Okay, granted I missed putting this Father’s Day tribute up on Father’s Day (I didn’t expect to end up sleeping all day yesterday after being awake working for 12 hours straight, including all night long on Saturday), but I figured a day late is better than not at all. And I certainly think I owed this to my grandfather.
Even though this is for Father’s Day, we should have Grandparents’ Days too, considering the major influence they play in some of our lives, admittedly some of us more than others. I’m among those whose maternal grandparents always played a very significant part of my life, for they essentially raised me due to the fact that my mother had me at the ripe young age of 16. My mother has always been a part of my life too (not my biological father, however), but my grandparents were always much more like parents to me, even when we weren’t getting along (which was certainly often enough).
My grandfather, Thomas J. Nigro, passed away two years ago after a long and memorable life at 89, and I gave him a suitable eulogy on my original blog right afterwards, which can be read here; as well as a birthday tribute for what would have been his 90th birthday had he lived a year longer the following year, which can be read here.
As I noted previously, when discussing parents or influential grandparents, individuals who have written books or articles about them have most often, it seems, either mercilessly lambasted them for their negative points, or uncritically canonized them for how wonderful they supposedly were. Since individual human nature is most often more nuanced than that, I’ve always hoped to be both fair and honest (including about myself in both cases), and respectful and candid when discussing any topic, including deeply personal matters like this one.
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me well that my grandfather and I had a very rocky relationship for the longest time. Why? Simply and honestly put, we were both difficult people, very stubborn and unshakable in our ideologies, which just happened to be diametrically opposed in most ways. Moreover, our only major traits in common were that stubbornness, as well as the infamous Italian temper. We needed space to be able to get along, and in a house with only two bedrooms at the time, which we also shared with my uncle, Tom Jr., we obviously didn’t have that space. I greatly needed my own room during my middle school, high school, and early college years, but there wasn’t sufficient space at the time, so I had to share a room and bunk with the Unc. We had the capacity to expand the house and add a room, but when I asked him to do this back in the day, he said “no” for reasons of his own.
To make a long story slightly shorter, we had very different ideas regarding when and how respect was merited (he adamantly believed the younger automatically owe it to the older, as do most the rest of my family; I adamantly believe it’s a precious commodity that must be earned, never demanded, no matter who you are); he was socially conservative in much of his thinking, whereas I would grow increasingly progressive as I grew older; he avoided controversy whenever he could, whereas I immersed myself in it by never hiding any view or taste I ever had, no matter how maverick or iconoclastic. To top it off, our interests differed greatly (I loved the genres of sci-fi and speculative fiction in general; he earnestly believed that was all nonsense), and our talents greatly differed: He was impressively skilled at “handy” work like carpentry, plumbing, fixing anything that broke, gardening, cementing, etc.; my skills were always with the written and spoken word.
In short, he didn’t understand the “kid” in his midst, and didn’t believe it was his responsibility to try. Me, I grew up bitter and angry over the incessant bullying at school and lack of understanding at home, and I took it out on the world all too often, acting out in negative ways, and misguidedly believing I had a right to hate the world. As you can see, this was a bad recipe for our forging a good and close relationship. During my high school years, I once spent an entire year (no exaggeration) refusing to talk to my grandfather after he attempted to clobber me with a baseball bat (thank you to my grandmother and uncle for deterring the onslaught by providing a human barrier between the target and the would-be clobberer). My grandfather never had height on him, but he was a very physically strong man whose bad side you would deeply regret getting on. His will and immunity to fear of anything – sometimes to a fault – were equally strong (if a Green Lantern Corps. actually existed in our universe, the Guardians of the Universe would have picked him for a ring before Hal Jordan, let me tell you!). He was a force to be reckoned with, but I was the proverbial immovable object to his irresistible force, and each of us made the other miserable on more than a few occasions, to put things mildly.
