Breaking format this week to cross over and write about the other side of the family. It happens every once in a blue moon.
There is more Bronx in the voice than I remember, and maybe a little more depth; other than that, the slurs and contours are familiar enough.
I have not heard my maternal grandfather’s voice in the material world since March 1991.
But tonight, I am listening to a recording of my grandparents in 1985, in which Tom and Evelyn Jacobellis discuss their childhoods; their courtship and marriage; Italian funerals of the 1920s and ’30s; and any number of other things.
I had let my grandfather’s voice slide out of my head. I hadn’t thought about it in a while, and it had decayed a little, the way things do when you file them away for long periods of time.
It was a pleasure to be in the same room with him again:
Today would have been my maternal grandpa’s 99th birthday.
(I suppose I could have held this post until the second week of May 2015, for his 100th birthday. But I’m not sure I’ll still be doing this at this time next year. So, I’ll do it now.)
My grandpa was a pharmacy clerk — not a pharmacist, a pharmacy clerk — for 47 years, beginning at age 15.
Family necessities and dyslexia combined to take him out of school, while a club foot prevented him from fighting in World War II as his younger brother Frank did.
Instead, he found a job and kept it, year after year, decade after decade.
When he wasn’t working, he was reading (not without difficulty), trying to catch up on anything that would help him further his lot in life. He caught on to what the stock market could do to extend his money, and over time, he did quite well.
(I remember him advising me to make my money go to work for me. The concept of an employer-matched 401(k) would have earned his hearty endorsement.)
As a point of pride, he earned his GED a few months before my mother earned her high school diploma. I don’t imagine going back to school well into his 40s was easy, but he stuck with it. The pride was still audible in his voice, two decades later:
My brother and I called my grandfather Pool Boy, after the pool table in his basement in Stamford.
It wasn’t even his table, as it turned out; it was my uncle’s, and when my grandpa moved to Rochester in the mid-’80s, the table stayed in Connecticut. But the nickname was well-entrenched by then, and he stayed Pool Boy for the rest of his life.
To us he was almost something of a cartoon character — a quirky, warm, cigar-chewing personality with a knack for malapropisms and mispronunciations, and a man whose name was synonymous with retirement relaxation.
I’m not sure we understood — and how could we? — how hard he’d worked to get to that point, and where he’d come from, and what dues he’d paid to earn his leisure.
Listening to the family history recording, I’m struck by his recollections of tenement New York:
I wonder what he thought of his grandsons sometimes — their relatively cushy summer jobs at supermarkets and fast-food outlets, and their long hair, and their cruise through a well-supported suburban educational system.
I imagine he was glad to see us get those kinds of opportunities, but I wonder if he thought a childhood on Easy Street didn’t do as much to build character.
(He would have been right. I have never considered myself in his class as an intelligent, grounded, prudent, savvy adult. I often feel I am a callow but well-camouflaged 17-year-old, mucking around unprepared in deeper and deeper waters. I doubt my grandpa ever had that feeling.)
But, so be it. My grandpa lived his life, and now I’m living mine.
And ultimately, despite the wonders of recording technology, I have to do it out of reach of his voice.