Sunday, April 22, 2012

Peppe's Eyes

I wrote this piece for Syllable: A Reading Series' April call for submissions. The theme was "Light." The direction writers could take was completely open – creativity encouraged. When I read the theme, my grandfather, Peppe, immediately came to mind and this piece sprung from there. For me, he is synonymous with light. I live to carry some of his within me every day since he passed in 2008. 

I was scheduled to stand at the mic and share this as part of the reading series at La Paloma Sabanera coffee house in Hartford this past Wednesday, but I took a big nosedive physically after some changes with my steroid and chemotherapy meds and just couldn't make it. I don't think my legs would have held up, never mind my exhausted head. I was disappointed to have missed hearing how other writers interpreted the "Light" theme, but am glad that I can share it here to give a little glimpse into the magic of my very special Peppe. 
Peppe and 3-year-old Karin no doubt
planning some winter's night indoor adventure
My Peppe’s eyes were the lightest of blue, so faint and lucid that the thought of the harsh sun shining into them made me squint my own.

The color lives on in the faint, cool blue light of my brother and sister’s eyes – striking and piercing in their dramatic subtlety. My eyes are a deep hazel, a stark contrast to the translucent eyes of my siblings. 

Light was always glinting off the pale blue eyes of my grandfather, bouncing off the collection of moist tears that permanently swam in the crinkles around his eyes. Light also caught the white crust that would collect in the corners of his mouth ­– the constant spittle that old folks tend to carry in their lip folds.

Much about my Peppe’s presence was light. His laugh danced as if along a music stanza bar – full and unassuming. It could be heavy and hearty and guttural, but it never lost that buoyancy, a lightness that put everyone at ease. His head would toss back and his thin white hair would dance while his shoulders heaved with laughter.

His hair was stark Elmer’s glue white. Its weight was wispy and feather-light. My professional hairdresser Nonna would incessantly follow him around trying to mat it down with a dampened plastic comb, but that colic could not be tamed. His hair was too thin and free to be weighed down.

Surely a day of nature exploration was ahead
Years of work in the woods with the CCCs stepping and climbing over rocks and roots and fallen trees had left him with legs too tired to lift his feet. Heavy feet. Heavy legs. As a grandfather he was never light in his walk. It was more of a shuffle. When he sat into his worn blue recliner, he sunk into it in a violent manner. Sometimes the footrest would kick out on its own accord as his back fell into the seat, startling the glass of room-temperature water he always kept beside him.

He drank his generic brand black tea light, heavy with milk until its color held only a hint of a faint khaki hue. He liked his white bread toasted light with pooling butter pats at their centers. These breakfast smells awoke my siblings and me on sleepover mornings at my grandparents.

He awoke in the early hours of the day as the light of the sun was rising. He’d tune in the Brad Davis show on his little kitchen radio and we’d come find him there at his designated morning perch. Or, shuffling gently behind the motor-less push broom that he coveted. No loud, heavy power vacuum for him. If a drop of dirt fell to the ground, the quiet white noise of the spinning brush rollers was not far behind to quietly sweep it into its holding bin.

Sister story time with Peppe 
Growing up with him, everything was light and fun. Days with Peppe were the best. We wouldn’t just listen to the soundtracks of classic Broadway musicals, we’d play “Name that tune” with his crafted score sheets. On Sunday afternoons, we’d have a “pet parade” set to John Philip Sousa marches, dragging our stuffed animals around on their leashes in circles throughout the house. He played announcer as we passed by on each loop.

I took dance classes from the age of five and Peppe was my biggest fan. He’d arrange for me to perform at their house even bringing stage lights into play. He’d have my younger sister and me dance in the extended living room. The cedar closet became our dressing room and the hanging blinds of the backslider, our curtain backdrop.

On performance nights, Peppe would unscrew the everyday fluorescent track lighting bulbs and replace them with ones that were rose or blue tinted, allowing us to dance under their soft light and create the illusion that the elaborate lights of a grand stage were shining just for us.

During performances all other lamps in the home would be switched off and he would sit in his designated chair –  and direct my parents and Nonna to do the same  giving us our very own audience as we twirled and spun, leapt and arabesqued to the “Best of Barbra Streisand” or the score of Jesus Christ Superstar.

My little sister and me (in the fab purple number)
posing for photographs during one performance night
We’d do quick changes in the cedar closet and come out adorned in my Nonna’s furs and scarves or long skirts. My sister preferred the fast songs that she could tumble to like Barbras’ rendition of “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, where as I preferred the more lyrical “New York State of Mind” by Barb or Jesus’ melodramatic plea to his father before crucifixion –  common requests.

