“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”Gilda Radner

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

King of the Hill, Top of the Heap

When your family knows that you write (and are randomly quite good at creating slideshows set to music), they ask you to write the speech. It was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to write or speak, two things which usually come easily to me. But when someone gives you a legacy, you can give them a speech. Here it is.

My name is Mary Pat; I’m Santo’s granddaughter. I’d like to thank you all for coming today, to what is my grandpa’s last great party. We didn’t do this for my grandmother, and I think that’s something we all regretted, so we really wanted to say a few things about Grandpa today.

At the funeral home this morning, my brother reminded me of how Grandpa always wanted to know where each of his grandchildren were. If one was missing, he’d immediately notice and ask: “Where’s Pauly? Where’s Janie? Where’s little Joe?” It occurred to me as we were talking that I would never again hear anyone shout, “How’s Mares!” when they enter a room, and I would never again hear him ask for a “high five” from one of my kids.

It would mean a great deal to my grandfather to see you all here, as it does to our family. I’d like to take a second to point out that Grandpa was not a man to mince words. If he didn’t like you, he made sure you knew it. Everyone sitting here should give themselves a pat on the back – you made the cut.

When I was asked to write this speech I was both honored and nervous. I wasn’t sure what I’d say. My grandmother, who we all love and miss, was easy to know, and easy to get along with. She was my best friend when I was four years old. Her, I could write a speech about. But Grandpa was a different sort of person. I remembered a time when my sister and I were at a drug store shopping to buy him a Father’s Day card. Most of the cards for a grandfather didn’t really fit with who our grandpa was to us. Puppies or flowers or cookies or hugs, the cards in the store suggested a cuddly man, a doting “gramps” sort of guy that Grandpa just wasn’t. As it turns out, there’s no card with  a picture of a Manhattan or a big bottle of Chianti on the front and then blank inside so you can write down the names of all your kids.

It took a big extended family dinner to get this right. Italian style, just the way Grandpa liked it—a couple bottles of wine, lots of my mom’s good food, and all of us sitting around the table long after it had been cleared, just talking to each other. And here’s what we came up with.

Grandpa, Santo to many of you, was born in 1927. Historically, that was two years before the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Grandpa was raised on the West Side of Buffalo by parents who had come to America from Sicily in the hopes of providing a better life for their family. The story sounds like any other, and yet Santo Bueme was a man all his own.

The newspaper summarized Grandpa’s life in just a few short paragraphs. A retiree of Niagara Mohawk, employed at the Huntley Station in Tonawanda, NY. He ran B&B Heating and Hardware alongside his cousin and partner, Carl Bueme, until they started Bueme Construction. That turned into Bueme Development Corporation, which included the great Wimbledon establishment in West Seneca. And finally, Oakridge Estates, known to me nearly my whole life simply as, “The apartments.”

But reading off that list still doesn’t define the person we knew. When we talk about Santo going into business with Carl, that wasn’t just a partnership. As my dad said, Partnerships come and go, but this lasted eighty-nine years. That’s not just business. Hardware stores and construction companies don’t explain that Carl and Santo grew up in the same house on West Avenue, that they ran lemonade stands together as little boys, were best friends for life. In fact, the story goes that my grandfather and his siblings and all his cousins, regardless of age, all started kindergarten at the same time. Because none of their parents could read, write, or speak English very well, every single one of those kids had “Bueme” spelled a different way on their record. It was the kindergarten teacher who figured this out, and looked over all the different spellings, and made up the way we all spell the name today. This might explain some of the confusion over how to pronounce it, because to a lot of people it doesn’t really look like “Bueme,” but we can all take a lesson from what Grandpa said about it: “If people say it wrong, just don’t answer them.”

