I have learned tonight to be immensely grateful to man named Al. Al Vitteri. When my mother was 3 - back in 1941 - her father, an absentee dad at best, was killed on a merchant marine ship during WWII. To make ends meet with him gone and 3 girls at home, my grandmother took in boarders, as was common in those days. After her husband died, my grandmother met Al Vitteri, and he moved in as what would eventually be a common-law husband. He became the father my mother never had. He taught her how to fix things, took her to baseball games, and took care of her. My mother's older sisters didn't care to do things with him, but my mom loved him.
So why am I thanking him now? He died 5 years before I was even born. I am thanking him now because until tonight, I never knew he even existed. I have spent most of the last near-40 years thinking my mom was was without a dad from her youngest days. It broke my heart to think of her like that. I suppose I could be annoyed or upset or dumbfounded as to why my mother never even mentioned his name. That would seem to be a logical response. But my first emotion, the one that brings tears to my eyes as I write, is gratitude. Gratitude that he was there to take care of my mom, to be her guide and her father at a time she truly needed one. Relief that the awful childhood I had pictured had not been her reality.
What prompted her to open up about this after decades of never speaking about him was a recollection of a restaurant that he used to take her to. My nephew just got a job there, and although it has changed names many times, it is still in the same spot in my mother's hometown. The memory of him taking her there for Cokes and walking home with him came out so naturally I almost missed it. Almost. I stopped her briefly and said "Who's Al?" She said of course she never mentioned him, it hurt too much. And then, with little prompting, came the whole story. Ending with how badly it hurt to lose him suddenly right after her first son - my oldest brother - was born. And how she kept it inside because it hurt so much.
All this talk of emotion from my mother was nothing less than amazing. She has spent her life repressing emotion, and emotions like hurt, sadness, and pain come up very rarely in our conversations. I felt like I was looking back in time with her though a window that I might never have had a chance to see, and it was a privelege to be there with her.
So - thank you, Al. For being the grandfather I never knew I had. For being there for the little girl that became the wonderful mom I have. Thank you.