I had only three or so basic dance moves I’d repetitively cycle through – a lot of 90s hand placement and arm waving and spinning, but Peppe would gasp, clap, encourage and “Brava!” from his “box seat” like it was the curtain call for Bolshoi’s prima ballerina. We basked in those spotlights and dreamed under the light.

Requisite table shot at our annual Red Lion Inn dinner
A Depression era child, he was careful and calculated with his money, an incredibly thoughtful giver and deliberate purchaser. He very much appreciated the fine things in life and would only allow us to order quality items from the L.L. Bean catalog for Christmas. Every year he would take us to the historic Red Lion Inn for a special holiday feast and every summer was filled with world-renowned dance performances at Jacob’s Pillow, plays and musicals at rustic open-air stages to The Bushnell and Broadway. But when it came to the every day choices, his favorite lunch spot was the Kmart cafeteria where he and my Nonna would often dine –  best deal on a hot dog around.

Peppe and his grandkids (L-R) me, Michael and Kristen
His voice, especially in his later years, was soft, though labored, with a comforting whisper quality to it. It never rose in anger, but at times we had to strain to hear it, the faintness became so prominent. He spoke slowly and purposefully, quietly, softly. There were no wasted words or gossip. He listened intently and couldn’t wait to tell a good story – in deep detail –  when he had one. But he was shy, too. Not one to love entertaining and idle chit-chat. My Nonna was the social butterfly, owning her own beauty salon and hosting guests with hoards of elaborate Italian meals. Peppe would quietly do the dishes every night, filling the sink with layers of soapy bubbles, lost in contemplation. He’d often sign off when he was tired, saying: “Stay as long as you like …” as he shuffled off to bed.

The light tap of his typewriter keys constantly filled his home. He never learned to type with more than one finger and wasn’t interested when my parents tried to purchase him a word processor, then later a computer. He preferred the index finger find-and-poke method. The sound of the padded inked tabs hitting the thin typewriter paper and hard rubber roll behind it evokes so many memories.

As does the light scraping of White Out brush bristles on paper. He always had several crusted-top bottles of the classic corrective formula lined up on his desk. He’d lightly brush across the words, pull back the typewriter roller for alignment and rewrite. Raised and bumpy, the white of the paint never matched the color of the paper. His writings were blotchy and marked up with his chicken scratch corrections, but he always forged forward, writing his memoirs, recounting his world travels, typing the full ancestral history of both his and my Nonna’s families.

He was the unofficial tour guide of the hidden natural, historic and cultural gems of the Northeast Corner of Connecticut. His champagne beige Buick Sedan matched the preferred color of his coffee. Even the way he drove was light. Very light on the pedal. So slow that we’d get nauseous in the back seat as we rolled through the bumpy hills of Cornwall, Goshen, and New Canaan in search of every trickling waterfall, stone wall, outdoor sculpture, or historic home.
Baby Karin in Nonna's arms 
- and those fantastic plaid pants Peppe's sporting. 
His shirts were always gently crisped with starch, never a wrinkle, always fashionable. I have fond memories of him in light pastel patched pattern pants: baby blue, soft pink, pale yellow with a straw derby hat and a white linen blazer. Light, airy, easy, breezy.

He knew the woods and trails of Connecticut intimately. If there was a hidden waterfall that trickled down to a fresh spring and led to a babbling brook, he knew its location and he brought my siblings and me there. He’d encourage us to take off our shoes and socks and put our “tootsies” in the water so that we could feel its coolness.

We were always wading around playfully in water, mud, leaves and dirt. The three of us and our Peppe with our pants rolled to our knees and our naked tootsies gripping the river stones beneath them while water rippled in rings around our ankles. We’d swat mosquitoes and listen for birdcalls or jiggarump splashes, all of which he could identify.

What wasn’t light were his handshake, his hug and the life lessons he worked tirelessly to instill in us. He hated the dead fish handshake and would teach my brother, sister and me how important it is to be confident in our grips, to make eye contact, and to greet with purpose. He wanted us to be independent, self-assured, successful, polite, kind and always curious.

Because of him I always keep my eyes peeled and never, ever walk with my hands in my pockets. When I find myself in a sticky situation, I tell them: “I’ve got to go see a man about a horse,” and high tail it out of there. 


  1. My paternal grandfather died before I was born, and my mom's dad passed when I was too young to really remember him, so hearing about Peppe is a real treat. He'd be very proud of the strong, confident woman you are, and I'm guessing he'd be amazed at how valiantly you've faced your cancer battle.

  2. I had the best grandmother in the world who died too young when I was just 19. So I understand how you feel.
    My dad used to say he had to see a man about a horse and then walk off. So weird!

    I am sorry your meds, etc, have made you feel less than fabu, but I know you will be up and roaring soon!

    The other Karin Diamond