Tuesday, January 31, 2006


In Which I Raise One Last Glass...

This morning, the Brownie said it. She said it in a kindly way, but when she said it, the truth of it finally hit.

"Daddy," she said. "Great-Papa died. He's in heaven right now."

"Yes, honey."

"Do you have any more Papas or Grandmas left?" she asked.

"No, honey. He was the last one."

Then she hugged me. "Poor Daddy," she said in my ear. "You're a grand-orphan."

And then I had to leave her to watch Tarzan--where she's been learning all about being orphaned--and took myself off to the bathroom. I have cried maybe 3 or 4 times since I was 16 and it's always the same kind of cry: the kind where you can't tell where the crying ends and the laughing begins. Either way, it ends in tears.

Of the grandparents I knew the best, my grandfather--Papa Jim, my mom's father--is the one I've written about the least. My Dad's parents, who I knew least of all, each got some lengthy passages here. Even my grandmother--who died when Thomas was just a wee Art Lad--had a moment in the spotlight. But Papa was a powerful mythical figure for all of my childhood and I've barely written about him.

Now I have to do it with tears in my eyes.

He was a complicated man, which is what you're supposed to say about someone who had many glaring faults but was still someone you loved. At times, he was an absolute ogre to his family. He actively tried to dissuade my parents from marrying; he was physically and verbally abusive to his wife and two daughters. And he was a terrible, constant drunk. "I want things run in this house the way I want a drink brought to me: exactly as I ordered it!" he'd yell.

He was also the most unapologetic racist I ever hope to be related to. From him, I learned every ethnic and racial slur (but never understood or shared the venom behind them). He had particular dislike for Jews, African-Americans and Italians, and would disparage each group til the very end (except Italians, since I married one). He knew the kind of man he was. "I'm an arsehole and I know it!" he often said. "And that's more than most arseholes will admit, isn't it?"

But in his way he also had a generous spirit, was free with what money he had to friends and strangers (even people of the same groups he bad-mouthed). He was an especially generous tipper to everyone from waiters to theater ushers. Not because he had the money and liked to flash the cash (he was the master of slipping a bill to someone in a handshake) but because he had spent his life in the service industry and knew how tips could make the difference in someone's weekly checkbook balance.

And as hard as he was on his family, he never had anything but unabashed love and adoration for me and my brother, his first grandsons. I've written elsewhere about how every kid needs an adult in life who thinks everything he does is fucking brilliant. For me, that was Papa. He never in his life uttered a word to me that was unkind or critical. He only ever yelled at me once, and that was when I had locked my cousin Kelly in the basement and shut out the light (boy did she scream, which scared the crap out of Papa and may have had something to do with it). When my brother or I visited, he loved to drive us around Boston, paying calls on various friends in the old neighborhood or up to the Legion post, to have a drink. Always, he introduced us and expected his friends to make a fuss over us. Which they always did.

When you came to visit, he always drove down to the butcher shop to pick out the best steaks, and would come back and fix you an early or late supper (he was an outstanding cook). Before you left, he always took you aside and slipped you a couple bucks. As a kid, it really was just a buck. If you were a teenager, you got a five or a ten. In college, I got by more than once because of the couple of 20s he'd slip me during a Christmas visit, or the occasional check that he sent me.

He never let you pay him back and he never let you pick up the tab. "I'm in charge!" he'd holler good-naturedly in that thick Boston accent of his as he'd snap the bill from your hand. "Things around here are gonna be just like my drink: Exactly as I order it!"

And Papa always got things exactly as he ordered them, which made him seem larger than life, like a kind of demi-god, or at least an Irish godfather, the undisputed head of his little family.

Among the things he ordered was his appearance. He wasn't a fashion plate by any means, but he was always dressed to the nines. He grew up with nothing, a skinny scrapper on the streets of South Boston. In high school, he excelled at baseball and won a sports scholarship to Colgate. But his father died early and someone had to stay home and support his mother and sister, so after he graduated high school, he got a job waiting tables at the Statler Hilton. He knew his mixed drinks though, and within a year, he was tending bar. He retired 50 years later as the head of beverage services for the hotel.

