It was a little more than a year ago that one day, for no particular reason, I just decided not to go to the office.
Instead, I climbed into my truck and made the five-hour drive to Long Island, N.Y. to visit my grandparents: Concetta, 92 years old at the time; and Salvatore, 94 years old. It had been many months since I’d seen them; they had given me a special gift, and I wanted to thank them in person.
My grandfather asked me if I drove my car down; he was hoping to see it, having heard a great deal about it from my father. This was a surprise to me since the car has (what I had come to learn over the years) two unforgivable qualities in his eyes : it’s Japanese and it only has two seats, making it virtually useless and morally indefensible. “Bulls—- cars,” he always called them.
Anyway, we sat and talked for a few hours.
“I’m ready to die, Joe” he said. I was taken aback by the clarity and conviction in his voice.
“What? Why would you say that?”
“I’ve seen everything. What am I waiting around for?”
I listed a few reasons off the top of my head, which he acknowledged politely, but it was clear my argument was feeble at best.
Three weeks later he was dead.
My grandparents, as immigrants and children of immigrants, led hard lives, full of seemingly unending, back-breaking work. And they had the stories to prove it, stories I never got tired of hearing, no matter how many times they were told. And retold.
“Do you know how this family wound up in America?” he asked me during one visit.
I’ve heard it a million times. “Tell me,” I replied.
He began the familiar litany, which begins on a hillside in southern Italy:
“My father, after planting his crops, which included some very valuable melons, had the local priest come over to bless the farm.
“The very next day, a hailstorm destroyed everything in the field, wiping out the entire farm.”
He paused. And he said something new, something I’d never, ever heard in all the years I’d listened to this story — a story so pivotal to my family’s history.
“And from that day on, my father cursed God.”
Hold on just a minute. “He cursed God from that day on?” I asked.
“Yes, and he left for America soon after.”
“Did you curse God for that?”
“I never thought about it,” he replied.
“‘Cause I gotta tell you,” I said, “that hailstorm was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
I explained to him my feeling that, as tragic as that storm was to his family, its outcome as far as I was concerned was a damn good one. Because of that storm, I was born in the United States of America in the late 20th century, which is arguably the equivalent of winning the biggest lottery in the Universe.
Because of that storm, I grew up and live comfortably, with opportunity and optimism, and without fear, doubt or danger.
Because of that storm, and because they were willing to risk it all on the unknown and, when called to, spend their lives on their hands and knees doing back-breaking work, I have reaped a very fruitful crop.
I sit in a comfortable office; the work I do, I do because I want to, not because I have to.
I have no calluses on my hands, no aches in my back. The only hunger I ever feel is mostly spiritual, and arises from self-indulgence rather than physical survival.
A hailstorm destroyed a man’s livelihood, and I’m the luckiest person I know.
My point — if you’ve stuck with me this far — is that it is very easy to succumb to what is becoming a whiny, cynical culture. That is, it’s so easy to feel sorry for ourselves, given how hopeless, horrible and inconvenient daily life has become, right?
No, actually. We’re all lucky and fortunate in some way. We’re all able to be grateful for something.
For me, it’s growing up American, privileged to be accepted as part of a tribe founded not on ethnicity or ancestry, but on an idea — that human beings have a right to be free. That, and being able to turn a hailstorm from a curse to a blessing in less than a century.
For you, it may be something else, something entirely different. But it’s there — trust me.
I hope you find it.