Guest Commentary

Get to really know your grandparents before it's too late

My grandpa died several months ago, just before Mardi Gras. I tried to find some irony in this, but since I had seen him partying with a drink in his hand maybe once or twice in my whole childhood, it escaped me. All I could think instead was that it was likely to be a long, bitter Lent for Grandma.

Grandpa was responsible for the two Italian vowels at the end of my name, though not for a single strand of the DNA in my cells, nor for the name itself, which was given to his family at Ellis Island under suspicious and uncertain circumstances. Depending upon which source of Serraglio lore you believe, my adoptive family's name was changed either because no one at immigration check-in could spell "Fragabonni," or because the Fragabonnis desperately wanted to leave behind certain criminal associations with their name in Sicily. Either way, my grandpa's ancestors took "Serraglio" from a pack of cigarettes in one of their pockets and presented it to the bureaucrat as the truth.

Long story short, I eventually adopted the name and a fair bit of the family's nurture, if not their nature.

We spent many Sundays trundling to Grandma and Grandpa's house in the Cleveland suburbs for football and food. My brothers and I loved the temporal calculus of it, because it often meant an extra meal squeezed into the Sunday schedule. We would sometimes eat a big meal in the afternoon--which my mother intended to suffice for lunch and dinner--then head over to the grandparents' house in the evening. It never took long for my grandma to look us up and down (mostly up, since her culo was wider than she was tall) and say, "Are youze hungry? Did youze eat?" Before my mom could get out "yes" to the second question, we boys would honestly and gratefully seize upon the first. Then, while Grandma was breaking out the cold cuts and fresh deli bread, she would pinch my pathetic adolescent biceps and complain with alarm, "Look at you; you're so skinny! What's the matter; are you sick? Don't you eat?" And then a final winking accusation toward my exasperated mother, "Don't you feed them?!"

Grandpa would just say, "What's new?" I guess there's not much for Depression-era grandpas to say to modern children, or vice versa, but something in the way he said it made it seem like he really hoped for some kind of interesting answer. I always wanted to reply with something along the lines of, "Well, we discovered at school the other day that blueberry Hostess pies make the most excellent medium for Pollock-like creations on the white walls of the cafeteria," but instead, I would just shrug and say, "Nothing."

When Grandpa got sick, he went to the hospital for an infection in his throat, and before anyone knew what was happening, the boys in scrubs had hacked out his esophagus and half of his stomach. The docs concocted a scheme to replace them with intestinal grafts, involving a half-dozen more surgeries and all manner of misery, but my grandma, who spent many years running the EKG department in a major hospital and knew her way around the polished halls, would have none of it. She delivered daily orders to the nurses to ensure Grandpa's comfort, pulled the plugs and tubes, and let him go with all the grace and resolve of her Old World roots.

During the service in the church where we used to attend Christmas Eve midnight Mass decades ago, it dawned on me that I had never seen the altar in daylight. As I listened to the priest use my grandparents' names repeatedly in talking about their lives and contributions to the church over the years, I remembered being shocked as a youngster to learn that they were actually "Joe" and "Lucy," and not just "Grandma and Grandpa." It struck me that behind those names were two lives that were almost wholly mysterious to me. And as my brothers and I shuffled out of the church into the bitter blue morning, with the handles of our grandpa's casket in our hands, I reckoned that it was a terrible time to realize that we never really knew the man.

Now I feel that I do have something to say to my grandpa, something very important, a question that I really want an answer to: So, Grandpa Joe, what's new?

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