Memories of My Grandfather

One hundred and seven years ago today, my maternal grandfather, Ralph DeRicci, was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the son of Italian immigrants. When he passed away 12 years ago, I wrote a eulogy to read at his funeral. In honor of his birthday today, I’m reprinting it here.

Memories of Ralph DeRicci


I remember a really lame knock-knock joke my grandfather used to tell when I was a kid. It went like this:

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“The angel with the golden hair!”

No, it’s not very funny. Except that it was. He told the joke with funny voices, great enthusiasm, and a rock-solid conviction that it was HILARIOUS. And his belief made it so.

That’s the way Papa approached life. When he went for something, he jumped right in, with enthusiasm and conviction. He didn’t sit home coming up with reasons NOT to try something. When Ralph DeRicci saw something he wanted, he went for it — a business opportunity or a plane ride, a get-rich-quick scheme or an extra scoop of ice cream. He didn’t always get what he wanted. And when he did get it, it often didn’t work out the way he wanted it to. But he always went for it.

One of his earliest jobs, at about age 13, after he left school for good, was at a nuts-and-bolts factory. It was tedious, repetitive work, but it was all he could find at that age – except for working at the coal mines, and he saw what that did to so many of the men around him, and never wanted to be stuck working there. In fact, what he really LOVED was to tinker with cars and motors, but those kinds of jobs were hard to find at any age. As he grew up and needed to make more money, he finally resigned himself to accepting a job in a coal mine. He hated the idea, but he had to have a job, and mining paid better than most.

On his way to work at the mines his very first day, he came across a broken-down truck. He stopped to see if he could help, and he fixed that truck so expertly that the owner offered him a job as a truck mechanic. He never reported to the mine.

It’s no surprise that he stopped to help. Papa was a generous man, and it never would have occurred to him to pass by when someone was in trouble.

His kindness extended to animals, too. I remember a winter day of my childhood when he was on vacation with us in western Maryland. In the middle of a frozen lake at a ski resort, he spotted two ducks struggling to free their frozen feathers from the ice. They were weakening and would die if they couldn’t free themselves. Papa didn’t shrug his shoulders and walk on. He didn’t step inside the lodge to tell someone else there was a problem. With tears running down his face, he found a long pole and extended it over the ice, stabbing at the frozen lake little by little until he had chipped off enough ice for the ducks to fly free.

He met his first wife, my grandmother Norma Tomassoni, at a dance hall above the bus company. One of their first homes together was a building in Old Forge that had been a candy store. It was fitting that Papa lived in a candy store. He LOVED candy, cookies, pies, and anything sweet. Some of my earliest memories of him are of outings to an ice cream store for sundaes, just Papa and my sisters and I: no parents allowed.

In his 94 years, Papa lived a full life. He was loved by 2 daughters, 6 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren. Just a few weeks ago, he was still walking unaided, bumming extra desserts off the staff, flirting with the nurses, and calling people “Roscoe Pico.”

For as long as I can remember, he’s been saying he would soon be going to “Boot Hill.” Wherever he is now, I hope he’s finally met that angel with the golden hair.

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