During our last week in America, we were meeting PopPop for lunch on a Wednesday afternoon. A week from that Wednesday, we would be back in Delhi, where my husband and I live and work. PopPop isn’t good with goodbyes, so we had decided to meet him separately three days before our imminent departure. PopPop is the name by which my husband calls his paternal grandfather, the proud son of industrious Italian immigrants who came to America in the early part of the twentieth century. He is 94 years old, a World War II veteran, takes ballroom dancing lessons every week, and never leaves the house without a jacket, even if the temperature is in the high nineties outside. His eyes are like the green light that Gatsby saw from Daisy’s dock. When we went out for our lunch dates with PopPop, it was akin to following that green light, as we were borne back into the past through his stories.
Retired for over twenty-five years now, PopPop’s first and only job had been at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Presently known as the Navy Yard, most of it has been converted into an office park. In 1942, he started working at the Navy Yard, with his first job being handling correspondence. He would open the mail and decide to whom the letters and orders should go. In February of 1943, during World War II, he was drafted into the US Navy. His battalion was the 556th Aircraft Warning Battalion, stationed in Iceland. PopPop was in the supply unit for the battalion, which sent supplies to other units around Iceland. I had been intrigued when PopPop had told us that he had served in Iceland, so I had decided to do a little research of my own. In Lambert W. Stammerjohn’s book Radar in Iceland, he writes that the work of the 556th Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion was always shrouded in secrecy. Although their presence in Iceland had been public knowledge, the actual job that they had performed, the equipment which had been used, and the accomplishments of that unit had been classified. Even the word radar was a classified secret until the end of World War II.
The function of the Iceland Base Command had been mostly unknown to the American public. A few news articles that trickled in were more like travelogues than accounts of military activity. The initial secrecy had been crucial for military security during a critical juncture in the Battle of the Atlantic. The base in Iceland had been established with a view to provide a secure base for naval operations, prevent German occupation, and in the event that Britain fell to the Axis powers, it would have served as an eastern bastion for the United States and Canada. In light of the secrecy of their mission, the troops who persevered through four years of difficult weather and field conditions referred to themselves as the FBI, ‘the Forgotten Bastards of Iceland’. They might have had a point because among other things, meeting PopPop had also been an exercise in filling up an unknown gap in my knowledge of world history. PopPop had served with his unit for eighteen months. After the war, he had come back to the Navy Yard and begun working in the submarine supply centre. He had married his wife of Irish origin, who was born in America but descended from immigrants as well, and had moved from south to northeast Philadelphia to start a family.
Over the course of this summer, meeting PopPop for lunch on Wednesday afternoons had become a tradition for me and my husband. These lunches were conducted at PopPop’s favourite establishments, old-fashioned restaurants and diners in and around Bucks County, PA, which were about as far from trends like rainbow-coloured food or vegan cuisine as the years between PopPop and his grandson, an unbridgeable distance. After successive lunches at the Suburban Diner, Johnny Apples Restaurant, and The Buck Hotel, it was time to venture out farther, to The Dining Car, on Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia, PopPop’s old neighbourhood after marriage. PopPop now lives with his daughter and her husband, and their 14-year old dog Rosie (older than PopPop in human years), who often forgets that she is fourteen and tries to lope around like the cute little puppy that she used to be.
