Old people don’t have time for bullshit.
I remember once telling my backyard neighbor, who must have been nearing the century mark, that I was considering a much shorter hairstyle. “I wouldn’t do that,” she said matter-of-factly. “Your hair is the one thing you have going for you.”
Then there was the time my grandmother called me her “ugly duckling.” She was right; I was gangly and awkward and needed a bit longer than other girls to “come into my own” (I’m still very much in the process).
But nothing touches the afternoon I phoned my grandfather just hours after Mark and I closed on our first home. I felt so adult and accomplished when they handed me that tiny set of house-keys, and I couldn’t wait to tell Poppy. He was long retired by that time, but like many first-generation Italian-Americans he had labored much of his adult life in construction and concrete, eventually owning and operating his own string of family businesses. My mother, his only daughter, remembers waiting impatiently for him to come home in the late afternoon and watching him scrub his thick, calloused hands with a gritty paste called SKAT. At 85, he was still strong, barrel-chested and the living embodiment of Hard Work. As proud as I'm sure he was of his first-born grandchild for pursuing a PhD in Renaissance Literature, I always felt what I did must have seemed to him soft and spoiled in comparison.
|Poppy and his four sons.
(Not pictured is my mother, who was probably playing barefoot somewhere nearby.)
But buying a house meant I was finally dealing in Poppy’s currency. I knew how much he valued property. I’d studied the focused expression with which he steered the riding mower around his 2-acre yard (to this day my sister and I call it "the Poppy face" and we catch ourselves making it whenever we're concentrating hard on something). I’d traced his confident footsteps in the dappled shade of his giant garden, which smelled of ripe tomatoes and good dirt.
Maybe now I’d try planting my own tomatoes. Even line them up on the kitchen windowsill, as he did.
“Poppy, I'm a homeowner!” I practically yelled into the phone. “Can you believe it?!?”
“Good girl,” he said. “Now make sure you take care of it for the next person.”
Talk about deflating my ego. Mark and I hadn’t even unpacked our boxes and he was already worried I’d screw it up for the next guy.
If that’s what he was thinking, he was right to be concerned. I don’t think we’d been in the house a month when I made our first “emergency” call to the heating company. The furnace was out and the house was freezing. I told the technician our pipes were “about to burst,” though I’m not sure how one would actually know that.
“Do me a favor,” he said, somehow sensing my ineptitude over the phone. “Walk to the top of the cellar stairs. See the red switch-plate that says FURNACE? The one right next to the light switch? I’m betting you turned it off last night. Flip it back on.”
In hindsight, I don’t believe Poppy meant to suggest we'd be incompetent homeowners. At least I like to think that’s not all he meant. I think he knew what I’ve only recently begun to appreciate: nothing ever belongs to us. Everything is only rented for a time.
A year or two before he died, Poppy came over to watch a giant tree come down in our back yard. My mother suggested I invite him over for the big event, because she knew he’d be fascinated by it. I hesitated because I didn’t feel much like entertaining that day; I was surprisingly emotional about the dumb tree. I liked the late-afternoon shadow it cast over the boys’ play-set, I was resentful of the enormous price tag for having it removed, and despite the inspector's insistence it was "an accident waiting to happen," I felt a little guilty about messing with Mother Nature.
Turns out I didn’t have to worry about entertaining anyone; Poppy was content to sit on my back porch and watch. Every once in a while, he’d call me over to narrate bits of what was happening (he knew every technical name for every piece of machinery) and he seemed happier than I’d seen him in a long time. He sipped lemonade and watched until dusk fell and only a wide stump remained where the tree had stood. When my mother came to pick him up he looked tired but pleased, like someone who had spent a perfectly productive day.
I may be projecting too much, but I imagine for Poppy, the process of letting go was already familiar. He’d long ago lost his parents. He’d outlived all five of his brothers, and he’d buried his beloved wife, Rosie. To him, the day wasn’t tarnished with maudlin sentimentality; it was only about cool drinks, heavy machinery (he was back in his wheelhouse, even as an observer), and the expert dismantling of a tree whose time had come to die. Watching it go was part of the adventure.
I’d like to say Poppy approached his own death with the same degree of stoicism and spirit of adventure. I don’t think he did; I think he feared death as much as anyone else.
But there are lessons he taught me just the same, and I’ve found myself consciously rehearsing them this summer as we prepare to alter the landscape of our home once again.
Our firstborn is leaving for college in a few short weeks. And I know, IT IS NOT THAT BIG A DEAL. I swear I’m doing my best to be super nonchalant about it. But the fact sits heavy on my heart: my son won’t live here anymore.
See, I have a terrible, 17-year long habit of emphasizing ownership. And this is where I’m trying to take my cue from Poppy. Instead of saying “My son is going away,” or “Our firstborn is leaving the nest...”, I’m teaching myself to say, “We’re dropping Kevin off….” Or better yet, “Kevin is heading off...”
I’m finally coming to terms with what I always knew but didn’t want to admit: the anxious, brilliant, deeply compassionate kid who inherited so many of my nerdy quirks, but who has a distinctly Italian love of dried garbanzo beans, pepper biscuits and extra-sharp cheese just like his great-grandfather, was never mine to begin with. He was just on loan to me for a time.
I could not love any human being more than I have loved...than I will always love this young man. Screw the nonchalance. Letting him go is so damn hard. But I hope Poppy would agree, without bullshitting, that I took good care of him for the next person.
|Kevin and Poppy, Memorial Day 2002