There is one week in April that's pretty big around my house. We refer to it as birthday week. My sons were born three years and three days apart, and the festivities usually encompass more like two weeks because we party pretty hard around here. It's pretty exhausting, er, fun. But the birthday that's been the most forefront in my mind this year is not actually one of my sons', but their great-grandfather's. He turns 94 right in between their birthdays in the middle of birthday week. Unfortunately this year he was in the hospital. He had cancer.
He was just about one of the toughest dudes I know. You have to be to get to 94. 94 is not for pansies. We visited him in the hospital last week and I can see the attributes that he's passed down to my sons. Bode in particular, is built like my grandfather was. Solid. And is also one of the toughest, hardest workers I know. Jake, on the other hand is quiet and thoughtful, and I can picture him watching the stock ticker in his golden years as Papa did. I'm so glad that both boys have had a chance to know their great grandfather. So that when they are older they might remember first hand his strong character.
I had been thinking about my Papa a lot lately. I've been doing lots of genealogy research, trying to track down more about his parents who came to the U.S. from Solerno, Italy and settled in New London. It seemed so exciting to me to research our history in another country, kind of exotic. I've hit a bit of a wall. But there are lots of handed down stories that I know about his family from my chats with him over the years. And it makes me have such a soft spot in my heart for New London. I have roots here. And instead, I'm finding out how exciting it is to discover my history right in my own city.
I never had the good fortune to know my great grandparents, but I'm glad that I thought to ask about them. My great grandmother Carmella (Coppola) Ruggiero was a midwife of sorts, she did the delivering of babies in the homes of New London. As fate would have it, my grandfather was premature. He told me that he was kept warm in a shoebox behind the stove. Like I said, he's no pansy. You can't be when a shoebox behind the stove is the neonatal intensive care unit.
The most I know of my grandfather Fransesco Ruggiero was that he had a vineyard from which he made his own wine. Papa said he kept a special barrel for himself, which was "the good stuff". I can only assume it was too potent for guests. After his father's death, my grandfather had to give up going to college in order to support his family. He had been offered full scholarships to Boston College and RPI for football. His sacrifice his humbling.
Needless to say, he hung his fedora in New London. He married his high school sweetheart, my grandmother Katherine Olbrys (she once gushed he used to do her math homework) and they had two daughters, one of which was my mother, also Katherine. After he was married he worked as a longshoreman down at the docks, was on a crew installing the Central Vermont Rail line, and played both baseball and football professionally. But you won't find Salvatore Ruggiero on the rosters, because back then he was called Sal Rose. His family changed their name as many immigrants did, not changing it back until he married.
He was a Yankees fan and would take my mother on the train into NYC to see them play. Which is basically the reason I became a Yankees fan. I picture my mom with her pig tails, sitting in the stands with Papa, and I know that it's a tradition that I want to carry on with my kids.
By the time I made my appearance, my grandparents lived in a house on Norwood Ave. Papa told me it belonged to a ship's captain who had it moved to it's current location from it's original spot next to the water someplace. But my mother grew up on Winthrop Street and went to Winthrop School. And later New London High School.
Needless to say, New London was a different place when my mom was growing up. But sometimes I imagine back even further, to my grandfather as a child, playing stick ball with his friends, the adults sitting around enjoying home made wine under the grape arbor, children running outside playing, perhaps a local new mother brings her baby by to show my great grandmother her latest delivery. This might not be how it was at all. But that's how I'm going to imagine it.
There are lots of things I know about my grandfather: How he enjoyed placing a bet or two on the horses at the OTB where Burlington Coat Factory is. How in the late afternoon he would lower the awnings on the windows of his Norwood Avenue house to keep it cool. Old school style. And how he was the only full blooded Italian I knew who hated garlic. These snippets of the odd things that made a mark on my brain might seem strange. But the sum of all these tidbits is that when I cook with garlic, I think about how much I loved and enjoyed him.
I started writing this blog a couple weeks ago, just because Papa's birthday was coming up and I wanted to pay him tribute. I just couldn't get it to where I wanted it. Pop passed this Wednesday, just five days after his 94th birthday. I read a version of this as a eulogy at his mass on Saturday, and I kept it together pretty well. And during the day, the sadness was replaced a little bit by, well, I guess it was a common feeling of having known an exceptional person. We cried, but we laughed a lot too. And we reminisced about things I had either forgotten, or not known. A few toothpicks were tucked into his shirt pocked because you could rarely see him without one. And his nephew Frankie told me about how Carmella grew up on tenth street, in East New London. A part of New London that really isn't even there anymore. He spoke about mountains there, and I know I'll drive over to see the place that it all began for me.
If you have stories about Sal, or someone from Sal's generation, or even just about Old New London, please share! I'd love to hear them!