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.