I don’t recall what my first solid memories of my Mother’s parents were. Oh, sure, there are infinite tons of photos of yours truly in their company that run the gamut from cute-dorable to downright humiliating (apparently, I was a fun child to put adult-sized clothing and accessories upon for a giggle.)
Their names were Edwin Brainard (‘Bud’ or ‘Ed’ to most who knew him) and Nina Cippola-Brainard (‘Lee’ to most who knew her.) It’s my understanding that my Grandmother’s name was ‘appropriately Americanized’ at some point during her childhood, forcibly and under heavy duress. Still, she bore the imposed affront of losing a part of herself for the remainder of her life with grace and quiet dignity.
I’d really like to take the time to tell their entire story, as recollected by others, because I know it contains a lifetime’s worth of interesting tidbits. I thought about this at great length, in fact but – in the end – I decided that I wanted to remain consistent in my series, presenting their stories from my lone, predominantly juvenile perspective. I know that I’ve done them some injustice in doing so, but it seemed more fitting to embrace them as they were, in my eyes, than to take it to the extreme intrusiveness of delving into the memories of others. I hope that I can be forgiven this indiscretion.
I’ll begin with ‘Grandma Lee’ as she was known to myself, and my cousins. Her mother was a Sicilian immigrant whom I scarcely had the cognition to imprint upon my up-and-coming, youthful memory before she passed away. What I do remember are fleeting tidbits: she spoke very little English, her thumbs were crippled to right angles, she lived in the care of her only unmarried daughter (more on her in a moment), and often called me, ‘Nicey Boy’ or ‘Baby Jesus’ in her semi-delusional state prior to her passing away. At the time, I had a difficult time understanding why all those adults paraded me around to see her at family functions and had an even tougher time listening to her say these bizarre and strange things to me when I spoke to her, receiving only a smile, some Sicilian, and a scant few words I understood, but not in context. As I reflect upon it now, Great-Grandma Cippola (a name that, I am told, means ‘Onion’ in the native tongue) was probably giving me the single highest compliment a woman in her condition could, and one that I would – as I grew old enough to understand it better – feel ever disappointed that I could never live up to. Still, it was nice of her to say, just the same.
My grandmother had three sisters rounding out her family: Dominica Marie (‘May’), Mary Anne, and Anuncia (‘Nu’).
My Aunt May is the only unwed sister and, in something I considered an irony, had a subtle beauty which lasts, even to this day, into her progressing age. We often joke about her having made a pact with the devil somewhere in her youth, because her alabaster skin is still damn near without flaw. It’s eerie, but perhaps there’s some truth in the fact that we males, as a species, tend to wear a woman down over time, prematurely, when we become an intrinsic part of their lives.
My Aunt Mary Anne married Robert Irwin, a former realtor of some note in the Rockford area. They also owned and operated B&H Office Supply for a number of decades, before selling the business and retiring. My Aunt Mary Anne is a woman who seems to grab life by the lips and yank (to quote a Weird Al-ism), and whose generosity is matched only by her sincere kindness and positive outlook. Her smiles are infectious, and her outlook on life is something that I wish the world could share.
My Aunt Nu is still, to this day, more of a mystery to me. Of the three sisters, it is her whom I know the least. Her gift was that of healthy cynicism and Devil’s advocacy. Of the three sisters, she is the debater. Never afraid to make a potentially unpopular point, or to say what others only have the guts to think, she could have, in another life, been a politician and probably a damn good one.
My Grandfather’s family, I seldom had the chance to see or interact with. His brothers, Einer and Skip, and his sister, Jane, all lived in other states which, to a child my age, might as well have been the moon. Still, I do have vague recollections of meeting them on a couple of occasions and, in particular, my Great-Aunt Jane and her daughters.
Before moving forward, allow me to say that both Grandparents are now deceased. This will make parsing out the story a little more intuitive as I spin it for you.
Grandma Lee worked for a good many years (along with her sister, May) at the then Barber-Colman plant on Clifford Drive in Loves Park. It was something of a rote and routine employment, but one she seemed to enjoy enough to tolerate this fact, nonetheless.
