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Sunday With My Grandfather

“Those few years were enough for me to understand that he was a unique man and an unconventional grandfather, while still perfectly embodying the characteristics of Italian grandparents.”

Dressed in brown tweed, his long face peeks out from under a cap and matching jacket. In the summer, he wears a white or beige short-sleeved shirt, undershirt clearly showing. Wearing his ever-present wristwatch and always freshly shaven. My grandfather’s serious expression is that of all Italians who have endured hunger, war, and poverty, topped by a lack of affection from old-fashioned parents and the invisible chains of familial status, bonds impossible to escape.

“Sir Giulio”, affectionately and ironically called Giulietto (meaning little Giulio), is a monolith of a man almost two meters (6’6”) tall, who sports a suit and tie even on Sundays. Actually, even more so on Sundays. A symbol of bygone Italian customs upheld past their prime. Giulietto was my grandfather only for a few years, but he was my father’s father for many more. I didn’t need to be a grown up to decipher his silences, to read those unpredictably lively eyes, so different from his plodding ways. Those few years were enough for me to understand that he was a unique man and an unconventional grandfather, while still perfectly embodying the characteristics of Italian grandparents.

Sunday is my grandfather’s special day. He rises early, because that’s what he’s used to doing. He doesn’t go to church, as it doesn’t interest him. He has breakfast at the coffee bar, like he does every day, and like always he buys for his friends. A generosity often unappreciated, as many cunningly wait for him just to score a free coffee or a bite. But he is a gentleman and he pays no mind. He tips well and is liked by all the baristas, not to mention the waiters. When one wants to dine out, substantially and well, he is the man for the job. In his jacket pocket he carries a small leather-bound book listing the contact details of all the restaurants that have satisfied him over the years. There is no area of ​​Rome and its surroundings that is not covered by his very own Michelin-style guide. These are not fancy places, quite the contrary. They are trattorias that still bear the owner’s name such as “Peppe’s”, “Ada e Mario”, “Salvi Brothers” and so on. When he is hungry, he consults his booklet, chooses where to eat and off he goes, always managing to have a table set aside for him. His restaurateur friends do it not only out of friendship, but also because he is the ideal customer: he has simple tastes and eats enough for two people.

Otherwise, he eats at home, but not his. He probably only knows how to prepare a fried egg and coffee. After all, he was used to hard-working women in the kitchen, the founders and upholders of Italian dining traditions: the mother, wife, and mother-in-law, followed by the next generation with his daughter-in-law. So, on Sundays, he takes his cream-colored Fiat 124, kept like a jewel and washed once a week, literally every time he uses it, and cuts through the neighborhood to get to my house. He stops at a bakery to pick up a large tray of pastries, enough to feed an army. In our doorway he looks huge, a gray figure in stark contrast to the pink pastry wrap. Nonno Giulio is a simple man and always true to himself. His arrivals don’t change: at Easter he shows up with the traditional sweet bread or chocolate eggs, on Ferragosto with ice cream. He doesn’t come for Christmas, because he goes to my aunt’s house.

He wanders around our house slowly, shuffling his feet, not because he has trouble walking but because he is idle. Like many Italian grandparents, now that he no longer needs his hands for work, he doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Either he drops them to his sides, or he holds them behind his back, in that typical old man pose. His meanderings take him to the sofa, his favorite place after the dining table. He watches cycling on TV (a sport I still associate with him to this day) or football (soccer). He cheers for a team different from mine but he doesn’t boast about it or rise to my bait. His latest weakness is laughable; South American soap operas repurposed for Italian viewers. Sometimes he makes a comment about an actress, admiring the legs on this one or that one. He points them out to me on the tv and I notice his large, wrinkled hand, skin like parchment. Every now and then I pinch the back of his hand, to see how long it takes for it to return to its shape. I try to write on it with colored pencils but he tells me, a little annoyed, not to get him dirty. I hear his voice, tinny and distant as if originating from deep within. Then he goes back to staring at the screen.

At the dinner table he sits and eats for hours. Plate after plate of pasta, soup, meat, fish, potatoes, vegetables, as if the world was to end tomorrow. Then dessert and his beloved fruit. To please him, my mother peels it for him, and he, who no longer stands on formalities, would eat a ton. When my father points this out to him, he complains “You let me eat too much!”

Giulietto is like that. He is not a good-natured man and he never appreciated or respected the opportunities that life presented him. His slow and listless pace reflects his soul, and even though he was a career man, he always lacked aspiration. He worked his entire life and earned good money, but with nothing to show for it except his Fiat 124. To note, Italians of his generation are of two camps: those with foresight who invested, bought houses and helped children and grandchildren, or grandparents like him, who thought the economic boom would last forever. Instead, he ended up with little, squandering everything buying meals for friends who turned their backs on him in his time of need. He didn’t invest in looking after his family, his children, because his wife, my grandmother, took care of these things. When she died, he didn’t even know where to find clean underwear. Her absence shrunk his demeanor, despite his physical size.

Whether at a restaurant or home, in the car or during his walks, he was always silent, with a thoughtful air; no one had access to his thoughts. There were few heartfelt smiles, even rarer laughs. In old Super 8 family films we see him waving goodbye after lunch, heading down to the bar to play cards or to watch a football match. Sometimes he took me to a shop to pick out a gift, teaching me to go to the prettiest cashier.

He was never an affectionate grandfather or father, but he was good without being sharp. He kept out of family arguments out of fear or disinterest, not into trends, and out of touch with the times as the world moved faster. In 1954, he was the first in the neighborhood to buy a television, but he was wary of that new tool called a washing machine. A man of contradictions and an obtuse mind, who perhaps opened up more with friends than with his lifelong partner.

He lived through war, poverty, prosperity, then poverty again as he kept up appearances, old age and illness, but nothing seems to have affected him. Or maybe everything did. He was just passing through and he lived as if he knew it. In the end he left this world the way he left my home: he watched some sports, ate his fill, then he got up and left. He did so in silence, shuffling his feet and raising his eyebrow at me, slyly, as if to say “Bye, see you next Sunday”.

Photography by Charles H. Traub