Thank you all for being here. We may not all be family, but this man we came to honor connects us.
The day before I flew here I worked two of my jobs. I did this willingly, though I wish I could blame it on a scheduling snafu. The timing wasn’t the best, but I thought of my Pop. He taught me a lot of things, not the least of which was an exemplary work ethic. He was a very hard worker, though I never once heard him complain about an early morning or late night at the Cottage Bar. The bar wasn’t just his work; it was his life. I work as a massage therapist, a writer, and a waitress and I’m fortunate to love everything I do. It isn’t work, it is life, and it’s a true gift to have little differentiation between the two. I wish for you all to be so lucky.
Speaking of differentiation, my pop taught me when I was very little the difference between liking someone and loving someone. Love was more of a responsibility, and like was more of a choice. He explained that we might not always like and love a person at the same time—and that’s okay—but when you do, it’s priceless. We ended every one of our conversations and letters with L&L. We truly liked and loved each other.
I have so many cards and letters from my pop. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever thrown a single one away. I have carted them back and forth across the country and from home to home. I’ve often sat with a cup of tea—his favorite beverage after beer—and pored over those handwritten notes. In honor of him, I’d like to ask each of you to send as many handwritten notes as you can to all of the people who mean something to you. It doesn’t matter if you spend four dollars on a special card or grab a piece of scrap paper. Just send the notes. They mean a great deal more to the person receiving them than the time it takes to do it. Don’t delay. Do it tomorrow.
My grandfather taught me how to be both frugal and generous, and how there are appropriate times for both. I think of him all the time, even when doing a mundane task like putting money in a parking meter. Do I put a quarter in when I might only need a dime’s worth of time? Do I risk the ticket if the line in the store is longer than I expected? Or do I save that fifteen cents, letting it add up for a rainy day? The answer isn’t the same every time, but he taught me sound reasoning skills too.
He also taught me how to ask for what I want and need, and he did this through modeling the behavior. For example, he hated a warm beer, so would always ask for a small glass—not a pint glass—but would offer to pay full price. He just wanted what he wanted.
I loved to pour his Heineken for him when he came to visit my mom and me in Connecticut, but he was clear that beer should never be poured into a glass that milk had ever been in. I don’t know the reason for it. I suppose it altered the taste or made it go flat. It didn’t matter what the reason was. He had his, and I accepted it.
Joe accepted a lot of things, but not everything. When his doctor told him to cut back on his beer he did. He switched from Heineken to Amstel Light. Knowing him, you’d expect no greater concession.
He lived a long life—just a month shy of ninety-two—and I think it can be said without doubt that he lived so long because he was happy. He loved his work and took immense pride in it. He spent quality time with his family and his friends, and really, what else is there?
Don’t skimp on spending time with your family and friends. My grandfather would drive two-hours round-trip to Connecticut for lunch. It wasn’t the amount of time, it was the fact that he did it and we were all fully present together. We didn’t just get together for holidays. We did it all the time. He would drive to Connecticut exhausted. He’d have lunch, take a snooze, and head back to work. When I was a new baby he’d drive three and a half hours through the night to see Maureen and me. That’s dedication.
When I was twenty-one and leaving the east coast for the first time, he and Mimi showed up at 6:00 am with a dozen still warm bagels for me to bring on the road with me. They came for hugs and kisses too, and it meant the world. It still does and always will.
I was in high school when he first gave me a small manila envelope with a dime in it so I could call him anytime. He wrote: call if you need anything. When the rates changed he gave me a new envelope with a quarter in it and the same note. Then I got my very own calling card so I would never be without a way to call him. It took him awhile to understand how cell phones worked, and he was always concerned that he dial my number so the call wouldn’t be on my nickel.
He always wanted me to have money for a meal and a drink, and would save the winnings from his pool games in a piggy bank that he called “porky,” which he’d “take for a walk” and send me a check for the amount with a note to take myself and a friend out for a “burger and a beer.”
I felt guilty at times for my wanderings, and for not sticking closer to home. Mimi told me that Poppy would be happiest if Mimi, Mommy, and I were all sitting together on the front stoop, but that wasn’t reality, and she told me that if I was happy then they were happy. I’m happy.