Grandpa Bud was a different story altogether. He was a part of a five-man engineering team working at Sundstrand Aerospace, on projects for NASA. To an inquisitive kid like me, this immediately elevated him to rock star status, regardless of his direct involvement in sending men and, well – anything – into space. In my limited conversations with him, I was able to glean that he worked on something having to do with the solid fuel boosters of the shuttle (and I could, even to this day, be recalling it incorrectly – once I heard ‘NASA’ it was all ‘space stuff’ to me.) I also found out later, as the first Mars rover mission hit Martian soil (and my Grandfather was engrossed more than I had ever recalled seeing him in the footage of the event) that he had had some hand in its getting there. I wish now that I knew more clearly what that was.
I also learned that Grandpa had, on a few occasions, had honest-to-God astronauts to his home for dinner. He mentioned this almost in passing, as though it were a non-event. And these weren’t latter-day, relative unknowns to the populous: these were big names that every school kid who had ever watched a filmstrip knew. Once more, I was in complete awe. Who was this man?
From a very young age, I escaped into books as a means of removing myself from the world at large. A world that was fraught with hate and bullying to a smoke-stinking fat kid like myself. A world in which my father’s inebriated rampages were hidden to all but myself, who lived in constant fear of this recreational Power Lifter who often forgot that I was a child, and not a thing to be physically and mentally destroyed time and time and time again. To his credit, we’ve made amends in our later years and I love him because – well – he’s still my Dad, and you only get one. I still struggle with the issue of forgiveness, however, regardless of intent, motive, or underlying personal demons that may have driven him to these acts. They were obscenely painful, and mentally destructive beyond comprehension.
My Grandfather, too, was a voracious reader. And I don’t mean your garden variety voracious reader. He was something totally off the charts, when it came to reading. He subscribed to some 30-40 magazines, running the gamut from health and wellness, to Tennis, to current events, to satire, to special interests, and on and on. Many were magazines I had never even heard of, serving a niche market before their readership dried up and they were no longer profitable, the writers moving on to greener pastures with the next periodical they could secure employment with. And he read them, cover to cover: all of them.
Prior to living in the only home that I came to know was theirs, they had lived in two others in the Rockford Area. To me, these held no real relevance: their home was always on Skokie Drive. Specifically on a sleepy little corner of it, and the cul-de-sac known as Skokie Circle, in the subdivision directly across from Sundstrand on Harrison Avenue. It was a lemon-yellow sided cookie-cutter ranch that, to me, was someplace new to explore with each visit.
Grandpa had effectively taken over two-thirds of the basement area as his own domain. A small component of it was set aside for his workshop, a place that held a myriad abundance of strange tools that I seldom saw him use. I think he just loved having them around ‘just in case’. Perhaps, also, he was something of a collector, as one might collect less useful objects. To me, it was a learning experience waiting to happen with each visit.
Likewise, Grandpa had something of a fetish for ordering things from magazines, book clubs, and premium collectable vendors. Each day, his mailbox was filled to brimming with 30-50 items, including the aforementioned magazines, but also including his recent purchases, as well as offers for similar items from what very possibly could have been every purveyor and catalog house on the planet. Being at his home when the mail was delivered was like a wondrous crap shoot, as I was exposed to unique catalogs and promotions brimming with interesting items ‘Not sold in any store!’ My Grandma called it junk (and to her credit most of it, at its heart, sort of was) but to my Grandfather it was treasure to be savored and coveted. As a near-forty-something collector of progressively more rare and valuable books, I can personally see the appeal. A lot of the books I buy will probably never increase in value, per se, but they make me happy as I live in my home, from day to day, and see them all around me. I often pause to marvel at the collection I have built, often recalling the specific story that goes along with each volume – especially the association and dedication copies, as well as the signed and doodled ones, many of their authors long since passed from this life. I think, in many respects, I suffer from the same ‘sickness’ as my Grandfather in this regard. The exception being that I have a focused collection that I use all of my anal-retentive superpowers to keep neat, organized, and periodically trimmed of progressively less and less chaff. To some degree, he did too. At least, his system made sense to him. As the years progressed, and the accumulated detritus of a life lived partially through the pages of catalogs began to outgrow the space in which he had to house it, it did sort of decline. Still, he seemed to know where everything was and – to my child’s myopic eye – it was a warren of amazing things waiting to be discovered.