He taught me many things my dad's side would never know. He taught me to play pool, taught me how to tip with style, taught me to grill a good steak. He taught me to be streetwise, showed me how a little kid could get an advantage in a scrap (usually this involved pretending to gouge your opponent's eyes out and as he moved to protect himself, you kicked him in the balls). He taught me how to mix drinks. At 7 I was making a decent martini (but I never drank them. Papa had some scruples). One time I made Papa a martini and put cocktail onions in the drink instead of olives. I thought I had invented a new drink--I called it The Papa--until he saw me bring it to him and said, "Holy Mary! How'd you know a Gibson's my favorite drink?" After that it was our drink. I'd make it and he'd drink it, but he always let me have one of the onions, which I considered a great privilege.

As I got older, I went through a period of resenting the man. I heard stories of how he had my grandmother institutionalized for alcoholism (insert ironic comment here), how he had always harangued my mom and aunt Cathy, and thrown them both out of the house more than once. I tried to ignore it, but sometimes arguments flared up and there was no avoiding them.

Once, when I was 10, he said one thing too many to my mom and my dad, who had been matching Papa drink for drink that day, stood up and said "Oh Jesus, Jim, shut yer goddamn yap!"

In a trice, Papa was out of his chair--all six-foot-four of him--and towered over my dad, who stood his ground. "Don't you goddamn tell me to shut up in my goddamn house!"

It almost came to blows. He wanted his house like he wanted his drink--exactly as he ordered it and defiance was NOT what he ordered.

I spent a while avoiding comment on this behavior, even as my resentment grew. But in college, not long after my dad got sober and started going to AA meetings, I noticed Papa would ask him, "Hey, can I getcha a drink? Oh yeah," he'd say, snapping his fingers theatrically. "You don't drink anymore. I got goddamn Carrie Nation in my house." My dad just ignored him.

Finally, I couldn't stand it. "Stop asking him!" I said. I was 20 and righteous. It was the only time I'd raised my voice to Papa and he looked at me in utter shock. "You know you're egging him on. Why do you do that?" I demanded.

And for once, Papa slumped, almost to my height, and whispered, "Who else do I have to drink with?"

"Me," I said.

Not the best solution perhaps, but after that, whenever I visited, we'd go down to the basement and he'd make us each a Gibson while we shot some pool. It was a ritual we'd repeat for many years.

But not recently. First my grandmother died. Then the year before last, he moved to an assisted living facility. "I'm ready to go," he told me over the phone. "I've seen what I wanted to see. I traveled the world, I served my country, I raised my family, I've seen my grandsons grow to men, I've met my great-grandson and great-granddaughter. And by God! I saw the goddamn Red Sox win the Series. I'm ready to go."

"Don't say that," I pleaded. We had already buried my grandmother a few years earlier and I didn't want to do it again with him any time soon.

"Aw, dear, don’t worry," he said (he always called me and my brother "dear"). "When I go, it won't be slow and crazy like your grandmother. It'll be quick. Like throwing a frigging switch. I tell ya, I won't feel a thing." Which of course made me think he was planning suicide, so I told my mom and boy did that cause a lot of trouble.

We continued to talk every few months, always very short conversations. My grandfather didn't like the phone. If you were side by side at a bar, he'd talk your ear off, but on the phone, it was as though he couldn’t hang up fast enough.

I spoke to him briefly at Christmas. He loved John Wayne movies and complained that my aunt Cathy had given him a DVD player but nothing to watch. So I sent him a stack of Wayne classics.

"They're great!" he cried, and I could hear gunshots in the background. "I love em! You shouldna. I hope you didn't pay too much. I should write ya a check for em." He said.

"No, no! They're a gift! Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, dear," he said. "Tell my great-granddaughter I love the card she made. And tell Thomas I love the picture. I LOVE the picture." We had sent him a framed copy of Thomas' t-ball picture, in full baseball regalia.

"I'll talk to ya soon," he said.

We never spoke again.

This past Sunday afternoon, my mom called and I knew from her voice it was bad news.

"Papa's dead," she blurted. "I mean Great-Papa. Not Thomas and the Brownie's Papa. Not your father. Not--"

But I knew who she meant. She meant her dad. She meant my last living grandparent.

Sometime early Sunday morning, Papa got up, made himself a drink (a cup of tea, actually) and sat down in his favorite easy chair. They're not sure yet if it was a massive stroke or a coronary but it hit so quickly--like someone had thrown a switch--he never felt a thing. When they found him, he was sitting serenely in his favorite chair, a drink next to him.

Just as he'd ordered it.

