My grandfather, Jim Adamo, died one week ago today. I knew it was coming, everyone in my family did. He had recently fallen ill and we had a few weeks to make to peace with what we knew was going to happen.
I don’t grieve well. I still haven’t cried since my grandmother passed. It’s not that I don’t mourn her, I just don’t manifest my emotions well. I’m a writer. I tell stories. I put thoughts into words and sentences and structured little moments – it’s my process.
There are a lot of stories out there about my grandfather. Here are a few of mine.
In a Name
I was born not long after the passing of my great-grandfather. According to those who were there, this death put my grandfather, Jim, into a depression. Some months later I arrived, his first grandchild. He had four daughters: my mother, Michele, and my aunts, Mary, Cathy, and Christine, but I was the first boy in his line.
I was to be named Michael James Ninness. Michael, after my father’s best friend, Mickey, who died when he was a boy, and James, after my grandfather. Not long after I was born my grandfather came to visit. While holding me he proclaimed, “I don’t care what they want to name you. I’m calling you James.”
When I was two or three years old, and still the only grandchild, my grandfather built a train for me in his backyard. It was amazing. The tracks ran all around the backyard, allowing me to traverse a large section of property by myself, sitting in the locomotive with a few cars behind me. The tracks were long enough that I would lose sight of my grandfather for a bit. I actually remember that. I recall a growing sense of concern as I moved away from him, but I always came back. The track came around and I would see my grandfather standing there, smiling and waving at me. No matter how many times I went away, he always waited for me to return.
In high school, during the middle of my senior year, I finally went to far. I had a bit of a record as a mischievous fellow and in my latest tomfoolery I told one of my teachers that he was an asshole in front of the whole class. He didn’t like that. The private school didn’t like that. I was to be expelled, which was fine with me. Many of my friends went to a public school near my home, so getting expelled meant that I’d move from one group of friends to another. No big deal.
Well, in the meeting between the school administration and my parents to review the expulsion paperwork, my grandfather showed up. He wasn’t having any of it.
Jim Adamo walked into the room, uninvited. He pulled up a seat next to me, “So what’s going on?”
They told him what I did and that I was to be expelled. “No, my grandfather said. “Here’s what’s going to happen: James’s parents and I are going to take him home and whip some sense into him. You’re not going to expel him. You’ll put him on probation or something. But he’s going to promise you right now, in this room, that he’ll be a perfect student until graduation.”
The principal started to protest but my grandfather looked right at me, and nodded expectantly. I didn’t fight it. “I will be a perfect student until graduation.”
“There,” said my grandfather, “it’s settled.” And before the administration could argue, we left, my grandfather holding me under my arm to continue the conversation in private outside.
I graduated from that school with no further shenanigans.
My parents are one of the happiest couples I know, but it wasn’t always that way. They used to argue often and sometimes it could get heated. During one such episode while we were living in El Cajon (which makes me younger than six or seven), my grandfather came over to assist. I’m not sure what was going on, or why he decided to come and get me to leave my parents alone, but he did. On the way out, despite my parents’ protests, he told them that he and I were going for a drive. The door shut behind us as he called over his shoulder, “I’m not going to let you screw up my grandson.”
We left, got ice cream or something, and came home when things calmed down.
Fast-forward several years: I’m a college dropout, living in Tucson, Arizona, and working at Starbucks.
I left San Diego because my hometown and I weren’t getting along. I was in a weird place with friends. Selling drugs was lucrative and using them was fun. Depression had set in comfortably. There was a good deal of fighting. I was scared, confused, and without any sort of direction. I figured I’d leave town and try to get my shit together. It didn’t really work that way, but Tucson is a story for another time.
Through the grapevine it had come to my attention that my grandfather was confused at my departure. He didn’t know what I had been up to, so the sudden exodus to Arizona made little sense. Feeling a bit bad, I decide to write him and my grandmother a letter explaining everything: the depression, the drugs, and the fighting – all of it.
I expected to hear back from them, either through another letter or a phone call, but didn’t. After about a month, I decided to call them to see if they had received my letter.
“Hello?” It was my grandmother.
“Hey, Nana. It’s James.”
“Hi, James Michael!” She almost always used my first and middle names together. “How are you?”
