Mushrooms in Heaven . . .

"Grandpa" Frank Natale

“Gramps”
Frank Natale

Often, one’s first encounter with death is through the loss of a grandparent.  Such was the case for me when my father’s stepfather, Frank Natale, died when I was 14 years old. Although unrelated to me by blood, “Gramps” (as we knew him) was the only grandfather I had ever known, and his passing engendered the same up-close and personal feeling of loss as if we had, indeed, shared the same DNA.

Gramps was short and stocky, very Italian, and always in need of a shave.  He had married my grandmother after her first husband (my true paternal grandfather), Giuseppe Perrone, died unexpectedly at the age of 35, leaving her with a half dozen children to raise.  Italian was Grandpa’s spoken language of choice, but that didn’t stop him from using (and abusing) English (sadly, he neither read nor wrote either).

After my dad moved us from Brooklyn to New Jersey, we didn’t see Gramps as often as when we had all lived in Brooklyn.  After we moved to Oradell, Grandpa and Grandma moved to North Bergen, and Gramps would regularly ride the Number 11, Red & Tan bus from North Bergen to Oradell to visit us—and to pick mushrooms in the woods located several blocks up the hill from our house.

The sight of Gramps, climbing down the steps from the bus with his shopping bag in one hand and his small duffel bag in the other, was a welcome one.  There was always a lit Tarreyton cigarette gripped tightly in the corner of his toothless mouth, his eyes perpetually squinting to avoid the curl of smoke encircling his head.  Baggy trousers held up by red suspenders, a checked flannel shirt—with a mismatched tie—and a crushed, gray fedora completed his outfit.

His one-day growth of beard felt like sandpaper against my young cheek, but it wouldn’t have felt like Gramps without it. No matter how liberally he applied it, the Old Spice aftershave Gramps wore was no match for the overwhelming combination of tobacco and body odors that clung tenaciously to his skin. But that never stopped my brother Gene or me from hugging him when he staggered off the old bus and into our arms.

Gramps would tramp through the damp undergrowth beneath the tall hardwoods for hours, filling his big, brown paper shopping bag with dozens of pungent, wild fungi.  How he could tell the difference between the succulent, edible varieties, and the poisonous ones was a constant source of amazement—and mild concern—to all of us.  To his credit, not once did any of us suffer any ill effects from anything Gramps picked up in the woods.  “Nona’you worry,” he would say in his broken English, colored by a heavy Italian accent, “Grampa he’s a-know what he’s a-doin’.”  And we had no doubt that he did.  He loved to pick mushrooms!  

For years, he would just show up whenever the mood struck him, the bus depositing him in front of our house like a parcel post package.  My mother would always implore him to “Please, just let us know when y’all are coming,” but to no avail.  I sometimes suspected that Gramps didn’t want to take a chance on being refused the opportunity to visit and, therefore, chose to ignore Mom’s request by design.

About a year before he died, Gramps had “just-a little-a heart attack” (as he referred to it).  So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the “big one” took him to his eternal rest. During his recuperation from the first episode, we went to visit him at his home in North Bergen.  He refused to be hospitalized (in those days one actually could refuse) and, I remember being terrified at the thought of how he would appear when we first visited him after his attack.  I was so scared that I just tiptoed into his room, blurted out “Hi Gramps!” and rushed back out.

For a while, it seemed that everything was working out fine, but less than a year after his first heart attack, Gramps was struck by another, this one even more severe than the first, and was bedridden again.  Greatly weakened by this additional blow to his body, he was forced to resort to using a cane just to perform his basic daily tasks.  His spirits flagged, and he struggled mightily to maintain his self-respect, but it was evident to all who knew him that the effort was taking its toll. He became surly and aggressive, and often complained bitterly about his condition.  I remember him breaking down once in tears, crying, “Nobody cares about-a me.  Nobody visit-a me anymore!”  Not long afterward, Gramps suffered a massive stroke, and died without ever regaining consciousness.

