FOR GRANDPA JOHN
I don’t remember the year. If I had to guess, I’d say 1958. That would make me seven years old. Our house on Tenbroeck Avenue in the Bronx had been my home since the age of ten months, and I shared a bedroom and a name with my Grandpa John. Giovanni Labruzzo had been a shoemaker by trade at his own shop in Queens, but since moving to the Bronx to live with us he was retired. His wife had died decades ago in childbirth. The baby, my uncle Vincent, died soon after birth. Grandpa John’s life was dedicated to the family that remained: his firstborn son and his only daughter, my mother. When I was born and named for him, he took on the role of my protector, my ever-present guardian. We shared a room.
Old family photos and 8mm movies tell the tale: where I was, my grandpa wasn’t far away. He was my babysitter, my playmate. And I was his. The family legend has it that when I was born, I should have been named after my father’s father in the Italian tradition. But my mother insisted that I be named after her father instead. And so I was John and not Louis. And it was years before my fraternal relatives got over the snub. But Grandpa John was proud. I was young and didn’t really know of his pride in me, but it was surely obvious to all who saw us together. This man, this Italian immigrant who arrived through Ellis Island’s gate with nothing but his cobbler skills, made a life for himself and raised two children. And in turn he had but one grandson, and that grandson carried his name! I was most certainly the joy of his life.
And while he loved me so, I was a young boy who didn’t always appreciate the extra care and interest that my grandfather showed to me. But I do remember one special night. It was New Year’s Eve and my grandpa and I were home alone—not an uncommon occurrence. My older sister was at some neighborhood sleepover, and my parents were out at a fancy dress-up affair. And I was home alone with Grandpa. I was all of seven years old and he did his best to keep me entertained and in line. Out of his view for a moment, I remember climbing up onto the kitchen stove—standing on it—and searching the cabinets above them to find hidden or forbidden treasure. My eyes caught a jar full of gold foil wrapped cubes which I retrieved and excitedly showed Grandpa. I insisted repeatedly that they were candy and that I had to have one. He relented as he often did and I bit into the salty cube to learn first hand that chicken bouillon was anything but candy!
We sat together on the sofa for hours watching TV and I struggled to keep my sleepy eyes open. But as the hour of midnight approached, I was wide awake for the big event. In those days, it seemed almost a requirement for people to celebrate wantonly at midnight and I prevailed upon Grandpa John to let me welcome in the new year with grown-up style. I gathered all the pots and pans I that could from underneath the kitchen cabinets and found a large wooden spoon. It was my intention to run out into the street in front of our house and bang the pots and pans at the stroke of midnight to welcome in the New Year in proper fashion! Grandpa John must not have seen any harm in doing so for I recall gathering up several large and deep pots for the purpose as well as a sturdy wooden spoon to act as my drumstick.
Midnight came and I rang in the New Year 1959 with a bang! In my one-piece footed pajamas, Grandpa was a step behind me as I rushed out the front door with my noisemakers and stood alone in the middle of Tenbroeck Avenue. He held a coat for me, but I busily went along banging and yelling and whooping, “Happy New Year!” No one else was out in the street. After a moment or two, Grandpa John wrapped the coat around my shoulders and led me inside. I was soon asleep, I’m sure. My grandpa must have taken me up the flights of stairs and tucked me into bed as we started another new year together.
Grandpa John died in 1964 a month shy of his 80th birthday. I was 13 years old and a freshman in high school. I remember the fall day early in the school year when a lady from the office came and found me in the school library. She told me that my grandfather had died and I was to go home immediately. I cried a bit, I remember, but I admit to realizing with some excitement that I would from then on have a room to myself. My grandpa had been sick for quite awhile before he died and, too, I was growing up. I no longer needed the constant protection he provided when I was a young child. Besides, old age had slowed him from doing the job. I don’t remember saying any sort of proper goodbye to the man whose name I was given. It was a long time ago and I was so young for the magnitude of the loss to really sink in. I see things clearly now, as I look back at old home movies and black and white prints and see Grandpa John never far from me. It’s easy to know now that I was his special boy. I carry his name and because of that we will never be separated. He is still and will always be just a step behind me. And finally this now, a proper goodbye with thanks and love. —Johnny