The older I get the more I come to appreciate traditions. Traditions provide a constant in a world of splits. And while even traditions themselves may change and evolve with time, they do so more slowly, often barely noticeable to a single lifetime. The best traditions may be the simplest…small rituals that never leave us because they are part of who we are.
Just over a year ago I wrote an article about a small Italian immigrant community called Goat Hill. Some months after the article was published I got a phone call from an angel of a lady. She told me she read the story to her frail old husband who had grown up in the area. He got a kick out of the story. It helped him to relive many wonderful memories. Her telling me this, was for this traditional storyteller, a prized feather in my hat.
The angel went on to say she recognized my name. She said she knew my grandfather, not my Gramps John, but my dad’s dad, Grandpa Charlie or Pap as our family called him. My grandpa Charlie drove a delivery truck for a department store. She told me that when nylon stockings were in short supply during World War II, Pap would set some aside for her when new shipments arrived. He treated everyone special. The angel told me he was the nicest of men. She said she called to tell me that.
My grandpa Charlie is to me an angel himself. His wife died at a very young age, leaving him three young boys to raise on his own. They lived in a small house on Box Elder in a very poor neighborhood right across the highway from the CF&I Steel Mill. No smokestack scrubbers or catalytic converters back then in the heyday of CF&I. The breath of their life was one part atmosphere and one part pipe exhaust. My Grandpa Charlie would eventually succumb to emphysema and pass on when I was 12 years old.
Most of the memories I have of him are now fuzzy and faded. He was barely over five feet tall…used to tell people he was a jockey. But he had tough hands and could pull stuff out of the oven without hot pads. As his years passed he looked more and more like an old Indian.
I remember watching TV with him…Lawrence Welk…Ed Sullivan…and very fittingly, My Three Sons. Pap was the consummate do-it-yourself handyman and recycler of everything. His spaghetti sauce was the gold standard of taste and frugality. My mother still recalls the time she opened the pot to find a pig’s ear flapping in the bubbling sauce. She too remembers him the sweetest of men.
He was also a fine shooter---both of dice and pool I'm told---good enough to earn the handle Hot Shot. On those now rare occasions when I find myself at the crap tables, I fancy he is right there by my side. He had a way with electric shears too, as old pictures of my cousins and me will attest. I remember my grandpa Charlie taking me fishing with him. I remember the day he passed on. All I could do was cry…and ask why?
But what I remember most about my Grandpa Charlie was being held at his side. I was told he would rock me as a baby and hum a gentle lullaby, "doe-doe...doe-doe..." As a kid I would snuggle up with him at night. He would call me his “little furnace.” As with an infant and its mother, there was no safer or greater comfort in the universe than being held by my Grandpa Charlie…or holding onto him. Such is the tradition of Love.