Growing up, Halloween was always spent at my grandparents’ house, because we lived in a condo which didn’t allow us to go trick or treating, but mainly because it was my aunt’s birthday on Halloween, and my Nonno’s birthday on November 1st.
So every year, my parents would pick us up from school and we would go to their house, eat and get ready and make our way out to collect our candy. Once we were back, we would have cake.
My Nonno used to hate the hoopla. Or rather, I think he pretended to hate it.
The definition of a strong, silent type, my Nonno Fabio was the only grandfather I ever knew, as my mother lost her father when she was just a little girl. He was tall, strong and didn’t like it when people made a fuss about him.
He was a hard-working man, supporting his family of five kids as a mason for Ontario Housing. I was about 10 years old, and remember going to a party to celebrate his retirement. The clearest memory I have of that day is that he was miserable. He didn’t want to retire. But back then, when you hit 65, you retired. Period.
My brother and I spent a lot of Saturdays and entire summers at my grandparents’ house. And Nonno would always be in his garden.
To say he had a green thumb would be a huge understatement. My grandfather’s tomatoes were the things legends are made of. His garden was his passion. My uncle’s old hockey sticks acted as stakes to hold up the plants. Those plants were meticulously lined up, row by row, in a garden that spanned the entire width of the backyard, easily 7-8 feet deep. He had pear and plum trees, flower gardens and the pièce de résistance was his fig tree.
My grandfather didn’t just garden, he tended, he nurtured and he loved those plants and trees. He took over part of the neighbours’ yard to grow tomatoes too, and even had access to the neighbours’ yards behind him.
Did I mention that he spoke very little English? He managed to communicate with all the neighbours, and us, with very few issues. He did like to drop the F-bomb once in a while, which would always make my brother and I laugh.
My brother used to sneak into the garden and pick a tomato here and there, but my grandfather knew. He saw the footprints, or knew the way a leaf was bent, that somebody other than himself had entered his sanctuary.
Speaking of footprints, one of my favourite stories my father tells is when Nonno found a footprint at the base of the fig tree. Somebody had taken a fig without asking him. That was a huge no-no, as it was my mother who used to get the first fig of the season.
So what did my Nonno do when he found the footprint? He covered it with plywood and then proceeded to take every male in the family to the print in order to compare their foot and the size of their shoe, to find the culprit.
I don’t know if he ever solved the mystery, but it sure did speak to his passion.
Aside from his garden, he loved to hunt, fish and go for walks. Some of those walks were thanks to my Nonna sending him to the store in order to get him out of her hair. Often for one thing at a time; more than once a day. He didn’t drive, although deep down I think he thought he could if he tried. So off he would go, down the street to the local Italian bakery or grocery store, to pick up a container of oil that was on sale, or whatever else she needed.
He would sometimes bring us a chocolate bar as a surprise treat, or ask us if we wanted anything. One time, I asked him for a bag of ketchup chips. I can still remember the look on his face; ketchup?!
He actually went to the fridge to hold up the bottle of ketchup, to make sure he knew I said what he thought I said. And when I said yes, I’m pretty sure he thought I was insane. But he found them, and brought them home to me. And I remember he even tried one after lunch, but wasn’t a fan.
While my grandfather wasn’t always the softest person, meaning all lovey-dovey, he was still a softie. He would often be upstairs “watching TV”, [read: sleeping] when we would go over and visit, and my grandmother would instantly point us to go upstairs to say hi. I remember tip-toeing quietly, so I wouldn’t wake him up, but he usually did, giving us a kiss and a nod.
He loved his family, and especially loved having his grandchildren around. That meant that we spent every holiday in the basement of their house, my brother and I trying to keep busy, or watch TV as my grandfather and all his kids, their spouses and my cousins played poker at the table.
One of things I will always remember about him was how he would come to driveway to see us off when we left his house. That meant that no matter how much in a hurry you were to leave, you better back out of that driveway slowly and carefully. Their house is on a major street, so that is tricky as it is, let alone with him standing there, watching you like a hawk. As kids, we would wave goodbye from the backseat, and as an adult, I would wave to him as I chanted to myself, smile and go slow, smile and go slow….
This is a habit my father now does at his house, waving as we drive away.
I remember when I moved out of my parents’ house, to live with a couple of friends. The house I lived in wasn’t too far from my grandparent’s house, so sometimes I would stop by, and my grandmother would feed me. When she found out that I moved out, she would stockpile me with sauce, fruit and jarred peppers and pears. But she always told me NOT to tell my Nonno that I didn’t live at home. She didn’t think he would take it too well that an unmarried girl was living with friends. So I would lie, and always have to tell him that I was in the area for work, when I stopped by alone and not with my parents. I guess it was easier than having him worry about me, which he would have done for sure.
Another memory I have was shortly after my parents and I moved into a cute bungalow in the west side, and my grandfather agreed to help my dad fix up the backyard. Well, the plan was for my father to go and pick him up, as I mentioned he didn’t drive. But that morning, I heard the sound of a shovel hitting dirt, and since I was the one who had a room facing the backyard, I pulled back the drapes before six o’clock in the morning, to find Nonno getting a head start on the work.
He took the bus at the crack of dawn, from Toronto to Etobicoke, as he couldn’t be bothered to wait for my father to go and get him. And he probably thought we were all lazy and still sleeping at 6am.
That was my Nonno.
A hardworking, dedicated, family man who was never afraid to get his hands dirty or help someone out.
He died on March 3, 2002. He was 83 years old. I wrote and read the Eulogy, which was one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life.
Two years later, when I met my husband, and realized that his father’s family was from the same region of Italy as my grandparents. It was then that I got to know my grandfather a little better, which sounds weird, since he wasn’t around any longer.
I discovered that my Nonno used to go fishing with my husband’s uncle. His uncle said that he stayed with my grandfather when he came to Canada, until he found his own place.
At my wedding I learned even more. Early on in the evening, one of my in-law’s friends asked me if my grandfather’s name was “Fab-iuch”. I found that odd, as I had heard some of his friends call him that, and maybe my grandmother once in a while, but not a complete stranger. When I said, his name was Fabio, their faces lit up. Word spread quickly, and suddenly a lot of my in-laws friends, most from the same small town in Abruzzi, were lining up to speak to my grandmother. It was my grandfather that had helped them in some way or another when they came to Canada.
It was a beautiful moment.
It may be fourteen years since he’s left this world, but he will always be in my heart. And every Halloween, the memories flood back.
He would have loved my husband and the Little Bird and the Little Mouse. He would love my nephews and lives my brother and I created. I think he would have loved that I married somebody with the same background as him and my grandmother in Abruzzi.
Buon compleanno, Nonno. I hope your gardens in heaven are always in full bloom.