The grandfather I wish I’d known

I have only two memories of my dad’s father, whom I called Papa: the ecstatic hugs he’d greet me with after I’d climbed the four steep flights of stairs to his apartment in Boston, and the sight of him, pale but jovial, in the white sheets of a hospital bed at Massachusetts General. 

After decades of exposure to asbestos as a shipyard electrician, Papa died of lung cancer in 1978, at 71. I was only four.

I knew him well enough to be sad then, but it wasn’t until later, when I heard all about him from my dad, that I fully appreciated what I’d lost.

My dad's parents, Emilia and Joe Gentile, on their wedding day in 1936.

My dad’s parents on their wedding day in Boston in 1936. My grandma’s parents had immigrated from Naples, and they worried that Sicilians like my grandpa were full of trouble.

Papa’s parents immigrated from Sicily around 1900, and he and his siblings were born over the next decade in the West End of Boston. But their dad died, maybe of appendicitis, when they were all still small.

Papa and his brother Tony, the two eldest kids, dropped out of grade school to support their mother and younger siblings.

Papa eventually found work as an electrician in the Charlestown Navy Yard. He married my grandmother, whom I called Mia, in 1936, and in 1940 they had my dad, Carmen, whom they raised Catholic.

Meanwhile, Tony opened a drugstore that was a front for his bookie business, which he operated under the direction and protection of some low-level mobsters. Though he was arrested from time to time, the charges always disappeared.

Tony married and had a kid, but he and his wife soon split up. Neither of them was much of a parent, so Papa and Mia took in their daughter, Lillian, and raised her as if she was theirs.

My dad (middle row, right) was an altar boy at St. Joseph's Church in the West End of Boston.

My dad (middle row, right) as an altar boy in Boston’s West End in the late 1940s.

Despite their differences, Papa and my great-uncle Tony were close their whole lives. They watched boxing matches on TV. They made all kinds of friends in their neighborhood—which included Italians, Irish, Jews, and African Americans—and gabbed with them over cigarettes and beers. They doted on my grandmother, my father, and Lillian.

Papa didn’t mind that Tony ran a numbers racket, and he even let my dad count money for him after school.

But it bothered Papa that Tony gambled away his own money. He was always either broke or flush, and when he was flush, he lived it up until he was broke again.

Papa wanted my dad to learn to make an honest, steady living like he did. Nights and weekends, he moonlighted as a plasterer, and he often took Dad along as an assistant.

Dad was generally too clumsy to be much help, he says, and one night, he really screwed up.

“My father and I are working on the job, and we finish,” Dad recalls. “Plastering is a really dirty job. You just create dust and everything all over the place. We finish, and my father leaves this apartment cleaner than when we found it. You could eat food off the floor, it was so clean.”

“And there was one bucket full of dirty plaster water. And I was tired. And sure enough, as I’m walking through the kitchen, I knock it over, and all this dirty water gets on the floor.”

“And my father never says a word. He cleans it up. I help him, but he’s doing most of the work.”

“So we get home. And I remember, my mother and father and I are sitting around the table. And my mother has coffee for him and a glass of milk for me and cookies for both of us.”

“He looks at her; he has this huge smile on his face. And he says, ‘You know, we gotta send Carmen to college, ’cause he’s never gonna learn a trade.’”

Dad ended up getting into a selective public high school, Boston Latin, and then Harvard, from which he graduated in 1961. He went on to law school at the University of Pennsylvania. Higher education was cheap then, and my grandparents put him through school with their savings.

My father at his graduation from Harvard in1961. His mother, left, finished high school, but his father, right, had to drop out of grade school to support his family.

My father with his parents at his graduation from Harvard in 1961.

Dad was studying for the bar exam in 1971 when Papa, then 64, suffered a heart attack in the shipyard. Luckily, he was on the gangplank of a boat when it happened—not down below, where no one would have found him for hours—and some Navy doctors attended to him right away.

He made a full recovery, retired, and reinvented himself. He gave up smoking and drinking, even when he was with Tony. He traveled to Italy and Hawaii with Mia. When the weather was nice, he walked to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox. When it wasn’t, he sat in on trials at the courthouse.

“He loved to see the attorneys; he loved to see the cross-examination,” Dad says. “He liked to see how the judge worked with the lawyers and with the juries. I’m sure he would have been a great lawyer.”

During this period, Dad passed the bar, married my mom, settled in Washington, D.C., and had my older sister and me. Papa and Mia visited us often, and we flew to Boston a lot, too.

“Papa thought that you and your sister were the two greatest things that ever happened in the world,” Dad says. “He was so proud of you and so much in love with the two of you.”

He was also awed by his son’s career. In 1976, Dad opened a small firm, Bruder & Gentile, that represented public utility companies.

“I remember when he came to Washington and he saw the name on the door, he was just about as proud as could be,” says Dad.

But in 1978, Papa was diagnosed with lung cancer, and it spread quickly to his neck and brain. After a while, it was clear that he wouldn’t get better.

Dad was with him those last few months, and he says his father was cheerful, even as he suffered.

“I remember I was in the hospital with him once … and he began throwing up. You know, it was not pleasant. It was almost like convulsions. And he finished, and I was there to help him.”

“And then just a couple of minutes later, a nurse walked by in the corridor and looked in on him. And she said, ‘How ya doin’, Joe?’ And he said, ‘I’m doin’ fine.’ And she said, ‘You know, you’re one of my favorite patients.’ And he said, ‘Why do you say that?’ And she said, ‘Because you never complain.’”

“And he looked at her, and he said, ‘What do I have to complain about?’”