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Friday, July 30, 2010

insights: what i learned from the first man i ever loved

Growing up in the 70‘s just on the border of Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts, I lived with my young mother and her parents, (affectionately known as Meme and Pepe) while my mom was in school. My grandmother cleaned houses and I’d spend the day with my patient, gruff, big Pepe while he fixed things with his red toolbox. Having a trailer meant things broke a lot but luckily Pepe could fix just about anything and I helped.

One day his project was to replace the foam ceiling tiles in the entire trailer. Pepe had stacks of these tiles piled in the living room. They were white with little holes of various sizes. As Pepe took down the old tiles, I watched and I helped. I went to the kitchen and grabbed a pencil. I then stood next to the pile of foam tiles and added more holes in each tile, stabbing little holes in each tile. Pepe was NOT amused but damn if he didn’t use those tiles anyway. (At the time I was so happy he liked what I did but I realize now it was just about cost. When you are poor you waste nothing.)

I tried helping Pepe solve the wasp problem under the trailer by grabbing a box of Kleenex and stuffing balled up tissues into the hole in the metal under the front steps. It worked until the wasps flew out en mass and attacked my little face. My grandfather took me to the emergency room, the first of many times when we lived in that trailer.

I crawled under an ironing board my mother was using and the hot iron fell on my left forearm, sticking to it. Slicing off the iron was the only way to keep it from burning me. Emergency room. I still have a faint outline of an iron on my arm.

I was getting into the car and shut the (locked) door on my hand. Pepe had to break the car window to open the door, fetch the keys and yup, take me to the emergency room.

My grandfather and I made a good team at the emergency room. I knew to be brave and he knew that I was strong and could handle it. Because of him.

My mom and Meme had a standing shopping outing every Thursday evening and Pepe would make me the only meal I ever knew him to cook- French Toast topped with grape jelly. I loved Thursday nights.

This is Robbie. I know. He looks scary, hunh? Funny how if we love something we don't see the flaws. 

I cried when Robbie’s head toppled off. Robbie was my favorite doll, given to me by my aunt as a baby. I remember hysterically handing Robbie to my grandfather one summer afternoon. I watched as he took Robbie’s plastic skull from me and examined it in his calloused hand. Robbie’s eyes originally blinked but they were sort of stuck in a half mast position. His closed rosebud mouth was open now and inside his cheeks I had stuffed my treasures including rosary beads and flowers I had picked. His head had teeth marks from where I sucked on his soft temples. Robbie should have been thrown away. His cloth body was limp and dirty. His rubber limbs a mess, I had nibbled off his toes as an infant. He was scary looking. Yet, even now I remember sitting on the picnic table with Pepe holding Robbie’s head and his body laying on the table. He had his tool box and my grandmother’s sewing box. I watched as this grouchy man deftly reattached Robbie’s head to his body using duct tape and gently stuffed rags in his body and closed up the wounds I had inflicted on my much beloved doll.

I couldn’t have loved anyone more than my grandfather at that moment.

Looking after me was a pain in the neck, especially for a tough man like my grandfather. People feared him. Some thought he was mean. He didn’t talk much. The man pulled no punches. Pepe called me his little pest and I adored him.

As a baby I often had bronchitis. As an infant during the winters I was stuck inside so I didn’t get pneumonia. My grandfather thought enough was enough at one point. He bundled me up in blankets and told my mom and grandmother to come with us. He propped me up beside him (the days before child safety seats) and wrapped his right arm around me as he drove just so I could see the Christmas lights. My mother says that that night, at almost a year old I said my first word. Apparently I turned to my grandfather and said “Pretty.”

This big war veteran with the limp he suffered from every day (due to an accident in the factory where we worked), this man was my savior. One of my earliest memories is of being a baby and being sick. I was on the couch at Christmas and I remember the smell of the Vicks Vaporub in the humidifier. I was sick with a bronchial infection and couldn’t get my picture taken with Santa. I remember opening my eyes and seeing Santa in front of me, right in the living room. I scanned him from his red velvet hat to his boots. Santa was wearing Pepe’s work boots. I lit up! It wasn’t silly old Santa! It was Pepe! It was even better than Santa. I smile now as I remember my grandfather saying to my mother and grandmother “How did she know?!”

Then one day when I was about 8-years old he asked me to go get ice cream with him but I was playing in our yard. I didn’t want to go. I said “Ask me later.” He came back several times and asked me to go get ice cream with him. I said no each time. I didn’t want to leave. I was playing. Even that night I regretted not going, not spending time with this man. It was the first time he had ever asked me for anything and I said no. He never questioned me. He never got angry. He just went back in the trailer and the guilt that set on me was a new feeling, as awful as a violent summer thunderstorm and as oppressive as only a humid, heavy summer day in Massachsuetts can be. To this day, it is one of the biggest regrets of my life, not going out with him for ice cream on that day.

Here is what I learned from this man about love.

Life Lesson #1. Yes, #1.

There is nothing on this entire earth as important as spending time with someone you love and who loves you. If you are lucky enough to have someone in your life who wants to be with you, who wants to see you, who wants to visit with you, who wants to know how are you, do it. Book the plane ticket. Drive over (bring some homemade cookies). Buy some paper and crayons and sit down on the ground and draw with your nieces and nephews. Put in your work time, then it is about family and love. Instead of working online after dinner or playing a video game alone, go get your little brother and play a game together. Get your dad and go for a bike ride.  Go to bed early and find every single freckle on your partner’s body. Take your kids to the public pool one hazy, hot night. Splash, love, laugh, heal.

It’s easy to assume that someone will always be in your life. But they won’t be. Kids go away to college, parents move to Florida, neighbors move away. People die.

If I could, I would go back to that summer day and get ice cream with my grandfather. I close my eyes and I can see myself sitting next to him on the picnic table outside Friendly’s. I think we would have had maple walnut.

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