Nothing in his 11 years could have prepared the boy for this moment: There was his grandpa–wearing the suit that he always wore at Christmas and Easter–only it wasn’t Christmas, and it wasn’t Easter.
Father approached him smiling, but this didn’t seem like a time for smiles. And he couldn’t understand how the smell of flowers could be so strong in February.
Grandpa looked like he was tired, and he looked like he was sleeping, but why was he wearing his glasses? A rosary was carefully arranged across his hands–hands which had always trembled as a result of Parkinson’s disease. The boy looked at those hands for a long time; they seemed so still now.
The rest of the family had not yet arrived, and mother was off talking with someone, so the boy sat alone with his father; and father began to speak.
“Son, there’s a lot that you never got to know about your grandpa, so maybe I can tell you a little bit about his life while we’re sitting here. Grandpa was born in 1896, and he grew up on Peck Avenue. His father and mother had come here from Ireland. When he was fifteen, Grandpa went to work as a blacksmith’s apprentice on the New Haven Railroad, building bridges and things. When he was 19, he left the railroad and went to work over at Winchesters. He took the trolley to work each day, and he never owned a car.
“When he was 21, the United States entered World War I, and the day after war was declared, he enlisted in the Army Air Service. He was sent to France, and helped build an aerodrome—kind of a military airport–in a meadow near Paris. Once that was finished, the men in his outfit began to fly in double-winged planes known as biplanes. Each plane, called a SPAD, had a pilot in the front, and a second man in the back, to navigate the plane and fire the machine guns. Your grandpa was the man in the back seat. Their job was to protect the soldiers on the ground. The war ended a year later, and grandpa came back to West Haven.
“A few years later, he married your grandma, and eventually they bought a house on Union Avenue. They had two sons: your uncle Ed and I, and they were married for forty years.
“So, after the war, your grandpa went back to work for the railroad, again as a blacksmith. One day, when he was riveting a bridge, he lost his grip and fell onto the railroad tracks. As he was falling, he hit one of those overhead wires and broke his neck. There he lay, across the tracks, until an ambulance came and they took him to New Haven Hospital—what we call Grace New Haven Hospital today. Because his neck was broken, he had to lie in a hospital bed with his head between sand bags for a whole year, so that the bones could heal properly. And when he was able to work again, he couldn’t work as a blacksmith anymore.
“By this time, the Great Depression had begun, and many men were out of work. But your grandpa was a hard worker, and very good with his hands, so he got a job fixing up the houses that the banks had repossessed. One day, when I was just a boy, I watched him put down the most beautiful hardwood floor in one house, and-”
“Dad, what does repossess mean?”
“I’ll explain later,” father said, for now people had begun to enter the funeral home, and father had turned to greet them.
That night, as the boy laid in bed, staring at the ceiling, his father entered the room.
“Having trouble sleeping, son?” “Uh-huh. Why did grandpa have to die?” “Well, son, your grandpa loved your grandma a lot, and when he found out that she was very sick and that she wasn’t going to get better, I think it just broke his heart, son–it was just too much for him to bear. He died the next day. Sometimes God calls us to be with Him because it’s the only way.”
The next morning was the funeral Mass, followed by the procession of cars, making their way from St. Lawrence Church to the cemetery.
It was bitter cold at the gravesite. They were met there by a priest, who read to them from the Bible, and by a group of soldiers, who raised their rifles and fired them into the air, which startled the boy. After that, a uniformed bugler played a familiar tune, one that spoke to the boy of bedtime at summer camp, in a cabin next to a lake in the woods. And it spoke to him of happy days and starry nights. But now it just sounded sad, as the bugle’s mournful notes rolled out across the cemetery. What was it about that tune that had changed? Around him, the boy began to hear sniffles and sobs, and wondered why his family was crying, and he wasn’t. He looked up at father, and saw that he wasn’t crying either, and he wondered what it must feel like to lose your father.
That night, he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling again. To him, grandpa had just been a tired old man with a halting voice and tremors in his hands–a man who spent a lot of time in his easy chair. Now, the boy saw him as a young man, full of daring, building iron bridges with hot rivets, and flying in an aeroplane that was made of wood and canvas, high above the fields and trenches of France.
Grandpa had been sixty-eight years old when he died. As sleep finally overcame the boy, he tried to imagine himself as an old man, and wondered what 68 might feel like.