My grandfather had a pipe-aroma Tiparillo cigar in one hand, and a stemmed glass of Michelob Light with a couple of ice cubes in the other as he approached his ball and squinted to line up his putt. With the beer glass placed sort-of elegantly next to his ball and the cigar dangling from his lips, he drained the putt. Papou (the Greek word for grandfather) exclaimed one of his signature lines. “Next case!” He collected his ball and his beer and was off to the next tee.
Papou exuded a kind and generous confidence that was mesmerizing to be around. He was the undisputed patriarch of our family until his death a couple of years ago. He fought in World War II as a US Marine, ran his own Exxon gas station in Nashua, New Hampshire, owned race horses, drove a classic American sports car and, along with my YiaYia (Greek for grandmother), raised a strong and healthy family. I worshiped him and emulated his life to an almost unhealthy degree.
When I was a young child and my family would visit YiaYia and Papou on vacations, I always found him in the morning smoking a cigar and drinking coffee while he read the paper. He once told me he got up early because it was his job to hang the sun in the sky each morning. He even showed me the toolbox in the hall closet where he stored the sun at night. Try as I might, I never managed to wake-up before Papou to disprove his theory. When I would wake, Papou was already up – and so too was the sun.
When we would pull into his gas station before a day at Hampton Beach on New Hampshire’s short and frigid Atlantic coast, Papou would be there smiling, helping customers and working circles around his employees. He never breathed a word to me about work ethic or treating people the right way. Watching him for a few minutes every summer taught me all I would ever need to know about success in small business. He worked hard. He never had an entitled thought or bemoaned his lot in life. If his family needed something, he worked tirelessly until he met that need. If a friend asked for help or a church member struggled, he was there without a second thought. He believed in the glory and grace of God, and didn’t understand why anyone would question God’s almighty power. He was the most honorable man I have ever known, and I miss his strength and family leadership. Above all, I miss his ever-present smile.
YiaYia died two years before Papou. She was the love of his life, and he was heartbroken when she passed. I’ll never forget watching Papou sob inconsolably. It was compelling to see how much this woman meant to the strongest man I knew. Through his actions rather than words, I learned the power of love and the intense pain of love lost. There is no doubt that the experience of witnessing Papou’s mourning intensified my love and commitment to my own wife. Even in tragedy, Papou was my inspiration.
In order to bring Papou some comfort and cheer, my cousin, Lexi, organized a book of family memories. Papou’s three children and their spouses, his seven grandchildren and their significant others, and nine great-grandchildren all contributed essays and pictures about the things we loved about Papou. The book captured a well-rounded successful life centered around strength, compassion and family. Papou was grateful for the book and the love he received from the family to which he had dedicated his life.
For me, an alcoholic in deep trouble, the book captured something else entirely. Many of the essays and photos highlighted the importance of alcohol in the life of this family – and of this man – that I love so much. There were tales about beers in times of celebration, beers to ease times of stress, beers on the golf course, and even beers as Papou drove down the highway.
Each entry in the book, taken individually, painted a picture of a strong and loving man who drank beer to enhance the moments of his life. When Papou picked you up at the airport, he popped the trunk to stow your luggage and get a cold one from the cooler. When there was a club golf championship hanging in the balance, the beer cooler played a prominent role in bringing home the trophy. In each individual essay, the beer simply complimented the story in a way that felt warm and comfortable to our family.
Papou’s smile was ever-present. Papou’s beer was ever-present, too.
I bet most of the members of my family have not made the connection between Papou’s smile and his beer. If they have, I bet the connection is not a cause of concern. For me, an alcoholic who drank for twenty-five years, battled addiction for ten years and is finally, permanently sober and unashamed, the connection is as real and strong as Papou’s love and support for his family.
Around the time of YiaYia’s death, Papou stopped drinking because the beer was inflaming his gout and causing terrible swelling and tremendous pain in his hands and feet. Looking back now, I wonder about the connection between the beer in Papou’s hand and the smile on Papou’s face. When I stopped drinking, I was very sad for a long time. The alcohol was no longer there to provide me with relief from stress and pain. There was nothing to triggered the euphoric feeling achieved about two beers into a drinking session. When he stopped drinking, did Papou lose a similar trigger of euphoria?
Was the loss of his wife the only factor in Papou’s two-year struggle with sadness before he too, passed away? I know Papou loved YiaYia completely, and I can’t imagine the grief that accompanied losing the love of his life. But did alcohol, again, play a role in Papou’s life? This time, did the absence of alcohol enhance his grief and sadness?
Is it possible that Papou’s abstinence intensified the depth of his pain? What a cruel irony in the twilight of his life that when the ever-present beer disappeared, so too did the ever-present smile. I hope I am wrong, but I can’t help but wonder.
Papou wore a copper bracelet my entire life – right up to his death. As the family gathered to lay him to rest, each of his grandsons took a copper bracelet from Papou’s collection. I wore mine daily until I quit drinking and the questions about the role alcohol played in Papou’s life began to swirl in my mind.
I don’t blame Papou for my alcoholism, but I took off the bracelet because it was a constant reminder of his love of beer which led me to thoughts of the destruction alcohol caused in my life. I don’t blame Papou for my alcoholism. But as the patriarch from whom many of my most significant decisions have emanated, Papou’s influence in my life is unmistakable. His embrace of alcohol as a central part of his life no doubt cleared a path for me to develop a love for the drink. I don’t blame Papou. Only I am responsible for my actions. I don’t blame Papou, but only now as I face my anger can I forgive Papou for something that was not his fault.
Only now as I confront the pain caused by the central role alcohol has had in our family can I discard the shame of my resentment toward Papou for welcoming it into our lives. Papou is our patriarch and our hero and our role model and the brightest smile in the family.
I love you Papou. You are the very best man I have ever known. As I clear the fog of alcoholism from my life, I can now see in you a flaw, and that hurts me in a profound way. But I am dealing with it. As for blame and resentment, Papou, I am moving on. Just like you always said after sinking a golf putt – next case, Papou. Next case.
It is now, once again, my honor to wear your copper bracelet in fond remembrance of my love for you. I know someday I will see you again in Heaven. I look forward to giving you a huge hug. It gives me a tremendous feeling of warmth to know YiaYia is there by your side, again and forever. Most of all, Papou, I can’t wait to see your smile.