My grandfather was great with one-liners. Whether he was being funny, cunning or making a point, he could knock you out with one sentence. Well, two if he had to use a set-up statement. Grandpa passed of lung cancer in the summer of 2012, but a few weeks before that, on Father’s Day, he laid out the last one-liner he’d give me:
“The doctor asked if I was afraid of dying. ‘I said, why should I be afraid to die, after the life I’ve led?’”
Grandpa believed no one had lived a life quite like his. He had no regrets, no loose ends and was content to go when it was his time. No matter what he did, he could always say that he did it for the right reasons. The proof was the legacy he’d leave behind.
His death had me thinking a lot about my own life: what I’d done so far and what I could do next, but mostly if I was doing things right. at the time, I was wrapping up my bachelor’s degree while raising two kids on my own and working as a drummer and freelance writer. While a “normal” lifestyle and while it has its advantages, enough challenges and complications arise to regulalry cast doubt on whether the whole opeation is worth it.
That Father’s Day one-liner was both poignant and poetic in its simplicity. The more I thought about it, the more I discovered. Try for yourself – but maybe you need to see an 87-year-old man say it with a huge smile on his face to really have it driven home.
I had a gig later that night, and when I began playing a wave of peace and happiness just swept through me. It spilled out of my arms, onto the drums and into the crowd. I was an unending reservoir of sheer joy. The audience noticed and even the singer mentioned on stage that I was playing on another level.
I was playing for Grandpa that night. And, I realized, I do that a lot. The one-liner from Father’s Day wasn’t the only inspiration he’d given me. The way we’d bonded over the music when I was younger shaped my playing and personality in general.
Remember the whole swing-dancing craze that swept the nation for, oh, about a fiscal quarter back in the late nineties? Long before the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies traded ska for Sinatra, I was already schooled on the Chairman of the Board, to say nothing of the rest of the Rat Pack, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman and Louis Prima.
My father listens to jazz so I had a nascent appreciation for the music. But learning about it from my dad is like me teaching my kids about the Beatles: I can explain the significance and convey my enjoyment, but ultimately I’m reading from the history book. I wasn’t there when it happened.
To hear Grandpa talk about big bands was something else entirely. He told me about the dances they’d go to, and play the “Sinatra for Ralphie” tapes the DJ’s used to make for him when he was a security guard at a radio station. I learned how Sammy Davis, Jr was the greatest performer who ever lived. We listened to him sing Because of You in a variety of vocal affectations as Grandpa identified each person he was imitating.
Buddy Rich was good but made a lot of noise. Gene Krupa was musical, and a showman. Did I see the movie where Krupa played with just a pair of matches, and then lit them at the end? Did I know Louis Prima, not Benny Goodman, wrote “Sing Sing Sing?”
During the late nineties, the rebel flags to fly were Rancid CD’s and checker patterns. But by the time neo-swing came into vogue I had memorized my two-LP Glen Miller vinyl set. I was also listening to everything from Hugo Montenegro to Frank Zappa while hiding my headphones under shoulder-length hair during class.
More than musical insight, Grandpa helped give me the freedom to be myself. But he wasn’t a proto-punk, or an iconoclast, or even outspoken – even if he could take you down with a quick, gentle one-liner. Instead, he was profoundly comfortable in his own skin. His peace and happiness was contagious. You could call me a nerd all you wanted, but it didn’t matter. Grandpa knew otherwise, and he knew better than you.
In fact, all my cousins and I knew better. You wouldn’t know it by the way we dressed as teenagers, and the rap and heavy metal we communally enjoyed. But we all knew the words to “Pepino The Italian Mouse” and could imitate the Italian-language bits in “Lazy Mary.”
My cousins and I formed strong bonds growing up with Grandpa giving those ties extra strength. He nurtured us with the melodies on his records and the Abbott and Costello videos we’d watch at his house. The stories of him sneaking into baseball games as a kid and the advice he’d give as an elder. We can speak in code made up of 60-year-old pop culture references and Grandpa’s own one-liners. And, we can speak it across three states and two decades like twins who develop their own language.
Two years before he passed, we celebrated Grandma and Grandpa’s wedding anniversary. Grandpa stood up in front of the banquet hall full of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “I’d like to thank you all for coming,” he said as he surveyed the crowd. “And, look I what I started!”
I was in 11th grade the year before neo-swing hit. I played in the school’s Dixieland Band, sort of the second-string jazz band. We did old standards like “Ballin’ the Jack,” “Hello Dolly,” “St. James Infirmary” and, of course, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” We played in old age homes instead of competitions and by that year I’d forced a drum solo into “Washington and Lee Swing,” performed while wearing my dad’s old newsboy-style cap. The bandleader gave me carte blanche. The old ladies loved it. A little confidence goes a long way sometimes.
Someone taped a performance from a jazz festival at our high school. My drum solo now included a gong, reflecting the 70s progressive rock I was listening to. As best I could, I threw out every lick I ever heard on Grandpa’s records. Then I incorporated ones I heard on the records and CD’s I’d stolen from my dad. A little knowledge goes a long way.
Next up, the gong. Drumstick in my mouth. Mallet in my hand. Cocked eyebrow at the bandleader. I started bashing away. The horn players laughed – they’d seen it before. The audience cheered – they weren’t expecting it. I raised the mallet high. The cheers got louder. A little showmanship goes a long way.
The tape was brought to Grandpa’s attention. I was sitting across from him in his living room, in almost the same exact position as I would be five years ago on Father’s Day. I’d be able to see his reaction as he watched. I knew what I played didn’t sound like the records he’d given me. But, I also knew that I had done them justice as best as I could as a 16-year-old who genuinely enjoyed them. A little honesty goes a long way.
When the drum solo hit, Grandpa gave the brightest, most satisfying cackle I’d ever heard. He slapped his knee. He looked up at my father and uncles to make sure they’d also caught what he’d just seen. On the tape, I hit the gong. On the couch, I held my breath. Grandpa slapped his knee and cackled again. “Son of a bitch!” he said, with utter glee. It was probably the first time I heard him curse. I’d done it right and all I had to do was keep doing it.
Look what he started.
The week before Grandpa died, I hit a milestone, playing four shows in five days, and I was at the top of my game. My drumming was rock solid. A little confidence goes a long way.
I was playing in a party band performing rock and dance cover songs, but as far as I was concerned I swung through the whole week: I knew what I was doing, and how I wanted to do it. A little knowledge goes a long way.
I pulled out every trick I had: standing on my stool, jumping off the drums and throwing cymbals in the air. A sound guy threatened to never to put his microphones near my drums again. The audience loved it, though. A little showmanship goes a long way sometimes.
Then on Monday, I tweeted that although getting back into “Daddy mode” was a weird transition it was always welcome. My kids greeted me with giant hugs and stories from their weekend. I told them how much I’d missed them, and shared a few stories of my own. A little honesty goes a long way.
Less than two hours later, I got the call that Grandpa had died. It was like he’d known what I was up to, even if I didn’t at the time, and waited until I had pulled it all off. But he couldn’t have, and it would be ridiculously narcissistic to think so, right?
Son of a bitch.
Trust me Jack he Knew!!! He knew!!!
I loved the story!!!
Maryrose Cerami said:
God Bless you Mr. Firneno, we all love you and I am so happy to have known you. Jack, nice touch, you have left me with a tear and a smile.