In his small neighborhood, my Grandfather was also something of a revered, Yoda-esque, fixture among the boys. Often, I would be sitting in their kitchen with my Grandmother, and a young man from the block would come knocking, asking if Bud could come out and play. I thought this strange and obtuse, until I began to realize that, even at his advancing age, he had some fairly neat, science-y toys that one could not play with alone. Perhaps he enjoyed it as much – if not more – than the youngsters who benefitted from having him around.
My Grandmother’s passion was cooking. That woman could cook just about anything (and, often, did). Whenever you set foot in her home, you were lovingly accosted in an effort to discern what you might care to eat or drink. A veritable menu of choices was progressively run down and the sheer variety of sodas and snacks probably would have killed someone like my sometimes indecisive wife in the attempt at choosing. Perhaps that’s where I obtained my ability to make decisions because, with Grandma Lee, you needed to make one. She would not feel right if you weren’t at the very least fed and imbibing some sort of beverage within minutes of your arrival. It was a testament to her generous spirit, and her desire to make others around her happy, regardless of sacrifice to self.
This sort of selflessness was also exhibited when she was amongst her friends. As I mentioned in a previous entry, my Grandma Lee took it upon herself to be the cheerful confidante to all of her friends and family and – even more so – to those ailing in any way. She would bring hot food, treats, or anything else that one might need to friends who might otherwise not have anyone to visit them. I can’t even count the number of times I was spending time at her place, and we would go off on one of these missions of mercy to visit someone I had never met, let alone heard of. My Grandmother had more friends than anyone else I have ever known. And these were genuine friends – not acquaintances. As we would make our way into their homes, my Grandmother immediately went into maternal mode, often doing little chores or helping with anything the infirmed required. They would sit and talk for a good long time and, with each new individual came a new conversation about things and people I had – once more – never heard of. How in the hell she kept it all straight in her head is a wonder to me still, even to this day. She seemed to know everything about their families, their friends, their struggles, and their history. And they too seemed to know this about her. It’s a sad testament, to some degree, that deep and prolific friendships such as this do not exist anymore in our digital, rush-rush world. It’s also sad that children in those situations now have distracting electronics to occupy their time, rather than listening to the sorts of times-long-gone stories I was privy to during those visits.
As I got a bit older, and my personality began to more cohesively form, my Grandfather recognized a kinship in me that I don’t think he either saw or felt in my other cousins. I don’t mean this to sound crass or Narcissistic (I know, it still does, regardless) but I truly believe this, given his propensity for allowing me into his basement ‘Fortress of Solitude’ even when my Grandmother tried to shoo me out because he didn’t like to be bothered.
I recall that, upon each visit, my first line of inquiry was to find him, see what he was doing, and catch up on all of his latest acquisitions – both physical and knowledge-based – in a sort of strange show and tell that bound us inexplicably together. He would show me books that he had recently purchased, while allowing me to ‘carefully’ peruse his personal bookshelves. After a time, as he came to know my developing interests more clearly, he would purchase a book ‘for himself’ that he later decided ‘just wasn’t for him’. He likewise did this with magazines, which were fairly expensive and geared toward children. In this way, I received some of the most influential gifts that my young mind ever could have wished for: a pair of books of Fairy Tales that was fairly complete; a Dictionary; a number of books on Baseball, the occult, and other interesting things; magazines designed around pop-culture for pre-teens, as well as shamefully exploitative subscriptions to magazines featuring The Transformers, G.I. Joe, and other cartoon-driven commercial empires. And I ate them up, reading them from cover to cover (yes – including the dictionary). The Dictionary, especially, was teeming with glossy color reference pages and charts, outlining precious minerals, jungle cats, and other specific things that are like crack to any budding young male mind.