That was my first encounter with death, and it was pretty scary.  I remember sitting in the back of the funeral home, dreading that moment when I would have to approach the casket. All the women were dressed in black, rosary beads clasped in their hands, their lips moving constantly in prayer.  Finally, my dad took me by the hand and led me toward the coffin.  I stood back while he knelt down, crossed himself, and lowered his head in prayer.

After a moment, he turned and motioned for me to approach.  My feet felt as if they were glued to the carpet, and I had to force myself to move forward.  The one thing that always sticks out in my memory is the fact that he didn’t smell.  Not of body odor, not of cigarette smoke, not even aftershave.  It can’t really be him, I thought.  I remained kneeling in front of the casket for a long time, sniffing the air without success for a familiar trace of Gramps. Finally, a gentle tap on my shoulder brought me back to reality.  “Joey, it’s time to go.” It was Dad.  He helped me to my feet, and we left the funeral home.

The drive to the cemetery the following day seemed to take forever and, since no one spoke a word along the way, the silence was deafening.  The funeral cortege wound its way slowly through the streets toward the cemetery, each car wearing lighted headlights, despite the bright sunshine that made their use unnecessary.  A brief graveside service preceded the actual burial and, for a short time, forestalled the inevitable—the lowering of the casket into the ground. (I had had nightmares about this act on several occasions, and each time, images of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Premature Burial flooded my subconscious.)  At last, all the formalities were exhausted, and the priest motioned for each of us to approach the coffin before it was lowered into that dark hole in the ground.  It was almost too much for me to bear.

Cautiously, all of the grandchildren moved closer to the grave site and took turns dropping single flowers onto the walnut casket.  Nobody said a word—not one syllable was uttered—and I couldn’t understand why.  Somebody say something! I screamed inside my head.  I waited until I could wait no more. “Goodbye, Gramps,” I blurted out.  “I hope they have mushrooms in Heaven.” Some relatives glanced at me strangely.  My father looked at me and smiled.  “Don’t worry, Joey,” he said, “there’re plenty of mushrooms there.”  I smiled sullenly, but inwardly I was relieved.

Slowly, everyone began to walk in silence back to their cars.  I turned around and saw two faceless men begin to lower the casket into the ground.  They saw me looking and stopped for a moment (as if they could fool me into believing that they wouldn’t put my Grandpa into that hole).  Then I started to cry.

It was a full week before I stopped.

Note: While I may not have all the details exact to the letter (it’s been over half a century), the emotions I felt then (and still feel today) are most assuredly accurate . . . and that’s all that counts.

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About AuthorJoePerroneJr

I am a former professional fly-fishing guide, and I write the Matt Davis Mystery Series, which presently consists of four books: As the Twig is Bent, Opening Day, Twice Bitten, and Broken Promises. The series is set in the real town of Roscoe, NY, in the Catskill Mountains, where I guided for ten years. I love fly fishing, movies, cooking (and eating), and music. To learn more about me and my writing, please visit my website at: http://www.joeperronejr.com.
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12 Responses to Mushrooms in Heaven . . .

  1. CenturyLink Customer says:

    Hey Joey! Remember me? I know it’s been forever, but my life has so radically changed that emails just simply come and go for me. I know I must sound like an old fart, but as my Mom used to say (imitating God knows who) “…fexs are fexs”. I appreciated your writing on Grandpa and the mushrooms. It brought back so many memories – one that I remember so clearly was his wonderful backyard garden. – Tomato plants, peppers, etc., and roses and snowball bushes of many colors. And – I remember playing butcher shop out there while he was gardening. Big clumps of dirt I used as the “meat”, and a little stick to “cut” the meat into little pieces! I would then “serve” it to Grandpa on a little piece of paper, and God love him – he would pretend to eat it and tell me how delicious it was. I loved it and him!!! (Even though I thought he was crazy!!) No, not really – just a sweetheart. As to other memories, yes – I remember the beard, but not any bad smells. and oh yes – I remember trying so hard to get Grandpa to not put an “wah”at the end of the word Park. He would invariably say “parkwah”. Aunt Tessie and I would scream at the end of “park”, but out would come Parkwah. I bet he was pulling our leg because we would all laugh and laugh. I did so love him… Love your blogs, Joey, and miss you and love you. ‘Genia

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, cuz! Thanks for stopping by and adding your observations to mine. It’s nice to see you haven’t lost that famous sense of humor. I miss and love you, too. Come visit North Carolina and play some corn hole (look it up!). 🙂
      (Note: ‘Genia is my 81-year-young cousin, whom I haven’t seen in about 24 years.)

