Chapter 11 of “A Life Worth Living – The Story of Sassy”
Chapter 11 – Angels and Demons
(The Fall, 2003)
Growing up it was a running joke in my family that I had two moms — my real mother Becky and my Gram Pauline — both women providing me a foundation of love and support. My Gram Pauline was my father’s mother and both she and her husband Frank were of a European heritage (Pauline Italian, Frank Polish) — I point this out because I was their first-born male grandchild and as a result I was able to enjoy a significant birthright with them. In addition, because my parents had me at a very young age (19) and were just starting out in life, we lived with my dad’s parents for my first couple years — as a result, I developed a deep bond with them (read: I was either sitting on my grandfather’s lap while he drank a beer and listened to country music or else I was physically attached to my grandmother’s leg – wherever she walked, so did I). Even after my parents and I moved out, we always lived close to “Gram and Grandpop” and I was at their house almost every day — spending time with family and friends, perhaps telling a tall tale in order to get my gram to make me an extra dinner (“Gram, my mom didn’t feed me again”), or just plain getting spoiled. I was the golden child who could do no wrong and I played that hand to its fullest — parlaying it into countless vacations with my grandparents, untold hugs and kisses, and even a car when I went away to college — pretty much whatever “Mikey wanted, Mikey got.” Unfortunately I took it all for granted, foolishly assuming my Gram and Grandpop would always be there, while I went off and lived my life. One of my biggest regrets is that I moved away from home after college and never returned except for short visits — as a result I missed out on the final twenty plus years of my grandparents’ lives and I’m sure it broke their hearts; that’s something that haunts me to this day.
Back in 2003 my Gram and Grandpop were still alive, but by then I knew that there only so many more times I would be able to see them — so when they made the decision to visit Anne and I while on their way to see my grandfather’s sister I felt overjoyed — vowing to savor every moment of my time with them. However I was also a little scared because, as I mentioned last chapter, my grandmother was also known by another name in our family (“Sister Pauline”) because of her devout Roman Catholic faith; and while I’d talked to my gram many times over the phone about my relationship with Anne, I knew it was one thing for her to hear about it and another to see it. I honestly didn’t know how she would react when she came to visit and saw for herself the apartment I was sharing with Anne…out of wedlock.
Was I about to get a lecture about living in sin?
Would this tarnish my image with her?
Would my gram even stay for a single night under our roof?
These questions and more swirled through my mind as their visit approached. And lest you think this wasn’t really a big deal, I should probably reveal a few more nuggets about my childhood to you. When I was a little boy and my gram read books to me they
were not of Sesame Street or Curious George variety — instead I snuggled up to her while she read religious books (I recall my favorite was The Lives of the Saints — always interesting, sometimes graphically gory, and certainly not on the PC-approved list by today’s standards). On top of that I went to Catholic grade school (Saint Boniface), Catholic high school (Bishop Neumann), and Catholic college (Loyola University). I also served as an altar boy all the way through high school. Knowing this, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that I was a goody two shoes in high school – not only did I get straight A’s but I also didn’t drink, smoke, or party; instead I played sports, focused on my schoolwork, and had only a few close friends outside of my family. So while most kids were cruising the strip and mixing it up on Saturday nights in sleepy Williamsport, PA, I spent my time going to mass and then after that my grandparents and I would either take our favorite priest (the jolly Father Joe Elston, whom everyone loved) out to dinner at my uncle Leo’s Italian restaurant or else we’d bring a pizza back to the rectory of Mater Dolorosa church to feed Monsignor Castellano (a towering mountain of a priest, whom everyone feared). The restaurant and the church were once landmarks of Williamsport yet both have now sadly been lost in the sands of time — markers of an era long since gone in a city that has deteriorated over the years during its move from quaint to overcrowded. And through it all, my grandmother (the aforementioned Sister Pauline) was the unquestioned matriarch of the family — she wasn’t domineering, but she was always present in my life, and more than anything I couldn’t live with the thought of disappointing her.
So now that you have the big picture of my background in mind do you see why I was nervous when she came for a visit?
Thankfully I had a wild card in my back pocket that stole the show — Sassy!
Oh sure, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that Anne played a big role in winning over my grandparents — going out of her way to make them feel at home, deferring to my grandmother at every turn, and making it easy for them to see how much she and I were meant to be. But the real star of the show was Sassy — because, as it turned out, Sassy and my grandmother developed an immediate connection. [As I write this now I am struck by something rather amazing — although no one could have known this at the time — ultimately Sassy and my gram would end up sharing a surprisingly similar medical history: both would develop cataracts, both would have a hip replaced, and both would ultimately die of the same heart condition. Perhaps their souls already knew all this would occur and that’s what drew them to one another?] Or perhaps it was just that at that time of her visit, my grandmother had already been living with a hip replacement for twenty years and a bad heart for the last five, so she didn’t move around much — which was fine by Sassy, for the latter quickly discovered that when my gram sat on the couch she’d be there for a while — which meant that my gram had all the time in the world to love on Sassy whenever Sassy jumped up next to her.
But there was another reason why Sassy loved my gram so much — it’s a reason that most people in my family loved visiting her: my gram Pauline was an amazing cook (aren’t all Italian grandmothers?). Bad hip, bad heart, it mattered not to her, so long as she got her rest, nothing could keep my gram out of the kitchen. It was her passion. Although Anne tried to get me to stop her from cooking and just relax and enjoy herself on their vacation, I knew it was no use trying to keep my gram out of the kitchen so I didn’t even try. Furthermore, it had been a long time since I’d been able to enjoy the food I grew up with and I was hoping to have my gram stock our freezer with her delights. In this I was not disappointed — but Sassy was!
