ITALIAN HUGS AND KISSES

We didn’t go to Philly often…Once when I was about five, my mother took all of us little girls on the plane to visit Nana and Poppop. The twins were three and the youngest a year old. We were dressed as if to go to church. You had to dress up to fly in the 60’s. My stiff red frock barely covered the frilly slip. My thick hair flipped up from my stylish page cut to peek around the little white hat. I tried to be still and keep my sisters quiet by reading them a book, but excitement got the best of me. So when the plane landed and the stewardess helped Mommy take all four of us down the stairs, finally I could see my grandparents waving at us. Not responsible for either twin, I was free to run into their arms. 

I don’t remember my father on that trip. But I do remember Poppop’s joy at seeing us. The press of his big lips against my cheek.  Enveloping my senses with his Old Spice cologne. Caressing my face with the softest oiled leather hands on any man I’ve ever known. Pop held me as if to never let me go. 

Their row house on Sheridan Street was home. The house I remember from my infancy. The plastic covered furniture. (Nana was obsessively neat!) The smell of sautéed garlic permeating every room. The skinny stairway and the pink bathroom! Sharing a comfy wide bed with the twins, playing in the converted basement filled with toys! More toys than we had at home…most were mine left over from when we lived with Nana and Poppop…including Tony the Pony!—a mechanical horse given to me for Christmas 1962—I was only twenty months old…Mommy was very, very pregnant with the twins and Daddy was taking my picture with a movie camera. I was chasing Nana on my pony and kept going in circles. Poppop would try to help and I would laugh and laugh because now he was chasing me! 

So many wonderful memories of my grandparents. We flew from California to visit them again when I was nine and then about fourteen. After that visit, my father made me promise that when I graduated high school in four years that I would go back East with them. Of course I would! He had more foresight than me. By the time I was 18, I was desperately in love with Steve (we met in high school track in my junior year) and did NOT want to go with THEM and leave HIM! 

A promise is a promise. So in the summer of 1979, we once again flew back to Philadelphia. And there I was in Poppop’s embrace, the smell of his Old Spice cologne filling my senses, the feel of his oiled leather hand against my cheek, and his sad, long face when we had to go. After six weeks away, I couldn’t WAIT to return to Steve’s embrace. But I felt Poppop’s heart break and even now I cannot erase from my mind’s eye his sad face at our parting. 

Nana and Poppop came to visit us every summer. They stayed three months from the end of one school year to the beginning of the next. They took us on wonderful trips—to Disneyland and SeaWorld, San Francisco and Vegas (we stayed in Circus Circus!)—lots of fun and adventure. Poppop paid for everything. And before school began, we went shopping for new school clothes, shoes and accessories. He would wait outside the shops while Nana and Mom helped us in the dressing rooms. He just handed Nana money from a thick roll and waited until we got everything we needed. “Are you happy, Poppy?” He would ask. “Did you get everything you wanted?” Sometimes my little sister would put on her pouty face and get one more blouse or belt and then of course, he insisted the rest of us get more. One year when we were all teenagers, he bought us leather jackets…very stylish. He spoiled us! 

The summer Poppop got to meet Steve, I was so excited. I knew Poppop would love Steve, how could he not…Pop loved me…so of course he would love my boyfriend! Spending nearly every summer with us, my grandparents had met a few boyfriends of ours and Poppop greeted each of them the same way—with a kiss. In the manner of Italian men. All the boys were very uncomfortable with him. Not Steve. Being a good Greek boy, he accepted Pop’s kiss graciously. And Poppop turned to me and said, “You keep this one.” I did. 

Steve adored him. How could he not? Poppop was the most generous loving man you could ever meet. Always happy to help you, delighted to spend time with you, so sad to leave you. He was kind to everyone and everyone loved him. 

But Poppop died eight months before Steve and I got married. I was devastated. They had come to California just before Christmas, finally, to retire. Poppop looked really bad when he got off the plane. Only a student nurse but I knew…he was dying. I tried to do everything I could to save him. Being the only medical one in the family…they all looked to me to explain what was happening.  Although sober for twenty years, he had cirrhosis. His liver no longer able to detoxify his blood and began to poison him. His mind became foggy and he could not do much for himself. But he wanted to look presentable so, he would ask Steve to shave him. And Steve did, tenderly and with tears in his eyes, even the day we had to put him in the hospital just before New Years, Poppop didn’t want to go unshaven. Just 21 days after coming to be with us, Pop died. 

I don’t remember the funeral. I know I went. They say I was there, but I don’t remember. I’ve blocked it and my pain blocked Poppop from coming to me afterwards for over seven years. Not until the fall of 1990 did I dream of my dear Pop. Steve had finished building the kids a jungle gym in the corner of our backyard. In my dream, Pop was playing pinnacle with one of the twins on a wooden front porch where Steve had built the jungle gym. I sat down with them and Poppop motioned for me to pick up the dummy hand and play. I whispered, “Where’s Nana?” She had died just 20 months after Pop in 1984. My sister said, “She’ll come when Steve finishes the kitchen.” Of course, Nana was always in the kitchen. 

Later that year, I was driving the kids to visit my family. Trepidation gripped my heart. I didn’t want to go without Steve. Even on Thanksgiving he had to work. Crime takes no holidays…so neither do policemen. Yet it was more than leaving my beloved…I had visions of crashing the car…and most of my visions came true. I didn’t want to go. 

Yet we were expected, so I packed up the Volvo with all the pies I had made, strapped the kids into their car seats and paused to wrap us in white light. Only two and six, Kyra and Jarys smiled at the white light. Still as I drove down the highway with my precious cargo, I was afraid. And suddenly, I smelled Old Spice and felt an oiled leather hand caress my cheek and heard…”It’s ok, Poppy.” Tears poured down my cheeks. How grateful I was to have this divine connection. Jarys piped up from the back, “It smells like Poppop!” Yes, my precious son, it did. 

Since then, I have experienced hugs and kisses through the ethers whenever I needed them. Love thins the veil between the worlds of this I am sure. 

I love you, Poppop. XOXOXO

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