Papa

The night he passed after a sudden decline in health, my mother asked that I handle my grandfather’s obituary. She specified that it should be something out of the ordinary for printing in a handout at the funeral, with a shorter version for publication in the local news and in his hometown paper. Alas, the journalistic establishment of Scranton PA would not see fit to run anything not in “news format.” The internet, though, notoriously lacks editorial standards. Thanks to my editors, who in other guises are my lovely wife and my dear mother; my brother, whose media production skills are frighteningly good; and of course, the man whose recipes I still follow in and out of the kitchen.

The Rev. Lt. Col. Carmen Frank Riviello, Sr. (ret., U.S.A.N.C.), last stood about 5’’3″” on his size 8 ½ feet. The buffeting winds of age and care had eroded a full three inches from his height, but not an atom from his wit.

As a boy in the Lackawanna coal country of northeastern Pennsylvania, he walked the train tracks, collecting lumps of anthracite fallen from the cargo of passing trains which carried the black nuggets his father helped mine from the Paleozoic seams to the furnaces of the pre-rust Steel Belt. Each lump was added to his sack until he returned home to add it to the coal cellar to supplement the family’s supply for the stove.

In the same way, he trod the path of life, collecting the memories that make up a lifetime until it came time to shrug off his burden at 15:00 25 May 2011, a week and half before the 80th celebration of his birth on 4 June 1931. And this is what is left: a deep and dense trove of memories, left for us all to mine and add to our own collections, to help keep us warm through the rest of our days. The last, freshly-hewn nugget of memory he collected was surely one of kisses and hugs, prayers and whispered worries, and of tender touches amidst the joyful noise of his family enjoying each others’ company even in that grim moment. The conversation and tempered laughter halted as his labored breath did.

Below it lay a thousand craggy memories of sad days watching his precious wife Nancy’s slow decline, punctuated by joy, amusement and pride of days spent with his Great-grandson Gavin. A reach below the surface brings up a day of his retirement vocation, meeting the spiritual needs of others at the First Baptist Church of Schertz and Brooke Army Medical Center, then visiting with his close neighbor Robert “Woody” Woodfork. Another has him sharing his faith from the high plains of Floydada, Texas to the sea coast of New Symerna Beach, Florida, and another still preaching the gospel as an associate pastor at Hays Hills Baptist Church in Buda, Texas. Deeper yet, there are memories of his days treating college students at Southwest Texas State University.

The birth of his youngest grandchild, now a newly-minted marketer, Shana, his Contessa, is not much deeper down, nor is that of his Pinecone ― Gavin’s mother ― vocational nursing student Rochelle. The skilled and inquisitive Sean, whom he nicknamed Snag, was born on his birthday in 1983. University of Houston business student Thomas, or Big Tom, arrived only a few months earlier. University of Texas Mathematician Clare, his Princess, came along in 1981. The adventurous Christine, who is truly Rotten was his first granddaughter. Russell, whose subscription to National Geographic started before he was born, answered to George, and made him a grandfather they would all call Papa.

Almost halfway down, there is a memory of his first career, before his retirement from the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, El Paso. In one of the final moves of his globetrotting service to his fellow citizens, he moved his family from his previous post in Augsburg, Germany, to Fort Dix, New Jersey where he put to use his skill for healing, this time cooling the fever of racial strife which plagued the Army in those tense times. A little deeper and a world away, his tour of duty in Vietnam is a heavy and dark lump of time away from his family, a burden which he was nonetheless proud to carry.

That family was made complete only inches further down, when his youngest daughter Corrine was born while he was stationed in Hawaii, just weeks before it became the fiftieth state and a few months after the death of his beloved mother Ida. Another level holds the arrival of his first daughter, Pontia, while at Fort Ord, California. Down below the memory of his third entry into the Korea-era Army as a Second Lieutenant, and under his second drafting as a corpsman, is a memory made in his time as a civilian, the day he became a father with the birth of Carmen, Jr. In the same era, across the nation, were born those who his children would marry, and who he would hold in his heart as dear as they: Russell, Kathleen and Beverly.

Sitting next to each other only a quarter of the way from the bottom are memories from a momentous month in his young life. The worn and treasured recollection of his wedding day, when his love for Nancy Jeanne was solemnized into a bond which spanned the Earth and 57 happy years to be parted only by nature, sits cheek-by-jowl with the memory of the day not two weeks later when his country first called him to serve.

The loss of his father Francisco when Carmen was 13 is a stone far too deep by any measure, but as the youngest of nine siblings, he was not without others to show him the way, and to keep him on it. The pattern of this foundational gravel of childhood nearly fuses into a mosaic of life as a child of immigrants, comprising memories of his differences, memories of the high expectations that come with being born in the Land of the Free, memories which he was sure to pass on to each of his descendants. Deep in this matrix of days and routines is a small cabochon, told and retold, of a walk down the tracks, which is picked out, and dusted off, and made into something new.

In lieu of flowers, please consider a contribution to the Antioch Church Building fund or the Hays Hills Baptist Church Youth Group, for which Carmen and Nancy provided seed funding. Donations for either may be sent in care of Hays Hills Baptist Church, 1401 N. FM 1626, Buda TX 78610, or call (512) 295-3132.

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