To her great shock and frustration, Sassy quickly learned that my gram was not cooking all these amazing treats for her benefit. And while Anne and I enjoyed my gram’s homemade gnocchi, ravioli, manesta, wedding soup, pasta fagioli, her famous red sauce, my grandfather’s galunki, and more, Sassy was not so fortunate. Sure Sassy continued to get her home-cooked chicken and rice, but she barely got more than a few samples of my grandmother’s treats and this did not go over well with her — imagine Sassy having to endure the mouth-watering smells that came from our kitchen all day long, and yet never getting more than a tease of a taste, when she was expecting a Garfield-sized portion instead!
Sassy quickly voiced her displeasure at this arrangement — barking demandingly and throwing herself on the ground in frustration — only to hop up again and pull on the sides of our chairs at dinner to beg for more.
“What’s wrong with that dog?” My grandfather asked between sips of his beer as he shooed Sassy away again.
“Obviously she wants our food.” I paused only for a moment before shoveling more gnocchi into my mouth.
“Sassy, calm down, girl.” Anne soothed. “You can’t have this food. It’s for mommies and daddies not doggies.”
That answer did not satisfy Sassy, who carried on all the more, and soon went to my gram’s chair to beg.
“I ain’t never seen a dog act like that.” My grandfather laughed. “Don’t you two have any discipline in this house?”
Anne and I both got a little red-faced at that remark as we guiltily admitted that we were a bit lax when it came to disciplining Sassy. “She never gets into any real trouble,” Anne attempted to explain.
Meanwhile, I spied my grandmother sneak Sassy a piece of gnocchi under the table. Amazingly Sassy refused it at first…until my grandmother figured out she needed to have some sauce on it, at which point Sassy eagerly woofed it down. And although I didn’t catch my gram doing this at every meal, something tells me that she and Sassy had a few more secrets between them that none of the rest of us knew about.
In the end my grandparents visit lasted a week. I never did get the ‘living in sin’ lecture I feared. Instead my grandparents visit was nothing but enjoyable. My grandmother and I were able to sit on the couch (with Sassy laying on her back between us and snoring) while we reminisced about days gone by while my grandfather sat in the kitchen with his two best friends Jack and Jim (that’s Daniels from the bottle and Reeves from the radio) — ah yes, it was just like old times. On top of that, I was able to take them to see my grandfather’s sister in Venice, Anne and I wheeled my grandmother around Busch Gardens zoo, and we did indeed get our freezer stocked with a wide variety of my gram’s delectable delights. However their time with us ended all too soon.
When they left, Sassy was sad. She moped around the apartment, didn’t want to eat (oh she did eventually eat but she didn’t seem to enjoy it), and she kept going to the spare bedroom to look for my grandmother — not understanding why her new friend had left so soon.
As it turned out, this was the last time that I saw my grandmother alive — she would die the following spring — on Easter Sunday (how’s that for devotion?). I firmly believe that my gram and Sassy had a spiritual connection. And just like ChiChi left a part of herself with Sassy (the impish side), I also believe that my gram did the same — for both Sassy and my grandmother were gentle souls and whenever Sassy was near me, I felt a glimmer of my gram as well. I think Sassy knew I needed to feel that and she was all too happy to comfort me so — which was yet another of the many ways Sassy added so much to my life. (Thank you, girl).
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here — after my grandparents left and everything was right with the world, Anne and I (and Sassy) started shopping for our first house — which was easier said than done as we were about to step into a real estate bubble that we had no idea would burst open with us inside…
Sassy’s Life Lesson #11 – Don’t Take Your Family for Granted.
I grew up as part of a large, close-knit Italian family — my entire childhood was spent around grandparents, cousins, aunts & uncles, etc, etc. Every holiday we celebrated together. It was a fun, happy childhood. I thought everybody had that — and I just assumed my family would be there forever. But after I allowed the trails of life to take me away things were never the same — I was never part of their lives again once I moved away and now many of them are gone until the next life. That’s a bit of a downer, huh?
So did I make the right decision by moving away? Well, I am incredibly happy with my life now (wonderful wife and kids, great job, nice house, etc.) so in that sense things have worked out for me. But the fact is that I did not use much wisdom when it came to “the process” of making the decision to leave home. To be honest with you I didn’t really do much thinking at all before I left and I definitely didn’t think about the consequences of what I was giving up. That was a mistake — and it’s one I hope you don’t make too.
What I hope you take away from this life lesson is simple — understand that moving away from home may be good for some people, but it’s not for everybody. Think before you move. Seek the advice of family and friends. Have a plan if things don’t work out. And most important of all: understand what you’re giving up when you leave.
Let’s ponder an example — say you’re thinking of moving away from your family because of a job transfer. Tons of people take job transfers when they are young because they want to climb the company ladder — only to move from city to city and never put down roots — they chase after money, but lose their family ties, forego friendships made along the way, and more. In the end many are left to wonder “was it really worth it?”
I’m not saying don’t take a job transfer (perhaps it really is the best move you — just be sure you have a fall back plan). And I’m all
for you traveling and exploring the world. I think there’s also something to be said for studying abroad or even working overseas for a year or two. No one can argue that moving to a new city can be both fun and exciting. But what I am saying is this: always remember Robert Frost’s poem “Road Not Taken” — specifically the part about how “way leads on to way” — and understand that when you move you may never come back.
Points to Ponder
Are you thinking about moving away from family and friends?
If so, why not talk to them about it and get the full picture of what you’re about to leave behind.