Sunday’s With Poppy

I remember that Sunday. It was different.

Sunday was my favorite day. For most kids, Sunday is a worst enemy, the beginning of the school week. Sunday meant starting homework and projects, while the memories of Saturday still lingered in and out of their conscious. For me, Sunday was the day. I had no qualms with Sunday…I still don’t. For me, Sunday is the day for making fun memories.

From a young age, Sunday was family day. It was a day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with family. I would be considered blessed: both sets of my grandparents lived a couple miles away from us, and resided in the same town. Weekends were split among traveling, sports, house and yard work, and visiting family. We were a busy bunch; spending most of our days away from the TV and on the road. I wouldn’t trade it.

Unfortunately, my father’s father lost a long battle with cancer in the fall of 2001. We celebrated his life, and picked up the pieces of ours to try and get through each day. My mother had the idea of “Sunday Dinner,” which she later renamed as, “The Old Folk’s Gathering.” Her idea was to have her parents and her mother-in-law over for appetizers, a cooked meal, and dessert…all while having everyone home by 7:30pm for bowling. It was a time for laughter, love, and planning for the future. We planned many occasions while eating an Entenmann’s crumb cake.

In the beginning, my mother’s parents would arrive at 5pm…my father’s mother and sister would arrive at 5:15pm. They would bring dessert. I can still hear our Great Dane barking as my grandparent’s walked slowly up the driveway as my brother and father rushed to help with their groceries. Poppy and Umma’s shoes would scratch our kitchen floor as they walked in and a gust of cold air would fly in with them. I would run down the stairs with a new outfit on, just as my grandfather would ask when our alarm system would be fixed. My mother would shoo them out of the kitchen and I would be the first hug them. Poppy smelled of cold air and his head and shoulder’s shampoo, while Umma smelled of York peppermint patties and her favorite perfume, L’aire Blue. Umma would offer to paint my nails for me while complimenting my flashy outfit. I would take their coats off and run them up to my mother and father’s room. Soon, my grandmother would come in with my aunt. I would take drink orders, and bring out crackers.

The conversation would be normal: Cars, doctor appointments, the dog, school, and sports. Poppy would shoot questions out like bullets, as he occasionally took a drink of his red wine. Umma and Grandma would have light conversation about curtains and plans that were made for the next week. Every so often, Poppy would ask if he ever told us the story of the time he went to China. Although we would say yes, he would tell us a story we never heard before. He has experienced so much; he had seen his share of life. Poppy would tell the story of the time he played basketball with local boys on the mountain of Kunming. He would laugh when he thought about it, saying that he never could understand how he couldn’t beat a couple of 15 year old boys…he assumed it was because he wasn’t used to the altitude.

Dinner was served soon after, and my grandfather would sit next to my brother. If my sister was home, she would sit on the other side of my Umma. I would take my usual seat next to my aunt and mother, and we would pray over our food. My mother would thank God for everything we had, and we would dig in. Laughter would ensue after Poppy would tell a story about his travels through Europe with Umma. My grandmother would laugh, and Umma would roll her eyes and whisper to my mother that he was crazy. She would feed our Great Dane some table scraps and scold Poppy for doing the same. We would be in high spirits, laughing and joking about our problems from the week.

As time carried on, the “old folks” grew older. The stories we once begged for were told two or three times in the same sitting. Seats became empty as years went on. Umma passed in 2007 from cancer. I had never seen Poppy so broken. He would talk about his beautiful wife and what she did while he was in the war. My father’s mother became his only comrade. Conversation became more broken. My siblings and I grew up, and didn’t want much to do with Sunday dinner. I would miss dinner occasionally. I never realized how important it was to Poppy for us to be there.

My father’s mother passed in 2009. And then there was one. My aunt still frequented dinner. My mother renamed dinner to the, “Sunday Social.” By 2009, Poppy had lost half of his eyesight. He had to be picked up, and brought to our house. My brother or my father would drive to pick him up. He had become more fragile than before. Soon, talk of the fear of him falling was a topic of conversation before he would come in. I would sit quietly in the other room eavesdropping on my mother and aunt. I would pick my nail polish and pet our Great Dane. I would shake with fear and anger: Poppy was strong, and didn’t need assisted living. My parents and family thought otherwise.

In 2010, Poppy was moved out of his house to an assisted living facility. He had been stripped of his independence, and he hated every second of it. It needed to happen. He would fall, and not tell anybody. He would leave the stove on and forget it was on. He needed help reading his mail. It needed to be done, but he wasn’t happy about it. Most of the people in his facility were also veterans of WWII. He exchanged stories and compared locations. He even employed my sister to try to find his pilot on the “computer.” Although in his 90th year, he was keeping up with the times.

Our Great Dane would wait for Poppy to come over, and would sit at the table to wait for table scraps. We would still hear his stories. We would still be filled with his knowledge and wisdom. My sister gave birth to his first great-grandchild, and he felt blessed. My brother introduced a girl to us, and Poppy could not be happier.  He had created this strong, loving family…he had given us the life that we live. Permanent additions were made the table; while keeping the memories of the original members.

Poppy was put into hospice after a fall in the assisted living facility. I remember that Sunday. It was different. We didn’t have a cooked meal, but instead McDonald’s with a coffee from Dunkin Donuts. My parent’s went to see him first, then my uncle and his wife. My cousins and my siblings said goodbye. I didn’t. I stayed home. I waited for Sunday dinner to start. I stood in the living room with our Great Dane, waiting for dinner to be ready. It was never ready. I sat in the living room in complete silence, peeling my nail polish off.

I said goodbye to Poppy on a Wednesday. I walked down the hallway, and it smelled faintly of hospital food. I wanted to throw up.  I’m not sure why I was nervous, or what I was expecting. My mother had prepped me on his condition, and I felt sick. As I rounded the corner, I shut my eyes. When I opened them, there he was. My Poppy. No tubes, no sound. He was asleep. I sat next to him, and couldn’t look at him. I held his hand, and it was cold. He was freezing. I was so silent I could hear my heart beating in my body. I told him I would see him next Sunday and he squeezed my hand.

Poppy passed away in early 2011. He was at peace when he passed. The next couple of days were a whirlwind. As I sat in the funeral home, I eavesdropped on my mother making the arrangements for his burial while peeling my nail polish. I sat in our living room with our Great Dane while my mother gathered pictures of Poppy with his family. I felt the itchiness of my black tights on my legs and the squeeze from my black heels. The wake, the funeral, and the burial are all memories that come back to me in flashes. It was almost like I blacked out.

We soon picked up the pieces of our life and put them back in different ways. I went back to school, and my brother moved out of our house. My niece grew older, and our Great Dane passed away. We grew up at our dinner table. We grew up to know what true love looked like, and what family looked like. Lessons about Ellis Island and the Bronx in the 30’s were top notch, and we learned that Uncle Bacala’s was a restaurant and not an insult. We strived for love, laughter and family in our own life journey.

To me, I was taught everything I need to know about life, and then some.