My grandfather died last Sunday morning. He was 96. I said before that I don’t have the words to properly express what Grandpop meant to me, or the void he leaves behind. It was true then and it still is. I’ve been staring at this screen, off and on, for more than a week. The words don’t come. I sit and I stare, taking a break only to wipe away tears.
His death was a shock to all of us.
I realize how patently absurd that sounds. The man was 96 years old. How in hell could that possibly have come as a surprise?
Simple. We all thought he would live forever, as ridiculous as that sounds. But for those who knew him, it seemed the most natural sentiment in the world.
Joe “Mohawk” Berenato, holding the last crate of blueberries packed during the 2013 season.
He never stopped. Ever. We’d often joke that the only time he would stop was when he died, and then he probably wouldn’t stop for another day or two.
His father – my great-grandfather – started our family farm in 1922, when my grandfather was just three years old. And but for a few hospital stays throughout his life, Joe “Mohawk” Berenato went to that farm just about every day of his life, up to and including the day before he died. And because of that, I have seen him almost every day of my life for the last nine years.
As a result, ours became a particularly close relationship.
Growing up, of course, I always felt a close kinship with him. (I am, after all, named after him.) On Sunday afternoons when he and my grandmother would come to our house with donuts and danish and we’d all drink coffee and have dessert, my place at the table was right next to him. During holiday meals, be they at our house or his, my place was next to him. And for the last nine years when he, my father, and I would drink coffee at the farm, my place was next to him. No matter the location or the occasion, it often felt like it was the two of us against the world. In the swirling sea of conversations that usually bellowed at Sunday dessert or on holidays — have such a meal at an Italian household and you’ll know what I mean — our little snide side comments helped develop and strengthen a bond that has defined me in ways that I still don’t fully understand.
And morning coffee has long since transcended from a work break to a tradition to a ritual to simply a fact of daily life, seven days a week if possible. But for a few exceptions, I have taken the time to go to the farm every morning — even on Sundays, even in the winter months when there is absolutely nothing to do on the farm but make sure the building is still standing — and have coffee with my father and grandfather, and often just the latter.
I loved having coffee with the two of them, but I often looked forward to the mornings when it would be just Mohawk and me. We’d talk about everything and nothing. We’d talk about family history and we’d talk about Phillies games. (Full disclosure: I couldn’t possibly give less of a shit about the Phillies, but Mohawk watched them religiously, so I started paying attention to their stats and game outcomes years ago so that we’d have something to talk about.) We’d talk about events around town, and who got married and who got divorced and who was running around with who and who had a baby and who was sick and who died. We’d talk about what had to be done on the farm, and about how to do it.
Which was the subject of frequent arguments between all of us.
My grandfather was great at giving technical advice, which mostly consisted of him telling us how to do everything because most of what we did we did wrong. Some of it was helpful, some of it not so much.
Case in point: a few years back, I was driving stakes into the ground with a sledgehammer, and in the process I smashed my thumb. I howled and threw the sledgehammer in the air, and it landed about thirty feet away from me (take that, Thor). That was when I noticed that Mohawk had pulled up in his pickup truck and watched the whole affair.
“What happened?” he asked me.
“I hit my thumb with the fuckin’ hammer,” I said.
“That’s ’cause you’re not hitting the stakes square.”
“No shit,” I said. “Is that why?”
“Well thank God you were here to tell me that.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Don’t forget to get your hammer.” He smiled and drove off.
Not helpful at all, but I know he meant well.
