Grandpa Fornale

I write this on the evening 24 February 2022, the twenty-eighth anniversary of my grandfather’s death.  Neither his memory nor that of my grandmother has faded.  I am truly grateful to time that it so graciously allows us to keep what our loved ones leave inside us–and gradually draws away from us the pain of loss.

Dominick Fornale was born on 23 July 1912 in Somerville, New Jersey to Amedeo Fornalè and Emma Savoia, who had recently arrived in the United States from a small town outside Verona, Italy.  The small family resided briefly with or near the baby’s uncle, Umberto Fornalè, before moving to western Pennsylvania, where Amedeo began a career as a coal miner.  By 1924, sisters Nora and Teresa had joined the family, who had all settled in Exeter, Pennsylvania.

Dominick fell in love with Parmy Musto, who lived next door to him.  They married in the mid-1930’s, and despite the despair of the Great Depression, he found work with the Civilian Conservation Corps helping to rid forests of gypsy moths.  He served in the United States Navy during World War II and was stationed in Saipan in the South Pacific.  After the war, the family–now with four children–moved to East Orange, New Jersey, following several of Parmy’s siblings and their spouses.  His brother-in-law found him a job in New York’s garment district sewing brassieres, but by the early 1950’s, he had become a school custodian in West Orange, where he and Parmy lived for the rest of his life.

My grandfather had attended school through the eighth grade, perhaps not needing much more schooling due to the quiet elegance that always attended him.  “Guileless” is the word my Aunt Tina often uses to describe him.  He was truly sincere and unpretentious. He spoke softly and modestly, becoming more animated, perhaps, when discussing orchestral music or baseball, both of which he was keenly fond.  He adored my grandmother and eagerly consumed her cooking.

Grandpa had one of the first television sets in the neighborhood, calculating in the late 1940’s that the purchase would be more economical in the long term since he would not be spending money at the local tavern, where he watched nearly every Yankee game that was televised.  He also bought an early hi-fi system during the 1950’s and amassed over the years a fine collection of classical music LP’s that I now possess and regularly enjoy.  For four decades, he updated and improved his audio equipment, and the listening room of the apartment became the place where members of the extended family would bring their favorite recordings so they could hear them at their best.

As a young man, I moved to York, Pennsylvania.  On a visit back home, I spent a day with my grandparents, and Grandpa told me a story of him and his friends borrowing a car to drive from Exeter to York so they could see a minor-league baseball game in the 1930’s.  It was the first time he had ever seen a game played at night, and he beamed with excitement as he spoke of the light adding such vivid life to the basepaths, the grass, the advertisement boards around the stadium, and the players’ uniforms.  

Each time I visited, he would lend me a new installment of classical CD’s, and we would discuss the previous handful I was returning.  Through our discussions, I deepened my love for a few composers in particular: Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak, whose New World Symphony CD was perhaps my favorite of all that I borrowed from him.

I also adored Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.  Grandpa and I spoke about it one Christmas, and he knew at that moment that I would be a classical listener for life.  I remember his smile and remarks when I raved about the third movement in particular.

In York, I dated a woman whose father played for the York Symphony Orchestra, and I continued to attend performances long after I knew her.  Whenever I saw Grandpa, I would discuss the most obscure pieces I had heard in performance.  Almost all of the time, he had a recording of some kind of the very piece I would mention.  What he did not have on vinyl, he had recorded on cassette from broadcasts by the New York classical radio station.  Even today, I have dozens of these tapes with his handwritten notes.  Most are over thirty years old, and they play clearly, with perhaps an ethereal hiss to denote the divide between my current realm and the eternal one where Grandpa is with Grandma.

So many memories overwhelm me as I write this, perhaps the silliest being a silly sucking sound Grandpa made with his lips when I was barely a toddler and Grandma put a plate of pancakes in front of me, cut into small pieces so I could eat them.  I thought he was going to Hoover my breakfast in one go, so I picked up the plate and turned the opposite way in my high chair.  My father reassured me my flapjacks were safe.

On 22 February 1994, Grandpa went out for his daily walk.  He stopped to get his hair cut, and as he exited the barber shop, he stopped to put a birthday card for my brother in a mailbox on the sidewalk.  As he crossed the street to walk home, a driver carelessly made a right turn on red and hit my grandfather.  He landed on his head and suffered a subdural hematoma.

I received a call in Pennsylvania the next day and drove home the day after that.  Shortly after I arrived at my father’s house, Dad arrived home to inform me that Grandpa had passed away.  He had never regained consciousness.

At my grandparents’ house the next evening, I wanted to listen to a Tchaikovsky CD that I had bought Grandpa for Christmas just two months before.  I could not find it in the cabinet.  When I chose another CD and decided to play that instead, I saw the Tchaikovsky cover on the stereo console and found the CD in the player.  It was the last CD he had heard before he died.  I suspect he liked it.

One final memory–though it was years after he died: I reconnected with his relatives in Italy and learned to speak enough Italian to be functional.  I later found out that Italian had been Grandpa’s first language as a child, and I felt deeply sorry never to have known and tried to learn it from him.  Then I had a dream one night.  I was in my classroom at school late on a rainy night correcting papers, and Grandpa appeared in my classroom.  I walked with him through the corridor, down the stairs and to the front door.  I told him in Italian I had met his relatives in Valpolicella and seen his parents’ home towns–something he had never done.  We approached the front door of the school, and as he exited into the rain, I prepared to accompany him, but I looked down to see that I was only wearing socks with no shoes.  This symbolized, I supposed, that he was going where I was not suited to follow.

In my dream, he had not uttered a word, yet I felt his presence so fully that none were necessary from him.

And ever since I woke up that morning, I have felt a greater part of him is with me.

I know I am only one person in my family who fondly remembers him this evening.Alla prossima, Grandpa.

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