My grandpa Ted passed away this afternoon. He was ninety, and hadn't been well in quite awhile, but it still came as a bit of a shock. You know how, when you're little, you think your parents are invincible? That's how I'd always felt about Grandpa Ted.
(With his father and four of his six sisters. Thanks to our cousin Paula for this picture.)
During the war my grandfather was a petty officer aboard a destroyer in the South Pacific. He went for more than a year without setting foot on land, and that was the easy part—he'd survived kamikazes and two typhoons, during which the temperature in the engine room reached 180º F. When he got back to the States, he spent nearly a year convalescing in naval hospitals; for the rest of his life he dealt with some serious medical problems as a result of war-related injuries, and yet he always seemed to defy everybody's expectations. (Just to give you an idea, today he received Last Rites for the fifth time.) He never thought he'd live to see ninety; I sometimes joked he'd outlive us all.
(Summer 2005. This is how I want to remember him—robust, striding around the block in his Abercrombie & Fitch ballcap and t-shirt.)
(At the Mary Modern launch party with Grandpa Ted, Grandmom Kass, and Grandpop Mike, July 2007.)
We didn't always agree—heck, that feels like an understatement, given our diametrical political beliefs—but he was a good man, and I loved him very much.
(Two pics from summer '06, with kids and grandkids.)
I want to tell you the story of how my grandparents met. At the naval hospital in San Diego, they told him they were sending him home to New York for his big operation, and gave him a choice between hospitals in Queens (St. Albans) and Brooklyn. He knew that St. Albans was the newer hospital, and naturally he wanted to be treated at the best facility available. He opened his mouth fully intending to say “St. Albans,” but “Brooklyn” is what came out. If he’d chosen the hospital in Queens he would never have met my grandmother.
She was a lovely 23-year-old volunteer social worker, midway through an M.S.W. she would never complete. Sitting up in bed, he’d strain for a glimpse of her as she passed by his room. So he could speak to her, he kept asking for another pack of playing cards, and she asked him tartly how he could possibly lose so many decks. He wore her down, of course, and they married seven months later.
I've always been fascinated with this story for that one inexplicable slip of the tongue. Thank you, thank you, thank you for choosing Brooklyn, Nonno.
(What's even more uncanny is that she wasn't supposed to be in Brooklyn either—she'd been assigned to a hospital in Trenton, but another volunteer, who'd been assigned to Brooklyn, asked my grandmother to switch so she could be close to her family. My grandmother agreed, even though Trenton offered free housing and Brooklyn did not. She was that nice.)
I'm so glad I got the chance to sit down with Grandpa Ted while he was still in good health and ask him about his childhood in Italy and his life during the war. I've been meaning to edit the raw audio and put all the stories on CD. Now would be a good time, eh?
(Outside the Brooklyn Naval Hospital, sometime in 1947.)
Home is the sailor, home from the sea. (I think I like the A.E. Housman version better than Stevenson's.)
[Note on 19th May: I have made a few edits to the above for historical accuracy—after talking to my aunt Eileen and listening to the stories we recorded in 2007, I realized I'd made a few mistakes.]