Pops was a heavily disciplined man, almost to a fault. He would never kiss us— because boys don't kiss boys. He cut the grass on the same day every week, shoveled snow off the porch and sidewalk in the same sequence, and prepared the same lunch every morning— two pieces of well- done toast and a thick slab of government cheese. Barrel-chested with powerful arms and sterling white teeth, he was a gruff man full of superstitions and a rigid code of conduct. He only spoke to do one of two things: complain or teach us a lesson, taking equal plea sure in both of them. Oh, and hugs were definitely out, too. Pops didn't hug people. He offered a stiff right hand—"A man always shakes with the right hand"—and a grip that could bend steel. But as gruff as Pops was, he was a great provider and always put his family first. He just struggled when it came to the typical displays of affection. Trying to extract even the slightest physical or verbal confirmation of his love was more difficult than passing kidney stones.
For most of my childhood I thought Pops simply didn't like people. He barely spoke to those who spoke to him, and when he did, four or five words were the most he was willing to say. He was content minding his own business and leaving others alone. He didn't ask for favors so that he wouldn't be indebted to others who might lend a helping hand. He rarely needed to verbalize what he was thinking because the way he could cut his eyes and tighten the muscles in his face told you everything you needed to know.
Then my grandmother died. They had been married for more than fifty years. It was an old- fashioned marriage: He was the breadwinner; she reared the four children and made sure the home was comfortable and full of love. The only time I ever remember them kissing was at their fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration when the children and grandchildren cajoled Pops until he relented and bent over in front of all of us and pecked my grandmother's cheek. Something shot through me watching him do that, and to this day I can replay it over and over again in my mind in slow motion.
At her death announcement and funeral services, the rest of us were a complete mess, but as you might expect, when it came to Pops, there were very few tears. It wasn't that he didn't love my grandmother or wasn't saddened by her death. Crying just wasn't something he did. Several months later was the first sign. I went to visit him at the house that was once so vibrant and busy and was now empty without my grandmother shuffling around the kitchen or sitting in her favorite seat in the living room.
Everything was arranged exactly the way it had been when she was alive, but now with all of us living in our own houses, Pops was left there alone with nothing but silence and her memories. Then he cracked— not a big one, but enough for me to take notice. He actually told me a joke. Then he laughed. It wasn't a roar that shook the walls, but it was a laugh finished off with a tight smile.