His gaze is seared in my memory, his last words locked into my soul. Following a lifetime of respect and local acclaim, he’d entrusted a mere twelve-year-old, with little knowledge of life’s vicissitudes and challenges, to carry out his final wishes. Yet the story I wish to share blossomed the day I turned four, the candles reflecting on my cheeks as I peered into his broad smile and realized he encompassed all that I’d hoped I could become some day.
My grandfather was like a big frog in a small pond in our town of Antioch, a hamlet much like many that dotted this land with courthouse squares filled with old men beneath trees playing checkers or dominoes, and streets named Main and First and Elm. And an old drugstore where time to time I could encounter most locals filling prescriptions or comparing notions or pausing at the soda fountain for a nickel Coke.
But the centerpiece of my world revolved around a sprawling nineteenth century house with ornate ceilings and fine-crafted mantels and a spiral staircase that served as entertainment on rainy days for my sister and me. This was where “the grands” lived, and it included a kitchen full of aromas of cinnamon and nutmeg and sweets baked especially for two spoiled urchins who took full advantage of tired but pleased old eyes.
Yet it was my grandfather, the town’s stoic banker, with his aura of public dignity, who galloped into my heart and painted landscapes of a world of challenges and measured risks that captured my imagination. I never recall seeing him without a white shirt and his fobbed vest. And rarely would he offer grins except to my sister and me in the privacy of his domain.
Summers brought dammed up creeks and polliwogs and homemade-ice cream socials and fireflies in Mason jars at dusk. And fishing. Nothing in my early life brought more excitement than an invitation to fish in mountain creeks with my granddad.
“Grandpa, I can see him, I can see him. Can you?” I said.
“Yes, I can and I do believe he’s eyeing your bait as we watch.”
“But…but why doesn’t he bite it, Grandpa?” I said.
“Well, Sonny, he’s studying the situation, that is, his options.”
“His options?” I said. At this age I’d no idea what this big word could mean.
“He’s surrounded by many opportunities for daily nourishment, Sonny, some of it difficult to retrieve, some not so much. The bait he sees represents little or no effort at all for him to swallow.”
“Then why doesn’t he, Grandpa?”
“He’s suspicious. He senses hidden risks he must weigh against a safer course of action, that is, of hunting and working harder for his dinner.”
“Then will he bite it?” I said.
“Depends. He’s weighing temptation versus prudence. We must wait and see.”
And we did. And slowly the current took the fish further downstream.
“Wise fish,” my granddad said. “But we will try again, Sonny.”
And throughout my early childhood we did, my grandfather being a hallowed captured agent of mine for limited periods of time. And the words and meanings of “options” and “temptation” and “prudence” dawned on me over time as we continued to match wits with the sly trout we stalked together on carefree, summer afternoons.
It was close to dusk on one of those warm days when my sister and I were summoned from play by grave-faced parents to the mansion down the street where my idol had called for our presence.
When I walked into the house, my father met me at the door and said, “He’s called for you, Sonny, he wants to see you alone.”
Shuffling into a room of shadows and medicinal odors, my knees rebelled and buckled, a hesitation I’d neither expected nor understood.
Strange, I’d always pictured him as a towering figure, but now he appeared small, his countenance almost hidden in the eiderdown pillow where he lay. His eyes were closed, his breathing labored. I waited. And watched his chest struggle to rise and fall beneath the quilt, his arm at rest by his side. Unexpectedly, he coughed and blinked.
“Is that you, Sonny?” he said.
“Yes, Grandpa, it’s me.”
“You will do a favor for an old man?” he said.
“Yes, sir,” I said, glassy-eyed.
His eyelids closed and he was quiet again, falling back into a gentle rhythm of sleep.
“Giuseppe,” he said.
His eyes cracked open and he peered over at me. “Giuseppe, tell him,” he said.
“Tell him what, Grandpa?” I said. Again his eyes closed. I wanted to shake him, but I dared not. I swallowed hard and waited.