Although the two of us, my husband and I, come from two vastly different worlds, Glenside and Kolkata respectively, I have often thought that our grandfathers would have found a lot to share with each other. These men have known hardships, the fruits of which we as their grandchildren have grown up only enjoying. Dadubhai, my maternal grandfather, when he was still a teenager, had left his village in Faridpur in erstwhile East Pakistan and migrated to India, following in the footsteps of his older brother who had become a police constable in Calcutta (now Kolkata) by then. In the years to come, he would also send for his two younger brothers, and then eventually his parents. Even though his children and grandchildren have never thought of themselves as anything but Indian, Dadubhai’s desh (homeland) remained Bangladesh. When I was a child, Dadubhai would take out a small, single-ruled exercise book, yellowed with age and repeated perusal, from his locker in the almirah. He would run his finger under the words written with a light blue ink, in a slanting, cramped Bengali script, and read out the story of the early years of his life to me. Dry-eyed, he would narrate to me how he had slept on the streets of Kolkata because his brother had turned him out of the house on his wife’s instigation, or the time when his employer had beaten up him on a false accusation and he had remained silent. “Why?” I had asked him, incensed that someone could have the temerity to beat up my Dadubhai, tall and strong even at seventy, who had built the two-storeyed house in which my mother had grown up with his own bare hands, now my mamarbari. “I was very poor. Nothing I had to say would have mattered,” he had said. Then drawing me close to him and stroking my hair, which was short and like a boy’s, parted on the same side as my Dadubhai’s, he had said, “One day, when you are grown up, you can write my story in English and then it will matter.” I haven’t done that yet, it’s still too soon…
On the day of our last lunch with PopPop, the temperature was in the high seventies with light rain coming down like a mist of sighs, in spite of it being July. The weather in this month was a child’s whim, of a sunlit and luminous disposition one day, grey and withdrawn the other, or pouring in the morning and halcyon skies by afternoon. In the six weeks that I had spent with my husband’s family in Glenside, I had finally come around to understanding the weather in Fahrenheit. Among my family back in Kolkata, we do not invoke Fahrenheit’s temperature measuring scale unless someone is running a fever; we talk in Celsius when we talk about the weather. At half-past twelve, my husband was driving the car up the little hill on the way to PopPop’s house. As the car steadily climbed up the curve in the road, the road ahead abruptly fell off the top of that curve. That was the part I loved the most during our trips to pick up PopPop for lunch. I would keenly watch the cars ahead of us climb up the hill and then disappear down the slope, as if they were on a rollercoaster ride. Even the trees on either side of the road seemed to teeter on the edge of the hill, not knowing and yet wanting to know what lay on the other side. Once we had reached the top of the hill, the road leveled out and became smooth again, the moment of mystery passed.
At the house, we found PopPop sleeping in the armchair in front of the TV, clad in a full-sleeve flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of blue jeans. He hadn’t heard us come in. On the couch, Rosie lay with her legs sprawled in the air and body moving jerkily from time to time, probably dreaming of when she was young and could chase after rabbits. Her coat of fur, which used to be shiny black, had acquired a dusting of fine snow with age. She woke up before we could wake up PopPop, but she neither barked nor changed her position, simply acknowledging our presence with a sideward glance. My husband gently woke up his grandfather and told him that we were ready if he was. He was slightly disconcerted at first, but then he pulled himself up from the armchair and welcomed us by giving each one a hug in turn. A few minutes later, having donned his trademark Ray-Bans, and his jacket in my hands, PopPop was ready to go to lunch. We left behind Rosie, who watched us leave without the least bit of interest. With the curtains drawn across the window, a hazy light was coming in which made Rosie, lying on the couch, look like she was painted in chiaroscuro, the softest of shadows highlighting her form.
My husband had parked the car as close to the house as possible so that PopPop would not have to walk too much. While I held the car door open for him, he strapped PopPop into his seat, as the latter stolidly bore his grandson’s ministrations. Once I had climbed into the backseat, my husband started the car. As the car backed out of the driveway, I watched the dark green trees and the neighbouring houses standing still and shivering in the rain, like wet birds that take shelter under the eaves of houses to dry their feathers. In a minute, as we took to the road, the tranquil suburban world around us slid past the car windows and vanished. Soon we had crossed into the city, and through the misted window, the green road signs of northeast Philadelphia, the cars like obedient children staying in their lanes, the glazed faces of shop fronts, people waiting on the sidewalk to catch a bus, all of it became seemingly insubstantial in the rain, like ice turned to smoke. The tail lights of cars passing by glowed warmly, as if they were memories which invited us to chase after them. PopPop, in the seat next to my husband, was guiding the latter through which lanes to take for The Dining Car. The sprigs of hair on his head over the top of his seat resembled windblown fields of wispy white kash phool, a kind of wild grass.
PopPop’s story also began with a journey, one that his father had made. In 1914, his father Vincenzo, seventeen years old, had arrived on a ship to Philadelphia from the province of Abruzzi, also called Abruzzo, in southern Italy. “As did half the Italians of Philadelphia back then,” said PopPop. Since the rule of primogeniture had still been prevalent in Italy at that time, the right of inheritance belonged exclusively to the eldest son. Vincenzo being the second in line had decided to accompany his uncle to Philadelphia in search of a livelihood. Although PopPop’s mother had been born in America, her father too had migrated from Italy. Contrary to the earlier influx of Italians on the shores of Philadelphia, who had mostly trickled in from the north, three-fourths of the Italians who came in the early decades of the twentieth century belonged to rural southern Italy and Sicily. These men ventured forth on the repeated advice, encouragement, and financial assistance of relatives and friends who had also migrated from Italy and were already settled in the United States. This practice had set off a pattern called ‘chain migration’, a term that has been recently in the news. Chain migration is a pattern of migration in which one or another person in a family or a village begins sending for others back home, and that was how long chains of people came out of Italy into the Little Italies of America.
