Saturday, September 17, 2011

For My Grandpa

Grandpa with his WWII medals
This post is dedicated to my paternal grandfather, Joseph Fortunato Costa, who passed away on Tuesday, 13 September 2011, in his own house in Mount Laurel.  We knew he would not be around forever: he was two months shy of 88 years old, and he had been diagnosed with lymphoma over a year ago, and had refused treatment.  Still, as people continue their lives despite the irrefutable knowledge that they must die some day, so we all went on as if he were in perfect health.  To the outside eye, at least, he was: despite being mostly blind and hard of hearing, he was still sharp-witted, still able to move about and take care of himself.  His decline from this state of apparent health was sudden and rapid, and in a matter of two days, he was gone.  The funeral is today, and because I am in England I cannot be there for it, so I wanted to make a sort of tribute in my own way.  It will not do him justice, I am sure, and there will be many things left out, as either too personal or too clouded by murky memory to be shared with the general public.  But I have to do something in honour of the man who was my grandsire, a man whom I have known for twenty-eight years, and yet who remains a mystery to me.

With Teddy and Joey in 2009
My grandfather was a quiet man, and like most quiet men, was difficult to know.  Even his wife and children, who knew him best, never seemed to understand him entirely--and indeed, I rather suspect that he never thoroughly understood himself.  But I also suspect that that did not bother him much, at least in his later years.  I have many memories of him sitting on the couch in our family room during holiday parties, watching sports on television or staring off into space, enjoying his own thoughts.  He was always happy to chat with people who came to sit next to him, but he rarely began the conversation himself.  His favourite topics were politics and finance; he was a stock market junkie, having taught himself all about it, and he loved to give advice.  I remember once, after having spoken to him about what type of investments I should make with my TIAA-CREF portfolio, he called me three times in a week to update his recommendations and urge me not to forget about it.  He was quite passionate about investing, and he encouraged my father (an old fashioned, keep-it-all-in-the-mattress kind of saver) for decades to try it.

My daddy and his daddy had a complicated relationship, one which I will never claim to comprehend fully.  Almost every time Grandpa came over, his reserved manner would fall away over the course of the evening's conversation, and he and my father would end up shouting at each other across the dinner table.  Usually they argued about politics, but occasionally about moments in their personal history, events long past, the details of which were not always clear to me.  I used to feel embarrassed, and sometimes quite sad, to hear them, but as the years went on I came to see something else in this ritual.  I say ritual; it became so regular that we expected, and even anticipated, these outbursts, as they seemed to constitute a singularly effective way for two very stubborn men to communicate with each other.  I think they even enjoyed it sometimes, as I know my father certainly loves a good argument, and warms to a worthy opponent.  Nothing ever came of these quarrels, and the night would usually end with them shaking their heads in disbelief at each other and then saying "I love you" and "good night."  It was normal.  You always love your family, no matter how wrong you think they are.

Grandpa and me, at Christmastime
My own conversations with my grandfather were much quieter.  He liked to talk, so I did most of the listening, but when I did speak he listened carefully and assessed thoughtfully.  He was a lifelong learner, and though he would give advice, he would also always acknowledge that he was no expert, did not know everything, and had found himself to be wrong more than once.  I cannot remember the exact subject matter of a conversation I had with him once in which he said, as if coming to the realisation right then and there, "I think my way of looking at things has changed.  I used to think one way, and now I see it entirely differently.  It's amazing what time will do to your perspective."  I had never felt so strongly before the sensation that I had come from his stock, from a strain of character that needs to think things over, experience things firsthand, a type that does not like to be proven wrong, but when it has come to a new understanding of its own accord can look back with only mild surprise and fond self-reprobation on the misunderstanding previously held.

Grandpa used to say my name in a singsong voice when I was very little.  I can distinctly hear him calling to me, with the emphasis on the first syllable, while the last two were a note lower and melded into one: "DAN-yell."  I remember being uncertain about what his name was for many years, as my grandmother always called him Fred (the English equivalent of his Italian middle name), and he called her Rory (short for Aurora, which was her middle name; everyone else called her Cathy), but fortunately I didn't have to worry about it, as I called him Grandpa Costa.  He was never the most affectionate of grandfathers, though he would suffer to be hugged and kissed at greetings and partings; but he showed his love in other ways.  He would give warnings and tips, as I've said, always telling us to think about the future and not just what was happening right in front of us.  He seemed instinctively (or maybe just from his own memories of youth) to know that we would quickly forget what he told us, and so he would repeat it often.  He also used to hand out money (tens and twenties when we were young, fifties when we got older) to his grandchildren whenever he saw them--this was no small favour, as there are quite a lot of us!
The grandchildren and great grandchildren of Joseph Costa
There is no way, now, to know exactly what Grandpa Costa thought of his life, his family, his accomplishments.  It was not an easy life, but it was a respectable one.  He had a quiet but successful career as an electrical and nuclear engineer.  He supported his wife in her career as a local politician and senator.  He produced three beautiful, brilliant, hardworking children, all of whom achieved law degrees, married excellent spouses, and had families of their own.  In his own modest, unassuming way, he has touched many lives, and I am very lucky to have had him in mine for as long as I did.

Rest in peace, Grandpa.  I love you very much, and I will remember you always.

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