My sister Andrea and I are the founders of the exclusive CLOM club.
It’s an international group in which none of its members ever know they’ve been discriminately selected and inducted. Whenever Andrea or I meet, or even simply see from a distance, a kindly looking wizened male senior citizen, preferably of smaller stature, we internally decide whether or not he makes the cut.
Additional requirements generally include twinkling eyes; color not important. They can have some hair, but it should be at best wispy, no full fluffy heads of hair or cheesy comb-overs allowed. Most of all, they must be of a cheery disposition. No grouches, curmudgeons or perverts.
After Andrea graduated from college, she backpacked around Europe with a friend. They struck up a conversation with an initially charming elderly German gentleman at some beer garden in Bavaria. I think he was wearing lederhosen. No, actually I just made that up, because the image would’ve been so great. Anyway, he apparently was congenial and funny and generously offered to buy them a couple of steins. Andrea decided he was a prime candidate for the club, and was preparing to register him into our mental directory, when he suddenly and unexpectedly leaned way too close across the wooden biergarten table toward my sister. Looking longingly at her, he invited her to come privately with him to “see his wine collection.”
Out. Out. Even before he was formally admitted, this guy was kicked out of the club.
And now I live in Italy. And just this afternoon, literally while I was typing this exact essay on my laptop at my Arezzo version of Cheers where everybody knows my name, Caffé dei Costanti, an elderly gent wearing a silk scarf with Pope John Paul the Second on it (for real), walked passed my table and looked my way.
“Buongiorno,” I said politely.
He stopped walking. Turned and faced me.
“Do I know you?” He said in Italian.
“No, I’m sorry, you don’t know me. I was only trying to be polite.” I replied in my really bad halting slow Tarzan kind of Italian. I know I didn’t use the formal “you” form. I can never remember how to do that. And I also didn’t remember that the word for polite in Italian is educato. I used pulito instead, which actually means uhm, clean. Now he was laughing and asked if he could sit next to me.
“Posso?” he asked meaning “May I?” as he indicated the chair across from me.
I figured he looked harmless enough and it was lunchtime, not happy hour. So, I nodded.
“You are obviously not Italian. Are you British?” He asked, as he pulled up a chair.
“No, io sono americana.”
“Ah,” he brightened. “An American girl. Bravissima. You are also very beautiful. Are you married?”
Oh boy. “Yes,” I said hesitantly, not because of my bad Italian this time, but due to the direction this conversation appeared to be heading, “I am married.”
“Ahhh. But do you love him?”
Okay, this is not going the way I expected. Not that I knew what I expected exactly. Maybe some idle chat about how I like life in Italy, how he was in town for Pope Benedict’s Mass this weekend, anything. Just something different than the wrong turn this was starting to take.
“Yes, I love him very much,” I said, maybe a little too forcefully. “Senti! (Listen!) How old are you?”
“Settanta,” he proclaimed proudly as he theatrically readjusted his Pope scarf.
“Seventy,” I said. “Like my mom.”
“Ah. Don’t offend me,” he said.
“Don’t offend my mom,” I shot back.
“Well then,” he said, still smiling, “Since I cannot make love to you, I will sing to you instead.”
And then, incredibly, this old man sitting across from me in that ridiculous scarf suddenly burst into an Italian ballad at full operatic volume. I will admit he had a smooth voice, but I was not swept off my feet. Instead, Pietro, Caffé dei Costanti’s always impeccably dressed owner, came dashing around the corner to my table and asked if everything was okay. I’m pretty sure he knew the answer was “No,” way before I opened my eyes wide and mouthed, “Aiuto” (Help me!).
Fortunately, the crazy crooner noticed Pietro. He left without even paying for his coffee, which I gladly would’ve bought to have him depart. Okay, so that guy, too, definitely did not have what it takes to be initiated into our CLOM club.
That’s because the acronym CLOM stands for: Cute Little Old Men not Creepy Leering Old Men.
The charter and model member of the CLOM Club was our mom’s dad: the best grandpa in the universe. Robert Gail Raven had sparkly pale blue eyes that perfectly matched the star sapphire ring he always wore on his right hand. I used to sit on his lap and peer into the ring as he moved his finger just right until it caught the sun’s rays kindling the “star” inside the stone to dazzle brilliantly. Grampa Raven, as we called him, smiled and laughed more than easily. He is precisely who I picture whenever I hear the description of someone who, “never met a stranger.”
A real nature lover, he took us three grandkids on long hikes in the Indiana forest preserve behind his and Grannie’s house, where he taught us how to find delicious morel mushrooms in the spring and how to make tea from the root of a sassafrass sapling. Every summer, our family would load up Grannie and Grampa’s camper for a two week trek “Out West.” I remember thrilling at seeing Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde and the Petrified Forest, where Mom and Dad bought a stone slice of tree with gold numbers glued on it that served as our living room clock for years.
As the oldest, I got to sit in the front seat of the camper, KOA guidebook in my hands, and pick the campground where we would stay each night. If at all possible, it had to be one with a game room and a swimming pool. Grampa Raven taught me to swim and dive in one of those pools. He also taught me how to quietly appreciate the outdoors. One evening after our picnic table dinner somewhere in Arizona, he and I walked far past the rows of motor homes to stare across the empty desert at the pink sky’s setting sun interrupted here and there by a silhouette of a giant saguaro cactus. “Listen,” Grampa whispered to me.
