418 days. That’s how long Papa Eugene Fiume, was here with us in Florida. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but it was enough to make even more memories that would last us a lifetime. Memories that include – new beginnings, love, laughter, and sadness. Memories – that we will always cherish – and once the tears stop, make us smile once again.
We don’t know much about Papa’s early childhood. His Mother, Marie, her whereabouts were never truly known to him. His father Vito, a hard working Italian immigrant, struggled early in America to try and make a better life. However, his father worked so much that, he had to put Papa in a foster home. This pattern continued as Papa was moved from home to home, all while learning how to be the dedicated, hardworking, loving, and compassionate – soldier, husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather he would become. During this time, a young Eugene Fiume became an altar boy with aspirations to become a priest. I’m so glad that didn’t happen, as I would not be here today to share all these wonderful memories with you.
Papa proudly served our country as a soldier in the 11th Airborne Division in the US Army during the World War II pacific campaigns. He was part of the Glider Infantry regiment. His valor helped liberate the Filipino people from the Japanese in the mid-1940s. His many war stories of the action he saw were always overshadowed by the love for his fellow soldiers, “our boys” as he called them. Never once highlighting any particular moment about him, but always showing empathy for them and the pain they endured and witnessed. During his time in the Army, Papa was also a Mess cook, where he also began his profound love for cooking and making people happy with food – as we found out later on. Eugene was honorably discharged and awarded a purple heart after a mortar shell exploded near his position. It was always so cool to see those scars, that he gladly showed me every time I asked as a little boy.
Soon after, Papa was set up to unknowingly meet the love of his life, Rose LaRocca . Rose – very beautiful and striking, was cleaning the floors in her grandmother Bella’s kitchen, before their date. Apparently, Papa arrived a bit early. As he recalled, her knees were so dirty from cleaning the floors, but when she saw him she – jumped up and ran away to go get cleaned up. Papa knew that Rose was the right woman for him, because she was, as he put it, domesticated. Turns out, Rose loved going out to work rather than taking care of a home. He soon found out that Rose LaRocca was, to me anyway, the original Rosie the Riveter, helping build planes and artillery for our men and women in the armed services. They had a connection even before they met.
Rose’s family loved Eugene very much, they treated him with kindness and respect. They were married soon after. Finally Papa was part of a family, something he always longed for and in later years would hold close to his heart. A new chapter for the both of them, where Rose LaRocca – would be his one and only for the next 67 years. “My Rosie” as he called her.
On December 14th, 1948 – Baby Linda Fiume was born in Astoria Queens. My mom. Linda was on her way to becoming the warm-hearted beautiful daughter, wife, mother and caring Grandmother she is today. They both cherished their only child and doted on her every chance they could. She looked forward to the nights when Papa would come home from work with a Mello Roll ice cream cone for her and those Friday nights they would meet for Chinese food at the train station.
Both Nana and Papa worked very hard (papa worked 2 jobs), so they could give their only child a better life and a new home — they never wanted to be apart. Papa would visit Rosie and Linda, upstate every weekend, so he could visit with them while, Rose was working in a posh resort as a waitress. Linda(Mom) stayed with her Mother while there. There were also plentiful visits to Nana LaRocca’s home in Smithtown, where my future mom’s love for family had just begun. Papa took Linda to the movies often, her favorite was Carousel. Many years later, as a young woman and mother, Papa surprised her with a Carousel figurine that played the theme from the movie. My mom will always hold that memory close.
All Papa wanted was to ensure a better life for her and his Rosie. He wanted his daughter to grow up with the proper values that would make her into the awesome mother she is today. He always honored and upheld the values of a mother, which is ironic as he never had a mother himself. He never hit or yelled. He was a kind gentleman. Papa always worried about his Rosie and his baby Linda. My Mom is a wonderful mother and grandmother, married 47 years to a strong, stubborn handsome Italian – Samuel Tarallo – but that’s another story. My father and Papa had a strong bond, they worked together in Papa’s Luncheonette and once again in the Queens school system. During his last years in the workforce, Papa worked as a fireman, responsible for maintenance of the heating systems in the building. Here is where Papa and my father would grow to love and understand one another.
