An Ode To My Grandfather — Why Magnolia Trees And Sinatra’s My Way Will Always Make Me Cry
“…Your new silence does not seem right. / We do nothing but listen deeply to / your life pass through our heads. / …We know the shape you formed around each / of us is gone and we look from one to another / like sleepers waking from a long dream.” (Canto 9: The Dream Canto — by Robert Hilles)
He loved strawberries sprinkled with sugar and cognac, sliced apples soaked in red wine, and a good espresso any time of day. He also loved to dance — if a tarantella was playing within earshot, my grandfather moved his feet, grabbed a partner, and swirled around the room. I happily obliged when that partner was me. He loved to regale us with stories of his youth; among my favourites was the one about teenage boys walking for hours into the next village to serenade girls under their windows.
He still remembered the songs, recounting their lyrics and melodies as vividly as the story itself. He loved, too, to spend summer days working in his garden, to sit in his white lawn chair admiring his magnolia tree. He loved people. To know him was to be welcome in his home, and share a delicious meal, great conversation, and laughter. “Joie-de-vivre” best described him.
I have never met anyone who embodies this phrase more than him. His smile was infectious. His laugh made you want to laugh, too. It filled you with warmth and made you feel good, like you were home. I have never stopped wanting to hear it.
Most of all, my grandfather, my nonno, loved his family. We were the single most important thing to him. “Famiglia,” he would exclaim. We all grew up understanding the weight of that word. He cultivated his family, tending to it with as much care as he did his garden in Montreal, where I grew up.
By example, he taught us to do the same. His spirit was a force that drew us all in. It had a gravitational pull that kept our family in perfect orbit. The importance of family did not escape any of us as we grew older. Choosing our friends and partners, we all sought out people who understood this, too.
Anyone who did not understand that family gatherings took precedence over anything else did not make it into the fold. If, as a partner, you did not get that when one of us needed help, the others would –no matter where they were, or what they were doing — be there, then it just would not work. This is the foundation our grandfather built for us, and it is an essential part of each of us.
When he was in the hospital a nurse on his floor watched as we took shifts –three or four of us at a time, every so many hours. We sat vigil by his bedside, day and night, long after he had closed his eyes and could not see or talk to us anymore. We gathered in that room like we had gathered in his home. We talked, we ate, we tried to laugh. But always we were there.
One day, the nurse pulled us aside and told us that he was a lucky man to have such a great family. Many of her patients, she said, were not so lucky and barely had any visitors. We smiled and thanked her for her kindness. The truth was that we had been the lucky ones; it was because of who he was and what he built that we were there. Famiglia.
My most cherished childhood memories are of family gatherings, my nonno always beaming at the centre of all our activity. Surrounded by us, he seemed a proud lion. As his pride radiated, we basked in it, feeling ourselves so loved that we flourished into our best selves whenever we were around him.
There were family dinners and holiday celebrations, bedtime stories, Italian sing-a-longs and life lessons. He was a constant in our lives. When I was little, he seemed a gentle giant. His big calloused hands gently lifted me up to reach for apples, pears, and figs in the trees in his garden.
As I got older, he never stopped being a giant. He always seemed larger than life to me and, although I always knew how much he meant to me, I did not realize the extent to which he propped up so much in my life. Then, he was gone.
Suddenly, everything was heavier and, some days, things feel like they just won’t hold. I miss him every day.
In retrospect, I think part of me knew that the last time I went to visit him would be, well, the last time. The last espresso with him, enjoyed at his and my nonna’s kitchen table.
That kitchen table, a testament of their unconditional love, a safe space free of judgement. Somewhere to sit and unpack all of our baggage, to share our heartbreaks and disappointments as well as our victories. A place where advice was doled out lovingly, never sugar-coated, but always kind. Advice that came from years of hard-earned experience. Lessons gleaned from a life where doing the hard thing was necessary, where the only way out was through.
At that table, eating with them, having coffee with them, listening to them, we felt relieved. We felt understood. We gained the courage to face the world again. That night, somewhere inside me, a red flag went up.