I stood silently for a moment, my ears straining to pick up a sound. Finally, I admitted, “Grampa, I don’t hear anything.”
“Exactly,” he replied. “Enjoy it for a while.”
Grampa Raven never made it to Europe, but his namesakes both have. Andrea’s six year old daughter Sophia’s middle name is Gail, same as Grampa’s was and my four year old Lulu’s middle name is his surname Raven.
Every morning, along our daily walk to Lulu’s preschool, I look out across the hills and fields and think of him. There are no sassafras trees here. I point out olive and fig trees instead. We collect wildflowers and keep our eyes peeled for the occasional tiny lizard or lucerto that may be soaking up the sun on the low stone walls encircling our neighbors’ compounds.
They’re “compounds” because they serve as homes for extended families. Aunts, uncles, cousins and especially the Nonni or grandparents all live under one sprawling roof with several entrances making for private apartments. In the early morning, when I’m pushing Lulu’s passegino or stroller along the narrow roads to her school, the working age neighbors are getting ready to leave for their jobs, or drive their kids to school, which leave the retired Nonni free to lean out their windows and wave to us. In honor of Grampa, I always wave and holler a friendly “Buongiorno” back. I also encourage Lulu to do the same. “Lulu, it always makes a person smile when a little child politely greets them.”
Lulu obliges with a pipsqueak voiced version of “Ciao!” and is met with delighted reactions. “Mama!” she says, “You’re right, everyone is happier now.” In our rural area, where everyone else has a car, our daily strolls to and from school in rain, shine or snow, have taken us from initial curiosity to resident fixture and our gracious neighbors have ventured from their windows to outside their gates to meet us in person. They come over and pat Lulu’s head or lightly pinch her cheeks. As best we can, we have light conversations about whether it will rain, how we’re doing, and what’s for dinner. Antonia is a spirited Nonna with short spikey silver hair who can often be seen cruising on her Vespa. There’s also a still dark-haired Gina who loves that my name is the same as hers even though that’s unfortunately as far as my Italian goes.
But it’s the Grandpas who really bowl me over with their generosity. Palmiro only has a few remaining teeth and is pushed everywhere in a wheelchair, but he still has that twinkle and teases Lulu about taking her teddy bear Vincent away with him for a ride. One morning, as we were walking by his house, his nurse pushed him quickly to the gate and he called out, “Do you like oooova?” I only understood the “do you like” part of his Italian question (Ti piace…?), but I couldn’t make out the blurry word at the end. Partly because my Italian wasn’t so good and partly because Palmiro didn’t have his dentures in. His nurse prompted, “’Uova.’ ‘Oo-oh-vaa’.” Oh, got it. “Eggs.” Strange. But, uhm, yes, we like eggs. So I told him so. He smiled excitedly and said something else then really quickly that I didn’t catch. I sort of smiled and mumbled, “Va bene, ciao! (okay, bye!) and pushed Lulu along on our way.
Lulu said, “Where’s his teeth, Mama? Is it true all grownups can take them out?”
“No, Lulu, and that is why you have to be sure to really brush your teeth well every night.” Had to take the opportunity to plug good dental hygiene there.
That afternoon, on the way home, he was at the gate again, waiting for us in front of his house. I thought, “Great, now, maybe I’ll figure out the mystery of what he was telling us this morning.” We approached the gate and saw that he had an old cardboard gelato container in his hands. Inside were six brown speckled chicken eggs. “Fresche,” Palmiro said. Fresh. I was touched. Behind almost every compound in our neighborhood stands a little shed or lean-to. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them proper chicken coops. We weren’t sure what was inside them for sure, but we had a pretty good clue from the sounds of “chi-cchir-ichi” (Italian roosters do not go “cockle-doodle-doo”) early in the mornings, that chickens were the likely possibility. And now we had half a dozen fresh eggs from some of those very same birds. Plus, we solved the mystery of what Palmiro told us – presuming that what he said was something along the lines of “Come back this afternoon and I’ll give you some eggs.” Maybe he had said “Wait right there, I’ll be right back.” I’ll never know. But at least it worked out.
My personal grandpa neighbor favorite is Rivaldo. He has smiled and waved to us from the first. He comes out of his house and seems genuinely interested in our lives here. He listens patiently as I try to respond in Italian. He even stopped his car and offered Scotty a ride when he saw Scotty trudging toward home on the busy road from the one supermarket in town. Now that Rivaldo is retired, his full-time job seems to be feeding the feral cats that wander around our country fields. Lulu and I see him on our walks brandishing a large can of food like the Pied Piper with mewing cats circling around him. Instead of a chicken coop in his backyard, he has a bee hive and he has given us two jars of the lightest sweetest tasting Acacia honey. He more than twinkles, he practically shines.
When we walk along our daily route, I often tell Lulu stories about the original CLOM Grampa Raven. I’ve also told her about the CLOM club and how fun it is to spend time befriending our worthwhile neighbors especially if they’re a little long in the tooth, or in Palmiro’s case, few teeth at all. One day, after an especially nice exchange with Rivaldo, Lulu looked up at me from her passegino as we continued on our walk.
“I love all these Grandpas,” she said. “They have such nice cutey smiley faces. It's good to be nice to them. ‘Cause they're all gonna die.”
So, to future members of the CLOM club: Hurry. This is a special limited-time offer. ###