South Philadelphia, where PopPop grew up, contained a little of Italy, but was predominantly constituted of the immigrants’ immediate experiences in a new world. PopPop recalled, “South Philadelphia was like an Italian ghetto back then. It was a good life, a family life, and everybody knew everybody else. We had our own shops down the street, a bakery, a grocery, and a hardware store with a pair of Great Danes. I didn’t like going into that store as a boy, those dogs were bigger than me and I was scared of them. At the grocery store, they’d keep these bags of coffee beans and I would take a handful and munch on them. My mother did the cooking at home, and what a cook she was! She taught my wife how to cook.” The best food at home meant and still continues to mean spaghetti and meatballs in red sauce, which PopPop’s wife taught my mother-in-law, and she in turn most creditably tried to teach me. That is where the generational buck would have stopped, as I have never been and most definitely will not be good at cooking, but I have a sister-in-law who masterfully feeds her two lovely boys a home-cooked meal every day. Thus, the tradition continues.
When we reached the diner, I put my head out of the car window and marvelled at the architectural anachronism of The Dining Car. The diner seemed as if it had been teleported in time, complete with a barrel vault roofline and a large neon sign displaying its name. The windows were opaque from the outside, like the vacant, but all-seeing eyes of Dr. T J Eckleburg; you had to go in to see what was inside. As the three of us, PopPop, my husband and I walked in, we found ourselves in the midst of a bustling lunchtime scene. Once inside, it was in the impression that the diner created on my mind which reminded me of the Moti Mahal restaurant in Daryagunj. It was a living heirloom of the past, old-fashioned décor, booths with white tables and beige coloured seats, and the light coming in through the windows giving the place a soft, wistful glow. There were a good number of people in the booths, mostly elderly in composition, some eating quietly and most of them talking animatedly, while waiters and waitresses dressed in black brought out plates of food and cups of tea and coffee. A bespectacled waitress, her blonde hair tied in a ponytail, approached us and asked if we would like to be seated. PopPop raised his hand and gestured for a table for three, not peremptorily, but with an elegant sweep of the fingers, their movement possessing a certain kind of grace. The waitress nodded in comprehension and then guided us to an empty booth to our left, which looked out on to the road outside. My husband helped PopPop settle into his seat and then we sat down opposite him. The waitress brought out the menu cards and handed them to us. We pored over the menu cards together, finally selecting turkey sandwiches, plus a bowl of soup for PopPop. The waitress came back again and jotted down our orders, and then disappeared through a pair of large metal doors into the kitchen. PopPop, his hands clasped as if in prayer, looked up at us and asked if we had finished packing our bags for the flight back to Delhi. We said that we hadn’t even started. “Oh okay,” he said, and the way he said it was characteristic of him, the phrase sounding like a little musical bell curve to the ear. As we waited for the food to arrive, in portion sizes that were enough to last one an entire day, I looked out the window. Through the grimy glass, like skim on the surface of stale, old milk, the world outside was dim and blurry, as if retrieved from memory.
Lured by the promise of work, unskilled laborers from Italy began to appear on American shores in large numbers from 1880 onward. The arrangements for these immigrants were made through a padrone or patron, who not only served as the laborers’ boss, but also as landlord, banker, interpreter, and agent of employment. The padrone system controlled every aspect of life for a new Italian immigrant. “In those days, if you were an Italian, you couldn’t be a policeman, a firefighter, or work at City Hall without political help from the patrons,” recalls PopPop. It is estimated that about one-fifth of all Italian immigration from the last two decades of the nineteenth century to the two early decades of the twentieth century constituted of laborers who were married men, hired hands on Italian estates, and owners of one-room houses crowded with children. However, many of them were also teenagers, middle sons like PopPop’s father, whose ‘dollaro’ would have been welcome back home. Gradually, Italy became a ‘romantic reverie’ in which the Italians in America would occasionally indulge themselves. PopPop told us about his mother’s father, who used to put wine in everything. “Even coffee! ‘What you doing there, don’t do that!’ I’d say if I caught him in the act, but he would go on as if he hadn’t heard me… The family made six barrels of red wine every year. Each barrel was fifty-five gallons, but it would all go, and they would make it again next season. Around September-October, they would rent a truck, buy sixty to seventy boxes of grapes, grind them the same night, and then the wine would be ready by Christmas. They also made white wine in a small barrel that could only hold twenty-six gallons, but you had to be sick to get that.”
“Did it work?” we asked.
