Updated: Feb 26, 2019
One of the many reasons God made grandfathers...
I tell you a lot of stories that come from my childhood...and for good reason. I had an incredible one! Despite our many problems and shortcomings, I would not trade the family that raised me for all the money in the world.
One family member had more of an impact on me than any other...my grandfather, nonno Giuseppe. I want to tell you a personal story today...you can take your own message from it, OK?
When I was a little guy growing up in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the end of September was my favorite time of the whole year...even more so than Christmas. The end of September was my favorite time for two reasons.
First, my birthday was the very last day of the month and it also meant that the autumn season was coming to the mountains. The coming of autumn meant many things to many people.
For some, it meant the explosion of color that would take over the woods of the Allegheny Mountains. For others, it meant the beginning of football, drinking hard-cider, bon fires and Thanksgiving. For my father it meant picking the last of the summer garden vegetables and getting ready to harvest his apples.
But for me it was something entirely different. For me it meant mushroom season would start.
A few days before my birthday each year, my mother could count on me to start begging to go to Johnsonburg. I wanted to be able to go mushroom hunting with my grandfather, nonno Giuseppe. He was the reason I loved autumn so much.
Bright and early on a Sunday morning, he and I would eat breakfast together and then go up to his garage to climb in to his old Model T Ford. He’d back it out into the alley and slowly we’d drive to Spruce Street. One left hand turn would take us up the steep hill and five minutes later we were at the top of the mountain.
We drove to same place back in those woods every year. There, he’d park that old truck, pull up hard on the hand brake and turn off the motor. I loved the way the old truck would rumble and shake as the motor sputtered and coughed before it went quiet.
In the back of the truck were our baskets…one for him and one for me. There was also a trapper’s basket made of woven rattan and river reeds. He wore it on his back with the straps pulled tightly over his chest and shoulders.
Off we’d go, into the woods in search of some very special mushrooms. We wouldn’t leave that day until that big basket was full.
One of the many lessons I learned from my grandfather early in my life was patience. I attribute a great deal of that to picking mushrooms with him. He was an amazingly peaceful and patient man to be around.
Our years together were not many. He died in 1963. I remember he began taking me with him when I was about five years old, maybe six.
Now if you know anything about 5 or 6 year old boys, you know we have the attention span of a gold fish! It was my mother who taught me how to take notice to the littlest details in life, but it was my nonno Giuseppe who taught me how to focus on being patient, for all good things come to those who wait.
I also overcame my dread of eating mushrooms and developed quite a love for them…but I attribute that to my grandmother, nonna Rosa. The sauces and ragù she would make with them, ladled over her fresh egg pastas…well, I need not tell you more. They were divine!
Nonno Giuseppe seemed to know an awful lot about mushrooms. But the more I think of it, that man knew an awful lot about so many things. For instance, he taught me about mushrooms and pine trees…
“The mushrooms we are looking for just can’t grow without pine trees,” he told me one day. “These big pine trees drop their sap and their cones onto the ground. In the sap is all the sugar and nutrients the mushrooms need to grow. No pine trees Giacomino…no mushrooms.”
Many years later…I think it was in 10th grade biology class, our teacher Mr. Daughenbaugh taught us about what is called a symbiotic relationship in nature! I had a foot up on the other students because of what my grandfather had taught me years before.
“What about this one?” I would ask him on our outings. It was a question I posed to him with almost every mushroom I picked.
My repetitiveness would have driven a lesser man insane, but not nonno Giuseppe. He would take each mushroom I picked and give it a good look over. He knew the poisonous ones from the ones nonna Rosa loved to cook with.
"You've got to be careful of these,” he said, as he explained the differences between the agarics and the death caps and the yellow strainers. They aren’t really mushrooms at all, though they look like them. These will make you very, very sick if you eat them Giacomino!”
He taught me that the only safe way to eat wild mushrooms is to be able to identify each one of them and to know their particular species. That means getting to know the kind of spots and colors and markings of any particular mushroom. Nonno Giuseppe was the best teacher…he knew them all.
Sometimes it would take an hour to fill the big basket…other times it would take all day. It did not matter to either of us. The longer the better for me! I could spend all day with my hero. We stayed very close together in the woods, side by side most of the time.
And nonno Giuseppe loved to talk about Italy, back when he was a little boy, just about my age...
“My brother Pietro and I used to go up toward the old church above my father’s farm back in Monterenzio,” he began telling me one day. “My mother depended on the two of us to bring back enough mushrooms to last throughout the fall and winter.
So we would make as many trips as necessary to get them. He and I both took baskets with us…just like the ones you and I have today. We’d fill them up and then dump them into an old burlap sack. We’d fill that sack four or five times each season before my mother would say it was enough.”
And he liked to scare me with his stories and I loved every single one he told me. Nonno Giuseppe and I stopped picking one day for a while and I remember how he picked me up & sat me down on top of an old tree stump…
“Did I ever tell you the story of the time my brother & I were attacked by the man-beast that roamed the woods around our farm?” he asked.
I’d never heard the story before so I sat forward with every ounce of my attention focused on his hands & his face as he began to tell his story.
I sat mesmerized for how long I do not know, listening to him tell it in that broken English I loved so much.
With his story over, he took me down from the stump & said it was time to find more mushrooms for nonna Rosa. But I couldn’t concentrate any more.
I had one eye on the ground looking for the mushrooms & the other one looking for a man-beast that I was sure would attack us at any minute!
As I told you, he died in 1963. In the scant decade I knew him he influenced me in so many ways...some of which I would not grasp until I came here to the land where he’d spent his own childhood.
He was a great man and I miss him to this very day. I miss his bushy eyebrows, his gentle but strong hands. I would give anything to feel just one more hug or to see the world from atop his shoulder, where he would carry me on our walks up Second Avenue...until I became too big for such a treat.
I miss his warmth, his prayers, his stories, but above all I will forever miss his shining example of how to live and how to die.
As children, we can be shaped so much by those we've known closely. But perhaps the greatest wonder of all is that we can be equally shaped by those we've known briefly but who have loved us unconditionally. With that love, we can continue to change the world long after they've left it.
It’s no secret that children thrive when they have meaningful conversations with grown ups who love them or care for them. But in our busy world, it’s not easy to find ways to make this happen. So if any of you have grandchildren or know of young people who could or would benefit from your wisdom, reach out to them. Teach them. Become one of the memories they will recall with a smile or a joyful tear long after you’re gone from this world.