unexpected purchase of airfare to save my ever-temperamental back. Worth every penny, but not what we had planned.
Journeys are like that, whether they be literal trips or the more figurative life journey we all share. You begin planning with one destination in mind (a no-frills trip to Florida, a career as a lawyer, retirement in a sunny locale where the grandkids will visit often), but more often than not, the plan gets changed up multiple times, sometimes significantly, before the destination is reached. If it’s reached at all. Road trips become flights, jobs get eliminated, dreams get reshaped to fit our circumstances.
When this summer began, I set lofty personal goals. I would finish a complete draft of my thesis. I would visit key destinations for project research. I would sell that pesky novel that’s been in the works for years. I would train for a 5K. I would bike daily. In my spare time I would start a new middle-grade novel. Ah, summer.
Then a herniated disk killed any chance of running to the end of my block, let alone in any kind of race. My one attempt to swing my leg over my bike laid me up for days. The novel I thought was so thoroughly complete…well, it turns out, wasn’t. And the thesis? Turns out, writing with the kids home from school is harder than I thought.
Did I expect the derailments? Of course not (though my loving husband would tell me I should have, since I always plan to accomplish way more than is humanly possible and end up disappointed). But I’m rolling with them. I still have the month of August to work furiously on my thesis (maybe Grandma can log some serious babysitting hours). I can still squeeze in a trip to Ellis Island (if my brother agrees to put me up). The editorial comments on my novel will ultimately make it a far better piece to send out into the world. It will all be good.
And as for my back, Julius at Rehab Services assures me he’ll have me feeling better than my old self as soon as he can, with core strength like I’ve never had before. Hooray! Though I wish I could have arrived at that destination via a different route. Ah, journeys.
In the meantime, I scale the “really big hill” every morning on my journey to recovery. It’s a workout, akin to a Stairmaster; it often makes me sweat; and it’s frequently painful, because I don’t take my pain meds until after breakfast. But I have to say, the view from the top is always worth it.
Journeys are like that.

Monday, July 4, 2011


I had dinner the other night with one of my very best girlfriends (and oldest, in terms of how long I’ve known her – we met in the sixth grade). For close to three decades, she’s been a source of inspiration and motivation for me: strong, confident, bold, never afraid to take chances, always grabbing life by the throat and choking as much out of it as she can. She was my first trombone instructor, my running mate in the French Club presidential election, my co-planner of the Clue dinner theater party that our high-school friends seemed less than enthusiastic about (to this day I can’t fathom why). She was the outspoken, take-no-prisoners yang to my reserved, pacify-the-masses yin.
She is visiting from Tucson, which means that by this time next week, she’ll be thousands of miles away. I so wish she were one of my grab-coffee friends, my playdate-with-the-kids friends, my once-a-month girls’ night friends. Thank God we have Skype.
We were joined for dinner by another friend of hers – her college roommate, with whom I’m only casually acquainted. My friend described to us a “strong women” group she runs back in Tucson that brings women together once a month to bond, share, and experiment in the arts. Then she asked each of us whether we had any close girlfriends. Her college roommate looked a little wistful when she said that no, she really didn’t. She works at a pre-school, runs a farm with her husband, and frankly doesn’t have the time or energy for a social life.
My friend turned to me and asked the same question. I didn’t hesitate for a moment. “I have lots,” I said.
It amazes me to think about the incredible network of women in my life. The college friend I met my first night at Pitt when she asked if she could stick a chair in my room; my high school friend who lives a mile away and, no matter how long we go without seeing each other, makes me feel like we just talked last week; the moms I met back when my 7-year-old started Gymboree as a baby, and who still get together for girls’ nights and kids’ birthday parties; my bookclub, with whom I’ve been sharing stories and insights into life and literature for the past seven years; my writers’ group of talented authors from Chatham (two with whom I had the opportunity to travel to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island last summer); my neighbor who invites me for coffee and before we know it, three hours have flown by; my former coworker and fellow writer who splits her time between the US and Korea, and is an astute sounding board for both motherhood and writing. And that’s just skimming the surface. And I haven’t even touched on family.  
I very much believe in quality over quantity in all things, and am in no way trying to brag about the friend list I have amassed over the years. Rather, I’m writing this as a letter of thanks to all the truly great friends who have chosen to stay in my life, who have stood by me through all things, who I know I could call in a heartbeat if ever I needed a thing. And I’m so grateful to my “yang” for reminding me of this blessing.
I hope you all have at least one girlfriend (or guy friend) who falls into this category for you. For truly, one is all you need. I’m pinching myself for being blessed with so much more.