Fast forward a number of years, where my memories are bountiful and scattered. Some I remember vividly to this day. He took me to see my favorite movie, the Empire Strikes Back, and … fell asleep. However, I also recall seeing another movie, one of the Smokey and the Bandit films – which was not age appropriate for me. He loved Jackie Gleason and was laughing so loudly that people were turning their heads and looking at us. I wanted to crawl under the seat. But, what I also fondly remember from those days, was him holding me close on the bus on the way to those movies – I was this little kid from Long Island, not used to public transportation, getting on a bus with a bunch of people and having to stand scared the hell out of me. Papa put his arm around my shoulders and held me close, he knew I was scared. A true testimony to the man everyone knew and loved.
Nana and Papa would always visit us in Lindenhurst, bringing a gigantic box of food with them every time. He loved to play games and would play army men with my brother and I, we loved when they came to visit. The meals he cooked were outstanding – he would make the best pot roast, corned beef and cabbage, and macaroni – Yet, I remember Nana making him things like veal simmering in a pan of water and salad plates – he had to eat this stuff on occasion so he would lose weight. It seemed like he was always on a diet, but never looked that way. There were countless breads and desserts too. (I remember at one visit to our home in FL, we had 12 loaves of bread made. It made him happy to bake and cook and see people eat – so we let him)
It was time to retire. My Grandparents, helped build a new place to live, on top of my parent’s existing house in Long Island– it was here they would call home for the next 30 years. Growing up with your Grandparents, was a blessing. You got fed very well and there was always someone around to talk with and play cards with. As I matured, I learned to appreciate even more all those sandwiches, dinners, birthdays, family visits, vacations and other special events (in which he hated to get dressed up for).
Through the years Nana and Papa grew to call Lindenhurst home and entertained with family and friends, went on many trips with the senior center and hosted many family gatherings and holidays that will never leave us. Where else can you have 2 Christmases in the same house. One upstairs and one downstairs.
My Grandfather loved to garden, planting one wherever he was. He had thriving gardens in Woodside, Lindenhurst and even planted one with his great grandchildren here in FL. We had the best cucumbers.
Eventually as they got older they required assistance and my mom and dad stepped up and were the best caregivers anyone can ask for. With the help of nearby friends and family, Nana and Papa were able to continue enjoying their Golden years as independently as possible. I know it was an honor for my parents to take care of him and Nana, through the good times and the bad. One would need to live it each day to truly understand the love and pain that goes along with taking care of someone. This was something that Jane and I could only imagine and hear of, but soon were able to experience for ourselves.
It was last October – when Papa and Nana arrived at our home in FL. As Dad and Mom were finalizing the sale of their home in NY – my wife Jane and I were to take care of Grandma and Grandpa. Though it wasn’t easy, it was not a burden. Since we left NY, we only had sporadic visits with them over the past 14 years. We always talked about when they would move to FL (which they did twice – but again – that’s another story)– now we were finally able to spend some quality time together. They loved our children very much and played cards and loved to draw with them. Grandpa did not want to be a burden on us. I told him. Grandpa – you earned your stripes, you took care of your family for many years now it is time for us to take care of you. It was entertaining to learn his mannerisms and listen to his occasional rants that would make the Lord himself cringe. He made us laugh daily and we can still him hear him say – “Aww Geeze Ro” – it was also heartwarming to watch his continued love for his Rosie as Jane and I would spy the occasional kiss or tender moment as they held hands while they sat on the couch watching Lawrence Welk.
418 days – that’s how many days we had with him. It wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies, there were tough times too. Every day was met with a smile and a warm greeting. Every time we parted, he would always smile and reach for your hand and say I love you. None of us ever had to question his love, we just knew.
Papa you were a good compassionate man, all of us loved you dearly. You came from a family that was practically non-existent and look what you have created for all of us. We would not be here if you gave up on your dream of having a family. Thank you.
God bless you Papa. Thank you for being a wonderful soldier, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather and our sweetest friend. We will miss you.
Have fun playing with Harry – he loved you just as much as all of us.