Last week was sort of surreal. My grandfather, John Carollo, passed away at 89. I was lucky in that I got a few more moments of him opening his eyes to look at me, I also feel - and this is terrible to admit - but relieved he wont have to deal with any more confusion or pain from getting older and alzheimer’s disease. During that week I flew into Cleveland twice and had my company laptop with me the whole time. We’re finishing a large contract, and since this was the first major one they put me on, I was stretched a little thin. My bosses were very understanding, but in a way - having something to do I think helped me a little. Honestly though, I’m still very sad - for my family and because I should have spent more time with him. Visited more. I know everyone says that, but I regret it nonetheless.
Let me tell you about my Papa John
He was creative in a way that most men would shy away from - he made sparkly splatter paintings, clocks, lamps with horse shoes my mother would send him from the farm - what he did was build and create, it made him happy to be creative, and he was. I have two pieces from him. One is a splatter painting with wild colors and sparkly paint. He liked to tell the story about how his secretaries (he was a successful Elevator Man) loved his paintings and he’d sell them for $20 a pop, which made him laugh. He couldn’t believe that anyone would want the paintings that he made just for fun. They look like Jackson Pollack’s. But instead of making them in a drunken-addled state with expressive hand movements and throws - he used a drinking straw. In a very meticulous way he would squeeze out the color he wanted and then take a straw and blow to get the sort of splatter he wanted. Whereas Pollack beat the canvass, my grandfather treated the experience with a more reverent approach. I’m not saying that my grandfather excelled Jackson Pollock in art, but I would never trade the one splatter painting I have from John Carollo for all the Pollocks in the world. Did I mention…my grandfather was colorblind?
He was also a WWII Veteran. He signed up. He spoke Italian, he used to tell me he helped capture spies.
His parent’s were successful bootleggers, his mother ran the kitchen in a speakeasy and people came to her for advice - pertaining to matters of the living and the dead.
He spent a lot of time with a black family that lived next door to his childhood home. They took care of the Carollo children and left a strong mark in their own perception of right and wrong, regardless of social norms.
He liked to laugh and make jokes.
He kept a list of all the Cleveland cops on his father’s payroll - just in case.
He had girlfriends.
He took me to my first Italian market and everyone behind the various cured meats and pasta counters called out to him, “Johnnie, Johnnie, come stai, how are you?”
He took us to art museums.
He wore hats, and he was usually very tan - at least when he would visit Texas.
He wore too much Old Spice.
He never made me feel afraid, as grandfathers sometimes can.
He was a model.
He taught a football team.
We ate cannolis at his funeral and drank wine. My mom and I hid the “good” wine under a cabinet in the funeral home. He didn’t look like himself in the open casket. I’m grateful that my cousin Mathew spent many hours glueing together two posters filled with pictures of him. That might seem tacky to an outsider, but when a man as happy, talented and a joy to everyone around him like Papa John was - you’d want a collage there.
I know this is a disjointed view of him. I also know it’s important for me to write down memories. When he passed away I got this terrible feeling that a very distinct link to who I am, who my family is, was gone. But this isn’t wholly true. If I tell my own children the stories about the man that the Cleveland police apologized to for putting in the drunk tank one college night, while his father strolled in, or the man that knew he’d marry the girl in her 20s who still climbed trees, or the grandfather that called me in highschool to make sure I was just okay (and to get the names of boys harassing me) - if I remember all of these stories and share them then I’m lucky to have that little bit of him.