I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been pretty busy with work and going back and forth between my grandparents’ house and the hospital. My smart, witty, green-thumbed grandpa died Thursday night. A broken hip, and metastatic cancer finally did him in. He was 92.
He came to the US from Italy when he was a kid. Back in Italy, in the tiny, hilltop town of Panni, his mother’s family had the neighborhood oven, and neighbors would bring bread or whatever they were making over, bake it up, and leave a loaf or some token produce as barter. Once arriving in the States, my great-grandfather became a dairyman for a very large dairy, where he handled the test cows, and set up house in Topsfield, MA. A few years lates, my great-grandmother arrived with her then three children (later there were 9 total) and had a pretty popular roadside veggie stand with produce she grew in her garden. My grandpa was one of the three born in Italy, who came over with his mom. They came through Ellis Island, and in high school, I saw my great-grandfather’s name on the lists at Ellis Island.
There he is. My great-grandfather. Pretty cool stuff.
The children knew no English when they got here, but all 3 were put in the first grade. At the end of the first year, the oldest went into 3rd grade, the second oldest into 2nd grade, and Grandpa stayed in 1st grade. Fast forward, and after high school, he was drafted into WWII in the Army Air Corp. He was sent in Officer’s Training Corp to Valley Forge Military Academy and Yale University. At the end, a former employer helped him be accepted in a liberal arts college in Caldwell, Idaho, where he majored in chemistry and received his degree in 3 years. There he met my grandma, who was a sophomore when he entered. With their bachelor’s degrees, they married and traveled to Boston for his graduate school. He was a smartie. With his new master’s, he began teaching chemistry in Connecticut, but my grandma had crazy allergies to ragweed, and it was recommended they leave the Connecticut River Valley. He had liked Southern California, where he had trained in WWII, and they went bag and baggage west to the San Fernando Valley, which is part of Los Angeles. Grandma’s cousin, who was teaching in the LAUSD directed Grandpa to the LAUSD headquarters, who were hiring and desperately needed math teachers. My grandpa got his teaching job the same day, taking a job at Birmingham Junior and Senior High, and my grandma got a job at the Lockheed Missile Systems Division, then located at the Van Nuys airport. My grandparents got set up with an apartment, where they lived for 10 months before buying a brand new house in Tarzana (their alley is the dividing line for Woodland Hills) where they’ve lived ever since. They had two sons, my father and my uncle Todd, and basically lived happily ever after.
My grandpa was always the quieter of the pair–my grandma was the talker. But he was witty, a big fan of crossword puzzles, good at snappy comebacks, and he always appreciated a good pun. He also liked root beer and good pizza and my grandma’s homemade cookies; she always left batches of them in the carport freezer for when he wanted a treat. He wasn’t big on technology and never bothered learning how to use a computer. His favorite past time was gardening in his gorgeous yard. When I was little, I remember all kinds of plants in the back yard–mainly rose bushes with bright red blooms, but also pine trees and myrtle trees and carrotwood trees and an assortment of fruit trees. There were fuzzy leaved-fig trees, lots of vegetables–primarily tomatoes, bell peppers, and herbs–and citrus, too. And when he wanted to try something else, he’d tear something out and start over. This always seemed devastating to me, as nothing was taken out because it looked bad or he couldn’t grow it–just because he wanted space for something else.
As he got older, the layout simplified. The central experimental garden spot with its pathways had been simplified to a patch of grass. But there was still a lovely center island full of yucca and other colorful, drought-resistant plants. And the citrus trees still produce lovely fruit each winter.
You can see the citrus in the background. Those are the same lovely trees that provided all the oranges, tangerines, and lemons that I juiced this past winter.
Grandpa had done all his yard work for as long as I can remember. His bushes were always precision trimmed, everything perfect, and he had a good eye for form and color. In the picture above, you can see the bright green of the grass contrasted with the pink and dark green of the yucca in front of the yellower-green citrus trees and deep purple flowering plum trees in front of the solid podacarpus hedge backdrop. These were the kinds of things he thought about. He even planted bright red geraniums two summers ago that he joked were supposed to match my car.
My favorite Grandpa plant was a tomato plant he grew last summer. I wish I’d taken a picture. It was a single plant that was as tall as the carport, over 6 feet, and loaded with delicious tomatoes! I was stunned and asked what variety it was. He said he didn’t know, but he’d gotten it at the little nursery down the street. I asked what his secret was, how he’d gotten it so big and to produce so many tomatoes. He thought for a minute and said “I put grass clippings on it. And I water it.” My mom once said that he didn’t just have a green thumb–his whole arm was green!
I’ll end with some pictures–all from the time since I moved here, as he didn’t fly out to Georgia after I was a little kid, and we never really came out to California to visit when we were growing up. I didn’t really get to know my CA grandparents until I moved out here in 2010, but I’ve been up to visit for as many holidays and breaks as I could, and I’m glad for it. Neither grandparent is big on pictures, but here are some favorites I’ve managed to take over the past 3 years.
Grandpa wasn’t in the best health earlier this year, but he came outside to help me pick lemons.
I don’t remember exactly when this was taken, but it’s probably my favorite of the three of us.
You were a classy, funny guy, Grandpa. I’ll miss you.