“It is forgiven now,” he said without opening his eyes again. And after a few moments the doctor stepped around me and took grandfather’s wrist in his. I’d not been aware of him entering the room. Slowly he turned and bent down, our faces on the same level. He gazed into my eyes with sorrow and kindness, and I realized Grandpa was gone. And I thought I’d be carrying an unfulfilled request the remainder of my days.
Mounds of flowers, ladies in black hats, and a pastor taking my grandmother’s hand fill the picture I recall of Grandpa’s final rites. And later, people coming and going from the parlor in whispers, and cakes and casseroles delivered by the ladies of the church.
With the exception of burials of gold fish, a three-legged hamster I’d bought from my friend, Darrell, and the remnants of baby chicks that had encountered moonlight predators, I’d never faced death with all of its emotional accompaniments. I found myself forced to discover on my own that time alone can diminish the emptiness a small boy carries and the nagging ache that can find no purchase, but eases as life fills one’s thoughts with new demands and invitations of the moment.
Later when I was able to talk about this dark passage in my life, I told my dad what had transpired that evening with Grandpa. His brow wrinkled, and with a puzzled look, he said, “Giuseppe? There’s no one I know of in Antioch by that name, or, for that matter, anyone who’s ever lived here. Perhaps Grandpa was reminiscing to himself over a childhood chum, something not uncommon in a person’s final moments. Probably that’s all it was, Sonny,” he said.
Ashen faced, I stared at my Dad, still waiting for instructions on how to reach this elusive person with the message I’d promised to deliver.
“But I could be wrong, Sonny. Why don’t you ask around,” he said.
My mission was now clear and defined, and I knew just where to start.
“Mr. Engler, who is Giuseppe?” I said to the local pharmacist, who knew everyone and was the father of my friend Johnny, a boy who’d been adopted, a rare event in our town. Ernie Engler and his spouse had gotten Johnny from an orphanage after he’d been rejected by several other couples because, at age three, he’d yet to speak a word. He’d been unconditionally accepted into the Engler family and, because of the pharmacist’s medical knowledge, it was discovered that the boy had a hearing problem. And soon, with treatment, Johnny was just another kid in the neighborhood.
And I vividly remembered asking Mr. Engler what adoption meant. He looked down in the candy case between us and said, “Sonny, how would you like a free piece of candy?”
“I’d like that, sir,” I said.
“Would you like me to select it, or would you like to choose it yourself?” he said.
“I’d like to pick it out myself, sir.”
“Well, that’s what adoption is all about, Sonny. We got to pick out Johnny ourselves.”
And for awhile I was a bit jealous of Johnny’s new-found status. But then a more important quest loomed in my mind.
“Giuseppe…no, no one in Antioch by that name, Sonny. May have been one here before I came. Immigrants often rested here on their journey west. But, no, I never recall meeting anyone by that name.”
I continued my trek, next to the town barbershop where Mr. Strickler stood behind his chair, toiling away at his trade. If a man with this odd name ever tarried here, perhaps the local barber would remember him. The usual crowd had gathered, some seeking trims and others for fresh news, both real and fantasized in politics and sports, and whispered social scandals.
“Giuseppe?” he said, his eyes glued to his scissors jawing away across the nape of our small-town mayor. “Hm. Sonny, wasn’t he Pinocchio’s father?” he said. And this brought a roar of laughter from the morning crew including the bootblack working away at the foot of the barber’s chair.
“Don’t tease the boy, Richard. He’s asked a serious question.” The mayor looked down at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Sonny, I don’t recall anyone in Antioch by that name, but if he ever came through our fair town, Mr. Greene down at the depot would know. Have you talked with him?”
“No, sir, not yet,” I said.
“Well, Francis has a knack for names and faces. Why don’t you inquire there,” he said.
And I did. Without success. And drew blanks on the faces of our postmaster, the proprietor of the local hardware store, and a circle of overall-clad farmers gathered out front of the seed and feed store. No one had heard this name around our town.
