Recapping the past – part ii

I was never able to have a sit down conversation with my grandfather Buzz. That is what people used to call him. It was a name he inherited in the military. I should probably find out why.

I regret not being able to ask him about being raised by his grandmother in Nebraska. I wish I could have heard him tell about the day he tracked down the little brother he had only heard stories about at a naval base in California. I wish I could have questioned him about my Nana’s driving and how he allowed her to travel nearly coast to coast without a license and a baby in the backseat.

Buzz died when I was two weeks old. I had red hair then, an underdeveloped sense of sass, and a penchant for sleeping most of the day. While none of these things are true now, I am happy he least he got to meet me. I am happy he at least knew I existed.

Though, I would have liked to hear him play the piano. Buzz taught himself how and could play by ear. My dad says he connected with musicians in underground jazz clubs in Boston and would play into the early morning hours. Hundreds of mourners attended his funeral. My dad and his brother made sure someone rocked out on the baby grand during the church service.

A few years after Buzz died my grandmother reconnected with her high school sweetheart. He has been in my life since I was five, yet somehow I have never called him anything but Charles. I am wondering if some habits are too old to change?

When I was in Florida last month it was my first visit to my grandmother’s home without my parents. There I was able to witness my grandmother and Charles in their every day lives, when there wasn’t a holiday to get in the way of our conversation, a wedding to interfere with our wine. Most nights we just sat in their living room drinking and talking while waves crashed onto the beach below.

Charles is very hard of hearing. He and my grandmother communicate mostly through a type of sign language only they know. It took me three days to realize that they still flirt – after 20 years of marriage. Every time she leaves the house Charles stands on the balcony and blows her kisses. He makes her breakfast in bed every morning. He makes coffee that only she drinks. And he never complains about her cooking. I guess you could say it’s been a long honeymoon.

My other grandparents have a different relationship – but there is love there just the same. It’s just that they express it differently.

My mom’s parents have been married for more than 60 years. They nearly divorce after every Red Sox game. (I’m sure they’re fighting now since the Sox lost 4-3 to the Rays today, dropping two out of three games of the series.) They regularly accuse each other of cheating during card games. But every night they come back to the table for another round. And maybe that’s the point.

My Nana is feisty. No one tells her what to do and that’s probably why she is still alive. The doctors have no explanation for why she is as healthy as she is given the fact that she has almost zero healthy lung tissue. And a heart condition. I think she’s waiting to have the last word.

“I’m the type of person that if I don’t win, I get bitchy,” she said during my recent trip home. “So I get up and leave if we’re fighting so I don’t say something I can’t take back. I walk away and then we can start anew.”

Maybe that’s how you stay married after 60 years. Maybe that’s how you can look at your husband after seven decades and still say, “I have no regrets in my life.”

Editor’s note: These are photos from the Florida portion of the trip. Introducing Nana and Charles. http://www.flickr.com/photos/kmunsey/sets/72157615736341458/

Recapping the past – part i

A few weeks ago I traveled back to Boston and Florida to visit the old people in my life. My goal was to interview them, learn their stories and capture the past on paper.

I spent several days taking notes and prodding into their personal lives with questions like: tell me about being pregnant, what first attracted you to Nana, and what was it like to dig your fox hole every night in WWII? The visit confirmed that I am the spawn of some truly hard-working, hard-nosed New Englanders. I come from a long line of laborers and romantics. And I guess that comes as no surprise.

Over the past year I have filled out several applications asking me to submit personal information for university record keeping purposes. Somehow, white, female, and Protestant doesn’t quite capture who I am and how I define myself. Personally, I believe which team you cheer for in baseball tells more about who you are than your religion. But no one ever asks that question. White and Protestant doesn’t tell schools anything about who my family is or where they came from. So I guess I feel compelled to do so now.

Both of my grandfathers were poor growing up. One – the son of Italian immigrants – rolled bags of manure through the streets with his brothers and collected coal chips from outside the local power plant in order to keep warm during the frigid Boston winters. The other was abandoned by his mother in Nebraska. He came home from school during lunch every day to sell fresh bread his grandmother baked so the family could survive.

Both grandfathers served in WW II. One used the GI Bill to go to college and became a child psychologist, the other worked as a machinist at a ship yard in Quincy. If you are ever on board the USS Massachusetts, look inside the bell. You will find the name of my grandfather Louis inscribed there.

My Nana Dot cooked clams and pulled candy and stuffed newspapers almost her entire life. She bought her own Buick that my Grampa Mac taught her to drive and never listened to anybody but Jesus. She married a Catholic even though she was a Protestant because she said she liked the guy and her religion didn’t say anything about it. “I’m a Christian,” she said. “You got to look at a person as a human being – not their religion.” And that was that.

My Nana Lois followed a boy into the Navy and was sent 3,000 miles in the other direction. She met my grandfather in San Diego. He brought her someone else’s candy and stole her heart in the process. They married in a small chapel where there isn’t a whole lot of room for anyone else besides the happy couple, a handful of guests and God. That seems about right to me.

Editor’s note: These are photos from my recent trip home. Meet my Boston grandparents. http://www.flickr.com/photos/kmunsey/sets/72157615569501601/

the questions you would ask

Over the years I have probably interviewed hundreds, if not thousands of people while working as a newspaper reporter. I have had the privilege to interview Marines injured while serving in Iraq, family members of 9/11 victims, and Nobel Prize winning scientists.

