How profound it must have been for my Nonno to hold my newborn mother, and later my aunt and two uncles in his arms for the first time. I can relate to it having two daughters myself. How proud he must have been, as I was for those first few moments of life.
A former soldier, he was a stern father and hard laborer. He held dearly his heritage but wanted more for his family. In the late ’60s, he moved them all from Bari, Italy to Cleveland, Ohio, to the United States, to the land of freedom and opportunity.
I knew him as a diligent man and doting grandfather. He and my Nonna would watch over me while their own children grew up and my working mother dealt with being a widow at an early age. How he must have cried for her at night.
He was loyal to the Teamsters, his Italian-American club, St. Rocco Parish and his many friends and family. As I grew older, I came to know this man that would drive me to school and soccer practice as a wise, compassionate, generous soul who would always find a $20 bill in his pocket when I needed gas money and he knew I was too proud to ask.
I get my pride from him, I know I do. My temper, too. But as I watched him grow to become a quiet and humble man, I learned to relax and enjoy the simpler things in life. This was largely because of him. He tended to his garden, made his own wine, cured his own meats. Even in old age, he kept his health in check for my mom’s sake, and limited the fender benders on the way to see his wife in the mausoleum to a minimum.
For him to see all of his children marry, my cousins and my own girls born, and my aunt adopt a daughter of her own. To be so far away from his beloved family back in Italy. To be married to his beautiful Anna. To live with her suffering. To see our family through sickness. To watch his own children mature and become hard workers, good spouses and loving parents. To watch me become a responsible adult. And not screw it up. At least not too much.
For him to dance with my wife at our wedding.
He was so proud of me. So very proud. My mom always told me that. He just wanted to know that I was okay, that nothing was wrong and everything was right. That I had a good job, a house, a good home for my own family. That I would become a loving father, just like the one he met and I never knew.
If something was good, he would declare it good. If something was no good, he would simply say, “No good, Dino.” Whenever I bought a new car, he would admire it more than me. He was a GM man. “Dino, time come you go wanna buy car, you buy Chev-ro-let. I drive Chev-ro-let. That ‘a nice ‘a car, now. Other cars shit.”
I never did get to show him my new Chevy. But I did get to watch him sit on my deck early this spring, staring at the birds, the morning sun bearing on his ripened face. A little espresso, maybe a John Wayne movie he could barely understand anymore, a nap in a chair and he was happy.
What I wouldn’t give to be 8 again and fiddle with tools in his basement. Or play Gin Rummy with him in his dining room back home. Even to have just said goodbye and that I love him, one last time, and that I am so very proud of him.
Antonio Ranieri, my Nonno, died peacefully early this morning in Cleveland. He was 91.