A Reflection On Happy Remembrances genre: Do Not Resuscitate & Happy Remembrances

A Reflection

I’ve never really liked holidays since for the most part they no longer seem to be about the person or event that triggered their creation. By and large, we’ve turned virtually all holidays into commercial opportunities and a reason to have some time off from work. With our “what’s in it for me" mentality and our need to be entertained, holidays have become a whirlwind of events and activities that leave little time to reflect. By the time we do these things we do, its time to get back to work and we once again begin the process of anticipating the next holiday inspired hiatus…often leapfrogging their real meaning.

My grandmother’s birthday is at the end of May and I’ve always associated it with Memorial Day. She died just under eight years ago and would have been ninety six this year. As a child, most of my holidays included my maternal grandma and grandpa…my paternal grandparents weren’t around as my dads mom died before I was born and his father died not long after I was born. They were all Italian immigrants who came to America as young adults.

When I think back on how we spent most holidays, they usually included a traditional meal prepared by my grandma and spending time around the dinner table listening to the conversation and the reminiscing of the older adults. They were all storytellers and they each seemed to have a style all their own. I’m sure that by the time I was a young adult, I had heard each story numerous times…which happened because we frequently had company that hadn’t heard the stories before and invariably, someone would ask one of the older folks to recount a favorite story for the newcomers. We never grew tired of hearing them because they were colorful, insightful, and about real life situations.

One of my favorite stories was told by my grandpa. As a young man, he lived in New York with his parents and worked as a laborer on the Empire State Building. Life at the time, and particularly in the Italian community, frequently involved a large circle of friends and relatives. From time to time the older and better traveled ones would give advice to the younger, more naive ones…advice that came from their more rapid assimilation into American culture…which frequently didn’t conform to the beliefs and customs of the older Italians.

As the story goes, one of these younger men, during a conversation with my grandpa, asked him if he was saving his money from what was at the time a decent job. My grandpa answered that he wasn’t…he was doing what young Italians who lived at home did…he gave his money to his parents. So his relative told him that he needed to start saving some money and suggested my grandpa open a bank account. After some sustained prodding, my grandpa acquiesced and began putting his money in the bank. With the ensuing payday, he deposited his earnings.

The deliberate nature of Italian familial dynamics led his parents to say nothing after the first payday passed without my grandpa placing his earnings on the table. Keep in mind that the Old Italian mind set was often accompanied by an unspoken strength and patience which was employed long enough to allow for the unexpected…but not much longer. Another week passed and my grandpa failed to place his earnings on the table. During dinner, my grandpa’s dad…pa as my grandpa called him…finally broached the subject. He told my grandpa that they (his mom and dad) had noticed that he didn’t bring home any money from work and they wondered if he might be having a problem that he wanted to discuss (giving the benefit of the doubt fits the above style perfectly). My grandpa explained that his cousin had suggested that he start saving his money for the future so he had opened a bank account. His mom and dad said very little other than to acknowledge what they had heard.

The next evening, my grandpa came home and as usual, his mom was preparing dinner. When it came time to eat, my grandpa noticed that there were only two place settings at the table…located at the seats where his mom and dad typically sat. As his mom began to put the food on the table, my grandpa finally broached the missing place setting. He calmly inquired about the missing plate; asking if there was a problem…to which his dad calmly responded, “no, there isn't any problem". Puzzled, my grandpa asked, “Well Pa, then where is my plate?" His dad, with continued calm, replied, “Where is the money you made from work?" to which my grandpa stated, “Pa, I told you last night that I started saving it in a bank account." His dad paused for a moment (there is an art to sending messages in an Italian family) and calmly said, “Well, then you should go eat at the bank", and with that the message had been delivered.

Without fail, everyone listening to the story would burst into laughter regardless of how many times they had heard the story. Thinking back, I’ve occasionally wondered why we laughed…but it was because my grandpa was imparting a story about the lessons we learn in life and he was doing so with humor which was an integral part of our Italian cultural tradition. While the incident involved a serious situation, once my grandpa understood the message his parents were delivering, there was no doubting that the story was priceless and he had perfected its delivery. I think the humor is also the result of a more pensive approach to life…one that sought to impart wisdom while preserving dignity…so more was said with less.

In truth, his dad and mom could have simply demanded to know why the money wasn’t on the table the very first night…but they thought wiser…and waited and watched in hopes that clarity would emerge and perhaps their son would offer a reasonable explanation…or on his own realize the inequity of the situation without the need for confrontation. When that didn’t happen, they delivered a gentle, though jolting, message that illuminated the relevant realities.

As it turned out, before the next payday, my grandpa and his dad agreed that he could continue to save some of his money but that he would pay a portion for his room and board. Thus an important lesson was learned and my grandpa would be a better man and better prepared for the coming travails of adult living.

So as this holiday comes to an end, recounting this story has allowed me to return to those years when each holiday was a time of reflection and an opportunity to learn more of life’s lessons. As Memorial Day passes, I long for those moments around the table and those simplistic stories that determined what I believed and shaped who I would become…and I fondly remember those who have left this life and I recommit myself to maintaining the texture and depth of their legacies of love.

Daniel DiRito | May 29, 2007 | 9:39 PM
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