“My stomach feels funny,” he said.
I sat up, poised to go into full mom-mode. “How about a Tums, buddy?” I asked. “Would that help?”
“It’s not that kind of funny,” said Jim. He paused and then started to say something, but before he got very far, Mark’s cell phone rang.
It was Jim’s big brother Matthew, who, joined by his cousin Jeremy, had been sitting a loyal vigil at his Grandpa Angelo’s bedside. Matt was calling to tell his dad that the vigil was over; Angelo had made that final passing.
“Oh,” said Jim, softly, and he went back down the hallway and closed the door to his bedroom, needing to be alone for awhile. Somehow, I think, his stomach had been letting him know the news Matthew shared over the phone.
Angelo was 94 when he passed peacefully from this life into the one that comes next. He was a patriot and a family man. He was a hard worker who believed in the value of education. He was someone who didn’t give up, who cherished his faith, who was passionate about his interests.
Memories, stories, images, tumble…
I think about working with Pat, Mark’s mom, at the bookstore. Long before either of us thought we’d be connected by marriage, we were friends. I was a just-out-of-college, newly married, party-loving kid then; so were many of the crew. Pat was maybe early forties; she trained us and she tolerated us, and one night we persuaded her to come out with us after work. She let her husband know, of course, but Ang probably figured she’d grab a cup of coffee and be home, oh, maybe 45 minutes to an hour later than usual. By 11, he was calling my home phone, a little frantic, asking my husband if he knew where we could be.
Later, when life had shifted in unexpected ways, and Mark and I were dating, I would ask for an ashtray when I visited Pat and Ang. I smoked while Mark and I dated and in the first part of our marriage. Ang would get me the ashtray and talk about his own habit; he only smoked, he told me, when Pat was pregnant. So he smoked for four of the first nine years of their marriage, from the early fifties to the very early sixties,–smoked while waiting to welcome Mark, Joe, Stephen, and Tommy. By the time a wonderful little surprise, Mary Ann, joined the cast in 1970, the need seems to have ebbed; the boys don’t recall Angelo smoking in anticipation of Mary’s birth. (Mark, 16 when his baby sister was born, confesses to being mortified that people of such advanced years on the planet could be having a baby. “ Mother, how COULD you? At YOUR age?” Pat remembers him saying.)
I remember rollicking meals with the family and an ever-changing cast of guests around the big dining room table that Ang inherited from his mother, another Mary, whom everyone in the family called ‘Ma’. Ma bought the table from a peddler in the Depression era; the peddler shopped his wares from a horse-pulled wagon. He’d load up the wagon and make his slow way from Buffalo into the outlying areas, stopping to see if housewives needed chairs, a sofa, a bed-frame. Ma needed a table that would seat her burgeoning family. Ma and Pa–Grandpa Joseph–had ten children; the twins, Vincent and Theresa, died shortly after birth. The rest of the children,–Tony, Frances, Joe, Angelo, Lucy, Sam, John, and Russell, in that order–grew up strong, hard-working, and hungry. They gathered around that table–stretched by up to eight leaves–for many years.
Ang remembered Saturdays at home and Ma baking bread and simmering spaghetti sauce. For lunch she would flatten out a big hunk of dough, spread some of her good homemade sauce on top, grate cheese, chop meat–homemade pizza to feed her hungry kids and her husband, who worked hard at the railroad before coming home to tend his amazing garden.
Ang learned to make the sauce. He and Pat were ahead of their time; they shared household chores, and Pat used her amazing customer service skills to pursue her own career in retail sales. Ang would come home from the plant; Pat would leave for work; Ang would feed his own hungry horde. But on Sundays, the whole family gathered together around Ma’s table. Friends and extended family were welcome; there was always room for one more. Mark’s college buddy Frank, who attended the Culinary Institute and cooked at the Tavern on the Green for a time, rhapsodized years later about eating lasagna at that table. The best he ever had, swore Frank stoutly, nothing to compare, before or since.
Now the table belongs to Ang’s baby girl; from Mary to Mary: a full circle.
Matthew, at Grandpa’s side for that final passage, wrote on his FaceBook page: One more sailor rings the bell….farewell and following seas, Grandpa….
The war left a lasting impression on Angelo; he wrote movingly of his abhorrence of armed combat when he inscribed copies of the book Action Tonight, by James D. Horan, for each of his children. (Action Tonight detailed the O’Bannon’s World War II journey.) But Ang retained his deep love of country, and he kept close touch with his shipmates, attending reunions and sharing correspondences. In November 2014, the local veterans’ association honored Ang in a special ceremony. After WW II, medals which he had earned were somehow never delivered; he finally accepted those medals at age 94, in front of his family, friends, and admirers.
Jennifer, Angelo’s granddaughter, also serves in her country’s military; her Grandpa was very proud of his smart savvy granddaughter, an officer and a helicopter pilot with the US Army.
