By Dom Cioffi
I always chuckle when I see a movie where a grandfather is depicted as an amenable old man who takes his grandson to baseball games and pizza shops and showers him with gifts of love and adoration.
I chuckle because I did not have this experience – far from it, in fact.
Neither of my grandfathers were especially loving individuals – at least not loving in a demonstrative way toward me.
My paternal grandfather died when I was quite young so I never really knew him. My maternal grandfather, however, lived until I was in college.
This grandfather was quite an interesting character. Raised on a dairy farm and a lifelong farmer himself, my grandfather knew what hard work was all about. But as the old saying states, “Your strength is your weakness.”
Because my grandfather was so committed to working, he knew nothing else. He was not into sports or music or culture of any type. He enjoyed reading, but as far as I could tell, his literary interests never moved past the first few pages of the daily newspaper.
He awoke very early in the morning and spent his entire day attending to work affairs, whether that meant fixing a tractor, stacking wood, or building a particular structure.
His food was always prepared for him by my grandmother and upon finishing his last meal of the day, he would retire to his easy chair before heading off to an early bed.
He was a man of very few words, whether he was speaking to friends or family. In fact, he wasn’t a fan of anyone talking, as clarified by my mother, when she would reminisce about how, as children, she and her brothers were not allowed to speak at the dinner table during the meal.
If someone did get a little feisty with the conversation, my grandfather would apparently slam his fist on the table and point to the offender’s plate, demanding they pay attention to the task at hand.
As a child, I stayed at my grandparents’ farm many weekends, but most of this time was spent with my grandmother. Because of his grumpy demeanor and intimidating presence, I mostly steered clear of my grandfather.
On the off occasion when I did get roped into a project with him, I generally found the experience excruciating, because it meant hours of confinement doing menial tasks like picking stones out of a field or painting the side of a barn.
One job I could never avoid was removing his boots.
He’d saunter in just prior to dinner and call to me. “Yow Yow,” he’d yell (because he could never remember my name). “Come in here and take off grandpa’s boots.”
I’d always jump to the task because I knew it was hard for him. Years earlier he was badly burned in a freak accident. So, both legs were scarred and covered with skin grafts.
I’d untie his boots and gingerly slide them off his feet, careful not to press against his legs in the process. He always appreciated my help and I was always happy to oblige. It was the rare occasion when we actually had a connection.
The last time I saw my grandfather was at the end of my junior year of college. I was heading out to California for the summer with a friend – a last hurrah before senior year and the real world.
I knew my grandmother would be a bit emotional about my exit, but I didn’t expect much from my grandfather other than a parting grunt.
Surprisingly though, he called me into the living room just before I left and told me to sit down.
“Your grandmother tells me you’re going on a journey,” he stated matter-of-factly. “Maybe grandpa can offer you a couple pieces of advice?”
I was shocked by this statement, not only because he had never offered me advice before, but also because it was so rare for him to take any interest in what I was up to.
“First of all,” he grumbled. “Don’t go barking up every tree you find because eventually there’ll be a bear in one.”
I stared at him intently trying to make sense of the words.
“And secondly, you’ll know someone is your friend when you can hand him your wallet and not worry.”
Afterwards I thanked him for the advice and then said my goodbyes. I would never see him again.
To this day, I have never forgotten his words – I’m still not exactly sure what they meant – but at least I’ve never forgotten them.
This week’s feature, “St. Vincent,” highlights another grumpy old man who also has a funny way of showing he cares.
Starring Bill Murray, Megan McCarthy and Naomi Watts, “St. Vincent” is a humorous romp with a lot of heart and probably the most complete portrayal of Murray’s career.
If you’re in the mood for sweet film wrapped in an edgy package, definitely give this one a try. It will have you laughing throughout and genuinely touched by the end.
A crotchety “B+” for “St. Vincent.”
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