My grandfather was 14 years old in Geneva, NY. The Upstate New York winter was at its peak; snow that blinds you, winds that stab more than nip, and iced over sidewalks that have you shuffling for traction.
The dinner that evening consisted of the usual beans or pasta. With 10 mouths to feed, the only food they knew was food they could stretch. For the family to have $25 for groceries was a blessing. My great-grandmother would head out with cash in hand and come home with only the necessities. There was no option for variety - in fact, there was no choice. It had to last.
My grandfather would skip this dinner and the meals for the next couple days. He went out and braved the storm in the skimpy torn clothes he had.
“My brothers and I would wear the same clothes everyday and my mother would wash them every night.”
I’m not sure what he wore out in that storm, but I know it wasn’t enough. Still, he grabbed a shovel and started knocking on doors offering to clear off their driveway. He couldn’t name a price, he just took what he could get.
“Nick, I shoveled for four days straight.”
He came home for sleep and the little warmth inside the house each night. When the sun rose he rose with it to do the same thing again. Trudging through the snow in his sneakers, toes frozen, while the storm refused to lighten, pounding down on the only soul brave enough to fight it.
When the storm ceased he came away with $32. It went straight to his mother. It was enough for another week of groceries.
My grandparents had my mother when they were 20 years old; she is one of four children. She was born in Geneva, NY, as were two of my uncles. The youngest was born in Buffalo. From here the family moved to Connecticut. Fed up with having to move for work, my grandfather decided to move to Florida, start a shipping company, and settle down there.
Instead, things got tough. The business was failing, my grandfather had to get a second job at a car dealership, and my grandmother had to go back to work as a nurse.
“Papa told me, ‘when your mother has to go back to work, that’s when you know it’s bad.’”
It was a treacherously hot summer day in Florida when my mom came back from dance practice with a friend of hers. They drove back in a loaned car from the dealership my grandfather worked at. He used the perks and deals he could get to provide transportation for his children.
No one was home when they got back. Her parents were out working and her brothers were probably playing baseball somewhere. My mother’s friend went to the pantry in search of something to eat. She threw the door open, gazed for a moment, and turned to my mother.
“Why don’t you have any food?”
My friend Riley and I were playing basketball in my driveway; my parents had pulled their SUVs into the garage so there was plenty of room. The driveway was long and flat, perfect for basketball. If we missed, the ball would roll into the lush green of our backyard, no worries about losing it.
We would always play at my house for hours during the summer until our cotton shirts stuck to our damp backs and our stomachs began to growl. Then we’d head inside and go straight for the kitchen. The fridge was lined with gatorade, soda, and cheese sticks, the pantry was overflowing with chips, Pop-Tarts, granola bars, cereal, and practically everything Hostess made; it was a twelve year old’s dream.
This particular day Riley beat me to the pantry. He turned around with a Pop-Tart in hand and looked at me.
“I wish I had this food at my house. Your house is the best.”
My grandfather had nothing growing up. College wasn’t an option so he had to work. He would do anything to provide for his family; he’s had the same work ethic and dedication to his kin that he had as a 14 year old boy shoveling for days in a snowstorm. He made sure my mother and uncles got a college education, even if that meant putting his pride to the side and getting a second job when their world was flipped upside down. Now his children are thriving in their careers and life itself. Together they blessed him with eight grandchildren and I am proud to be his grandson. We all gather on Sunday for sauce where the food is plentiful, dessert is guaranteed, and leftovers are handed out afterwards.
Thank you, Papa. Thank you, mom. Thank you to everyone in my family lineage that came before me. Thank you for dealing with a bare pantry and pushing forward so I would never have to worry about mine.