Why in childhood and youth do we wish time to pass so quickly? We want to grow up so fast. Yet as adults we wish just the opposite? All the lessons you learn in childhood seem to come in waves. …There were struggles in my life; the dangers, toils and snares of my childhood. “[From that you learn that] loyalty and love are the best things of all and surely the most lasting.”—Willie Morris
My dad’s father always had tired eyes. Bright they were and ready to laugh, but worn and a bit sad.
In my reckless youth, it was something I noticed but never concentrated on. Yet I knew something in that look drew me to him–a vulnerability that made me want to reach out and protect him or somehow break the falls. I had no idea what evoked that, but I was aware of it.
As part of a school project, I needed to find and interview someone who had lived through the Depression, and Pappy seemed to be a good choice. Maybe I’d finally learn what was behind those soulful eyes.
When I asked him if I could use him for the assignment, he seemed very flattered in his simple way. I also sensed a little fear: that fear that men get when younger men are advancing and they seem to be fading toward the rear.
Those eyes seemed to beg, “Please, don’t make a fool of me.”
I pulled out the tape recorder as we sat down and saw that flash of fear. Casually, I put it back in the bag and realized that this interview needed to be nothing more than a good conversation, or he would clam right up.
I thought I’d get the same reaction if I began to write furiously when he said something significant, so I leaned back in the chair and gave him the reins.
I explained my complete ignorance on the subject and asked the elementary and indifferent questions that a kid might have picked up on when being given the one-paragraph, Depression-era, history-book description that was supposed to encapsulate the terror that people lived through during that time.
“Did you starve, Pappy? Or was everybody everywhere just starving?”
In retrospect, that question was such a hard throw and I threw it out there with such flippant moxie I don’t know how he didn’t reach across and smack me for trivializing the whole thing.
But he smiled at my impetuousness, exhaled softly and leaned forward, his hands folded, elbows on his knees and looked at the floor. I think he must have been searching for a way to properly describe something to me that I was taking too lightly and he was committed to stating properly.
He found it.
“Well, you never saw a stray dog running around, I’ll say that,” he submitted slowly and lowly, then straightened to an upright sitting position. The room stood silent and my eyes must have gotten got pretty big, because the look of him looking at me was pure satisfaction.
“You ate a dog?”
I was blown away and had a sudden image of my dog Scruffy on one of those cartoon platters with an apple in his mouth.
“You ever get hungry?” he asked.
“Well yeah,” I said, sucking in that little pasta-filled belly of mine.
“No,” he said flatly. “I mean hungry like you can’t remember when the last time you ate was for sure.”
He wasn’t angry, but he was firm.
“Sometimes you’d go to bed dreaming of dog stew, or possum, squirrel, anything else that ran by.”
Pappy’s sad eyes were becoming clear to me.
We endured our second extended silence of the session, and when he was sure he had made his point, things lightened up.
He told me how his father, my great-grandfather, had been a miner. He explained that to compensate for lack of food, Tommasco would often trade a “barrow of coal” for milk, meat, eggs, whatever was available.
The men in the mine were given permission by their supervisor to haul one load home after work that heated their home for the night or was used in trade during the summer months for families trying to stock up for the winter ahead.
He talked of many things that day, and my respect for the man must have been completely readable from the humble look left on my face.
“So?” he asked. “You got enough there?”
I nodded and embraced him for a long time. He held me, the scent of his familiar tobacco and peppermints wafting out of his breast pocket, his strong arms firmly around me.
He wasn’t as familiar to me as my mom’s dad was, because he lived in Pennsylvania and all of my mom’s family in the Cleveland area like my family did. But I was the only grandson on my dad’s side. Dad’s two brothers had only daughters (my only other male cousin died very young).
As years passed, I felt it was important for me to do well as a man; as the last man carrying the family name.
Knowing what he had come through, my mom’s dad as well, this grandson had to make a mark in this world and be sure they lived and suffered through things for something.
I sent him a picture of me in my graduation robe along with a copy of my diploma when I finished high school and college, and set one of the same on his grave when I completed my master’s degree.
I’ve tried to raise my family to live in honor of such pride, and am working to “bend the tree” of my son’s will in that same direction.
I know recent days have been challenging for this country, but we should stay aware of the fact that “making it” was always hard, always challenging, and always about the integrity of individuals; from the humble beginnings of 13 colonies to the immigrants filing into Ellis Island to present-day Americans fighting the blight of joblessness and a tough economy.
It is and always has been up to the people who accept challenge and fight to conquer it. And if a man chooses to handle that with style and grace, his legacy will be forever in the hearts and on the faces of those he bore.
I think if you choose to make your grandparents proud, from wherever they may be watching you, chances are good others will think highly of your choices, too.
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at email@example.com.