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Of Roses, Thorns, and Stevedores

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He’d inadvertently witnessed a Mob slaying when his wife was eight months pregnant.  Under cover of night, taking virtually no possessions, they fled New York City for Boston, grateful to be escaping with their lives and that of their unborn child — their first of ten boys and girls.

Thus was the unborn child in this real-life drama, my grandfather, the only one of his siblings to emerge from the womb not in The Big Apple, but in Bean Town.  Due to the very real fear of a Mob reprisal, my grandfather’s birth in 1891 was so clandestine that all his parents ever recounted was, “Joe was born on a hot day in July.”  Since that was like saying that Eskimos lived in the cold, my granddad, as a boy, adopted the Fourth of July as his birthday.  It was a date appropriate for a budding patriot and future war hero.

As an American-born kid of Italian immigrant parents, he grew up fast and hard in a town a lot more Irish than Italian.  When the Mobsters in question were all safely behind bars, the family moved back to New York City, a literal stone’s throw from the Brooklyn Bridge.  Joe took with him his street smarts and wry sense of humor.  Both of these stood him well in his job as stevedore on the rough Brooklyn docks.

In those days, mobs of n’er-do-wells, tipped off by their buddies on the wharf, would lie in wait at night to overcome and sometimes kill the stevedores in order to loot the valuable incoming freight.  The Irishmen on the docks didn’t like Joe any better in New York than they had in Boston, but he never backed down from a fight.  Eventually, they grew to respect him, his fists, and his “never say die” attitude.

Joe worked hard, but so did his wife, my grandmother Rose.  Rose only married him to get out of the house, or so she’d vowed, and often, right in front of my grandfather!  But theirs was a true love story, bittersweet and inspiring.

Held a virtual captive under her father’s roof seven days a week for eight long years as her family of eight’s sole source of income (she sewed gloves purchased by a manufacturer in the city), Rose was not swept off her feet by Joe, whom she had met at a rare family function, in a rare moment of respite.  But he fell hard for her beauty and natural charm, and she liked his humor.

She liked the fact that he stood up to her father, the family despot.  She liked it that Joe dressed nattily when he wasn’t dockside, with diamond pins in the lapels of his fine suits; she liked it that he’d been to the opera as well as the motion pictures (unprecedented treats for her).  She liked that he was knowledgeable and passionate about politics.  She liked that he took her to ice cream parlors in the days when women were still frowned upon in such establishments, and that he proudly showed her off there.  Joe was a man of the world and she, a quiet Italian immigrant eleven years his junior, an immigrant, at the time, with no English language skills.

On the eve of their marriage, in church, Joe and Rose sat a little too close together for my maternal great-grandmother’s tastes.  She told her future son-in-law to keep his hands where she could see them.  Joe grinned his famous mega-watt smile and asked if his mother-in-law-to-be would like to sleep between him and his bride the following night!

Joe taught Rose English.  She taught him spirituality.  They shared a sense of humor wrought of growing up in hard times.  All went well with Joe and Rose, and their growing family, until he became permanently disabled as a result of an old, increasingly debilitating injury sustained in World War I.

Theirs had been a traditional marriage, but when my grandfather was no longer fit for dock duty, or any job for that matter, my grandmother secured work in a factory, sewing those gloves.  Her skill, persistence, and strong people skills earned her the job of supervisor: a decent-paying job to which many men of her class aspired, particularly during the Great Depression, when so many were jobless and hungry.

Joe stayed home to raise their four children.  Rose made the money and eventually purchased a family home in a nicer section of Brooklyn, all on her own dimes.  Once, pushed to the limit and knowing her rights as a sworn-in American citizen, my grandmother broke the back of a corrupt union.   She did it single-handedly, logically, and courageously, knowing that she had five mouths to feed at home and knowing how rough the unions were, even in those days. Methinks she learned a thing or two from her husband, the former stevedore — but her victory was won without ever striking a literal blow.

My grandmother was a strong, spiritual woman; my grandfather, a strong, spiritual man.  Neither one of them groused about their odd but workable role reversal.  They were simply partners, life partners supporting each other and their family.

The habits that Joe had acquired during the early days of this role reversal were never discarded; as a small child growing up under his roof, I saw them firsthand.  Never have I known a woman to keep a house so neat and orderly as my granddad, never — and in the Italian-American culture, this is saying a lot.  He kept the house, cooked the meals, gardened, and made sure his kids toed the line and grew up right.

