I can’t remember the last time I thought about my grandfather. My mother’s parents died before I was born. The only grandfather I ever knew died when I was 7, more than 50 years ago. I always felt that I had been cheated out of having a grandfather and denied the childhood memories of time spent with him.
My grandparents came to America from Sicily in the late 1920s with their two young sons – my uncle and my father. Like many adult immigrants of the early 20th century, my grandfather never learned to speak English, which made conversation with him difficult, though not impossible. My parents and I went back to the old neighborhood, Buffalo’s predominantly Italian West Side, to visit my grandparents pretty much every Sunday afternoon.
On many of those Sundays, some combination of my 11 cousins might be there. On those occasions we had each other, while the adults engaged in conversation in the rapid-fire Sicilian that we kids knew only in bits and pieces. Sometimes, none of the cousins visited and I was the only child with four adults. Those were the times I got to be with Grandpa.
In nice weather, we’d sit on the front porch and wait for the peanut vendor to wheel his cart down the street. I’d sit in the chair next to my grandfather while he smoked one of those obnoxious- smelling cigars that Italian men of that age and time seemed to favor.
Other times, perhaps we’d go into the backyard where I would try to jump high enough to grab a piece of fruit from the neighbor’s tree. I very rarely succeeded, but when I did I’d end up getting yelled at in Sicilian by my grandmother for “stealing” the fruit.
Sometimes Grandpa would take me by the hand and we’d go for a walk. Maybe a short trip – the half block down Maryland Street to the playground. Other times it might be a longer adventure – a stroll to the Marlowe Theater on Virginia Street.
On occasion, Grandpa and I would just descend the staircase into the basement, where he would take his old prized boxing gloves from the nail where they were hanging and let me play with them. Apparently he had done some boxing in the old country, and he knew instinctively of the fascination those gloves held for a young boy. I felt great pride that I never heard any of my cousins talk about being allowed to play with those boxing gloves.
Not long ago, my aunt and uncle, both in their 80s, came in from Rochester for a visit. My uncle, the first of my grandparents’ three children to be born in America and now the lone remaining of the five brothers and sisters, launched my recent trip back into those long-forgotten memories.
My uncle handed me an old, non-working pocket watch made in the 1920s. Explaining that the watch would cost several times its value to fix (in working condition these watches currently sell for less than the price of a lunch for two) he told me, “This was your grandfather’s. I thought you’d like to have it.”
Later, holding that pocket watch in my hand and remembering Grandpa, I realized that I hadn’t been cheated out of having a grandfather after all. In those seven short years, he gave me more to remember and more of my own stories to tell of time with him than I had ever previously given him credit for. Not bad for a broken old watch.