In sixth grade, I got into philately (that’s stamp collection, for those of you who had girlfriends by then) and found that my Grandfather not only had a sizable stamp collection, but an impressive little coin collection as well. Here again, he indulged my interests patiently and, when he felt the time was right, presented me with an 8-volume, Folio set of First-Day-Of-Issue cancelled envelopes, with a history of each accompanying it on their respectively, heavy card stock pages. I still have and treasure this item – in amongst my books – even to this day.
When my Grandfather was not in his basement domain, he was indulging one of his other five passions: gardening, reading, home repair, educational television, or eating.
While his yard was small, and oddly shaped, he still managed to carve out a 15′ x 20′ garden patch, as well as nurturing a grape vine behind his garage. Gardening, to me, was something that seemed like a waste of time. I never understood the appeal, to be honest. That was, until a little less than a decade ago, when my in-laws (who have four super-green thumbs, and can make anything grow) gave me a few plants. I had no notion as to why they decided I should have them, but I grudgingly planted them, just the same. As the weeks turned into months, and the hot peppers and tomatoes began to come to fruition, I finally got it. Gardening, it seems, is about creating something of value from what is, essentially, nothing. The pride in watching a seedling move through its life-cycle, only to bear edible bits, is something deeply spiritual. I went out of my way to find reverent ways to eat the meager harvest that year. And it was more delicious and special than anything found in a store. I have my Grandfather’s tolerant explanation of the gardening phenomena, and my in-laws offering me the opportunity to experience it first-hand, to gratefully thank for that. (When my Grandfather passed away, I made certain that his Compost Tumbler went to them. It seemed a fitting way to both reward them, and pass on some of his legacy. I can’t help but feel as though he would have been pleased to have known that it went to such a reverent and appreciative home. It’s still in use to this day.)
My Grandfather’s indulgence in reading was seldom witnessed by me personally, as he typically interacted with us in some way while we were visiting his home. Educational television, however, was another matter. His cable subscription was graced with the awe-inspiring package that provided more shows about history and science than my own, and I reveled often in the time spent sitting with him, watching a documentary, and positing our own thoughts as the show progressed. I learned a great deal during those back and forths.
Home improvement was something he also seldom did in our presence. If, however, we happened to drop by while he was in the middle of a project, he seldom viewed it as a necessity to stop what he was doing. This was fine with me, as I made a complete nuisance of myself watching him as he worked, asking question after question. Most of the time, he fielded them with patience. Occasionally, whatever he was fixing or working on was fighting him tooth and nail, and I pressed my inquisitive luck a bit too far. I didn’t understand his crankiness then: I do now. I still curse the last screen door I hung, and I think it was the first time I said the ‘F’ word in front of my Mom (a word that’s ugly, and that I seldom use). Sometimes, home improvements fight back with a stoic tenacity all their own.
And then, there was eating. Eating was not so much a necessity as an event at Grandma Lee’s house. And, like myself, my Grandfather could put away food. Grandma’s cooking was usually amazing, the exception being her Chicken Cacciatore which I tried once, and avoided thereafter. Everything else? Belissima. I cannot even begin to count the number of debates had around that simple table in their kitchen, be it with only myself and the pair of them, or a random smattering of family, up to and including one and all.
Usually, my Grandmother would say something to start it off. Grandpa would extrapolate, and then – somehow – bring it around to a more methodical and reasoned point of view. In hindsight, it was sort of condescending to my Grandmother. I like to think that it wasn’t meant that way, but I can’t honestly say for certain. I don’t think it was so much about his needing to be right in front of people, but in needing to correct a perceived misconception regardless of the humanistic cost in performing that function. Oftentimes, I would watch as he verbally painted someone (usually my Grandma) into a corner, whereupon she would acquiesce with quiet grace, and the topic would be left behind. Around that table, I learned so many pop-cultural and scientific facts that I could probably write a book about them, were it only that I could recall them in some sort of logical sequence.
I also learned that spreading butter on the back of Keebler Fudge Stripe Cookies makes them even more awesome. Leave it to my Grandfather to discover – and share – this nugget of wisdom.