When we later received the call that he was in the hospital, that red flag tethered itself to me. Even as I hoped against hope that he would be out in time to celebrate his upcoming 93rd birthday and my upcoming wedding, I began, deep down, to steel myself for the blow I knew was coming. Of course, even if I’d had a thousand years to shore myself up, it would not have been enough.
The days before the wake, we gathered to look for old photos, to reminisce and share our favourite stories about him. We tried to console each other by being together and talking about him.
The more we shared, the more memories bubbled to the surface: words from lullabies he used to sing to us, expressions he would use, jokes he would tell, the way he would lovingly tease our nonna, how he’d yell her name from inside the garden, how he could always make her laugh even when she was mad, how he let us taste the grape juice that trickled down from the press during winemaking, how, when he was happy about something, he’d make that hand gesture like an upside-down “OK” sign and drag it on an imaginary line in the air before saying “numero one!”
So many wonderful memories.
It was then I truly realized the impact he’d had on all our lives. This man from a small village in the hills of Italy. A man who wanted the best for his family, who took a leap of faith and ventured forth to a strange land with only his wife and children and their few belongings in tow.
Without speaking the language and with little help from anyone, except the few people he knew here, he built a life for himself and his family. Brick by brick, he paved the way for each of us, and he made sure we all knew where we came from.
Today, thanks to him, I constantly feel the pull of those roots. They are my anchor, and whenever I waver or start to question myself, they help ground me. His death unmoored me, but also brought this all, sharply, into focus.
Suddenly, all the lessons he had taught, either through stories, or through his actions, became, for me, an instruction manual on how to live my life –directions on how to navigate this world. His voice is a constant guide in my head. “Scared to do something? Do it anyway. Work hard. Do your best. Unsure of yourself? Remember where you come from. Think you’re alone? You have family. Respect that. Respect yourself. Help others and try to live life so that you’ll have no regrets.”
Everything I do is propelled by a desire to make him proud, fueled by the need to carry his legacy with the care and reverence it deserves. I don’t always get it right. Often I let fear get in my way. I’m unsure, I forget, and I do have regrets — not the least of which is not having had a child in time for him to be their great-grandfather.
I would watch him with my sister’s children and my cousins’ children. In his eyes, you could see his heart expand, nearly bursting with love and joy as his family grew. Many days I feel crushed by the weight of it all. Would he be disappointed with some of the decisions I’ve made or am making? I don’t know. But I do know he would love me anyway. And that’s enough to keep me going. It’s all I need to take the next step.
We prepared a montage of his life with all the old photos we found. It played at his wake, and we each got a copy to keep. The song we chose to play during the montage was My Way by Frank Sinatra. We thought it fitting to honour a man who was sometimes stubborn and always proud, but never arrogant. A man who loved life and lived it fully, completely, his way: with plenty of hard work, good food and wine, copious amounts of laughter and dancing, and always, always surrounded by those he loved.
A man who, despite his many hardships in life, sailed on without cynicism. Taking each blow in stride, he carried forward only the lesson learned, and always with gratitude for the chance to keep moving, thankful for all the good in his life.
The year he died saw both the worst and best day of my life.
How could I grapple with being heartbroken and in despair while simultaneously being happy and grateful? Again, I looked to his life for guidance. “Ogni rosa ha la sua spina,” he used to say: every rose has its thorn.
On my wedding day, I felt his absence acutely. I know he would have loved it. I let myself cry and then, I took solace in living the day fully and enjoying every moment, because that is what he would have wanted. We ate. We drank. We danced. We laughed. His way. My way.
He passed away three days before his birthday. That year, on his birthday, his magnolia tree was in full bloom, bursting with those big white and pink flowers.
On that day, I sat in my car on the street I had grown up on, his street, and stared at that tree. I could see him still sitting there on the front balcony in his white plastic lawn chair, looking up at it, smiling, and then turning to look at me, his smile growing bigger, his eyes dancing with joy. He raised his hand to wave –a gesture that always seemed to come with an invitation.
“Let’s go inside and have an espresso…”