“Oh yeah…If you drank that, it made you feel better,” said PopPop.
The language spoken in PopPop’s home and among the community in South Philly was Italian with a variation of dialects across households, representative of the various regions from which they had emigrated, mainly Abruzzi and Molise, Campania, Calabria, Basilicata, and the port towns of Sicily. “I didn’t speak English until I went to first grade. We spoke Italian at home growing up,” said PopPop. My Dadubhai on the other hand, who had only attended a Bengali medium school up to the fifth grade in his village, never learned English. But he was always proud of the fact that his grandchildren spoke English fluently and perhaps inwardly dismayed that they spoke Bengali grudgingly. Growing up, the status of Bengali as my mother tongue was incommensurate with its position as a second language in school. As if Bengali was Batman at home and a timid little Robin at best in school. Sometimes, I would lapse into English while talking to Dadubhai. On occasions when I realized my mistake, I would look up at Dadubhai and see him smiling at me fixedly, keeping up a pretense of comprehension. Only grandparents are perhaps lovingly accommodative of our mistakes.
Once the food had arrived, I sat up straight and waited for someone to say ‘grace’, a ritual that I had recently become accustomed to during dinners at my husband’s home. But the two of them fell upon their food without standing on any ceremony. I laughed and took a bite out of my sandwich. The conversation meandered from the situation in Kashmir to Iceland becoming a top tourist destination, and then skipped on towards a comparative analysis of the weather in the US and India, and finally made a pit stop at the Trump Russia scandal. From the first lunch with PopPop to the present one, there would always be this moment which occurred in every meeting of ours. Towards the end of lunch, usually when my husband and PopPop were deep in conversation about American politics, I would push back my chair, withdraw mentally, and look at the two of them as if I wasn’t physically present at the same table. I would gaze at PopPop and my mind would wander, travel across continents, and yet fail to reach the person I thought of the most during such situations.
In March of this year, after five years of illness, Dadubhai passed away. He had always had a head full of dark black hair well into his seventies, but towards the end, all that had remained was a stubbly field of dead, white grass. I did not see him when he breathed his last, the man who would cycle the nearly ten-kilometer distance between his house and ours, just to deliver a packet of freshly-made gujiyas for his granddaughter. I wasn’t there beside him during those years when he was sick, or when he finally died. In his last year on earth, he was merely a news bulletin that my mother shared with me during our nightly phone calls between Delhi and Kolkata. Absence is amorphous, without any perceptual structure of its own, but it has a remarkable ability to stand out, to be painfully conspicuous. When I returned to my home in Kolkata after Dadubhai’s death, it was the flat, unleavened surface of the divan on which he had spent his final years, or the vermillion missing from the parting in my grandmother’s hair, which sharply defined his absence, and the sadness that followed was like pain from a phantom limb. As I would come back to the present, breaking through the surface of a wine dark sea of grief, and look at PopPop once again—the discussion having moved on to why the Phillies weren’t winning—the flow of time would gently resume. I smiled when I watched him slip the crackers that came with his soup into the front pocket of his shirt. The window lit up as the sun broke through the clouds, and in spite of the griminess of the glass, unspooled its shimmering gold on us.
The sun shining in after the light rain made our surroundings opalescent, even the air seemed to have sparks of infinitesimal brilliance. The waitress materialized as soon as we had finished eating what we could of our meals and gave us boxes to pack up the rest. PopPop ordered a cup of coffee and we sat around chatting aimlessly until it arrived. Within a few minutes, the waitress came back with the coffee and poured it into a nondescript white mug. PopPop thanked her and then set about adding milk and sugar to the concoction. I noticed his hands, now tremulous in their movements, the skin wrinkled, and blue-veined, like rivers flowing through landscapes of senescence. And then I looked across at my husband’s hands, resting on the table, smooth-skinned, the colour of a roseate blush of dawn, seemingly solid in this inchoate universe of being. These hands of his were palimpsests, as were mine. The tales of our grandfathers, both PopPop’s and Dadubhai’s, imbricated in the story of our lives.
Dickinson, Joan Younger. “Aspects of Italian Immigration to Philadelphia.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 90, No. 4, pp. 445-465. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania: 1966.
Juliani, Richard N. Building Little Italy: Philadelphia’s Italians Before Mass Migration. Penn State Press: 1998.
Stammerjohn, Lambert W. Radar in Iceland: A Brief History of the Aircraft Warning Units in Iceland, 1941-1945: Aircraft Warning Company TF4, Aircraft Warning Company, Iceland, 556th Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion. 1996.