Shortly after my grandfather’s death, my father had assumed the position of president of our local bank. And for months at the dinner table I heard tales of scribbled notes left here and there around the bank and the onerous task my dad had undertaken in deciphering them and bringing a state of order to the business. My grandfather, I learned, had a heart bigger than that expected of a bank official, or so it appeared. And this was borne out among the scraps of paper, the small loans to local residents to tie them over till payday, that my Dad finally aligned with more modern banking practices. But the day would come when I’d realize Grandpa could envision the parameters of unusual risks no one else could see.
Time passed and I forgot about the bedside promise I’d made to my grandfather. And soon enough I went away to prep school and then to college, where I followed the men in my family, engrossing myself in the study of American business, and in particular, finance.
In college I met my wife-to-be, graduated, married and moved to a mega-city to begin my banking career. And in time I achieved what I viewed as reasonable success in my chosen field.
As the years passed my father approached retirement and I was summoned to take the leadership reins of our hometown bank. Because of the urban sprawl around my birthplace, Antioch had now become a suburb of a nearby major city. And this made the choice palatable to my wife and me, since we were accustomed to big city life and enjoyed the advantages of private schooling for our children.
Fortunately, the transition of bringing big bank procedures to our bank created very little confusion to the folksy routines that were a keystone of our hometown enterprise. And soon enough our business became the target of a big bank takeover and, despite the usual reluctance of becoming one more faceless bank image, I convinced my dad that it represented the best avenue possible to make loans for expanding residential developments and small businesses in our suburban area.
And so it went. Once again, I became a cog in a giant machine, the trade-off being the stock my family acquired in the merger with a bank holding company. Life settled down to a new routine for me though, for the first time I was beginning to miss the close-knit community feel I’d once enjoyed in the place where I’d grown up.
One morning just after the bank opened, my secretary brought me the business card of a man who’d just entered the lobby and wanted to see me.
“Do I have an appointment with this gentleman, Lois? I don’t seem to be able to find anything on the morning calendar other than the teleconference I need to take in twenty minutes,” I said.
“No, sir, no appointment. I told him you were very busy, but he said he’d come a long way and would be brief,” she said.
I gazed down at the business card. A. G. Venziano, Senior Vice President of a shoe company in Milan, Italy. I recognized the logo, a brand of shoes that only New York investment bankers could purchase without a care.
Curious as to what might bring him to my door, I said, “Please show him in, Lois.”
Tall, with salt and pepper hair, he was immaculately dressed. I immediately rose to shake his hand.
“David Whitaker,” I said.
“A. G. Venziano, pleased to meet you,” he said with a pronounced accent.
“Please be seated, Mr. Venziano,” I said.
“Thank you, Mr. Whitaker, I’ll be brief. I have a check here made out to the bank; that is, the original bank that was here for many years before the recent merger.”
“Yes, of course,” I said and stared at the six figure check with the Milan shoe company logo on it.
“I assume there is an explanation to accompany this check,” I said.
“Yes,” he chuckled, “I have one and if you’ll bear with me, I think I can explain it to your satisfaction. You see, my grandfather came to this country in the 1920s in hopes of establishing a new business and life for his family of five. He wished to open a shoe shop that would cater to gentlemen who demanded excellence in custom made shoes. He was skilled enough to do so, as you might imagine from our corporate name.”
“Yes, indeed, I could,” I said.
“Well, he needed money to establish himself in business, having little himself. He visited every bank in the city, but being an immigrant and new to this country, he had no success. No one wished to assume any risks that this craftsman from Italy might succeed with his dream. Discouraged and despondent, he was about to admit defeat when a friend suggested he take the train to Antioch and speak with the local banker there. And he did.”
“That would have been my grandfather,” I said.
“Ah, I see. And in his notes he said the banker listened attentively and gave him the money he needed.”
“His small enterprise thrived for a time, but the demand for his shoes was not as vibrant as he’d envisioned. Well, it just so happened that he and the family, now with five children, were summoned back to Italy for a family funeral, and while he was there, the American Depression began to unfold. At the time he discovered that he might find more enthusiasm for his shoes in Italy. Further, the skilled craftsmen he’d need to grow the business were plentiful in Northern Italy where labor costs were significantly less than those he’d found here. Thus, he moved the business to Italy in late 1929,” he said with a smile.
