Observing National Grandparents Day: What Life Is Like Without Them

Remember to celebrate your grandmothers and grandfathers on Sept. 11—whether you knew them or not.

It was a fourth-grade Catholic school project—the family tree. What I remember most are the eyes of my maternal great-grandfather in his only surviving picture. Deep-set, beady and said to be icy blue (though the photo is obviously black and white), they’ve stared back at me ever since.

Victor DelPiano was a gifted psychic. The seventh son of a seventh son, he had what tradition says is “the magic.” His eyes, which seemingly poke holes through your soul, saw what mortals couldn’t. He worked for the Philadelphia Police Department for 40-some years, and he never left his house. Investigators brought him details of a crime or a suspect, and he told them where they could find their man.

Never wrong, he was well paid for what had to be covert work at the turn of the last century. How well paid? He lost $80,000 in the 1929 stock market crash. Ironically, he didn’t see that coming.

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He was easily my most interesting relative, but I never knew him. My maternal grandfather, Frank DelPiano, one of Victor’s sons, had a fatal heart attack at 58 when my mom was just 16. My dad’s father, Saverio Pirro, died when I was 8. But he’d returned to Italy after years in America as a private gardener on wealthy estates, mostly in Chestnut Hill.

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It’s months like this, when we all celebrate National Grandparents Day on Sept. 11, that I regret never knowing either of them. It’s always left a hole in my development, my heart and my life’s experience.

I did benefit from two grandmothers. My mom’s mom, Grace DelPiano, was the youngest of seven Angelastro siblings. She lived the longest into my life, sadly spending the last nine years with Alzheimer’s disease. I gave her eulogy. For years, my dad’s mom, Maria Grazia Pirro, delivered mail by donkey in the tiny mountain village of Gasperina in deep southern Italy. She came here in her 70s and died when I was in high school. So, then, did my interest in learning to speak Italian.

I’m so glad my parents have two grandchildren, one from each of my sisters. I’m fortunate to witness my father transition into his role as a grandfather. I’ve never married, so I haven’t given my parents grandchildren. Of course, that means I’ll never be a grandfather, either. But I’d still rather have one than be one.

How important is a grandfather? I’m not quite sure how to interpret it—just like Victor DelPiano’s eyes—but lately, my nephew has been slipping and calling me “grandpop.” And I don’t necessarily correct him. I’ve viewed other men in my life as surrogate grandfathers—neighbors, fellow coaches, sources.

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No one could’ve been my maternal great-grandfather, though. He was too unique. I know he’ll be the grist for my only book of fiction, and I know his uncanny insight has often been a gift to me in my explorations in journalism.

Sadly, my book will likely be a composite of what I hope to garner from modern-day police psychics. I’ve had trouble researching him, outside my family tree project. It’s like he was fictional. Then again, all of my grandfathers were—at least to me.

J.F. Pirro is MLT’s senior writer.

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