Questions of Johnnie the Greek Ma and sister Nene are in the kitchen readying our traditional holiday feast while Nanny carries a plate of sliced Italian bread into the dining room. It’s Christmas day, and as with the previous 41 such celebrations in my life, I’m at my grandparent’s house. Ma asks me if I want to see if the sausage is done. So I jab a fork into one of the plump morsels and take a seat by myself at one end of the dining room table. It’s a place normally occupied by my stepfather, but he passed-on last fall. I bite into the middle of this morsel…tender, spicy and greasy…perfect. But the sausage isn’t the only thing I’m chewing on. Twenty five years ago this place was filled top to basement with chattering aunts and uncles, cackling cousins and other assorted relatives and friends. But the gathering has grown ever smaller through the years. So many relatives have gone the same way as my stepfather. Others have settled into their own homes or branched in other directions as circumstances of life dictate. Today the humble red brick house is quieter than ever. My soon to be 93 year-old Gramps lounges in the living room, while my brother-in-law makes plans to replace the old kitchen sink. There’s not even a kid in sight, as family rearrangements require little ones to take turns among parents. So much has changed, even long held traditions. But change, as is often said, is the one constant we can count on. And change is what this holiday is all about…the end of old seasons…a fond farewell to the dying year…a joyous celebration of renewal and the promise of the coming year. Six of us now gather around the table to enjoy one tradition that hasn’t changed, our feast of ham, salami, caponatina and garlic-roasted red peppers. Ma suddenly realizes something is missing and dashes off to the kitchen to retrieve the cardones, our most treasured dish of sliced pan-fried artichoke stalk. In his usual attire of a white short-sleeve shirt and dark polyester pants, my old Gramps shuffles into the dining room with a newspaper in hand. He stops at me and holds the newspaper in front of my face. Then with a childlike innocence he says in his low gravelly voice, “Dean, what does this mean?” The newspaper is folded to reveal a full-page nativity scene, with Mary sleeping and Joseph holding the baby Jesus. Above the scene is a sentence that reads, “Born that man no more may die…” Much as I’ve contemplated such questions concerning the Christian message over the years, I’m at a loss for a quick, pithy reply. So instead of laboring over a deep philosophical response, I more or less just shrug my shoulders. My grandfather assumes his long-held place at the head of the table. Normally quiet and reserved, today he’s unusually talkative, even playful. When my grandmother Nanny comments about his sixth grade education, he retorts he made it to eighth grade, then quips that somebody had to drive the bus to get the rest of the kids to school. Then he throws out a wisecrack about running bootleg whiskey and, for the first time ever, jokes about being in the Mafia. Johnny the Greek, as my grandfather was often called, is somewhat of a local legend. Founder of Pueblo’s landmark Coors Tavern…creator of the Double John Burger and innovator of the famous Slopper---an open-faced hamburger smothered in red chili---a dedicated community leader…hall-of-fame supporter of little league baseball…straight-shooting pall bearer for Pueblo’s Big Boss Charlie Blanda…once- upon-a-time dining companion of wise Yogi Berra…no doubt there’s an intriguing book out there, yet unwritten, about this man Johnnie the Greek. After dinner my grandfather and I sit alone together in the living room. These moments are always slightly awkward. That old man sitting across from me is one-fourth of who I am, a major cause of my being, physically linked by dancing intermingling genes, ethereally connected by dancing intermingling love. How can this profoundly mysterious and beautiful connection be expressed? So we settle for small talk instead. He asks me about the weather and if I’ve been working. I ask him if he still drinks his daily beer, though I’m sure of his answer. Every day now since at least 1983, when he retired from 50 years of running his “joint,” my grandfather has driven to the local Elks or Eagles club to have his once daily glass of beer. It’s a routine you can set your clock to, and as much a part of his life as watching the Denver Broncos or Rockies baseball. It’s one of those small things in life that keeps a 93 year-old body going. Today he’s not the man I remember as a child, whistling away at his grill, methodically orchestrating the blitz of orders shouted through the busy hum of lunchtime rush. But he gets along extraordinarily well for a man his age. Doesn’t take a single drug and requires little medical attention. A beer a day keeps the doctor away. I’ve never seen him eat an apple. My grandfather breaks the next silence by asking me another question, “Why are we sending all those boys over there to Iraq to get killed?” It’s the third time this year he has asked me that question. Johnnie the Greek has seen a lot in life. A toddler during World War I…started a family and a new business in the midst of the Great Depression…World War II…the Korean War…his son flew planes in the Vietnam War…his grandson flew planes in Desert Storm. For a century he has seen boys go off to war and die. And each time it makes less and less sense. But my old Gramps, a first generation immigrant who started life a poor farm boy, is a proud American and dutifully wears his red white and blue ribbon pin. His parents had escaped a troubled Sicily to find a better life for their offspring. And their son John found that better life in this country for himself and his children. But the America of today, spirited though it remains, finds itself now in a very precarious situation, creating circumstances which leave many of us…conservative and liberal, traditional and progressive, old and young, grandfather and grandson…asking serious questions about our leader’s policies and the direction this country is heading. “Why are we sending all those boys over there to Iraq to get killed?” I tell my Gramps that a number of Americans, including myself, think it has nothing to do with freedom and democracy…it’s all about money and power…capturing the vast Middle East oil reserves, corporate profit from war and the spread of capitalistic greed. Then I tell him it’s not just our boys getting killed, but also tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens. However valid, my answer gives neither of us greater peace of mind. So we simply shake our heads. Does faith provide us any relief? I look back at the newspaper which reads, “Born that man no more may die…” At the bottom of the page the sentence continues in smaller print, “…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” What does all this mean? As a child looks up to his parents for answers, I look up to my grandfather and think that his full 93 years of experience might tell me what all this means. But instead he comes to me with questions. And we both end up just shaking our heads.
You can observe a lot just by watching.