I left NY and CT sixteen years ago, and have not returned here to live, but the life I’ve made in Missoula, Montana ironically resembles the life that my family had on the west side of Manhattan—the old neighborhood. It is a place where most of us live within a mile of each other. We watch each other’s kids, walk each other’s dogs, water each other’s gardens, have impromptu dinners. We stop by. We sit in yards and on porches. We talk about how we’ll talk about this someday. It breaks my heart—more so in the past few years—that I’ve heard so many stories about the old neighborhood that no longer exists except in memories and photographs.
Houses and buildings get torn down all the time and replaced with newer structures or not at all, leaving the land to grow wild, but those people can still go to where their ancestors lived, and they can look at the surroundings—mountains, trees, bodies of water—and see what their relatives saw. This isn’t the case in Manhattan where the ever-changing skyline dictates the view. But despite my sadness for the loss of my family’s old neighborhood I have an intense love for this city. I was born in Maryland and raised in Connecticut, but when people ask me where I’m from I always say “New York.” I know where I come from; I come from good people. If you were a part of Joe’s life, then you’ve been a part of mine, and I sincerely thank you all.
I don’t know if my Pop could imagine the life I’ve created in Montana—he never traveled more than a few hundred miles from New York City after he arrived home from the war, and rarely spent a night away from home—but I know that now he can see me, and I know he’s giving me and my community a big wink and smile. In the days following his death but before I flew out, I felt his presence with me in Missoula. I had never felt it before, but I felt like he was there with me saying, “I get it now; this is a good place. I know why my number one girl wants to live here.” I wouldn’t be surprised if he was sitting in one of Missoula’s neighborhood taverns there right now!
My pop taught me about surrounding myself with people I love and respect, and to always keep good company. I don’t remember him ever judging anyone with his kind heart, but he picked his companionship carefully and took friendship seriously.
He taught me to commit myself to whatever it is I do and to do it well. He didn’t say these words, but I believe the sentiment was to love what you do and you’ll love who you are.
My pop taught me by example how to love without abandon. When I was about four years old he took me up Greenpoint Avenue to buy mixers for the bar. He told me I could get a treat at the KeyFood, but I found two that I wanted. He said I could get both and I told him I loved him. Then he took one away. He told me you should love people for who they are, not for what they give you. I must have looked at him like he’d lost his mind—I was too young for that lesson—so he gave the treat back and let me have both. That lesson was repeated over the years and eventually I could comprehend it. And it stuck, like good grandpa lessons do.
He gave me everything I ever needed—materially and emotionally—and allowed me a world of opportunity that I never took for granted. And I never took him for granted either; he was a moral compass for my life whether we were neighbors or not.
Over the past six months that he was on his slow, downhill slide, I wanted to see him every day, but it wasn’t what he wanted. He didn’t want me to see him in his deteriorating state. I respected his wishes and didn’t visit. Every time my mom asked my pop if he wanted me to come he made a gesture to indicate clearly that he did not. I decided last week that it was time. It was time for me to see him, and at the very least it was time I visit with my mom and Mimi, offer them whatever support I could and maybe get them to laugh a little.
When my mom told him I was coming he cried, and a few days later he let go and passed on. Yes, I’m sad I won’t get to hold his hand again, kiss him on his smooth forehead, listen to his wonderful stories, and assure him that I’m taking good care of myself. But that wasn’t what he wanted, and the old guy got his way until the very end. God Bless Him. I don’t think anyone here would expect anything less from Joe.
So. Send the cards. Be the moral compass for someone. Don’t be afraid to tell anyone how you feel. Tell your people you like them and that you love them. Give freely of your love with no strings attached. Send someone a couple of bucks for a burger and a beer. Make sure your loved ones always know they can call for help or just a hello. Hold people close, but don’t be afraid to let them go.
This is sounding like a graduation speech, but I do think it is a kind of commencement. Eckhart Tolle said, “Death is not the opposite of life. Life has no opposite. The opposite of death is birth.” I like that. There really are no endings, just new beginnings.
And I’ll conclude with two Irish blessings:
May you always have walls for the winds,
a roof for the rain, tea beside the fire,
laughter to cheer you, those you love near you,
and all your heart might desire.
May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.