However, it must be said to do him justice, my grandfather was not a one-dimensional “bad guy” out of a terribly written cartoon, but he had a lot of merit as a person. He was the best provider one could ever ask for, and I was never in danger of going hungry, or without sufficient clothing, or bereft of a comfortable roof over my head with him around. Even when he didn’t like some of his family members (and I was high on that list), he never hesitated to be on hand to drive us someplace we needed to go, including driving me on a frequent basis to school in the worst inclement weather imaginable. No hardship on behalf of his family was too much for him to endure. His heart of gold was often buried deeply beneath his gruff exterior, but it was there nonetheless. I was also always deeply impressed with his skills at the myriad forms of handy work I mentioned above, and in my earliest years, I wanted to be a carpenter just like him (when I didn’t want to be a fireman, that is), even though it would turn out that a different path was ordained for me by the Powers That Be (give the “Powers” any label you’re comfortable with).
Now, as for whether or not being a very good material provider for family, including when one is not legally obligated to do so, is all that is required to be a good parent (or parent surrogate), and their behavior and mannerisms towards individual family members shouldn’t be factored into the level of respect they receive, is a sometimes contentious point that I’ve long disagreed with my family about. Accordingly, I will leave it to each reader to decide where they stand on this matter personally, as this particular post is not the place for me to go into my reasons for believing as I do in-depth.
When all is said and done, however, despite all the fighting my grandfather and I did through the years, I certainly owe him much, and I miss him greatly. We mellowed out immensely toward each other during the last decade of his life, and it thankfully reached the point where I often called him and considered him my buddy, just like we were in my earliest years. I’m glad he lived to see me become a published author, and he commended me on the accomplishment, even if it was never his “thing.” I’m also very thankful that my last words to him when he was still a part of this world were positive, with me telling him, “You know what? As a grandfather, you’re all right.”
Seeing this once very strong man of both body and will deteriorate in physical health during the last several years of his life was very difficult for me and the rest of the family to bear witness to, and very difficult for him too, since he was always very active and a hard worker even after his retirement. His increasing inability to do all the hard work he enjoyed around the house took a heavy toll on him emotionally, and he suffered from severe depression during his last two years of life. I did my best to understand, and I always let him know I was there for him, and made it clear our years of being at each others’ throats were long over. But I couldn’t restore to him what age and what began in his late 70s as a blood-related ailment had taken from him, and I’m sure all can relate to that feeling of abject helplessness when a loved one is going through something like that while there is nothing that we – or anyone else in the world – can do to reverse it.
As much as he always loved and valued life, he welcomed it when his time to leave this world naturally came, as he no longer enjoyed his life once the quality of it had diminished so much. I fully understood this as much as it saddened me to accept it. I think about him often, with all the regrets and the “if-only-I-tried-harder-to-get-along-with-him” lamentations as you may expect. In all honesty, there are moments I want to be angry when I think of some of the bad times, and some of the worst things he said to me when we fought, as they hurt like no one’s business, regardless of whether one would argue I deserved them or not (and doubtlessly, sometimes at least, I did); and his preference for “tough love” as a way of dealing with me has left me with some resentment issues that I’m not proud of, and detest still having as part of my emotional make-up.
But more often than the reverse, I think of the good times we had, and there were many of those. He was the life of the party at family get-togethers, and he was quite funny, charming, and entertaining to be around during the frequent times when the mood struck him. His penchant for telling insightful and amusing stories from all points in his life led to many truly unforgettable times that everyone in the family will always cherish, including me. The family loved him, and they had good reason to. In a way, I’m thankful they didn’t see his darker tendencies, even though it meant I would invariably be perceived as the stereotypical ungrateful little punk who didn’t appreciate all that he did for me whenever one of our disagreements became known outside the immediate household.
I fully admit that I was often very difficult for him to deal with, and I sincerely regret it. Whether or not he was provoking me, as he often did, is beside the point to me now. I wish we had gotten along better, but I’m very thankful for the long time my family had him around, and I really value the times we did get along. Thomas J. Nigro was a rare gem, the likes of which the world is not likely to see again, and I’m proud to carry on his legacy, even if it’s to be in a way he never expected (or maybe even bargained for!). As I said at his memorial service, I’m glad he was my grandfather, and I apologize to him for many, many things. I’ll always see to it that his memory lives on.