“That’s very interesting, Mr. Venziano, but do you happen to have the contractual agreement that accompanied the loan?” I said.
“Unfortunately, that has been lost. We know that grandfather kept meticulous notes of his business dealings as well as a diary of his business life on a day-to-day basis, but we were not aware of this until my grandmother passed away a few months ago. Grandfather died many years ago and my grandmother had all his personal papers. We knew very little about Grandfather’s business dealings, certainly not that a loan was outstanding, until we began to gather grandmother’s personal documents to settle her estate,” he said.
“And your grandfather mentioned the loan in his notes?” I said
“Oh, yes, everything we needed to know to repay the loan plus interest,” he said.
I reached into my coat pocket and took out a pen. “What was the original principal and interest rate for the loan, if you have that information with you?” I said.
“Of course. The loan was for five thousand dollars, a large sum I suppose at the time, with an interest rate of four percent. The term was for ten years and the maturity fell in late 1930, a year after my father had returned to Italy,” he said.
“The business did not blossom at first, but my grandfather made it clear in his notes that the loan plus interest was to be paid in full as soon as the business had the resources to do so. If we’d known this much earlier, I assure you this loan would have been settled years ago. I can only add that he wrote that the banker here in Antioch ‘listened carefully to his needs, scratched his head, and nodded.’ Within thirty minutes my grandfather had the resources he needed from this gracious man,” he said.
“Yes, my grandfather,” I said, “who died in December of 1929. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure how to handle this transaction, Mr. Venziano. The records my grandfather kept were…um, somewhat lacking. Also, the check appears to be well beyond the amount due, even with interest for the ensuing years,” I said.
“Perhaps that may seem so to you, but because my father and my uncle were both born in America and enjoyed dual citizenship, they were able to secure fine college educations here and established valuable contacts that would serve our company so well over the years. We believe the amount is reasonable considering all we’ve received as a result of your grandfather’s faith in our grandfather’s abilities,” he said.
Time was growing short and I knew I had to take the scheduled conference call in the next few minutes.
“Mr. Venziano, I cannot accept this check on behalf of the bank until I’ve made some inquiries of our procedures for this unusual transaction. Both the legal and accounting departments will wish to weigh in before I can record it. Will you be here for a while?” I said.
“No, regretfully, I must return to Milan tomorrow,” he said.
“Then, perhaps we can arrange a wire transfer after I’ve established the proper course of action. In the meantime we can certainly communicate by phone and then in writing before we close this transaction,” I said.
“Of course, of course.” We both stood and shook hands again.
“Please call me Sonny, if you will,” I said.
“Giuseppe,” he said, and I looked at him in a rather odd fashion.
“Yes, I was named for my grandfather.”
“I will be in touch,” I said, confident no transactions would ever take place. And what a story I would have for my grandchildren, our family connection to a renowned international company.
So it was. Every Christmas I receive a package from Milan with something every American businessman in the know would love to have. And since that initial meeting my family has visited in their home in Italy and they in ours. My granddaughter, a rising junior at the state university studying art history, will be a summer guest in their home in Italy this year.
Shortly after we closed the file, I took a break to visit my grandfather’s final resting place.
A gentle rain was falling, but I did not seem to notice. All I could think of was a small boy who stood beside his grandfather’s bed and made a pledge to find a man he didn’t know and deliver a message he was yet to understand.
My grandfather died in December of 1929 and by then he surely realized the economic devastation that was about to fall across our beloved land. And that common sense had somehow been thrown to the wind. And in this case, what was held in the balance and weighed most in his heart and mind …his sense of fair play.
I looked down at where we’d paid our last respects to him and smiled, and nodded as I turned up my collar and turned into the wind that now lifted falling leaves in helter-skelter whorls and slowly made my way back home.
Fred Miller is a California writer. Over forty of his stories have appeared in various publications around the world. Some of these stories appear in his current blog: https://pookah1943.wordpress.com.
If you enjoyed The Promise, leave a comment and let Fred know.
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