What I Learned from My Grandfather, Who I Never Knew

Grandpa Rocco, in the center, with his youngest son (l), his son-in-law (r), and his son-in-law’s father (far right)

My paternal grandfather was old and decrepit by the time I was six. I recall him sitting crumpled and cynical in a lawn chair, waving a cane at his grandkids as they ran in circles around him. He muttered under his breath in a mixture of bad English and his native Italian dialect.

Grandpa Rocco was an immigrant from southern Italy. He had spent his whole life surrounded by other Italian immigrants and had learned little English. By the age of 60, he was a cripple from a lifetime of working in a steel mill. He couldn’t so much walk as shuffle painfully, inches at a time. His legs were weak and arthritic.

Born in 1890 in a small Calabrian coastal town called Cropani, Grandpa Rocco left for the US in his late teens along with scores of immigrants from various impoverished European countries — Italy, Ireland, Germany, Poland — destined to become fodder for America’s industrial revolution. Driven by desperate poverty and the desire for a better life, it was a courageous thing for an illiterate southern Italian man to do.

The life he found in the US was a hard one. Uneducated and unable to speak English, his only assets were a strong back and a willingness to work.

He took piecemeal work in a steel mill in Utica, a small town in upstate New York. The harder he worked, the more he was paid. It enabled him, as the sole income earner, to support a family of five and buy a modest house. It wasn’t opulence, but it was far more than he could have achieved in Calabria, where he would have worked just as hard for far less.

Grandpa Rocco had three kids, the eldest of whom was my father, Anthony Paul. All three finished high school and my father attended an elite engineering school on the GI bill.

From what I’m told, my paternal grandfather was a quiet, stern man, small and compact, with biceps that bulged from the manual labor he performed his whole adult life. His labors didn’t stop when he came home from the steel mill — during his off-hours, he gardened relentlessly, growing vegetables in an empty lot and sharing the proceeds with the owner.

In keeping with his Italian heritage, he also made wine from Zinfandel grapes he and his Italian paisan saved their pennies to buy from California. He drank it at a rate of about a liter a day.

I have vague memories of Grandpa Rocco sitting silently at the head of the dinner table, before him a tall glass of sliced peaches swimming in rose-colored wine. He ate each golden wedge one at a time, a look of bliss in his eyes as he took in the combined pleasure of the wine and the peaches, both the product of his ardent labors. My grandfather’s life was hard, but it had its pleasures.

Grandpa Rocco was forced to retire when a drop of molten steel splashed off a cold surface and struck him in the eye, causing him to lose the depth perception he needed to do his job. He went on the dole and lived out his last years in a nursing home until his death at the age of 87.

Even though I never knew Grandpa Rocco in any intimate way, I feel that I know him today through his courage, his desire for something better, and his willingness to work hard to achieve it. I realize that if not for him, my life might have taken a very different course. Thanks to him, I enjoy a life that he couldn’t dream of — living in San Diego, earning a six-figure income, a cushy job office job instead of back-breaking work in a hot, stinking steel mill.

My grandfather came to the US to pursue a simple dream. He wanted the chance to work hard and get something back for it. He didn’t want to become a millionaire, though some of his fellow immigrants did — he was satisfied with a simple life, his family, and basic comforts like homemade wine and home-grown vegetables. Even with little education, America offered him the opportunity to achieve those ends.

Today’s America is no longer the land of opportunity for the least among us, those with few skills but a willingness and ability to work. It does not welcome the world’s huddled masses, nor can it offer them better lives if it did. The jobs that enabled salt-of-the-earth workers of my grandfather’s day to live decent lives are largely gone.

The American Dream had been my grandfather’s dream — that hard work produces benefits. Why America no longer offers that kind of opportunity is open to debate, but without that implicit pact, that promise of a better life, America is no longer the land that my grandfather knew when he came to its shores a century ago.

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Tony is a freelance technical writer and author of fiction, memoir, journalism and personal essays. You can visit his author website at tonygrocco.com.

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Tony Rocco

Tony is a freelance technical writer and author of fiction, memoir, journalism and personal essays. You can visit his author website at tonygrocco.com.