Over the years I have donned boots and hiked through the woods in search of homeless settlements to talk to those with less lofty titles. I have interviewed migrant workers who have never had a day off from work in 20 years. I have spoken to gang members on the streets and in their homes in an effort to learn their stories.

But I have never interviewed my own family. And I know I don’t have to open a paper to find a good story.

Growing up I have always known my grandfather served in World War II and again in the Korean War. But I have never asked him what it was like to dig his own fox hole every night. I have always known my grandmother worked as a dental hygienist on a military base during WWII. I have always known that is where she met my grandfather. But I have never asked her how she felt when he first brought her flowers.

So next week I am embarking on a tour de grandparents. I am flying to Boston and Florida to visit both sets of my old people and ask them the questions I want answered. I want to commit their stories to paper. I do not want their stories to be lost. Because I am still young and fairly retarded, I am also eager to learn from their collective life experiences.

At my age I realize I am lucky to have three out of four of my grandparents still living and mentally sound. I know that some of my friends reading this post no longer have the benefit of picking up the phone and calling their grandparents to say hello or tell them about their latest crush. So I am soliciting questions from these friends. If you could, what are the questions you would ask?

where i get it

Editor’s note: I am the luckiest person in the world. I am 27 and still have both of my grandmothers and one grandfather still with us – both physically and mentally. They are not only sharp, but resilient New Englanders who know what it is to be tough, who know how to enjoy a good party, and who aren’t afraid to throw back a few cocktails with their grandchildren.

Where i get it

The Boston Red Sox are the reason my Nana is still alive today. That, and a potential trip to the nude beach down the Cape. Let me explain.

Just four months ago we were alerted by her doctors that she might not make it to my sister’s wedding the next month – let alone to the end of the week. I even had a meeting with my boss to let her know that I might have to fly home to Boston soon.

You see, my grandmother has an extremely advanced case of emphysema and less than 10 percent of healthy lung tissue. The simple act of breathing exhausts her. And the medications she is required to take make her even more tired.

But despite being blind in one eye (stroke) and constantly strapped to a portable oxygen machine, she remains fiercely and stubbornly independent. Often times to a fault. For instance, the idea of cooking on a gas stove while wearing a tank of oxygen fastened to your torso might tip the average person off to being … incredibly dangerous …  yet, she insists on still making her famous chicken cutlets and pizzelle cookies. She refuses to leave the house she was born in for an assisted living facility or one of her children’s homes. My mom says Nana is going out on her terms. And thankfully for us, it doesn’t appear to be anytime too soon. I thank the Red Sox for that.

My grandmother’s biggest regret in life is that she “never got to go to the nudie beach.” I love that. I have offered to take her to the one in Cape Cod. She is thinking about it and said she will let me know.

This is also the same woman who took my mother and her younger sister to a strip club for a bachelorette party for my aunt about 15 years ago. She was pushing 70, standing up at the front and passing out a plethora of dollar bills to the young women present, urging them to put the money in the dancer’s g-string. I love this woman.

All of my grandparents religiously watch the Red Sox games. My dad’s mother lives in Florida and she listens on the radio. She is hardcore. Both of my nanas have had serious infatuations with Red Sox players and I can only assume this is where I get it from. I can’t help it – it was passed on genetically.

I grew up listening to my grampa Mac saying, “Those bums. The Red Sox are a bunch of bums!” each time the the team got creative and discovered another new way to blow a game in the late innings. During the 2004 playoffs, the city suffered from a series of unfortunate celebrations in the streets, resulting in the death of young college student and the torching and flipping of cars by revelers gone retarded.

I will never forget what my grampa said to me when the Sox clinched the World Series that year: “If I was young enough, I would flip cars too.”  

Side note: I hope the new generations of Red Sox fans don’t get spoiled. I hope they don’t think we are a nation founded by winners. I hope the younger generations don’t develop the entitlement Yankee fans are prone to exhibit.

But back to my grandmother.

After her last doctor’s appointment he told her he didn’t need to see her for another six months. To this day he is unable to explain why she is so healthy. But I attribute it to two things:

1. My nana is a tough old lady 

and

2. She loves watching cute men in tight pants.

I am so proud I have even a fraction of some of her genes. On a serious note, I hope I inherited even a quarter of her strength and faith.

During last Tuesday’s game against the Rangers the Sox got out to an early lead, scoring 10 runs in the first inning. My mom, satisfied with the lead, flipped off the TV and went to bed. But my grandparents held out. Soon it appeared the Sox were up to their old tricks. Despite a double digit lead, they managed to almost lose – prompting my grampa to begin yelling, “Those bums! They’re a bunch of bums.”

Now this kind of talk upsets my nana. She always believes the Sox can and will win.

So when my grampa flipped off the TV yelling once more, “those bums,” she dragged her oxygen tank to the kitchen where she was able to watch the rest of the game in peace and take her meds. The Sox ended up winning on a homerun by Kevin Youkilis in the eighth.

The next morning they called my mother at 8 am. My grandparents pick up the phone close to never. So when my mom saw their number flash on the screen she got a little nervous.

“Did you see the game,” they asked her? “We almost got divorced over it.”

I love these people.