When my Grandfather was absent from the table (which happened from time to time), my Grandmother seemed to come out of her shell. During these moments of familial fellowship, I and anyone else fortunate enough to be there were regaled with cute stories of neighborhood children saying the darndest things, recollections of my Mother’s, and her sibling’s, pasts. And – sometimes – even a story or two about my own blossoming life, from past moments when my memory span was that of a goldfish. I still keep a few of those stories near and dear: the kid who said ‘Glubs’ because the word ‘gloves’ just wouldn’t come out; the child who showed off ‘Playing the planno’; and the one where my Uncle Bill asked her to ‘Bungle me up’. It was like ‘Kids Say the Darndest Things’, home edition.
During my teens, I came to be more aware that the relationship my Grandparents had was not nearly as Hugh Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley as I had first imagined. My Grandfather was an alcoholic. A trait that only got worse as he aged and got even more insidious after he retired. I also later learned that he had had an affair on one of his many trips through Sundstrand (he was often at Cape Canaveral, or Edwards Air Force Base, or other tier-1, aeronautical or space-related destinations). I began to see that my Grandparents life was one of cohabitation, rather than a deepening love. The true, heart-fluttering love had died long ago. Perhaps even before I was born. I can’t really say, because I don’t really know. It was heartbreaking to think of this amazing, kind woman being treated less than perfectly. It was even more heartbreaking to realize that it was being done by someone whom I had admired so much, for so long.
During my teens, my parents also divorced. To say that my emotional state was a mess would be a far cry from the truth. I had years of pent up anger and frustration and fear lingering in me and, over one summer, it all seemed to come raging forth. This came to a head on the day when my Grandmother, who never raised her voice, and had never said an unkind word to me, let me have it. I mean REALLY let me have it, on my Mother’s unrequested behalf. I never felt so small as I did on that day, and her disappointment in me was something almost unbearable, given the amount of respect and love I had for her.
As time went on I, as the oldest of the seven nieces and nephews, set off into the big world abroad. The others followed in turn thereafter. Visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s house were more for gatherings than social calls. I made some effort in those early years, but not the effort my Grandmother deserved.
During this time, my Grandfather would call me at random, inebriated to the point of inexplicabality, inquiring of me strange things which I often had no answer for, nor understanding of. As my comprehension of my Grandmother’s plight became more clear, I began to call her more regularly, if I couldn’t visit. For some time, these calls were amicable, and well-received by both parties. As the years progressed, however, her happiness turned to abject fear. She would often cry as she whispered about the mental anguish that this once great man whom I had admired was putting her through. And it broke my heart. Their marriage had ended. That much was clear though – again – I can’t say when it happened, exactly.
When my Grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, it was hard to accept. It arrived so quickly, and took her just as quickly. The last years of her life were a continuous hell of drunken rage and mental anguish, followed by a painful affliction, and a loneliness that none of us, as a family, could seem to rescind. Grandma was fading away, rather than burning out. I still recall the day I knew she had given up. I went to visit her in the nursing home, between treatments. Her stomach had distended, and she was listless. I spoke with her and tried to make her laugh – something she always said she appreciated about me: I could always make her smile. Not on this day. Not genuinely, anyway. I could see in her eyes that while she was still with us, her spirit was broken and prepared to move on.
I spent some time in the waiting area that day with my Aunt Nu after the nurses had shooed us out for a bit. This was the first time I had ever had an adult, one-on-one conversation with this woman whom, of all the sisters, I knew far, far less. It was strange, getting to know this woman whom I had only vague notions and experiences with. We talked candidly about her sister’s condition, and I took a leap of faith in asking her about why Grandma had chosen to endure the recent, painful years, being tormented at all hours by my progressively inebriated Grandfather.
“Because she once loved that son of a bitch,” she said. “God help her, she made a commitment to marry him, and she will not deviate from it.”
Her never-wavering devotion to her God. That was what caused Grandma Lee to endure. The belief that she had taken a vow, and would stick by it, as given, even if it meant having to endure his tirades. I was both stunned and angry. How could God not see that this should be an exception? Why would someone subject themselves to this sort of punishment? Love. Love was the answer, and I never hated the emotion more than I did right at that moment.
