My grandfather, Mariano Iannarino, passed from this life when I was nine years old. “Grandpap” as all his grandchildren called him, was an immigrant from Sicily. He had emigrated to America when he was just a teenager and lived and worked here for the remainder of his life. He never owned a car nor did he ever visit other cities in this country. He just worked.
When my sisters and I visited our grandparents’ home on a weekend, “grandpap” often took us to Isaly’s, an ice cream store not far from their home. On the way home from the store, with chocolate ice cream dripping on our freshly washed and starched dresses, we would stop in the local park to spend some time playing on the swings while “grandpap” smoked a new cigar. Often my sisters and I would argue over the paper ring which was wrapped around his new cigar. It was always a treat to receive the ring and we all treasured it, even though its life was minutes long.
As a freshman in college, I was required to write a short biography of someone I knew for an English composition class. I wrote lovingly of those walks with “grandpap” and how the smell of cigar smoke always reminded me of him. When I returned to my dorm room after picking up the graded essay, I smelled cigar smoke. My roommate had flunked out of college a month or so before, and I had the room to myself. Smoking was not allowed in the ancient building which housed the girls’ dorm. Was I just imagining the smell since I had just written about my grandfather? Without telling the other girls on the floor what I smelled, I asked several girls if someone had been in my room to which they all said “no”. Everyone was as puzzled as I was about the smell of cigar smoke in my room. I was so frightened with the thought that my beloved grandfather was in the room that I would not sleep there that night.
I forgot about the event until some years later. My husband and I had been living in Round Rock, where we had built a house on a few acres. We had planted a chinaberry tree next to the front of our home, because we were told that they grew very quickly. The few trees on our property were hackberries along the fenceline, nowhere close to the home. We discovered a few years later that chinaberry trees quickly become a nuisance. The chinaberry trees are also easily damaged by the wind, and our property was at the top of a windy hill. We decided to remove the tree – not a simple job, as it had grown in just a few years to be taller than our home.
As usual my husband took his time “getting to the task”. I am by nature very impatient and want problems solved as soon as they are discovered. When my husband was traveling on company business and would be gone for a few days, I decided that I would cut the tree down by myself. The wood was soft; I had a small hand saw which I thought would cut through the trunk, albeit with some effort on my part. I anticipated no problems with the task and thought of how impressed and happy my husband would be when he returned home and saw that the tree was gone. So early one day I set about cutting down the tree.
I began by cutting several smaller branches on the lower part of the tree about 3 feet or so from the ground. I noticed that after I had sawed through a branch, rather than the branch falling straight down as I expected, it twirled a bit in the air, hesitated and then landed on the ground. I thought that was odd and wasn’t what I anticipated. It was then that I thought about my “grandpap”.
My grandfather had lived all his life in a city where he walked to work. My grandparents’ home was small with a tiny backyard only large enough for a small garden. The front of the home was on the concrete sidewalk next to the street. All the homes on the street were attached to one another on one of the side walls. Small alleyways every now and then provided entrance to the backyards. When and where would my grandfather have had an experience of cutting down a tree? Why did I think of my grandfather at that moment? I was so puzzled by the experience that I abandoned my tree cutting until my husband returned home.
Several weeks later my husband decided to remove the chinaberry tree. Having had more experience at cutting down trees than I did, my husband made all the proper preparations. He wrapped a heavy, thick chain around the trunk of the tree and attached the other end of the chain to our three quarter ton pickup truck while our teenage daughter and I held onto additional ropes to direct the fall of the tree trunk away from the home. Then and only then did my husband begin to cut away at the trunk of the tree with a chainsaw. As the tree began to fall, it took the strength of the three of us, aided by the old pickup truck, to save the roof. Though the tree had leaned away from the home to catch the light, it still fought as much as it could to fall into the roof of our home.
What did my grandfather have to do with the chinaberry adventure? Remembering the cigar smoke in my dorm room and linking it with the thoughts of my grandfather when I attempted to cut down the chinaberry tree by myself started to wake me to the idea, though I had heard it often, that those who have gone before us, are not completely gone. They are part of God’s universe and can serve as His messengers when He needs them. The Church has a way of telling us this, that “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” from Chapter 12 of the Letter to the Hebrews. We are never alone in this life, and those we love, who have gone before us, are right here beside us. Of that I am certain.