My grandfather taught me to live a full life; to fill my days to the brim. My grandfather was a larger than life human being. His energy came from an inner child hidden somewhere inside his busy body. His hands could fix any broken piece of furniture. His arms could tackle any grandchild running his way. His raspy voice could carry from one block to another (I will never forget how he called my Grammy’s name, “Jean!”). His eyes would well up after reading one sentence of a Christmas card. His laughter erupted from the depths of his belly and would almost exasperate him entirely if giggling too hard… and he did that often. His innocence made him frustratingly endearing. His love for his family was endless as ours was for him. Our intimate group of 16 was his pride and his joy. And we miss him, a lot.
My initial interest in traveling to Italy stemmed from my grandfather’s devotion to his homeland. As a first generation Italian-American, my grandfather’s father and mother spoke of their hometowns in Calabria often (you know how Italians are). Needless to say, my grandfather was full bred, proud Italian man who never got his opportunity to visit the “homeland.” Only a few months before his passing, I remember how excited I was to share that my upcoming travels would be on Italian ground. Little did I know that the nature of my visit to southern Italy would be so different months later.
As I write this looking across the ocean to Calabria, I have to confess that my grandfather is the person I’ve thought of most often while I’ve been in Italy. I imagine him walking into tiny, hole in the wall pizzerias and giving the cooks hell. I picture him entering empty, quiet churches, wide eyed at the sight of their grandeur. I imagine him in the markets, selling knick knacks and ripe tomatoes. This country screams of his spirit.
Every summer, my entire family on my mother’s side would travel and stay together in Stone Harbor, New Jersey. A clean, quaint little beach town that my grandfather deemed himself king of. Taormina is what I would imagine would be my grandfather’s paradise. An Italian seaside town, busy with people bustling back and forth between the ocean and their residences, munching on fresh food and toting around their families. And best of all, right across the skyline is… Calabria.
This morning, at a stone covered beach only a few minutes away from our apartment, I released my grandfather’s ashes into Taormina’s ocean. Its current will lead him to his homeland, a place he always dreamed of visiting one day. One of his final journeys will be to his deeply rooted place of familial ties and personal identity. A small symbolic gesture never seemed so insanely meaningful to me before.
To my family, I love you and I miss you dearly. I wish you all could have been there beside me today. Being without you for this moment seemed unfair, but I wanted to write this post for you all to experience some of it with me. Moments after releasing Pop Pop’s ashes, I collected five tiny stones for each of the families. They all were bunched together in a little pod and it seemed like a sign to gather them to take back home to you all as a small memento. To my readers, thank you taking the time to read this deeply personal post. I hope you gained a sense of how important this trip south has been. To my Pop Pop, how can I thank you enough for your devotion to our family and for the seemingly endless amount of memories you’ve left us? I love you. Thank you.