Watches are funny little things, aren’t they? These wonderful relics of artful ingenuity remain with us for decades, reminding us of where we’ve been, and who we’ve been there with. Many of you all, I’m sure, have a watch that once belonged to a loved one. Your pops’ Rolex; your grandparents’ pocket watch. You treasure it—it either adorns your wrist every day, or it sits in a protective box on display or tucked away. Wherever it is, I want you to get it. I want you to hold it in your hand right now; and if not a watch, hold that thing that remains from a loved one lost. You got it? Good. Please keep it in hand while I tell you about my grandpa (Frank Lavista) and the Casio he left behind.
About a year and a half after my grandpa passed I was sitting with my grandma, sipping espresso and groaning my way through an episode of Days of Our Lives. When, at 2pm, I heard a little wristwatch alarm from her bedroom. I’d heard it a few times before and paid it no mind, as after a minute it stopped beeping anyway. But today I wanted to know why my grandma had a watch alarm going off everyday. She said, “it’s grandpa’s watch,” as if he were still here. “You can have it if you want,” snapping the reality back. I went into her bedroom, and saw the Casio W96H-1BV sitting atop the dresser. A practical watch for a practical, and stingy, person.
My grandpa rarely splurged, and never bothered with little inconveniences like changing watch batteries. When the battery in a Casio died he would chuck the watch in the trash, head out to the nearest Target or Wal-Mart, and buy another for $10. I’m not sure how long he’d had this particular one, but it was the watch that was with him on his 80th birthday. It was the watch he wore when the dementia set in and started stripping the person out of my grandpa. The person that returned in shadow moments. I’d see it in his eyes when he regained clarity. The fleeting minutes he remembered all of our names and faces, before time inevitably folded in on itself, conflating memories and people. Fortunately, he didn’t have to suffer this way for long. He passed only a few months later, surrounded by his family.
I don’t need that watch to remember my grandpa, but it helps me remember the best parts of him. We fall into the trap sometimes of idolizing, saint-ifying, these prominent figures in our lives. My grandpa wasn’t perfect. In fact, we argued a lot. Oftentimes he would look at me at the dinner table and say, “you know, you’re so smart. Smartest one in the room. You could be anything you want to be. A doctor. A lawyer.” Little jabs at me being, at the time, only a college professor…a writer. He often lumped money and happiness together, and it pissed me off to no end. I would tell him to “fuck off,” and that I was more concerned with being happy than being wealthy. I promise this is not as horrifying a response as you think. We’re Italian, so shouting expletives at your loved ones over a plate of pasta is what we consider normal. In the face of my anger he’d shrug, let out an “eh,” look at his dinner and say “Mangia time!”
My grandpa came to the U.S. when he was a young man. He worked different jobs throughout his life, but worked security at a building in Manhattan for years until he retired; saving and stashing away the entire time. I’ve listened to stories from my mom about how her dad never took them places. She relied on her uncle to bring the family on vacations to the motherland. Eventually, though, he saved enough to retire, bought a nice house outright, took my grandma and followed my family from NYC to Chesapeake, Virginia. He bought the cars he always wanted to get. And every time I left for college he’d palm a $50 bill in my hand.
We sat on the couch and watched Hanna-Barbera cartoons together when I was a kid. He loved Dick Dastardly’s dog, Muttley. He even laughed like him—those maniacal stifled breaths. He was silly, and did not match with the stories my mom told. I think when his children found their footing, and he finally retired as a grandpa, he allowed himself time to live. My silly, cartoon-watching, grandpa that gave us everything. It wasn’t until he was lying in his hospice bed, unable to speak, that I understood this. The man that grew up poor on a farm in Italy. A little boy that didn’t have shoes for every occasion, that lost a brother to sunstroke as a child. The man that left his country and family to work hard, and to only be able to relax once he was a grandfather. The reason that I was able to make the decision to go to school for creative writing is because he gave my family the foundation we needed, so that I didn’t have to work in the ways he did. I finally understood that he was concerned about money and my job because he never wanted me to struggle.
A few days before he left us, I apologized to him while he was in his hospice bed. His eyes were open, but I don’t know if he heard me. And, if he could, I don’t know if the dementia allowed him to place me. But I took his hand anyway, and I leaned into his ear and told him I was sorry. Not that I didn’t listen and become a doctor or lawyer. I apologized because I didn’t have the wisdom enough to thank him when he did say that stuff to me. To point out that I get to do what I want because he didn’t do that, and that I wouldn’t squander that privilege. That I might write things other people will carry with them. Serve up an article about watches that’ll make a reader smile or reflect. Pass something on to a student that they’ll keep close, in the way that I carry the memory of my grandpa.
After a few weeks with his Casio, the alarm still beeping away at 2pm each day, I started to investigate. “Did he take some type of medication at 2?” I asked my grandma. She told me, no. “Was there something he liked to do at 2?” Again, no. Finally, one day while we were having coffee and watching Days of Our Lives and I cracked some comment about how terrible it is, she said, “well at least you watch it with me, your grandfather would always sit in his room until it ended.” And I just lost it laughing. Days of Our Lives ended at 2pm. Of course I have no hard evidence aside from my hunch, but it would be so him to set the alarm on his watch to let him know when it was safe to go in the living room. This is the grandpa I choose to remember. My silly grandpa. The one that watched cartoons with me and chuckled like a demented animated dog. The one that always made me laugh, even posthumously. The one that didn’t want me to struggle.
It’s been four years since I said goodbye and the battery on his Casio has been going strong. When the time comes to replace it, I’m going to reset the alarm. Every day at 2pm I’m reminded of my grandpa, and I smile.