My First Love: The Touching Story of the Granddaughter and Grandfather

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For 11 years of my life, I woke up to the permeating smell of cinnamon tea and the vigorous flipping of comic book pages. Stumbling distraught into the living room, I would find my grandfather in his favorite armchair at the same time each morning, tea and countless editions of comic books in hand. Despite my family’s annoyance at his obsession with “childish” literature and witty morning remarks, there was never a time when anyone imagined it would all disappear. Even my grandfather, who bravely escaped seemingly ever peril in his life, could not escape the ravaging effects of PTSD. He tried for decades to suppress the agonizing memories that came with his childhood in World War II Italy, but even he succumbed to the invisible force. Although my grandfather was only in my life for a mere snapshot of time, his rather unorthodox lessons on how to deal with his hardships will remain in my heart forever.

Born right before the cusp of World War II, the first formative years of my grandfather’s childhood were spent in the midst of turmoil. His father served in the Italian army, leaving my grandfather with only the frail protection of a rundown bookstore and three older siblings. Almost every weekend, my entire family would gather in the living room and listen to his picturesque recounts of the war. Lost in the unbelievable trauma that came with recalling these stories, he would mumble the events of one day over and over; the day that left him without anything. I vividly remember the descriptions of the rumbling ground and entire tank divisions that flooded his street, the flares dropped only the slightest distance from the hiding place of the bookstore, and the gaping inferno that swallowed the lives of all his siblings. It was only by chance that he was able to flee to the basement of the bookstore. However, the days spent in the lifeless, sickly basement were ones that changed both of our lives forever. The underground bunker was mostly filled to the brim with various propaganda posters and newspapers set there just days ago, but also a box in the corner of the room that looked like it had been accumulating dust for decades. Little did he know that the contents of the box were ones he would treasure for years to come.

Inside the daunting old boxes were stacks of “fumetti” (or comics), imported to the bookstore from all across Europe. The gratification that came with reading about Capitan Trueno and stoic heroes that wished away their problems in the blink of an eye of the war problems was enough to distract him from the hunger and immensely painful aftermath of the last few days. Even in the midst of such an agonizing discussion, I remember the sheer passion and excitement in his voice when he talked about the days at a time he spent reading the “fumetti” and forming an unbreakable bond with their protagonists. The originality and inspiration within every page of the “fumetti” provided grandfather’s pliable 7-year-old mind with unbelievable hope and liberty. As the days and weeks passed, my grandfather remained in the basement, surviving only on the remains of care packages sent by relatives and these books, these bundles of life and happiness. Grandfather finished every storytime with the tale of one special hero who he credits with saving his life. Fortuomo was a superhero whose ability, fueled by self-confidence and perseverance, formed an impenetrable shell around him. These lessons of tenacity are the sole reasons he was able to escape from Italy a few years later.

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Fast forward almost 60 years later, after the ramifications of World War II had settled in, and after my grandfather had escaped and started a family in North Carolina. My grandfather swore that from seeing the first sparkle in my eyes the day I was born, he knew we would have a unique connection. At about the same time in my childhood, I lost two of my siblings in a devastating car accident. For days, weeks, and months I lost myself in a spiral of despair. The realization that I was the only child in the family now, just like him so many years ago, was unbearable to me. Even at 8 years old, I felt that I’d experienced the pain of a lifetime, and saw no palpable future for myself. My parents sent me through months of countless futile treatments and therapy sessions, but nothing would reform my broken heart. When all seemed lost, they asked the grandfather to move into the house and help with my care. It was during these personal therapy sessions where our prophecized unique bond came into fruition.

Immediately, grandfather introduced me to various forms of literature, intending to provide me with the hope and self-confidence he had experienced. Days went by where we perused through the family library, but I ingrained into my head that books were an utter waste of time, and could not possibly help my situation. When discussing their early relationships with literature, it seems everyone remembers their first nostalgia instilling picture book or the first poem they successfully memorized. It was the norm for most readers, for everybody except me. Dr. Seuss, Percy Jackson, and the Magic Tree House had no significance in my mind and my condition worsened for months. My grandfather was adamant on relating my “rehabilitation” to some literature of sorts, but I was never satisfied by such simple fictitious books, rather I desired something to help myself escape from my head and lead me to places where I’d never been, but also where I could relate.

As a last resort, my grandfather, against the instruction of my parents, introduced me to the horrors of his childhood. Instead of breaking my spirit beyond repair, hearing about such fantastical yet real-sounding stories acted as my shining light through the pit of darkness. The parallels between our childhoods were almost uncanny, and I was soon introduced to comic books. Along with the passing of my siblings, I was always shunned at school because of my skinny frame and unsociable outlook on life, to the point that being innately different from my colleagues was simply an expectation of mine. The image of my face plastered with pelted gum and bruises became synonymous with my name. I hid the extent of the bullying from my parents and confided in my grandfather instead, eventually growing on the verge of depression. It got to the point where I was relying on antidepressant medication, but my grandfather still honored my request to hide my pain from my parents and introduced me to the power of comics.

The first comic we bought together was a vintage edition of Detective Comics’ Batman: The Killing Joke. Alan Moore’s illustration of the Joker’s origin story did something no other form of literature could; it replenished my happiness. Until the waking hours of the morning, violent sips of hot cocoa and the rhythmic flipping of pages engrossed my thoughts. Irony would have it, reading such “insignificant” and “crude” stories made me feel reborn and gave me a purpose. After each new book I finished, a replenished flood of tears covered my face. Those nights, I no longer used pills as medication, but rather the special friendship I had with grandfather. And just like grandfather paved his path by relying on fictitious characters like Fortuome, I paved mine through him.

When my family moved to Illinois and I started middle school, my entire perspective on our relationship changed. It was also during this time that grandfather was experiencing bouts of PTSD and related dementia. Both conditions ate up his brain, draining grandfather of the liveliness and sharp mind he always sported. The daily comic book reading faltered to a weekly occasion, and eventually a complete stop. There were no more living room storytimes, and I felt a gaping hole in my heart. My special relationship with grandfather was like our own inside joke that only we were a part of. Losing the ability to interact with my hero was heartbreaking, as was the breaking of our personal tradition. After the first 4 months of his condition worsening, he no longer recognized the Alan Moore comics we bought together, and within a year, the Fortuome comic that saved his life in 1943 meant no more. It was during those months that I truly realized how different our relationship was from most. Many children and grandchildren only share the same hair color or eye as their ancestors, but we shared something so much more lasting.

The next time I saw him was later that winter and for the first time in years, there was clarity in his eyes. Despite the ephemeral state he was in, I recognized the sparkle in his eyes that I had come to love so much. I will never forget the feeling of resolve that I felt when he was lowered into the ground, Fortuome rested between his arms. My relationship with grandfather, from start to finish, defines who I am today. Without his guidance, I would have never fallen in love with comic books and became the person who I am today. Although I cannot bring myself to touch a comic book anymore, grandfather’s lessons about self-identity and dedication will stay with me forever.

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