A busy stew of memories and emotions is simmering on the mental stove today, and several key ingredients keep rising to the top, unforeseen but inevitable. Since we met, since we were married, Jane and I have lost three of the most important people in our lives – lost in the physical sense only, but don’t underestimate the power of a firm handshake, or a pat on the back, a voice on the phone or a kiss or a hug.
My father, Tony, died in 1987, just a few months after our daughter Samantha was born. Most of the man I am is a direct result of him. When I was mean and nasty, he taught me compassion and understanding. He was a sweet family man, had brilliant comic timing, a wonderful singing voice, a piercing whistle, appreciation for food and movies, a deep wealth of experience and stories, true and otherwise, that – with my mom’s eternal love, steady guidance and amazing wit – have formed the basis of my family’s mythos. In our minds, Dad – not his idol Sinatra – was the true chairman of the board.
I can still see him, wracked with cancer and obvious discomfort, hobbling up the hall toward me the day she was born, his first grandchild. More than pain, it was determination on his face, a new, eager grandfather’s, “get out of my way world with all of your limitations and let me hold the kid” face. It was a truly beautiful moment.
Jane’s father died in 1998, just as we were planning our move back to Georgia from Pennsylvania. This was a man who was not easy to know, a native of Malta who drove a car without a radio in it, because he didn’t want the distraction, who was known to say things like, “he is fluctuating,” when following a driver who couldn’t maintain one speed. He loved his dog and he loved his wife and daughter, and he always had my respect.
Then, in 2001, less than two weeks before our second diaper-dandy, Joey, was born, Jane’s mother Margaret died. She always knew, on some level, that Joey was going to be born premature. I think it was because she knew her time was limited and was hoping to see her grandson while they both still lived on Earth.
Margaret – her husband always called her Meg – stood about 4-11, was very round, eminently huggable and supremely talented. She made food that looked as good as it tasted, and she made Jane’s wedding dress. She also made Samantha’s first-communion dress. A devout Catholic, she was the reason Jane and I had a bona-fide church wedding, the reason why Sam was christened in the church (and later received the aforementioned communion).
It was respect for Margaret, and even though we – Jane and I, and Sam – never were devout Catholics, the church experience didn’t hurt us, only grounded us in belief of a higher power, even if the higher power was Margaret, or a God or an inner spirit urging us forward, or a giant amoeba managing the universe – the feeling of “something beyond” (I mean beyond the smell coming from my shoes at the foot of the bed) and the faithful acceptance of the unsolvable mystery.
Margaret was a blessedly a rational, live-and-let-live Catholic, who accepted me as her son, even though she knew I was a heathen, a lapsed-Catholic paying lip service to the church, and I miss her every day, like I miss my own father.
In the shuffling of years and life and growth and loss, my mother has survived the deaths of her parents, of brothers, of her soulmate, and she has thrived as a grandmother and, once again, as a wife. She brought her wonderful husband Pete into our family (and us into his family), giving our kids a fabulous grandfather. Anna Stelluto Grillo Callovi – I just had to see what it was like to type all of those vowels – is only slightly taller than Margaret was, but a gigantic inspiration in every way.
Mom is the living and eternal reminder of what is most important in the human lifespan – other humans, here and not here, especially the humans who always will be family and friends.