One Summer Too Late: Why You Shouldn’t Wait
Papa would be 92 today had he lived.
In many ways, I knew Papa better than my own dad, by virtue of the fact that Papa lived with us for the eight years prior to his death. Shared living conditions, day-to-day interactions, create an intimacy that is hard to duplicate over the spread of a couple thousand miles. Also, my dad—both of my parents, actually—died relatively young, at 67. I never had the opportunity to know them well into old age. We were robbed of that, and if you want the Naked Truth, I’m still kind of pissed off about it.
So, Papa would be 92. He would’ve been the coolest 92-year-old on the planet, as anyone who ever met him would agree. One of his signature lines was, “I’m not trying to make a fashion statement,” the irony being that he was a fashion statement, with his omnipresent suspenders and colorful T-shirts, TED hose, and black Nike sneakers. He was a devout Catholic, a physician, a USAF colonel and liaison to the CIA, hospital administrator, flight surgeon, Law & Order aficionado, CSI Miami fan, reader of books, amateur chef, avid boater, fisherman, world traveler, and loving grandpa. And that’s all just off the top of my head.
I concocted the brilliant idea to interview him about his life. I had visions of sitting with him in his “nest,” as he referred to his in-law suite, with a recorder set to “on,” while he detailed his earliest memories as a child growing up on Long Island and entertained me with story after story of his life. I already knew some anecdotes about Joe the Barber (“Probably mafia,” Papa said), a Fabergé egg (“The real deal, just beautiful,”), ushering at the Metropolitan Opera (“I saw all the great ones,”), and working at the Pentagon (“I retired because they wanted me to sit at a desk and ‘make policy.’ What does that even mean?”). My plan was to gather all the information, ghostwrite it, and publish it into a book for my children—not to sell, just so they’d have their grandpa’s life chronicled in his own words.
Timing is everything. I waited one summer too long. The Papa Project was on my list of things to do, but the dear man fell ill and died on us. All those stories lost, gone with his last breath.
I guess maybe I’m pissed off about that, too.
Loss is part of life, of course. We all know that—which is all the more reason not to take time for granted. Someone here today may not be here tomorrow. Nothing is promised to us except the moment we’re in.
I wasn’t quite 40 when my parents died, too busy working and raising my family to think about journaling their stories. The thought never crossed my mind. And Papa—what was I thinking, waiting until “next summer” to record his memories? He was almost 89 for heaven’s sake. We children seem to forget that as we’re ageing, our parents are ageing also. In our minds, our parents are ageless in many ways, aren’t they? No matter how old they get, we still think them capable of doing anything, like the superheroes we always suspected them to be.
One of my last memories of my mom is of the two of us running—yes, running!—to catch a plane in Logan airport. I had traveled with Mama to her 50th high school reunion in Massachusetts, and we discovered last minute that we could carry live lobsters home with us. Giggling like schoolgirls, we clutched our boxed crustaceans and hot-footed it to our departure gate. Mama ran beside me, huffing and puffing, laughing at our lack of decorum as we raced the clock. I look back now and wonder where I misplaced my common sense. Mama was 67, would die a scant three months later from heart failure, and there I was dragging her along with me at a rabbit’s pace, because God forbid we should miss our flight. Let me tell you, though, she was game. That mad dash wasn’t very smart, but it was fun for both of us. That counts for something. Still, if I could have a do-over, I’d miss the flight and sit down with my mother over a cocktail at the airport bar and let her tell me her tales.
The missed opportunities break my heart.
Do you still have your parents and grandparents with you? In-laws? Talk to them now. Record their stories. Let them tell you their anecdotes. Take it off your “to-do” list and put it on your “do it now” list. Are you another year older? Well, so are they. Don’t wait.
Thanks for hanging out with me. Leave a comment and tell me one of your tales.
See you Friday for Observations from the Tub.