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  2. What a deeply moving story! I was brought to tears right along with you. I love that you used and recognized your senses as a child. I too am propelled by memories prompted by smell. Lovely memories of Grampa that was truly special. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Joe, you truly write from your Soul when something in life has touched your heart so deeply as this passing did. I felt that I was right there with you, as I read each word so very carefully. Yes, my Grandpa was the first funeral that I ever attended also. I was 16. For whatever reason, I saw a light come to each end of his casket, as if two angels were standing there ready to take him to his permanent home. I began crying loudly, so very hard in the chapel. I could not stop. It was not out of sadness anymore. I felt God was telling me that my Grandpa was in a good place now. I knew, at that moment, that we go somewhere filled with light after death.

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    • Thanks, Karen. I had a similar experience when my dad passed away. His funeral service was held in a Catholic church, and at some point the priest murmured some incantation or prayer over his coffin, which was in the aisle, and then he returned to the alter and seated himself in a large, throne-like chair to pray. As he prayed silently, I watched him appear to grow larger and larger and larger . . . until he was as high as the ceiling. At that moment, I felt my father’s spirit leave his body and rise up to join him. I was filled with an awesome joy that had me both laughing and crying at the same time. I truly believe he went to Heaven that day. All the grief and sorrow that I had felt during his prolonged fight with cancer had evaporated, and I felt at peace.

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  4. Jane Raffo Nocella says:

    Beautiful Joe! I wonder if there are any mushrooms still growing in the woods by the ice skating pond? I may just take a walk one of these days! What wonderful memories you have of your “Gramps”. My first encounter with death was my father, who died at age 47. He had been plagued with illness for many years. I don’t remember when the “heart trouble”, caused by rheumatic fever at age 14, didn’t exist in our lives. He was born in Brooklyn and raised in North Bergen. Sounds familiar. He worked on the docks in NYC for a trucking company. I don’t know exactly what he did, but I know he didn’t drive a truck and we always had the most wonderful fruit. Three unsuccessful heart surgeries over nine years bought him time. He died when I was 15 and my brother, Frank, 13. I felt a sense of relief and a sense of guilt because I felt the sense of relief. His prolonged illness affected us in so many ways. His suffering was ours as well. The funny thing is that my brother and I had different memories of our shared youth. He remembered only the good times and I remember only the difficult. I can say that I will never have an open casket. I don’t want my friends and family to remember me that way. Just as you remember your Gramps picking mushrooms, I want my kids and grandchildren to remember me cooking for them, sharing their triumphs at their games, listening to their concerts, and our time together as a family.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing your memories, Jane. I can certainly empathize with the relief/guilt emotions you experienced. I went through the exact process when my own father died. I also feel as you do about my own “retirement.” I am to be cremated, and wish to have a celebration of my life upon my death. The “body in the box” thing is not for me, nor do I feel it serves any useful purpose (although I can respect those who feel otherwise). A composite video of a person while they were alive seems to me to be the best way to memorialize and commemorate a person’s life.

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  5. Allie P. says:

    My very first funeral experience was also that of a grandparent. I distinctly remember my father’s mother (not the grandma mentioned in a parallel post) laid out at the wake. I remember staring at her, waiting for her chest to rise with a breath. It was a bit of a traumatic experience for me when that breath never happened. To this day, I could moonlight as a professional mourner. Something about goodbye just sets off the waterworks. Thank you for sharing your gramps.

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  6. Such a poignant and precious tribute, Joe. I feel as though I’ve just met Gramps and now I love him too.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wonderful! This story was about a young boy’s love for a truly wonderful person. Even though the recounting of this first brush with mortality was so sad, it was filled with love, and that is how it should be. Your grandfather would burst with happiness to see that, after all these years, his grandson still reveres him.

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