There really is no proper way of explaining him. Like any other force of nature, his energy and impact had to be experienced firsthand. My earliest memory of him is that he had a tattoo, definitive proof in a three-year-old mind’s eye that my Grandpa Ed was a pirate. His gravelly voice, perpetually tanned skin and adventurous spirit could make anyone think he’d dug up the fountain of youth on some remote Pacific Island during his tours on the USS Tuscaloosa as a teenager in the early 40s.
Part of me knew that the day would eventually come – our last visit with the 91 1/2-year-old back in October featured about three conversations in a cycling loop, his dementia starting to take over. But another part held onto the childlike notion that my WWII veteran granddad would live forever; that, for the rest of my life, I could go down Indian Trail Road and find him at the end of his driveway in an “Old Dudes Rule” T-shirt waving an over-sized American flag like a man possessed.
Tragically, a respiratory infection set in just after Christmas and he was gone before we could even get a chance to get down and say goodbye. Life as I knew it came to a grinding halt. Although I had made a concerted effort these last five or six years to drink in every nuance of him that I could, sneaking videos and snapshots of “Eddie-isms” along the way, I still had infinite more quips, jokes and anecdotes I wanted to capture. That’s one of the most frustrating truths about life; you never know how many of those moments you have left.
Although I’d had months to prepare for the trip down for his memorial, there was no way of knowing how I’d feel until I got there. As we made our way up the hill towards the High Desert late last Thursday night, into Yucca Valley and through Joshua Tree on our way to Twentynine Palms, I could feel my throat closing more and more with every mile. Even arriving under the cover of darkness couldn’t hide the evidence of his absence and it hit me harder than I could’ve imagined.
The 5-acre patch of dirt he homesteaded back in 1950 and transformed into an oasis overflowing with fond memories for three generations had windswept sands piled like snowdrifts on the walkways and fresh weeds creeping in through the perimeter. It looked as though, after a 70-year lease, the Desert Gods had already pushed ahead with their foreclosure. The world without him just didn’t make sense.
It wasn’t until I saw Grandma Betty cautiously waiting under the porch light that I felt my chest loosen up a bit. Over the next few days, all five of his children and most of his grand- and great-grandkids descended on the compound. It was the first time that many of us were together in more than a decade and a half. There were plenty of tears, but a good majority of them were accompanied by sidesplitting laughter as we partook in all the usual shenanigans that come with a visit to the desert. Some played games around the dinner table while others climbed the hill west of the house we all call The Saddle. After dinner we all had “Skippy Cups” of ice cream and did our best impressions of his corniest jokes.
At some point, probably midway through his memorial at the Eagles lodge that Saturday where friends and family shared story after story of his capricious nature and heart for helping others, the realization finally stuck – How lucky was I to have him so long? Many people don’t ever meet their grandparents, let alone get to experience a remarkable set the way I’ve been able to these last few years. Instead of dwelling on all the moments I’d never get back, I could hold on to the many gifts he’d given me over the years, whether directly or indirectly through his oldest son. Looking around at my aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends and acquaintances, I could see his legacy in every one of them, too. His gift of storytelling, his special brand of dad-joke humor, his craftsman’s eye, his ability to make anyone feel special and loved – it was all on display. It was the perfect way to memorialize one of the best of The Greatest Generation.
When we left the desert on Tuesday night, the emotions came rushing back to the foreground. Could this be the last time I bounce down that dusty old road? Grandma said she’ll stay for a while but is already considering a move closer to family and relative civilization. It’s obviously the right call, but it’s hard to imagine my trips to Southern California without making the long haul up the hill to what will always be my favorite place. As we awkwardly bounced around the corner of Mesa Road and onto the concrete, I was confronted with the idea that, as the only grandson to hold his name, I have no idea how I will even begin to explain to my future kids how utterly unique and almost magical their Great Grandpa Salvini truly was.
For some reason that first image of his tattoo flashed inside the still-three-year-old section of my mind. Maybe I’ll just say they’ve got a pirate’s blood running through their veins.