And with that I must take my leave of you for a few days. I'm hopping a flight to Boston tomorrow and will be with my family for the rest of the week, possibly into next while we sort things out.

However, on Thursday or Friday night, if you happen to be in a certain bar in South Boston and see a man sitting next to a seemingly empty stool, raising a Gibson in toast, come over and join us.

My grandfather sent me a few bucks this Christmas, see, so he'll be buying.

As usual.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

MM, my deepest sympathies go out to you. I unfortunately never knew either of my grandfathers but it does sound like you had a great relationship with yours, even if he wasn't easy to get along with sometimes. See you when you get back.
So sorry to hear about your famiy's loss. Safe travels and our prayers are with you. I'll raise a Gibson in your Papa's honor this week.
It must be really great to have a relationship with your grandparents; you're so blessed. Be safe.
That was a powerful post, MM. It brought tears to my eyes—makes me want to call my grandpa right now.

My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.
Safe travels my friend... My prayers are with you...
i'm sorry. please know that my thoughts are with you and your family.

a toast, then, to a man who managed to finish as he lived - exactly as he ordered it. *clink*
My Gogo taught me to tend bar at an early age: gin martinis, very dry ("kiss the glass with the vermouth," he said). Each glass got one olive for each grandchild. I'd mix the martini, he'd take the inaugural sip, and then we'd line up in order of age to get our olives.

He drank a lot of cloudy martinis, and I still miss him every day. My condolences, MM.
Awwwwwww Jeezus.

I only met him the once, I think—maybe twice—and it was nearly fifteen years ago in any case; but I can see him now, big as life and twice as loud, shine on his shoes and a Windsor knot.

I always thought of him as "Diamond Jim," you know: I don't know if I ever told you that. He was the kind of character, the kind you give a mental nickname to—though you'd never dare call him that to his face.

Rest easy, big fella.

And you—take care. I'll be in touch soon.
Please accept my condolences.

You've made me cry at work, mostly because your words made me think of my grandfather who passed away a few weeks ago. Wonderful man, he was.

Thank you for sharing that.
You and your family are in my prayers MM. Keep those memories close and stay strong.
MM, my sympathies are with you. I have lost both of my grandfathers. The second to go was my favorite, my Mom's dad like yours, and he died a month after my son was born. At least he got to hold my son, and see him. I miss Grandpa like the dickens.

My own Dad died when I was in my mid 20s and my hubby's Dad also died young, so my kids have no grandpa's themselves. I weep because there's nothing like a grandfather. Nothing in the world.

Were I anywhere near Boston, I'd be with you, toasting to the old man. I'm half Irish and all. So, I raise one to him from the midwest, and to you as well.

Looks like a whole passle of folks (judging by the comments) are with you this week.
Your grandfather sounds like so many Boston Irish men of a certain age. Wonderful, maddening, selfish, giving and larger than life. I'm glad he lived long enough to see the Red Sox win the World Series - I know how much that means to us long-suffering Sox fans - and that he got to leave his life exactly how he ordered it.

Much sympathy to you and your family.
Tell me where you'll be and I'll buy you that drink. My deepest sympathies...I've been lucky to not know how that feels yet. I won't always be...
May G-d grant you peace.

Mr. Man, you are wonderful. Your ability to be candid about a person, regardless of implication or effect, it is inspired. I want you to outlive me, as I want you to write my obit.

You will be the best Papa yet, informative, but yielding, sensible, but generous, logical, but fanciful.

Go Easy,

With much love,

MM, you speak of your grandfather the way I do about mine: with love and some reality. I lost my Grandpa 10 years ago, and I miss him still. As someone else said, there's nothing like a grandfather.

In your memories of him, I hope you find laughter and peace. I'll be thinking of you and your family.
My sympathies to you and your family for your loss. I had a grandfather much like yours in those apparently contradictory traits. I frequently say that he was a terrific grandfather to a little girl, but it was harder for him to be a friend to me as an adult. He was a racist, sexist, bigoted man, and he is the reason I love the musty, greasy smell of an old garage. Funny how it works that way sometimes.
I am sorry. When my last Great Grandpa died, I was upset too.

Twinks ;)

PS Tell Art Lad, the Brownie, and HLS that I said Hi!
I'm so sorry to hear about your great-grandad. You (plural) are in my thoughts. All of my grands are gone too. You are truly blessed to have such a close family. They will carry you through, and you them.

