It could be a scene from any Italian childhood; when I was little, every Sunday dinner was spent at my grandparents' house; my grandparents' five daughters and their husbands and children would gather around a huge oval table laden with Italian delicacies that had been lovingly prepared the night before. Huge bowls of salad dripping with Italian dressing (of course) and giant black olives my cousin Tommy and I would wear on our fingertips. Giant bowls of my favorite curly spaghetti, enormous meatballs, thick rolled bracciole filled to bursting and held together with toothpicks, platters of ripe melon and grapes.
My cousins and I would fill ourselves to the brim, and then run outside to play. I don't remember what we talked about, but I do remember endless games of chase and hide and seek, climbing on the aluminum swingset, leaping into the giant swimming pool, playing with my cousin Gia's pet salamander Newton (who met an untimely end and dehydrated in the sun while we played outside for hours) and having a solemn burial of a tiny tree frog Tommy and I found in the yard. It was a beautiful, adventurous time in my childhood.
But at the heart of it all, the food, the fun, was my grandfather. A Sicilian, blue-eyed redhead, he was nicknamed "Red." He loved so many adventures; his ancestors were fishermen, he was brave and wonderful and wild. "Who's better than you?" he'd ask us, winking, with a smile and a deep dimple in one cheek. There was nothing he wouldn't attempt, whether performing a jackknife dive off the diving board, or rearranging all the cement tiles around the pool into a new pattern. I remember mixing meatballs with him on Sunday mornings, listening to him whistle or sing in the kitchen as he cooked, always wearing a spotless white t-shirt and teal pants. He was so strong, so tall and broad and muscular, that he reminded me of Popeye, and when he would swim shirtless in the summer with all of his grandchildren, I remember feeling so proud that he still looked like the fighter he was in his younger days.
In fact, his strength was legendary to us kids; when we'd play outside and come zooming into the house because we were scared of the bees circling us, he'd smack one with his hands, and brush the remains away to show us there was nothing to be afraid of. He drove giant eighteen-wheel trucks for years, and when he accidentally got the tip of his finger slammed into the door of one of them, he drove himself to the hospital. The same strength and resolve he had as a young soldier stayed with him always, both physically and mentally. He would lift and carry us like we were just toddlers, even when we were in elementary school. I remember one feast where he carried me on his shoulders so I didn't have to walk, and how he'd use his large, powerful hands to lift my cousins high in the air so they could touch the ceiling, toss us up in the air, or delicately extract one of the hundreds of splinters we got climbing around in the yard. When I got a bloody nose that wouldn't stop, he calmly reminded me to be brave as he rolled small strips of paper towels and dipped them in ice water for me to put under my upper lip, just like a real fighter. He made us feel invincible, but he gave us the tools to stand on our own, too. He taught us all to swim when we were just toddlers, so we would never be afraid of the water. He never wanted us to be afraid of anything.
But when he passed away, I was 21 years old, in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. We were heartbroken to have lost the patriarch and heart of our family. We tried to carry pieces of him with us, literally and figuratively; I held his watch, another grandchild had his glasses, another his gold Italian charms. We were nearly superstitious with sadness and fear; going on without him seemed impossible.
When things are too blindingly and painfully real, they become surreal. My mom confided that he didn't really feel gone; she felt like he was in Florida. Maybe he was on a long roadtrip. And it was always how I preferred to remember him; somewhere warm and beautiful, driving near the sparkling water he had always loved.
Like anyone who misses a loved one, I longed for a sign. I tried to dream of him, I wrote compulsively about my feelings and sadness. I started a scholarship in his name at the high school where I teach. I wrote his name in our wedding program. I met a man with the same beautiful spirit of adventure, an Irishman who loves to cook as much as my grandfather did. I thought of him daily. I still do. I wished he had more time to meet my husband, my kids, my adult self. And then my daughter was born with the same beautiful red hair.
Today we went to Mass to remember the 25th anniversary of his passing. We went to lunch on the water and raised a glass to him. The sun glinted off the water, and my daughter's red hair.