After Aunt Carrie bought her house at 6101 Kentucky, the Cutuly family celebrated Christmas and Easter there. I can’t remember exactly when this was. I was probably in high school, so it was the late fifties. More on these celebrations later.
But as the family settled into this tradition, visiting Grandpa on these holidays became a kind of pre holiday ritual. He never went anywhere, so we went dutifully to him. I don’t know how anyone else felt while we were there. Truth is in the experience of the participant.
A little more than a decade passed. It was Easter 1963. When we got to 16 Shetland, Grandpa was in bed. He looked smaller without his hat and coat. He told Yawgin that he had presents for us and to get a box out of the closet. It was a gray department-store dress box. In it was a wide brown tie with a giraffe embroidered on it for Yawgin. For Elizabeth there was oversized gold pocket watch that looked like something the White Rabbit would carry out of Wonderland. Your grandmother Laura and Great Aunt Mary got a geography game that went back to a time when Oklahoma wasn’t yet a state. I got nothing. It’s not that I wanted a present that made me feel sad. I felt sad because I concluded I must have been a big disappointment to my grandfather.
Not long after Easter, the trimester at Pitt was over, and I went off to fulfill my dream of working at Zion National Park for the summer. It was a wonderful summer, and I returned to Pittsburgh in early August to prepare for school. Upon return, I learned my grandfather had been in and out of the hospital. Earlier in the summer, he kept asking about me when Yawgin and Elizabeth went into Pittsburgh to visit him. They told him I was working in a park out west for summer vacation. Domenic said he was going to save $4 a week for me, that I had no business in a park washing dishes.
Ten weeks later, a week after my return from Zion, Grandpa went back into the hospital and in a matter of days died. Following the funeral, Aunt Mary gave me an envelope she’d found in Grandpa’s drawer. My name was scrawled on it in shaky script: Johanna, which was what he called me. In the envelop were 40 rumpled one-dollar bills. I bought the books for my senior year at Pitt with that money. That was the year I finally declared my major as English, and I spent the money on books for my senior year, many of which I still have today. Can you believe, those were the days when a well-made paperback classic cost less than a dollar!
I never went to 16 Shetland again, for Aunt Mary no longer had to care for her father. She sold the house and moved in with Aunt Carrie on Kentucky Ave.
When my father and my Aunts and Uncles talked about their past, they spoke of Grandma “my mother” and of their father as “Fa.” Fa never really left them. As I sat with Yawgin in the hospital as he waited in the week before his death for the relief called morphine, we didn’t talk much. His eyes had that look of all those preparing for final departure: eyes that appear to look inward while also looking past this world to a place the rest of us cannot yet see. He would travel back and forth from that place to where we sat. There would be long periods of silence. In this silence, undistracted by the things of the present, he seem to be knitting together loose strands of thought in his mind. All of a sudden, he would say a sentence or two, as if to solidify a conclusion. The moment I remember most vividly was when he came back from a very distant place where he’d spent a considerable amount of time . . . all he said was, “I think my father did the best he could.”
I will tell you, my future ones, there seems to be no greater truth than compassion. Compassion is more than forgiveness. Forgiveness comes out of a subtle feeling of superiority. Compassion, however, allows a person to see into another’s humanity and through theirs into one’s own.
I’m not sure how I ended up with Earth, Sea, and Sky. I have always appreciated the book, but never more so than now. It has encouraged me to think more about who my grandfather may have been when he acquired that book. I imagine how he might have spent a great deal of money that was so scarce to him as an immigrant just so that he might feed his passion for learning. The book, of course, is in English, a language that was foreign to him. It’s a beautifully written book, with elegant sentences. From my own study of Italian, I understand that this might not have been an easy book for him to read as he was becoming familiar with his new language.
Fifty years ago this year, Grandpa begged Yawgin to stay for a longer visit in the hospitial. Yawgin refused. “My father was a devil,” he often said to me. And yet, he regretted not having stayed for that visit, because only hours later, his father departed this world forever.
As Yawgin was dying, he asked my sisters and me if we would all be gathered around him. We wouldn’t have had it any other way. There is great meaning in this.
Fifty years ago this year, my grandfather left this earth, sea, and sky.
And oh, by the way, you must reflect on this. When we made that Easter visit when Grandpa broke the $2 tradition and gave those gifts, we found upon arriving at 16 Shetland that he had repainted much of the dining room magenta. The kitchen was no longer so brown. Everything was orange, even the kitchen sink.
How Domenic Cutuli must have been reaching for the light. How he must have longed for it throughout his life.
To find an apt conclusion for this strange story, I once again opened Earth, Sea, and Sky at random; and my eyes fell upon this: an engraving of a large rocky outcropping that looks like the rocky outcropping off the Pacific coast two miles up the road from where I now live. The chapter is about gulls, and this rock in the engraving is where the gulls live, just as the gulls here live on our rocky outcropping. I am currently writing a book about my life-changing relationship with a seagull. On the page opposite the engraving of the rock is an engraving of gulls. This part of the Earth, Sea, and Sky chapter is about gull eggs, the making of a new generation.
I will not try to persuade you that this is not coincidence but magic.
I will say that I feel insights lighting up all round me like fireflies.