Ang and Pat believed in education. Ang himself never finished high school; in Depression days, boys from big families often didn’t. They left school at 14 or 15, they got men’s jobs, and they contributed the money to their families without quibble or bicker. But Ang and Pat were determined that their kids would go to college. They couldn’t afford fancy residential schools, but there was a good SUNY college within an easy commute. All five kids earned their bachelor’s degrees there. Ang and Pat provided a roof and food and a car to get back and forth—and plenty of life lessons.
They might have been commuter students, but Mark, Joe, Stephen, and Tommy all made a real effort to be part of college life. And on Friday nights, that might mean partaking of the partying that was so much a part of 1970’s college culture. They would crawl home in the early wee hours, sometimes to a chorus of birds greeting the dawn, and stealthily creep up the stairs to pass out in their beds. They needn’t have worried; their concerned parents had just the right hangover cure.
Pat would vacuum at 7 AM; Ang would clash pots and pans; the boys would be rousted from bed to perform early Saturday chores. Mark tells tales of mowing the dewy lawn; clipping the hedges that surrounded their football field side yard; scraping and painting house and garage;–all on a couple hours of sleep. He said he always had a really bad boo-boo head. He said he never realized until then that sweat could actually smell like beer.
In 2001, Ang saw a blurb in the local paper that said a program was being set up to give high school diplomas to WWII vets who’d left school to go to serve their country. Ang called the number. ‘Am I eligible?’ he asked. He explained he had left school to work, only later, in his twenties, serving in the Navy.
The woman he spoke to gently told him no. The award, she said, was only for those vets who actually quit high school to enlist. Ang said he understood and hung up the phone.
Several days later, an article appeared in the paper begging the gentleman who’d called to inquire about the diploma to call back. After talking with Ang, the woman had been unsettled; she investigated and found that Ang WAS eligible. He received his high school diploma that year, standing straight and tall in the auditorium, applauded by family members and an SRO crowd of clapping community members and students. He was 81 years old.
The stories about Angelo swirl as the family sits at the kitchen table–childhood escapades, work stories, memories of standing with Angelo in the basement, running the intricate, multi-gauge miniature railroad he’d set up over the passage of many years. There’s the story of the car Pat turned down to marry Ang, who was 14 years her senior; her brother offered to buy her a convertible if she’d abandon the idea of the wedding. Pat and Ang were married 61 years. The sons in particular remember hopping to it when their father began to utter the words, “By the Christ in heaven…” Mary Ann has her own stories to tell, the cherished baby girl, the pretty teenager whose dates had to pass a tough, tough scrutiny.
Memories flicker and flash likes snippets of old time movies, out of context, out of order: Grandpa and Number One at the town dump, rescuing metal Tonka trucks left carefully at the edges by those whose kids had outgrown them, taking them home to sand and refinish, creating a dream of a fleet for a kid with a dirt pile. Angelo with his eight year old daughter, come to the store to show the mom what they’d bought. Grandpa with a warm, pudgy hand in one of his, flowering plants carefully balanced in the other, walking toward the graves of his parents. That picture morphs quickly, flipping through the years–the pudgy toddler gradually becoming a tall, handsome, young man, but still at the cemetery every year, still at Grandpa’s side. Angelo at Christmas, passing out decorative wooden wheelbarrows he’d painstakingly crafted in his basement workshop. Grandpa and granddaughter, barely old enough to sit by herself in a lawn chair, having a long serious conversation on a hot summer day, while her big brother buzzes energetically around the yard. Grandpa with any one of his beloved grandchildren, driving his little tractor around the lawn.
There are many ways to take stock of a man’s life; one of them is to count the number of grandchildren who post on Facebook, when he passes, that they have lost their best friend. Ang took infinite pride in his wife, Pat, and his children, Mark, Joe, Stephen, Tommy, and Mary Ann. He was a kind and fond father-in-law to Patty and Phil, Susans and Pams, a devoted grandfather-in-law to Julie. He was a loving brother, uncle, and friend. But in grandfathering, he seemed to come fully into his own. He had unflagging time, love, and patience for his grandchildren, Matthew, Brian, Jeremy, Phillip, Bobby, Jim, Jennifer, and Alexander. He delighted in his great granddaughters, Alyssa and Kaelyn.
He lived a long, hard-fought, wonderful life, did Angelo, and he passed from it convinced he was going home. In the days and weeks and months to come we will, I hope, be able to write the stories down, to take scattered fragments and anecdotes and create a narrative that gives an inkling of just how rich the life, how lasting the legacy, Angelo leaves behind.
But for now–now I hope that man of faith is where he firmly believed he would be–at a long, many-leaved, celestial table, enjoying, maybe, some pasta and sauce with his parents and the siblings who’ve gone before. Friends who’ve also made that trip are welcome, I know. As each of us contemplates that departure, we can do it knowing that no matter how many people crowd around that table, there will always be another leaf to add, another chair to pull up. Plates will be passed from hand to hand; the newest guest will be given silverware and a napkin. A glass of wine will appear on their right.
There’s a great loss, of course, but great comfort in this: Angelo’s home with his parents tonight, getting things ready.