September 19, 2006

Roots - Part I

By Doog © 2006

We never really know who we are until we know where we come from. We all (well, most of us anyways) know our nuclear family very well - usually far better than we'd like to, to be brutally honest. And most people regard their grandparents with the kind of reverence usually reserved for saints or WSOP bracelet winners.

Me, I never really knew my grandparents.

Hell, one of my grandparents is still alive, and I don't really know her, nor do I care to. For almost eight years, I lived within five miles of my maternal grandmother, and I saw her only a handful of times. Even at a tender age, I realized that I didn't really care to expose myself to the vile rantings of a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, ill-tempered bigot. Especially now that I married into a family hailing from the Caribbean - people whose complexion is a shade darker than mine.

Thanks, I'll pass.

Her dearly departed husband, my maternal grandfather, passed away from a brain tumor in the 1950's, when my mother was still a girl. Mom's vague recollections of her father are of a gentle, caring provider - just the kind of father every little girl needs; truth be told, the kind of father I hope to be for my daughter. I think I would have liked to get to know him.

I probably knew my paternal grandmother the best out of all of my ancestors. She was a British immigrant, a sweet, tender woman who liked her tea and loved her gin (though not usually mixed in the same cup), and she was an avid card player. Cribbage, gin, euchre - you name it, she played it. Even though she lived on the opposite side of the country, we regularly spoke on the phone - as often as twice a week, depending on the direction life's winds were blowing.

She passed away when I was 14. Even though I had spent a cumulative total of a handful of weeks in her physical presence, I loved her dearly. Whenever I serve as a shoulder-to-cry-on when someone close to me is grieving a loss, I always think of my Grandma Jan.

The most colorful character in my family, by far, was my paternal grandfather. Leo G stood over six feet tall, with a barrel chest, Popeye forearms, and a ready grin permanently adorning his face. Extremely generous (some would say overly generous), he wouldn't bat an eye at dropping wads of cash on a complete whim.

As an example - during one summer vacation with Grandpa Lee and Grandma Jan, Leo G heard that my older brother and I had listened to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack for the for the first time at my uncle's house, and that we really dug it. The very next day, we were winging to LA, where we lodged at the Universal Sheraton, farted around at Universal Studios, had a nice prime rib dinner, and caught the evening showing of the Phantom at the Ahmanson Theater.

That still stands as one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Leo G died eight months after Grandma Jan did. The official reason was recurrence of prostate cancer, but I know he really died of a broken heart. When you lose your life partner, your soul-mate, your singular joie de vivre, what's the motivation to keep fighting?

When my father and his brothers were going through Leo G's belongings, they came across a satchel containing $25,000 in cash. In the bag was a handwritten note, which read:
This is not to be used for bills. This is not to be used to buy 'things'. This is for fun. Take your families to Disney World, or Hawaii, or Europe. Rent the most expensive car, stay in the nicest hotel, and drink the most expensive wine, and remember me the whole time.
Grandpa Lee, you're impossible to forget.


It was many years after his death that I first heard the full story of Leo G. I would sometimes catch snippets of conversation between the adults, references to a turbulent past, but I always thought they were overblown exaggerations. The man was, after all, larger than life; I simply figured his legend was growing over time, as legends, fish tales, and bad beat stories always do.

Then came the night. I'll call it the Revelation.

My wife and I hosted a home game that night. It was late in the evening, and everyone had left except for my uncle, the youngest of Leo G's three sons, and the only son who still lives in the area. Over the course of the next two and a half hours of shuffling cards and trading chips, my uncle revealed to me for the first time the true story of Leo G...

Leo G was born in 1925 in New York City, the only child of a Polish Jew who immigrated after World War I. His father, my great-grandfather, was a chef, and soon after arriving in the States began working at a relatively upscale restaurant. This restaurant happened to be a favorite eatery of Joe Masseria, the preeminent mobster in New York City in the 1920's.

One evening, after devouring a particularly scrumptious sampling of my great-grandfather's cuisine, Masseria asked to speak with the chef, whereupon my great-grandfather was offered a job. From that time on, he was the personal chef for the biggest mob boss in Gotham.

It took a while for that to sink in... my heritage, my roots, that from whence I sprang, is the prohibition era mafia.

What. The. Fuck.

The next mental leap was to my grandfather. My memorialized mental image of the big loveable teddy bear, the infectious laugh, that fun-loving free spirit... he was a mobster. Scarface. Capone. Gotti. Paul Vitti in "Analyze This." My grandfather.


My uncle continued to tell tales of his father's childhood. Like how Masseria and his goons would gather around my great-grandfather's kitchen table, plotting and scheming while my great-grandparents cooked up a "killer" meal. Then there was the time that my great-grandmother (whom I knew before she passed away some five years ago) put a fresh-from-the-oven pie on the window ledge to cool, and one of the goons who was outside reached up stealthily to grab it from the window, and my great-grandmother grabbed one of those big-ass two-pronged forks that you use when you're carving a turkey and pinned the guy's hand to the window sill.

Good times.

I can say without qualification that that was the single most memorable poker session I've ever experienced. I can't recall a single hand played, though, or even who won. The speed of play was glacial - at times, there were 20-minute breaks between hands as a particularly enrapturing story unfolded. Of course, poker wasn't exactly foremost on anyone's mind that night.

Oh, the stories. Like the time Leo G went to federal prison for stealing a military aircraft. Or the events leading up to his other three stints in the clink. Or the circumstances surrounding the family name being changed due to Leo G's participation in the witness protection program after going State's Evidence on his - ahem - business associates.

But, those are subjects for future posts...

Doog lives in California, is married with two young children, is a complete donk of a poker player while being a kick-ass poker blogger. He’s also the most modest, humble person you’ll ever meet, should you have the esteemed privilege.

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