“I’m okay.” I wasn’t. My heart was pounding. “I was, uh, calling to see if you and Papa got the letter I sent a while back…”
“Oh,” she paused. “Yes, we got it.”
Neither of us knew what to say. I pushed. “Well, is Papa there?”
“Yes, he is. Let me get him.”
At this point she put the phone on the counter and shuffled off to get my grandfather’s attention. I heard bits and pieces of their brief conversation. There was “It’s James Michael,” “I can’t,” and “I’ll tell him,” all scattered amongst a few other indecipherable utterances. Eventually, Nana picked up the phone.
“He can’t talk to you right now, sweetie.”
“Should I call back?”
She stammered a bit, “No, James Michael. He’ll call you.”
“We love you.”
I hung up.
My grandfather never called me back. We didn’t discuss the letter. We pretended for the rest of his life that it never happened, sort of. Things were different between us after Tucson. There was a distance, a gap that never closed.
Part of the Family
Family gatherings in the Adamo family were for one group: family. I tried and failed many times to invite girlfriends to various events. I had two serious relationships before my wife, and neither was invited to occasions celebrated by our family. Of course they were invited to my immediate family gatherings, and if they happened to bump into extended family there, so be it, but if my grandparents were having everyone over for family dinner? Forget it.
It’s possible that I may have been able to sneak Kyleen or my previous girlfriends to one or two of those get-togethers, but even if they managed to get through the door my grandfather wasn’t going out of his way to make anyone feel special. Kyleen told me that the first time she met my grandfather he scared the crap out of her. He was tall, intimidatingly confident, and greeted her only with, “Hello,” before moving about his business and speaking to her again only when it was a manner of decorum.
To my grandparents, there was a big difference between a girlfriend and a wife: one is committed for life while the other, well, isn’t.
Eventually, I did marry one of those girls. Kyleen and I got hitched almost ten years ago. Like every wedding that has ever been, there was a fair amount of stress. Stuff went right. Stuff went wrong. We have a lot of fond memories of that day, surrounded by friends and family, but one stands out…
At the reception, after Kyleen and I had entered the hall and gone through the normal wedding hoopla, we made our way around the room to greet the guests. Among the first to greet us were my grandparents. They both offered warm smiles to Kyleen and I before embracing and kissing her in congratulations. My grandfather held the sides of Kyleen’s head, looked right into her eyes, smiled, and said, “Welcome to the family!”
From that day on Kyleen was his granddaughter. He introduced her as such and treated her as though she had been in the family from her birth. Like it or not, she was in.
This last story is much more recent. It’s less of a story than a scene, but if you’ve been paying attention, it may read like a climax.
Just a few weeks ago my family and I visited my grandfather when it became apparent that the end was near. I was able to have a several minutes with him – just the two of us. We spent the first half of that time catching up, pretending that nothing was wrong. How’s my writing going? Are the girls doing well in school? It was your standard small talk.
Then he said something that threw me off. “James, you’re a good dad. You’re a really great dad. You have the best kids and you and Kyleen are raising them right. Be proud of that, guy. You’re doing great. I’m proud of you.”
This was the nicest thing my grandfather had said to me since the Tucson letter.
My aunt walked in just after that and I exited the room. The rest of the day he was in and out of naps as more people came by to say goodbye. I spent the majority of the time working remotely from his kitchen table. When it got late, we said our goodbyes as well.
After Kyleen and the kids said farewell I leaned over him, kissed him on the cheek, and said, “I’ll see you later.” He shrugged as if to say, “Maybe.”
We left. A few days later, he did too.
My grandmother, Barbara Ann Adamo, was born on June 20, 1934. She died on Friday, September 25, 2015. My grandfather was born on July 19, 1934, and died on June 20, 2017.
When I got the call I that he had passed it was just after 9 pm. Instead of being overwrought with grief, a scene played out in my mind that made me chuckle.
I pictured my grandfather walking up to the gates of heaven and my grandmother waiting for him. After two years of being apart, I imagined the both of them smiling wide and hugging each other for a long time. When they pull apart he keeps his hands on her shoulder, and she hers on his hips.
My grandmother, excited to see him, says, “Jim, I’ve missed you. I’m so glad you made it to my birthday party! We’re going to have ice cream.”
He’s still grinning. He can’t stop. He looks back at his Barbara and says, “Is dinner ready?”
Tell Nana I said Hi, Papa.