"Justa fine. Justa fine."
I remember visiting my grandparents often. I loved them as any grandchild would. But our relationship was a bit different from those of other grandparents and their grandchildren. Both of my grandparents spoke Italian. Communication in English was difficult for them. Yet through the years, we learned to communicate in a different language. My grandfather mastered this well. His every action displayed kindness to me.
Each time I visited him and my grandmother, I would immediately go and greet them with kisses on both cheeks as is the Italian custom. When I greeted my grandfather I would say, “How are you today, Papanonna?”
He would blush beneath the glow of his olive skin and say, “Justa fine. Justa fine.”
He almost always said short phrases twice. That was his way of reassuring you of something. And you know, as far back as I can remember, he was always “Justa fine.” I admired that.
Usually on my visits with my grandparents, we would sit around the kitchen table and my father would talk with my grandmother while my grandfather, my mother, my brother and I just sat in silence. My grandfather didn’t say much. He only spoke when what he had to say was important enough to be heard. And when he spoke, I listened. For even though the language was foreign to me, the expression was not. His expression of every word gave me the ability to understand how he felt about what he was saying. To me, that was far more important than what he actually said. Everything he spoke, he spoke with conviction. I admired that.
My grandparents were generous people when it came to us grandchildren. Twice a year we would receive a gift of cash to do with as we pleased. Each time my fold of bills was handed to me there was this deep down greedy feeling that made me want to snatch the money and run. But deeper down was the feeling that they might need that money more than I. So I always refused to take it. But my grandfather would always shove the money in my hand saying, “No. You take. You take.” And so, I took.
My grandfather was a hard-working man. Even after his retirement, he worked hard every day. In the winter, he would be up early to see if any snow had fallen and if there was any in sight, he went out to shovel it. In the summer, he took pride in his lawn. He must’ve moved that lawn at least three times a week and watered it for hours on end. It paid off though, for he always had the greenest lawn on the street.
He also had a garden which he and my grandmother tended from sun-up ‘til sun-down of every available day. It was a beautiful garden with vegetables galore and numerous fruit trees as well as grape vines and flowers. It was a cornucopia of life—of all sorts, including those wretched little garden-loving furballs, better known as squirrels. My grandfather and these squirrels did not get along. Every time I visited my grandparents, my grandfather had another squirrel story to tell. Unfortunately, as you already know, I don’t understand Italian. But I could tell by the look on his face as he spoke, that the squirrels were giving him trouble. The half-bitten pears and peaches strewn about on the ground attested to that. I could also tell by the way he told us the story that his revenge on these bushy-tailed garden-wreckers was impending.
The next time I visited my grandparents, I headed straight for the backyard knowing they would be there working hard, harvesting their crops. I opened the gate and let myself in. I stopped. I broke into laughter. In one of the peach trees was a four-foot stuffed camel doll strung up in the branches. Right away I knew why: squirrels. My grandfather looked at me and snickered, half out of humor and half out of frustration. As my father came into the backyard, my grandfather started recounting the story of the camel to him.
At every break in his story, I interrupted and begged my father to translate the tale for me. I knew it involved squirrels and a camel but the rest of the details were a little fuzzy. After being ignored for the first ten interruptions, my father finally told me what happened. My grandfather, at wits’ end with these savage beasts, got this stuffed plush camel. To this day, I still don’t know from where. Anyways, he strung it up in the peach tree to scare away the furry vermin. Unfortunately, as my grandfather said, it was as if the squirrels were sitting there watching him put the camel in the tree and laughing at him; for the next day, there were chewed up peaches all over the backyard. I laughed. My grandfather laughed too. And so, he continued to toil in his garden that summer with peaches lost but a good story and a few laughs gained.
Every time I left my grandparents’ home I would kiss them on both cheeks as I did when I first arrived. They would always follow us out to the car and stand in the middle of the driveway or in the front doorway to see us off. As we rolled down the drive, my grandfather’s hand would rise high in the air to bid us goodbye. And knowing I would see him again I just casually smiled as we drove away.
As I stood beside my grandfather’s coffin, I remembered all these things. Things I would never forget. And looking upon his face, I saw a faint smile and light blush which reassured me he was “Justa fine.” And so, shutting my eyes, I whispered to him a soft goodbye and saw him extend his hand into the air and wave to me as he always did when we parted. And deep in my heart, I waved too.