The last time I talked to my grandfather I was embarrassed by my inability to talk with him because of Parkinsons, his hearing being shot and his speech so fragmented. Phones are great for many things but not ideal for this scenario. If I had known it was the last time I would’ve thanked him for his kindness, shared my appreciation for his depression era frugality (pantry pickles anyone?), expressed my respect for his resolve as a self made man, his service – in what I naively hope is the last – World War and of course his love for family. But I didn’t get to know that was the last time I would speak to him, so those words went unspoken. Randomly this past Saturday, a week after his passing, I thought to call my PopPop for a quick chat and suddenly realizing I couldn’t ever do that again. That stings and will for a while.
Earlier in my life – if you would’ve told me (without qualifiers or context) that both my PopPop and Grummie (her name, long story) would pass in the same year – I would’ve quickly relayed my devastation and probably said it would be easily the worst year of my life. I would’ve (and will) speak of them as the two foundations of my adolescent life, the summers, holidays and weekends at their house and their unending love. But add into the equation of their passing the context and qualifiers of severe Althzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s and now, in the present, the devastation transforms to a sad relief.
When speaking of their passing, my sister Amy said “it’s an end of an era”. And yes to a degree it ended November 17th but in earnest the era ended in my mind when they left their home in New Jersey – unable to care for themselves adequately, necessitating the move. I struggle today to remember my wife’s phone number (it’s stored in my phone after all) but some addresses and numbers are etched in my (somewhat poor) memory, I would be surprised if I ever forget 132 E. Linden Ave, Lindenwold NJ 08021 or (856) 783-5298 (I still have it stored in my phone) or even the early days of the internet and AOL with NMPONY@AOL.COM sending me messages back always in ALL CAPS! But back to 132 E. Linden Ave – so many memories of the compost pile, acorn fights, caterpillar nests, grapevines, bird baths and bird feeders, white and pink dogwood trees, a silver ’63 Corvette, fresh jersey tomatoes with mayo, salt a pepper, “nucular” hot pavement, hot dogs (wanna hot dog Josh?) and the endless hours of Goonies on HBO on the brown lounge chair, magic tricks, 500 rummy, July 4th!, Rummy-0, baby-in-the-air (Uncle Donald: “Marge’s # is 7”), spitting watermelon seeds and stories of a clothes-line prop that once served as a javelin some time in the early 1960s (“Don’t bleed on my floor” ask my Dad). In the summer on Linden Ave I would fall into bed each night with raw feet and chlorine-induced red eyes ready to do it all again the next day, and the next, with The Walker cousins or my own siblings.
Most people don’t know that my early childhood included parents divorced at age 5 and the 7 years of poverty, welfare, low-income housing, eggs (so many eggs!) government cheese (so much government cheese), the dish towels we bought my Mom for Christmas and the Pell grant that sent her to college and lifted us out of poverty (I‘m very proud of you Mom!). Through all of that, the bad housing, the white and black Shoprite labels, and recycled clothing there was the constant of 132 E. Linden Ave and the back scratches, Phillies games (red and white pinstripe days “GO SCHMIDTY!”), making bird houses, filling bird feeders, feeding squirrels on the screen door, forts and the hilarious squabbles of my grandparents Archie and Edith Bunker (sans the racism) with an Italian spin. And how can I forget, it was at 132 E. Linden Ave that my grandmother’s singing voice was honed, a thing of….er…..beauty – from a distance – a great great distance, with ear plugs and fireworks helping muffle the noise.
They knew racism but the very real less-spoken of version from the 30s and 40s with terms like Wops and Dagos having lived in the row homes of Camden where they met – the ethnic melting pot of mini-districts in those times. My grandfather born here in the U.S. to Italian immigrants. Nestorino an architect, built from the ground up as a draftsmen post WWII to own his own firm one day. Thomas, Kolbe, Thomas & Poponi. Blended with his kindness and was patience, which I know as troublemaking boys was tested, were sweet moments and nurturing comments like: “Stay of the god-damn garage roof Jeremy?” and heart-warming moments like “Who broke this fence?” or after an acorn battle with particularly high casualties “What’s wrong with you guys?” I remember clearly the day he moved us to the back corner of the yard to the chicken coop where we stayed (mostly) out of trouble – he seemed happy about gaining a degree of insulation from our antics.
I’m thankful they had a living will as much for them as their primary caregivers my, Aunt Bonnie and Father and Rosie, a live-in caregiver from Mexico who served as their in-house companion for several years. My grandparents wouldn’t have wanted to linger, even though they did, one knowing, the other not her memories lost to Altzheimers. Did they leave with dignity? Undeniably yes, because their children promised to never put them in a home. For that I will be forever grateful for their sacrifice, what they endured and the trials of seeing your once-so-independent parents, truly dependent on the care given to them. Six long years of giving back to their parents or the physical manifestation of what was old age left to them. My thanks go beyond the few short words of gratitude written here but thank you nonetheless – take pride in your sacrifice. I will never know half of what you went through.
All that aside….I will always remember the summers, wiffle ball, flashlight tag, fishing for crappies, Gettysburg, fresh baked bread from the local bakery (what was it called?), really great Italian delis like Nardi’s and Roman Holiday (that wasn’t Roman in heritage I’m sure) and of-course Shoprite Iced tea.
To Marge and Nes or Grum and Pops or Aunt Marge and Uncle Nes or Dad and Mom – thank you for all of it and goodbye – you will live on forever in my memories. And one day, maybe soon, If I run across the yard at 132 E. Linden Ave, water guns in hand holding 12 Armored Division flag, yelling “Wolverine!” and throwing an acorn at some unseen enemy I hope the new owners will understand!