Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bruno: A Bear of a Man

His name was Bruno, German for "brown bear." A fitting name for a man who was tough as a grizzly, lovable as a stuffed teddy.

Emigrating to the United States at the age of 12, he was plunged into a distinctly different culture, a whole new world. At his new American school, without knowing a single word of English, he still managed to achieve all A's--except in his English class. He spoke of this many years later, in now perfect English, with pride and just a twinge of disappointment.

But education was a luxury for most immigrant families in the 1920s. He left school just after the eighth grade, his carpenter father insisting that boys must learn a trade. Bruno was smart, inquisitive and good with his hands. He became a machinist, a humble occupation which brought little wealth or fame, but ensured a decent living. It was enough. Decency was what truly mattered to Bruno.

If he'd been born wealthier and half-a-century later, his calling would have been that of an engineer or a computer scientist. I remember a holiday gathering, when he was about 80, just after computers had become common household fare. He leaned forward, his bushy gray eyebrows knitted together, and his blue eyes intense, as he quizzed my computer salesman brother-in-law about his job. "But explain this to me," he said, in his legendary questioning of everything in life. "How exactly does a computer work?"

It was often difficult to satisfy his insatiable curiosity. It was even tougher to deter the man's determination. Of that, we were always envious.

After a heart attack, when he was only in his forties, he fortified his will to live. That heart attack was his first and last.

When the company for whom he worked for more than thirty years folded, when Bruno was in his sixties, he lost not only his job but his entire pension. Instead of wallowing in self-pity and despair, he simply persevered and found another job.

Years later, a horrific car accident left him with injuries including several broken ribs and a pulverized face. (His jaw would be wired shut, rendering him literally speechless and on a liquid diet for weeks.) The day after the accident, he ignored the hospital staff's heeding and stoically marched down the hallway to be with my grandmother, who'd suffered a broken neck.

Bruno didn't believe in giving up on giving his all.

That's what I remember most about my grandfather. Plus his habitual hugs. And his often repeated words, "I'm so proud of you kids."

Bruno outlived his wife of sixty-two years, who never fully bounced back from that accident. He also outlived my father, who was never his son-in-law but always his son. My dad died from cancer, at age 53, only four months after that car crash which, ironically left him the only uninjured one of the vehicle's six passengers. My father-in-law died just two years later (also at age 53), when my two sons were just babies. Although he was their great-grandfather, Bruno is the only grandfather either of them remember.

Bruno lived to the ripe age of 89. Although he's been gone for nearly ten years, I see his warmth and fortitude still in his daughter, my mother. I'd like to believe I, too, possess a bit of both of those qualities. And when I look at my two grown boys, I know I see remnants of their great-grandfather.

Yes, he was a Great Grandfather.

Happy Father's Day, Grandpa.


  1. I love hearing these stories! Does Bruno appear in your first novel? These stories need to be told--more please!!

  2. Murf: None of my characters have been based on Bruno. Something I might consider for the future--thanks!

    Amanda: Thanks for reading and for the nice words!

  3. I wish I would have met him. It sounds like he was quite a character!
    Joan B

  4. Joan B: My grandmother was a character too. You should have seen them together--they were like one of the cute old (and sometimes bickering) couples interviewed in When Harry Met Sally.

  5. ...and I their apple didn't fall far from their tree did I...


  6. Mom: Was that an apple tree or some sort of nut tree? (Just kidding--love you. Remember that nice blog post I wrote about you, too?)

  7. That was beautiful, Sherry.

    3 of my grandparents were immigrants from Italy. I see a lot of them in Bruno's story.

  8. Bluzdude: Yes, I'll bet many immigrants were shaped by similar experiences. I'd love to sit down with my ancestors (German, Italian, Irish, French and Algonquin Indian) and hear their stories!