Milestones and Memories

Ten years ago today, Zeddo, my paternal grandfather, died. He was at home when he finally let go after a long, well-fought battle against cancer and Alzheimer’s. The last time I saw him was a few days before he passed, and he was lying in his bedroom, seemingly asleep and clearly at the end of his life.

He wasn’t at all the way we had always known him, laughing and amiable and drinking a Budweiser. I’m not sure he even knew we were there, my mom and dad and brother and me. But we talked to him anyway, and before we left, I whispered, “I love you, Zeddo.” That’s what I had really come to say. “I love you” and “Goodbye.” I never told my Pop-Pop “I love you” before he died, and I had regretted it in the 10 years since he had passed. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.

Zeddo died on October 9, 2007. Pop-Pop passed away almost exactly 10 years before, on October 10, 1997. During the past several weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about both of them and these impending milestones.

When I was recently hospitalized with colitis, I thought about Pop-Pop as I lie in my hospital bed. He had colon cancer and I remember going to visit him in the hospital often as he went through surgeries and treatments. Remembering those visits brought me peace, and somehow the GI connection made me feel closer to him. It was a weird, and maybe morbid, kind of peace but it was there nonetheless. I don’t think he would have minded.

As the anniversaries of their deaths have been approaching, I’ve been trying to call up memories of both Zeddo and Pop-Pop. No matter how much we try, we can’t hold onto everything, every laugh, every hug, every barbed, sarcastic comment that seemed so hilarious to us grandkids. As the years go by, our memories fade, even of people like grandfathers, who once loomed so large in our lives.

So I’ve tried to pull up a few precious memories of them, and I keep replaying these moments in my mind. Maybe that will preserve them forever. I don’t want to forget them.

I’m not worried about forgetting their faces or the many stories about them. I was fortunate enough to have them in my life long enough to create lasting impressions, and to have stories to recall with my siblings and cousins about how Pop-Pop used to tease Grandmom by saying her cooking was “lip-smackin’ good, Granny” or how Zeddo used to give us Chiclets whenever we visited him and Nanny. Besides, I have a big enough family that between all of us, there are tales to be told for days. Everyone has their own favorite memories to share.

But as time passes, the textures and nuances of a person’s existence can fade. You can recall their face but maybe not their smell or what it felt like to hug them. That’s what I’ve been trying to remember these past few weeks. The feel of Zeddo’s arms as he hugged me goodbye after a visit and told me, “Oh I love you, hon.” His cancer had come back by then, and I was old enough to know I should remember that moment, hold it in my mind. It was just an ordinary Sunday afternoon, but I’m so thankful now that I paid attention and that I can still recall what it felt like to be there with him.

With Pop-Pop, it’s what he smelled like when he came in from working in his garden. The scent of sweat on his white undershirt and the prickle of his silver-gray five o’clock shadow. The sound of his laugh, the memory of which makes me laugh, too. The gravelly sound of Zeddo’s voice. I can’t remember everything, but if I can remember these things, it might be enough.

I’ve also thought about what I can learn from them. What I remember most about them, what of them I want to emulate. I’m 32, and in the past few years, I’ve started thinking more about the adult I’m growing into and the kind of person I want to be. Like many people, I spent a lot of my 20s concerned with myself and my experiences and meeting my needs. While there’s always a place for that, I’ve begun to think more about how I show up in the world every day. And I found some wisdom in reflecting on my grandfathers.

In Pop-Pop, I remember a quiet dignity. He worked hard, and he expected other people to do the same. He valued education -- I still remember that after his funeral, I told my mom I wasn’t going to school the next day because I was too upset. My grandmother overhead and said, “You can take off tomorrow. But the next day, you go back to school. Pop-Pop wanted you to have a good education.”

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have gotten a very good education, as he hoped, both academically and through traveling. When I remember how much Pop-Pop supported me in school, and how much it meant to him that his grandkids be well-educated, I think of working hard with fewer complaints as a way of honoring him and of recognizing my own good fortune.

I also think maybe I got his love of the land. He and my grandmother had a plentiful garden in their retirement, and while I seem to be utterly lacking in skill, I do find peace and contentment living in a rural area now. When I told my mom that I was making a vegetable garden and spending more time in the yard, she said, “Pop-Pop would be proud of you.” So I make a point to think of him now when I’m trimming the hedges or pulling weeds or doing anything that brings me closer to the earth.

But it’s his quiet dignity that I really come back to. He wasn’t a formal or snobbish man, but he had a real sense of character that made you not want to misbehave in front of him. Not because you’d get in trouble (although that was true, too) but just because that’s how he was. His class and dignity were in how he carried himself, and if I can learn to emulate that in the coming years, I’ll be proud.

With Zeddo, his kindness and love for his family dominate my sense of who he was. Even after he got sick, there was always a genuine sense of joy about him when he was with his family. I always felt that when Zeddo loved you, he loved you completely. He had a huge heart, especially for his family, and you felt that the minute you saw him. He was so happy to see you, and he didn’t waste time lamenting being sick, at least not in front of his grandkids. I don’t think I ever heard him complain about being sick or being in pain. If anything, he’d wave a dismissive hand toward the disease or make some sarcastic crack about it and move on to something else.

He was generous. As soon as you walked in the door, he was offering you something to drink (if you were of age, that something was probably a cold beer). And he just took so much joy in his family. The Thanksgiving before he died, I was still in college and had a writing assignment to profile a family member we observed during the holiday. I decided to write about Zeddo, so I paid extra attention to him that year.

As often happens at gatherings of large, Irish Catholic families, there was a point where the dining room was filled with people and loud, laughing voices. My dad and his siblings had started telling old family stories, and everyone was in hysterics. Nanny had been cleaning up, and when she walked back into the dining room, someone had taken her seat. Zeddo told her, “Your seat is right here” and pulled her onto his lap. I never forgot the way they looked at each other, their faces still filled with so much love. And that was Zeddo.

There’s so much we don’t know about our grandparents. Who they were as children, what they were like as young parents, the types of things that made them laugh when they were hanging out with their friends. We hear stories about them, and we laugh at them or are moved by their lives. But all we really know of them is who they were to us. That’s what we hold onto when they’re gone.

If I’m lucky, I have many decades ahead of me to share with my loved ones and to grow my own family. And as time continues to pass, more of my memories of Zeddo and Pop-Pop may fade. But if I can carry what they taught me about dignity and character, and love and generosity, with me, they’ll live on in my heart no matter how many anniversaries pass.