I hope you are writing this down. Because stories are everything, I said to a woman I met over Greek takeout in Manchester, N.H. We were sitting in the lobby of a hotel I never bothered to learn the name of. Neither of us was supposed to be there.
But our flights were cancelled due to a snowstorm that blanketed much of New England and we both found ourselves at the front desk studying menus of the three restaurants that would deliver to the spot 2,000 miles from where we were supposed to be. She suggested ordering together if I didn’t mind Greek. I don’t so we did.
Over dinner she told me about her attempt to trace her family history. It ended with her great grandfather on her mother’s side. He grew up in a small village in Ukraine and was kidnapped by soldiers of the tsar’s army. When asked what his name was he couldn’t remember the answer. In all likelihood no one understood him—he spoke Yiddish, she said. Afterward her family’s last name was translated to mean, I can’t remember the answer. By age 19 he defected to England where a woman took pity on him and gave him a ticket aboard a ship to Maine. Her family has been in the same seaside community ever since. No one in the family knows their real last name. But they have a good story.
At the time I had been thinking a lot about good stories, and trying to discern what one really boils down to. It was on my mind because I was returning from a funeral – my Grampa Mac’s. I often wrote about him on this blog. And I used to record his stories about growing up during the Depression. But there comes a time when you don’t get to ask any more questions. When you simply offer a spoon with softened ice cream and wait. And there is nothing more to say.
My family is excellent at operating in crisis mode. Everyone shows up. Everyone has a job. Mine was to write Grampa’s obituary. I have the most practice writing them. My first paid job at a newspaper included the task of writing obituaries. They were sent from nearby funeral homes and I would sift through the notices trying to find ones that provided some details of a life lived. It always made me shudder when I came across a three sentence listing with just the person’s name, place of birth, where they died, and a list of their survivors, if any. As if not much happened in between, as though no one was there to witness a life.
There is no shortage of Mac DelGizzi stories. But there aren’t that many people left to tell them. Most of his peers died years ago. Grampa once gave my mom a tour of the local cemetery. All his friends were there. I know he missed them. He would talk about everybody disappearing.
Three weeks ago Grampa got a mild infection. I boarded a plane. And the rest of the family took turns rubbing his back. He died the moment everyone left the room. I like to think he saw an opportunity to jailbreak and took it.
Afterward I struggled to write his obituary. What events define a life? How to you trim nine decades into a few hundred words? Moreover, who gets to speak for the dead? Five years ago I wrote my Nana Dot’s. I found it easier because she died knowing exactly who I was. Grampa didn’t. Sometimes he would tell my mom he had a daughter named Terri. She was a good girl. I don’t know how she kept a straight face.
I resorted to interviewing people who knew him best and sifting through paper work from the basement. And I put in the parts I thought Grampa was proud of most: his family and his work, his love and his purpose. Everyone seemed to agree that Mac DelGizzi lived 91 big years. And was the expert of heavy things.
He was a career machinist first class for Bethlehem Steel Fore River Shipyard and General Dynamics. He helped build warships, including the USS Massachusetts, and propeller shafts for cruisers and LNG tankers. He could engineer a solution for any problem. His name can be found inside a ship’s bell or two if one looks hard enough.
Mac was the oldest of five children. During the Depression he left school to help support his family. Afterward he joined the Army and was a decorated World War II veteran who served in the Philippine Campaign. He met Dottie, his wife of 62 years, working at Sevigny’s in Quincy. She cooked clams. He peeled potatoes. Together they had three children, played Kings in the Corner, and routinely accused the other of cheating at cards.
He loved working down the Cape with his brother Danny, growing tomatoes, a VO on the rocks, and fishing for flounder in his outboard around the Boston Harbor Islands. He and Dottie spent Saturday nights dancing with good friends at the Town River Yacht Club. They never missed a good party. How sweet it was.
Instead of flowers for the funeral, my brother and I planted Big Boy tomatoes in Grampa’s honor. 50 of them. Then we gave them away. I think Grampa would have liked that. We included instructions he once gave me for growing tomatoes.
Him: You plant them.
Me: Then what?
Him: You eat them.
Me: What do you in between?
Him: You watch them grow.
Typically late January is a little early to plant tomato starts. The nursery was just pulling bags of potting soil from the basement when we arrived. But it was worth a shot.
For the next week I watered the starts on my mother’s kitchen windowsill and watched as snowflakes dusted the backyard. I worried it was too cold for anything to germinate. The afternoon I headed to the airport I checked the pots and found a tiny green shoot poking out of the soil. I smiled. He made it.