“…As those caissons go rolling along.”
I was sitting on Grandpa’s lap and turned my head to ask, “Grandpa, what’s a caisson?”
We had rolled down the hall from the living room and across the tiny kitchen. Grandpa stopped his wheelchair precisely at the back door. He was in the middle of his grand flourish, swiveling to face Grandma as the song ended. Grandma glanced at us, her mouth crunched up like she’d just bitten into a lemon. Ut-oh. I leaned back against Grandpa’s chest and stared down at my knees, dangling between the stumps of Grandpa’s legs. He chuckled and we took off again, but he did sing a different song.
“Roll me over in the clover! Roll me over and do it again!”
“Harry!” The shout from the kitchen made him laugh. I had no idea why.
I don’t remember how old I was, had to be between the ages of six and nine because we moved to the house in Schenectady, NY when I was five and lived six houses down from my father’s parents. Our house was in the middle of the block, theirs was at the end of the block – a red brick one-story two bedroom with a tiny bath and kitchen but a huge attic and basement. At some point before my eleventh birthday, both of them had died and we moved to Clifton Park.
They were both really old by the time we moved to the house on Myron Street in Schenectady. Mom and Dad married after college, a few years after WWII, and didn’t have my brother until 1951. I missed out on getting to visit my grandpa’s high class Italian restaurant in the city, when they lived in a huge Victorian home off of Route 7. (That house is still there, hidden behind massive trees. Last I heard, it was an Assisted Living Home for the elderly.) I do have a very nebulous memory of sitting at the counter of Grandpa’s diner. That was located on Erie Boulevard, near the train station. There’s a faded photograph of me with a soda fountain coca-cola glass that’s so tall it’s as high as the top of my head, but, sorry, the printer’s dead so I can’t scan in pictures.
Grandma and Grandpa were excellent cooks. They were from the Old Country. No one’s alive now who remembers exactly when they came over from Italy (someday, I’ll look it up, but the urge to write their stories down has hit, so I’ll do it later), but they embraced the American Dream at full throttle. They learned English, struggling to remove as much “wop” accent as they could. They worked hard and fulfilled the dream of owning their own businesses. Yes, plural. They had the fancy restaurant, the diner, and, later, when I was little, Grandma’s secondhand store, Treasures & Trash. That was on Erie Boulevard, too, not far from the big General Electric plant where my daddy worked as an ad writer.
Grandma’s store was crammed full of tables covered in glassware. Display cases full of jewelry formed an aisle to the back wall where huge pieces of furniture gathered dust. The best jewelry, the antiques, the real stuff, sat in a display case in my grandparents’ house. You’d walk in the front door and the first thing you’d see (and make sure you didn’t bump into) was that glass case full of sparkling diamond rings and thick fancy bracelets and necklaces. We weren’t allowed to open that case or touch anything, but we could look, and we did. My sisters and I would drool over those pretty baubles, picking out our favorites. Shortly after Grandpa died, Grandma did open the display case and told us to pick out our favorite piece of jewelry.
My sisters chose big, bold pieces. I had my eyes on a ring no one else wanted. “That’s so plain and small, and it’s not real gold,” my older sister sneered.
Grandma smiled and explained, “Yes, it is. It’s white gold and those two rectangular gems are black sapphires. The diamond is a half carat, pure and clean. You have a good eye, Eileen.” She handed my choice to me and I slipped it onto my ring finger. It was too loose for my ten year old finger, but it was beautiful. The diamond sat clutched in six prongs above a delicate filigree cage of tiny vines. On either side of it, sat the two black sapphires, so dark a blue they did look black until the light hit them and a blue glow woke within. Grandma wrote down our choices on a piece of paper, put the jewelry back and tucked the paper in a corner of the case. “When I die, make sure your father gives you these. This is your inheritance. Don’t let her steal them from you.”
Yeah, Grandma A and my mom hated each other. Dad was Gram’s late-in-life baby and her only son. He was a mama’s boy, a rotund little kid, spoiled by his mother and two older sisters. He did rebel, finally, and at eighteen, joined the Marines and was sent into the Pacific Arena to fight during World War II. When he returned, he was a lean and handsome man who immediately dashed off to college to avoid being dumped into the family business. He had absolutely no interest in working in or owning a restaurant. He wanted to be a writer and an actor. Then, he got married.
Married to a woman his mother didn’t approve of, a flighty, vain, wanna-be actress, a woman three years older than him who was also the daughter of the black sheep in her family. The only thing Grandma could like about Mom was that she was full-blooded Italian and could cook. Of course, Mom wasn’t as good a cook as a Grandma – no way was she going to leave a pot of spaghetti sauce on the back burner at a low simmer for days, tossing in the dinner leftovers from the week. Nope, my mom was a modern woman, with a job, and she enjoyed the convenience of canned tomatoes and sauce. I never had the heart to tell my mother that Grandma’s Sunday sauce was heavenly compared to hers, thick, rich, full of bits of mystery meats and veggies.
Grandpa was retired by then, probably because of the ice skating accident that took his second leg. It got infected, developed gangrene, and was amputated at the knee. No one ever revealed how he lost his first leg. From Grandma’s reaction to any talk, or songs, from the war, we kids suspected he lost it back then. Damn, how I wish someone had told us more about them – I don’t even know if Grandpa was in WWI! The contradiction here was their extreme reaction to their son joining the Marines. They were completely against it. If Grandpa was in the first world war, wouldn’t he be proud of his son enlisting in the second one? Ah, there’s a small mystery we’ll never solve.
The tidbits of stories have been in my family for years. Helen B. was a young Polish girl who wanted to escape to America (ironic how Grandma was Polish, but wanted her children to marry full-blooded Italians. Maybe that was to please Grandpa.). She was in love with Captain Francisco and after one more trip, he would have enough money to take her with him across the ocean. Her beau never returned from the sea. As she approached the age of spinsterhood, another man limped into her life.
Harry A. was from a successful Italian family. Their restaurant was the star of the town. But Harry wanted more – he dreamed of owning his own business in America. Was it a marriage of convenience? Did he marry Helen to help her or to appease his family by being wed before he left them? I don’t know. They were cordial to each other, and Grandma took excellent care of him, but they didn’t act like they loved each other.
I remember seeing pictures of Grandpa standing on one leg in the dining room of his restaurant, balanced on two canes, but my memories begin with him in the wheelchair. Did my older brother and sister ever play the wheelchair game with him? I know my little sister did. We’d fight over who would get to ride first. I was eighteen months older, so I always won. Christine was lighter and it was better for her to be second – Grandpa would be getting tired by then.
It was wonderful to sit straight down in the middle of Grandpa’s lap and hang on for dear life to the armrests. I’d wrap my legs around the leg supports he didn’t need, not the least bit squeamish about being tucked between his stumps. It never occurred to us to think of him as handicapped; he was just Grandpa. He had strong thighs and they would help keep me from sliding off his lap.
That was important. He’d dip his head down to whisper, “Ready, ma bella?” All I could do was nod, for we’d be off! He’d push away from the front door, his strong arms and hands propelling us down the hallway at top speed. His chest would thrum as he bellowed out a song. To the back door, pivot, and race away again. Three turns each, and then he would have to rest quietly in the living room with Grandma fussing over him. She would shoo Christine and me up to the attic, where we could play dress up in all her vintage gowns and jump around on a huge old bed…but that’s a story for another day.
Oh, and he never answered my question. I had to ask it again one day when I heard my father singing the same song. “Daddy, what’s a caisson?”
It was an ammunition wagon used in World War I. Maybe Grandpa really was in that war…