And that’s the thing. He always meant well. He wanted things done right because he wanted everyone to do well. The problem came when we simply didn’t agree on what was the right way to do things. He and my father bickered almost incessantly about how to do just about everything on the farm, whether it was how to properly trim the blueberry bushes (an annual conversation) or how to reassemble a disk plow (a topic which led to surprisingly heated arguments). That’s to be expected, though, when you have a father and a son working together every day for sixty years. (My grandmother told me years ago that Mohawk was the same with his father, and I am told that I am becoming the same way with my father. Fathers and sons, I suppose. It’s the way of things.) Mohawk and I didn’t usually have that problem, because I knew how to resolve the issue in one of two ways. Either A.) I would tell him I thought his way was a good idea, but Dad signs my paycheck so I have to listen to him; or B.) I would tell him I thought his way was a good idea and start to do the given task his way until he left, and then go about doing it my way. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to imply that his way was always wrong or inefficient. Far from it, actually. But there were times when his way of doing things was mired in the distant past and he refused to accept that there are far better, more modern methods of doing a job.
Like how to make wine.
We started making wine in 1997, give or take, at my suggestion. We started off with blueberry wine — since we have plenty of raw materials, natch — and, in ’07, moved into various types of grape. (We also had a brief flirtation with peach wine, but once my cousins stopped growing peaches we quickly ran out of material.) I appreciate traditions — we started off using a fruit grinder that’s older than my father — but also recognize that every field has advances, including winemaking. So, like wineries and home vintners the world over, we use modern grinders, presses, Brix testers, and yeast.
Mohawk hated all of it. Every year I knew the conversation was coming, about how his father never used yeast, and his father never tested sugar levels. I would then remind him that his father went half his life before getting a toilet, and a quarter of his life without electricity.
Every year. Like clockwork. We had the same conversation every single year. I hated it. I dreaded it. But I also looked forward to it, and I loved it. It became a yearly tradition, like the wine making. Like so many other things that I can’t even begin to enumerate.
He was a hard man, as gruff as any member of his generation. And it took a lot to get a compliment out of him, so when he gave one it really meant something. And it meant a lot to me to know how proud he was that I finished grad school with a 4.0. It was then he told me that he never really thought I belonged on the farm. He knew I like the work, and he told me that I was good at it — holy shit, a compliment about my work on the farm! — but he always thought that I should be doing something else. And now, with the MA, hopefully I would. He told everybody he could about my teaching work, about my editing, and about my writing. He never specifically said he was proud, but he didn’t have to. His actions said it for him.
I didn’t think anything would ever stop him. I really didn’t. Not after his surgery.
Eight years ago he was in the midst of congestive heart failure. The good folks at Our Lady of Lourdes’ cardiac unit didn’t want to operate because his aorta was calcified and, because of his age, his odds of survival weren’t great. They essentially told him to go home and lay down, and not to bother buying any green bananas. We took him to a different hospital — Mainland Regional — to see if there was anything they could do.
One night, my father called me at 3 a.m. to tell me that Mohawk’s heart had stopped but they were able to revive him. By the time we got there around 3:30, he was screaming a blue streak.
“Jesus Christ!” he hollered. “I just want to fucking sleep. Why won’t these people let me fucking sleep?!”
“DAD!” my father yelled. “You died! Do you understand? They brought you back to life.”
“They want to put you under and put a tube down your throat,” Dad said. “Do you understand? They’re going to induce unconsciousness.”
“Well I wish they’d hurry up and fucking do it!” Mohawk said. “Maybe then I can get some God-damned fucking sleep!”
I swear to God, I thought those were going to be his last words.
Once he was under, it was obvious that surgery was no longer optional but necessary. As it stood, they gave him a 5% of surviving the procedure. And if he survived, they didn’t think he would walk again, and that he would need dialysis three times a week. Having nothing really to lose, we opted for the surgery. Once they got in his chest, they found that his aorta was indeed calcified — except for the exact spot they needed to clamp, which was soft, pink, and fleshy. They were able to perform a double-bypass and replace one of his valves. He not only survived the procedure, but he went through recovery and physical therapy with flying colors.
Four months after the operation that should have killed him, he was once more driving himself to the farm for coffee. Not long after that, he was trimming plants and hoeing the garden. He never once needed dialysis and never lost the ability to walk. He did his own shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, everything. This last year he started to get a little shaky on his feet from time to time, but what he fuck; he was 96. Occasionally he lost his footing and would fall.