Weeks later, Grandma was gone. I can’t help but wonder if she might not have lived longer and fought harder, had death not seemed more like a mercy and less like a curse. I guess I’ll never know. I still bear my shame like a beacon of light to the future: one which reminds me how I need to act during times such as those: How I should have acted during hers.
Her funeral was something I had considered often as a child. I realize that this sound cold – perhaps even barbaric. But when I considered it, I considered it as a joyous testament to the life of an amazing woman who had meant so much, to so many. Sadly, this was not to be the case. Most of her friends had passed before her, or were too infirmed or far away to attend. My once grandiose vision of a packed church of devastated mourners was cruelly tempered with a harsh reality: Grandma’s funeral would be mundane. Certainly, people came. And, certainly, we all mourned her loss. It just didn’t seem… fitting. I don’t know how else to describe it. I just felt like she deserved something more; something truly special.
Grandpa fell into a state of Dementia and decline soon thereafter, and passed as well. His funeral was sad as well, but for differing reasons. He had alienated himself from nearly everyone he knew and, worse, had alienated himself from his family through a combination of heavy alcoholism, razor-harsh words, and – worst of all – his ill treatment of a beautiful soul who had loved him unconditionally, as she had promised on the day they were wed, until the day when she had died. His funeral consisted of my Mother, her sister, her brother, their spouses, myself and my brother, and my Uncle’s three children. There was a moment of silence, and then we all left. In some ways, even that felt too good for him. In other ways, I privately wondered where the keen-minded, inspirational man had gone; wondered where the man that my Grandmother had fallen in love with, enough to give her life unconditionally to him, had gone as well. I would never know.
For the next few weeks, it fell to the family to remove all vestiges of my Grandparent’s life on Earth from the home. A number of things were divvied up amongst the family, based on their needs and desires, and a polite veto power given to all. I learned that my Mom had insisted that I have first opportunity at my Grandfather’s books. It was a kindness I did not deserve, but one I appreciated. I chose my books carefully. I picked ones that I had marveled at, ones that we had talked about, and those which he had clearly held near and dear to himself that I had never read. When I see them, or read one of them, I am reminded not of the senseless monster he became before dying. Instead, I choose to recall the good in this complicated man, and recall those myriad times when he indulged an annoying kid in appreciating his microcosmic world. Those are the memories I choose to keep.
Likewise, of my Grandmother’s things, I chose some simple plastic tumblers from the late sixties. They hold no value, but – to me – they are reminiscent of incalculable times in my life when we sat around a table, eating her carefully prepared dishes, and drinking from them. My memory of her, I chose for this reason. Likewise, a pair of wire snippers emblazoned with her name, from her time in the small motors department at Barber-Colman also went home with me. It is a tool that I use often and, each time, I find myself recalling that she once held these each workday, and used them as I was now. Again, perhaps strange, but it’s my way of remembering her, and honoring that memory.
Once the house was nearly cleared, the siblings began to posit what to do with it. I have no idea why I opened my mouth but, without a second thought, I said, “I’d like to see about buying it.” This seemed to stun them at first, until I told them I would consider it an investment for a flip. I paid for the inspection and assessment, and offered the siblings my findings. They had a figure in mind as well, and we came to an agreement which, to be perfectly honest, favored me more than them. I made certain that they had all read over the valuation and were still comfortable with their decision.
For the months following, I enlisted the assistance of my amazing wife, and a young man whom I had once babysat for but, now, was a life-long friend and was very good at home improvement work – especially plumbing – a topic upon which I knew precisely zero. In five months, we turned the smoke-addled, time-encapsulated home with a 70’s throwback feel into a completely new space. In some ways, I went a little overboard on the fixtures and the work. I felt as though I needed to do this, however. My Grandmother’s desire to redecorate and modernize the home in which she spent most of her days had been thwarted – often with extreme prejudice – by my Grandfather. I felt as though this was my attempt to give her the renovated home that she never had the chance to see while she was alive. When we were done, I took a moment of satisfied pride on what we had accomplished. I considered how my Grandmother would respond to the sight of this home, scarcely her own in any recognizable way, any more. Somewhere, somehow, I knew that she would have been pleased.