Take care, safe travels
I don't often comment here, but this post moved me to tears (at work as well) and I just had to extend my sympathies to you and your entire family.

So many things you remember about your grandfather touched me with remembrances of my own grandfather who we lost last June. I guess it's still almost as raw to me.
I'm sorry for your loss-- it is so hard to lose the last of a generation in your family.
As someone who lost their last grandparent this year, also had a Irish Papa Jim and an Aunt Kathy, I feel for you. I'll be thinking of you and your family this weekend and I will make sure I make a special trip to the pub to lift a glass of Guiness to both your Papa and mine. Take care.
My sympathies are with you and your family, MM. Have a safe journey.
I'm glad he taught you so much and helped make you who you are today. I fear -- probably more than I should -- the day I get that call about my mom's parents, and I can't imagine how hard this must be. All the best -- and sorry for your loss.
To grandparents. I shall have to raise a highball, the first adult drink I shared with my grandparents. All my grands are gone too. I feel truly blessed to have known each one of them, and am very glad my children know their grandparents. My father's dad was quite a character too. Cigar smoke, paint spattered pants, pistachio shell pink stained fingertips; I sure do miss him. My condolences to you and yours.
Deepest condolences to you and your family. You depict in such a real manner that I was genuinely moved by your tribute.
Your Papa sounds a lot like my Papaw, right down to the racism with a kind heart. My Papaw passed away a year and a week ago, quick too. You've made me miss him all over again, he was the only Grandfather I ever really knew. I miss his sweaty hugs. My Mom took the last outfit she saw him in and had teddy bears made of him, one of which I have on my bookshelf. Just a thought I'd share as a suggestion of remembering. But then, John Wayne movies are cool too. Sympathies and condolances to you and your family MM.
wow, this was my first visit to your blog - and i do know how to pick them. please accept my condolences - and what you wrote is tremendous.

thank you for sharing.
A fitting tribute, MM. Thanks for sharing it, and my thoughts are with you.

Stay warm.
Cheers to your Grandpa, MM. He should be very proud of the lovely family that he has created to carry on him memory.
May your trip go well,
It's hard to lose someone who is so important in your life; grandparents seem to represent such a special part of childhood for so many of us.

Honor him well and truly; do what must be done, and then travel safely home again.

And remember always that he is never further away than your heart.

With my most heartfelt condolences,

I'm so sorry for your loss. You will be in my prayers and though I won't be in Boston I will in spirit raise a glass to toast your grandfather. I never had the honor of meeting any of my granparents I'm glad you did!
We should all be so lucky to check out as quick and painless as he. It doesn't take away any of the pain & loss felt by those that are left behind though. My heart goes out to you and your family. I hope your Mom is fairing well with it all.

I'll be raising a glass Thursday & Friday to you and your Papa from someplace not so far away.
My condolences to you and your family.
I still have my only grandparent that I've ever known, my Dad's mother but I lost my own Mother last October. Loss is loss and there's just nothing right about it. You are such a wise man to keep your family members close even when they aren't perfect. So many families lose each other way before they die.

God Bless you and your family during this difficult time.
It is from these little things that gives us the insights to the trueness of people.
- izchan

Cry and cry more. For it allows us to feel alive in order to mourn for the dead. My heart goes out to you and your family.
I see him as your words describe him. Beautiful and loud and raucous and flawed. I hope that your family finds peace. And that you find a really good Gibson.
I read the post with tears in my eyes and write this comment with those same tears leaving a salty residue on my face.

How close to home this post has hit, especially since I received word that just this evening my grandmother passed away.
Like so many others, your entry has brought tears to my eyes, as I think of my grandparents. I'm really sorry to hear about your loss, and our prayers are with you, as we toast to the memory of your grandfather.
I'm so sorry for your loss, I remember when my great-grandmother died and how that shook my father, he didn't have any grandparents anymore. You're in my thoughts.
I know you are well aware of how much we all support you and how all over our sympathies and prayers are with you and your family, but I figured it the more comments you got, the more you would see how all of us...your extended family...is feeling for you right now.
Sending warm thoughts and condolences your way. Consider our drinks raised.
Nicely written.
All loss is difficult.
Just checking in again to see if you are back. My thoughts and prayers and with you and your family...
I came here from blogher. Your post made m really teary-eyed. My Dad just died 10 days back at 93. But he was so ill before. May I e-mail this page to my family?
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