Whenever I speak of my grandfather, I never fail to mention that at 78 years of age, he was still working on the loading docks for Yellow Trucking Company. I am proud of the man. I’ve never met another willing to work as much and complain as little as he.
I think he was proud too. I could feel it when he talked about his job. “How’d you boys like to drive 36 wheels in rush hour traffic? Or take 300 lb. containers of piece goods across two city blocks with a handtruck because there’s nowhere to park?” he’d ask my brother and I with a grin.
As a kid, I didn’t care much about these questions. I was more interested in how much it tickled when I stuck my finger in Papa’s mouth and he bit down with toothless gums. Or how he’d have to eat a slice of pizza by cutting it into little pieces with a fork and knife. Or how sing-songy his voice would become when he’d say, “Come out. Come out. Wherever you are,” during a good game of hide and seek.
It wasn’t until years later, when I worked my first real job and realized I had to get up the next morning and do it all over again, that I saw how strong Papa was. All those years–all that work–and the standard answer he’d give at holidays when I asked him how he was doing was “No complaints.”
So, yes, I am proud of my grandfather. That’s one of three feelings I get when I think of him–the second being love and the last being puzzlement. I say puzzlement because here is a man I’ve known all my life, and I feel I hardly knew him.
Yes, I know he was one of eight brothers, that he used to snatch bread off the table, shove it in his pocket, and walk out the back door just to get enough to eat. I know he lived through the depression.
I know he fought in the war, that he was a radio operator stationed in the Phillipines, that he was sent over on a converted freighter with hundreds of other young men, and that, had they been spotted by a submarine, they’d have been sunk with no defense.
I didn’t know until yesterday that he had won bronze medals.
I know he never ate meat on Fridays, even when it wasn’t lent, and that my grandmother never knew why.
I know he sometimes read Popular Science, that he had a basement full of tools and was interested in patenting several inventions. I don’t know what the inventions were.
I know he raised his two sons in Newark amongst their numerous cousins and uncles before moving to Jackson years later. I don’t know why he and my grandmother chose Jackson.
You see: for every fact I know about this man, there are a hundred more I don’t. So I feel pride and love when I think of him–and puzzlement.
Papa was never a man of words. He was comfortable enough in his own skin not to feel compelled to talk. And after 89 years, when illness and death finally caught up to him, an image came to my mind. I imagined Papa standing before Heaven’s gate, the voice of god asking him, “Dominic, how do you feel about your life?”
And Papa, taking a moment to collect his thoughts, shrugged his shoulders and said, “No complaints.”