My Grandfather Kept us all Laughing
Vincent Olivet remembers his Uncle
When I went to college in 1982, I was 6 feet tall, and light enough at 135 pounds, that my huge ears could have taken me airborne with a strong wind. My long, hooked nose was also hard to miss and looking more like an eleven year old didn't do me any favors either. I was an easy target for the guys on my floor, and the barbs came nonstop. But they had no idea, and ultimately cementing my place, I had the fifth floor exactly where I wanted them. You see, I learned from the best. In my family, survival means knowing how to roll with a slight and then apply just enough sarcasm to gain the upper hand. The source of these skills are easy to pinpoint - my grandfather, Charlie Monetti. He set the table for two centuries of Monetti laughter, and an account from my grandmother perfectly describes how all the back and forth emanated from his presence.
Ready to jibe and jab at a moment’s notice, Charlie often elevated the ire of the Manzione’s, according to his nephew Vincent Olivet. “I’d always see your grandmother give Aunt Millie a look as if to say, I’d kill ‘em if I got the chance,” Vin recalled.
Now that's what I'm talking about. But any specifics on my part are hard to come by. Fortunately, I have a few letters that hit the spot.
In 1980, after my grandparents moved to Florida, he wrote a little pre-Christmas letter. Gramps needed to set new parameters for Christmas, because sending presents through the mail would not do. $500 would be set aside for me, my brother and sister but with a very pragmatic twist. “Rich is the only one without a social security card so you can give it all to him,” he joked.
No return notification from the post office either, he suggested his own acknowledgement of receipt. “The day you get my check, call us about 9 O’Clock. Ring three times and hang up. Then I’m sure it’s ok,” he went tongue and cheek.
His humorous insights went beyond the everyday too. “As for the hostages,” he replied to my letter, “we should grab Iran and make it the 52nd state.”
But Gramps was all in when it came to those he served with. At dinner one evening, Gramps pointed the finger at FDR. Charlie Monetti was certain the President had advanced warning, but either way, we were caught off guard by his reaction. My grandfather suddenly choked up and lamented all the Navy men who died on that day.
Those stories were rare, though, but Charlie’s patriotism and service was no secret and gave Vin plenty of reason to hold his uncle in esteem. Of course, Monetti influence demands that the respect comes across as a joke. “He liked it so much that he did it twice,” Vin said of Charlie’s two stints in the Navy.
At the same time, Vin was happy to enlist if his uncle came around. “He was just one of those guys. He was fun to be around and when he popped in, it was like, 'Oh man Uncle Charlie is here',” boasted Vincent.
But the collegiality did come with a dark side. “He could be a pest,” revealed Vin. “Like he would go into My Aunt Jean’s room at my grandparent's house and leave her little notes. ‘It’s 1 O’Clock in the afternoon and your bed’s not made.'”
Jean never took kindly to the pin pricks, and Charlie’s, my way or the highway approach, could leave others in a lurch. For instance, when Vin’s parents set Gramp’s annual Catskills stay as their wedding date, there was no leeway. “So he sent your 15 year old father as a representative,” joked Vin. “My mother and father always talked about that.”
Nonetheless, the streak of authoritarianism was easy enough to put aside, according to Vin. “He was the protector of the family,” the nephew flatly states.
So when Vin got the call to pick up his uncle, huffing it off as a mundane chore was the furthest thing from the driver's mind. “He always relied on me to pick him up, and that made me feel special,” said Vin.
All good things did end, and the manner was pretty unpleasant. The brain tumor that took my grandfather’s life didn’t have him go quietly.
Affecting his rationality, Gramps became verbally abusive and even violent toward hospital staff. “When I went to see him, he was tied to the bed. I remember that was one of the worst days of my life,” said Vin. “I probably cried myself to sleep. That’s how upsetting it was to see him.”
His death on December 7, 1982 had a similar reaction for Vin. “I don’t cry over a lot of things. But that’s the kind of man he was, and that’s how special he was to me.”
I know the feeling and the end game for me requires a story of its own.