That’s when I started to worry.
After surviving his surgery, his doctors called him the Miracle Man, and I think he believed it. He refused to accept the fact that he was almost a century old, that almost everyone in the obituaries was at least a decade younger than him, and that he could no longer do all of the things that he could when he was thirty, twenty, or even ten years younger. Anytime I would bring it up, or try to get him to get Life Alert, or a live-in, he’d reply, “Il camposanto largu,” Sicilian for “the cemetery is wide.” “Plenty of room for all of us,” he’d say. “We all end up there someday.”
No, he never stopped. And that’s what killed him.
He was at the farm last Saturday, same as always. He showed up in the morning and had coffee, then worked on the blueberry inspection line for a while. He went home for lunch, after which he went outside to water his plants. There was a broom handle outside that he used to check the level in his heating oil tank, and he must not have seen it because he tripped over it and fell. In the process he dislocated his shoulder. They were able to reset it at the hospital, and sent him home with the caveat that somebody stay with him. They mentioned a little concern over clots, but figured because he was on blood thinners that it wouldn’t be an issue. My father stayed the night, and got up with him at 5 a.m. on Sunday. Mohawk got dressed, and had the same Cheerios and apricot nectar for breakfast that he’s had for decades. (A doctor in 1955 told him that apricot nectar would help with his ulcer, so he drank it every morning for the rest of his life.) Dad left around 6 a.m. to get things started at the farm and to pick up Mohawk’s prescriptions, and said he’d be back at 9 a.m.
When he got back, Mohawk was gone. It was mostly likely a clot of some sort, having traveled either to his brain or his heart. Whatever it was, the paramedics believed it was almost instantaneous and that he felt no pain. He probably never even knew it happened, just like a lightswitch being turned off.
Everybody’s reaction was the same. “What do you mean, he’s gone?” “I just saw him at Walmart two days ago.” “He just drove by me last week.” “He just brought me blueberries yesterday!” Yes, Joe Mohawk was a very old man. He was on his way to 97. But for anyone who ever knew him, his death was a complete shock.
The farm is empty without him. It’s lonely. He was a constant presence there for 93 years, a constant presence in my life for 37 years, and a daily presence for the last nine. And now, he’s gone. More than just a grandfather, he was a mentor, a confidante, a co-conspirator (he had a way of saying something particularly incendiary to someone, then looking at you and giving you a wink and a smile, as if the two of you had just shared a private joke), a parental figure, and a best friend. He leaves behind a void in my heart larger than I thought possible. I am lost without him.
Yet I have no regrets. There was nothing left unsaid between us. Anytime we had an argument or a problem, we were always able to talk through it. Sometimes I apologized. Sometimes he did. It didn’t matter. We always resolved our problems, which were usually minor anyway. And though I can’t remember the last time he actually said the words, I never doubted his love for a minute. And I know that he never doubted mine.
I will miss him terribly.
CLOSE THE GATE
For this one farmer the worries are over, lie down and rest your head,
Your time has been and struggles enough, put the tractor in the shed.
Years were not easy, many downright hard, but your faith in God transcended,
Put away your tools and sleep in peace. The fences have all been mended.
You raised a fine family, worked the land well and always followed the Son,
Hang up your shovel inside of the barn; your work here on earth is done.
A faith few possess led your journey through life, often a jagged and stony way,
The sun is setting, the cattle are all bedded, and here now is the end of your day.
Your love of God’s soil has passed on to your kin; the stories flow like fine wine,
Wash off your work boots in the puddle left by blessed rain one final time.
You always believed that the good Lord would provide and He always had somehow,
Take off your gloves and put them down, no more sweat and worry for you now.
Your labor is done, your home now is heaven; no more must you wait,
Your legacy lives on, your love of the land, and we will close the gate.
Joseph Antonio Edward “Mohawk” Berenato
December 7, 1918 – July 5, 2015