Grandpa was proud of his name, and he worked hard to make something of it. Joe and my mom Judy can’t think of any part of their lives when their father wasn’t working at something. He went to work every single day. At night, he’d sit at the table with Grandma and say, “What are we going to do tomorrow?” and he’d be excited about the prospect of another day, more to do, let’s get going. Santo was a man who came from nothing, and just by getting married he put himself $75 in debt. His focus became not just working his way out of debt, not just making money, but working as hard as he could to build a better life. It was about providing for his family. I think it’s pretty cool that his job, the career and business he and Carl built for themselves, was building homes. Because homes are the backbone of family. Grandpa and Carl committed their lives to creating the place for families to go. I always loved being able to point to my house when I was growing up and saying, “My grandpa built that,” and I know my sister will always appreciate that she can say that about her house now. And even though when it came to be my turn, my grandpa had to say he was too old to build me a house, I want to take a moment and thank my husband for making sure that he got to see our house that we are building before he died. It meant a lot to him and it means a lot to me.

Before building homes, and long after that, Santo showed what “work ethic” should look like. He started out small, and took everything he earned to turn it into something better. A hardware store. A construction company. Real estate. Not for himself. None of it for himself. For his family.

One of his biggest beliefs was that you have to focus on something, and whatever it is that you choose, if you give it everything you’ve got, you’ll do well at it. He’d say, “If you want to focus on girls, you’ll get girls. If it’s a sport, you’ll be good at that sport. If you want to focus on money, you’ll find a way to make money.” This seems simple, but it’s hard to achieve. And yet, it’s the way he lived his life. He believed in work, so he worked. When he retired from Niagara Mohawk, and he wanted to start running with my grandma, he started running. He won medals and awards. Runner of the Year. He did a half-marathon in an hour and 43. He wanted to do it, so he did it.

He also believed in family. He and Grandma were married for 67 years. My uncle Joe said, “As tough as my father was, my mother was just as tough; they both put up with a lot.” All the married people here know what that means, but 67 years of marriage is impressive. And he loved her. You could see it in all the old pictures, and we could see it after we lost her. They spent their life always together. And they were happy to be where they were, happy to see you. No matter what else was happening in their lives, if you had something going on, they showed up for you. Santo and Helen, walking through the door. You could count on it. To many of you that meant friendship. To many, it meant support. Friendship. Family. To me, it meant Grandma and Grandpa. Whatever they were to us, they were there. Because that’s what they believed in, and it’s what Grandpa believed above all. Family before everything.

He spent a lifetime showing us what hard work looked like, and how the reward was sharing it with the people he loved. He taught Joe and Judy: money is not about buying stuff. You could tell he believed this just by looking at him on a regular day. He used to pick me up from school in an undershirt and old jeans, in a pickup truck with the snowplow still attached, even if it was May. He was so understated that everyone at Joe’s wedding thought he was “the banana guy.” Amy had no idea what they were talking about. She said, “What banana guy?” and everyone said, “You know, the guy who delivers the bananas to the gym every week! He’s standing over there next to Joe in a tux!”

No, to him, money wasn’t about the stuff; it was for building a life. I think now, looking back over his life, and what a life, that it makes sense that my grandpa was a builder. Because while he built houses and apartment buildings and bowling alleys, he really built much more than that. He built a family, he built a life that has carried all of us. And now, we can carry with us the lessons he taught us. Hard work, family, love. His life was full and well-lived, one we can only hope to live, and it is worth carrying on his great legacy.

To show that we already do live his legacy, I’d like to share a story. When I was first dating my husband, he asked, “What are you?” I said, “I’m Italian.” He said, “You don’t look Italian. And…Michalek…isn’t that Polish?” and I said, “I’m ITALIAN.”

And my mother, she married a Polish man. Joey married a nice Polish girl. Even Grandpa married a nice Polish girl. And these are my blond Polish sons and my sister’s Irish redheads. Grandpa was our last full-blooded Italian. And yet, we all go to my mother’s house every week for Sunday sauce. We don’t miss it. We sit down as a family and we do that, because we are Italian. And that is from Grandpa. It’s because of him that we are a great Italian family.

In loving memory of Santo Joseph Bueme 
July 30, 1927-September 2, 2016

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