As the first grandchild born into his house, I became his primary lifeline to the outside world.  He had his daily newspapers, TV, radio, and Life magazines, of course; he had the neighbors and his nine siblings and their families for conversation and company.  But it was me he took an interest in most.

From my grandfather, I learned about politics; from him I gained an appreciation for the early, laudable mission statement of the Democrats.  I’d come home every day in my little Catholic school uniform, and he’d want to know what I had learned in school.  We’d discuss those things, and then he’d illuminate what the nuns had not: who President FDR was, why he was such a great man, and how he’d saved the nation during the Great Depression.  He’d speak also of the intrepid Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders.  He’d held up John F. Kennedy as the greatest President we’d ever had, after George Washington and Abe Lincoln, of course.

We’d peruse the newspapers together and he shielded me from nothing.  The Vietnam War raged on during my grammar school years, and the animosity between a tiny, brave nation (Israel) and a bloodthirsty Middle East was really heating up.  The papers, and Life magazine, were filled with the most horrible stories and photos.  Although a decorated war hero, my grandfather would turn his dark, solemn eyes upon me and say, “War is never glorious; war is hell.”

I don’t think they ever realized it — and my grandfather barely lived to see it — but his patriotism and hatred of war, coupled with my grandmother’s courage and fundamental knowledge of U.S. law, set the table for me to demonstrate peacefully for positive change, both in New York City and our nation’s capital.

During the summer, when school was out, I’d become my grandfather’s secretary.  He’d dictate letters to me and I would write them out longhand. But he always posted them himself.  He’d joke, “I want to be sure you put them in the mail box and not the fire alarm box.”  Some of the letters were to his cousin, one of the founding Sisters of the Carmalite order, of whom he was very proud.  Others went to a surviving war buddy; still others were sent to family friends.  When I finally borrowed a typewriter in my early teens and he spied the results on paper, he was astounded, wanting to know how I got the print so very neat!  He taught me politics and I taught him the technology of the times, including the benefits of a transistor radio during a major blackout.

My granddad, along with my grandmother, also taught me the joy of cooking.  It was he who taught me never to overwork dough for pastries, for it would become tough.  Upon my first solo attempt at cinnamon rolls, he cracked, “We can send these to the Israelis to use as weapons.”  I was hurt, he apologized, and we both had a good laugh.  And never again did I muck up the pastry dough!  He died at the age of 80, as a direct result of that old war injury, the worst of which he’d managed to keep at bay for decades.  My grandmother had told me many times, “In those days, men died like flies on the operating tables, with injuries like that.  God spared your grandfather for many good years.”

Some of my relatives still recall my grandfather as a hard man, intractable in his views and, like his political heroes, speaking softly but carrying a big stick.  I remember a man who still flirted with my grandmother when they were both senior citizens, a man who always took the time to speak with me as if I had a brain instead of being a child to be “seen and not heard,” a man who quietly solidified the unflagging spirituality that had bolstered my grandmother through some very hard times.

To this day, I do not carry a single bad memory of my grandfather.  All I have are fond memories that never fail to make me smile.  When he passed after I’d turned 16, I had a dream about him, almost as soon as we’d buried him.

In the dream, I was walking along the avenue on which we’d lived.  I ran into my grandfather coming from the opposite direction and cried, “Grandpa, what are you doing here?!?”  Even in dream state, I was well aware that he had passed on.  Excitedly, he said, “Kat-a-leen, we always talked in life.  You always gave me good advice and I gave it to you.  Up in heaven, where I am now, I met this Jewish lady.  She’s very nice.  But more than that, she knows her politics.  We have wonderful heated discussions; they’re so lively and I enjoy them so much.  What do you think about that?”

He seemed to want my approval.

Shocked, I blurted, “Grandpa!   If you’re having a relationship with this Jewish lady, even a friendship, what are you going to tell Grandma when she joins you in heaven?!?”

He looked just as stunned as I’d felt.  “You’re right!” he exclaimed.  “Of course, you’re right. I didn’t think about that.  Thank you!”  With that, the dream ended!  

In retrospect, I am not so sure that it was a dream; it may have been a nighttime communiqué from my granddad, from the other side, for it was so very like him.   To this day, I wonder if my grandmother, when she got to Heaven to join him, went looking for that nice Jewish lady to give her a piece of her mind! 

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