The Lion Sleeps Tonight. My Memories of Papa Joe

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Giuseppe Celona Jr. was born over 106 years ago on March 20, 1908. He was married to my grandmother, Lenilda (Lee) for almost 70 years. Together, they had four children, nine grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. Papa Joe lived a life that most of us could only dream about. He wasn’t a celebrity. Well maybe a little bit because he was the oldest living man in Rhode Island and the oldest active living Lion’s Club member in the world. He wasn’t educated past middle school, but he was one of the smartest, wisest, well-read, handiest, business minded people whom I have ever met. When Alisa or I would walk into his house, he would greet us with a “What’s cookin’?” If we got to the greeting first, it would be Alisa or I saying, “Papa Joe, what do you know?” He would always respond, “Not too much.” So he was also very unassuming in his day-to-day life. He was a fantastic gardener. He grew all kinds of vegetables, and would grow pumpkins almost every year for his grandchildren. He was practicing organic gardening before most people knew what it meant. He loved to talk politics. He would listen to his “talk-back” shows on the radio as he would call them, and always read the newspaper to keep up. When Alisa and I and my two children recently visited with him at the nursing home in early July, when we got there, he was sitting at the nurse’s station with his glasses perched on the end of his nose reading the newspaper. I asked him what he thought about the current administration in the White House. His response was that there was a lot going on behind closed doors that we all don’t know about.

He was the guy who could fix anything, with his favorite fix-its—an oil can, duck tape, or electrical tape. I remember his broken tail light on his Oldsmobile that was put back together with such tape. It worked, and it saved him money. He also had his go to fix-it guy and friendship in his pal, Mr. Dorazio, and a lifelong friendship with the Renolas.

He was smart with the dollar, but he was by no means a cheapskate. He was practical with his spending, even when it came to gift giving. For example, he made sure that his grandchildren had a new pair of shoes for back-to-school and for Easter every year. We all appreciated this gift, while keeping in mind that “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

He also had many other sayings, some borrowed, some his own, that he would share with all of us. I will try to share them with you as I continue to type. He and Mamielle had a great marriage. He always said that “marriage is a partnership,” but that “such is life, with or without a wife.” When he and my grandmother would have an argument that she always seemed to win because he knew when to stop arguing, he would sing, “What’s the use, oh what’s the use?” If I were there, he’d say “Hey, Anita, have you ever heard of the song ‘Oh, what’s the Use?’” Then he would continue to sing. When he was dealing with somebody who wouldn’t quite understand his point of view, or somebody who was stubborn, he would say “You can lead a horse to the watering trough, but you can’t make him drink.”

He loved a good home cooked meal. He would sit quietly at the kitchen table while he would eat the feast that my grandmother would prepare. My grandmother was known for her cooking and baking skills. She could turn out homemade pies and ravioli faster than McDonald’s can make hamburgers. Except her cooking was fantastic, and “you couldn’t buy that in a restaurant.” He would also to tell you to “chew your food the way a cow chews his cud.” Take your time and enjoy your food. I think that’s what he meant when he would say, “Come lo cuoci, lo mangi—the way you cook it is the way you eat it.” Take your time cooking and enjoy the process, and take your time enjoying the feast, because “Chi va piano va sano e va lontano. “He who goes slow, goes safe and sound, and goes a long way.” He would also have most of his meals with water because “Water is the best drink in the house.”

Papa Joe had an incredible sweet tooth. He loved Fanny Farmer chocolates and Russell Stover—the Nuts, Chewy, and Crisp Centers. He would hide boxes of candy throughout the house. I don’t know if he was hiding them from Mamielle or the grandchildren. Nonetheless, we would always find the candy. He loved ice cream, especially coffee ice cream. When Alisa and I were little, he and Mamielle would load us in the back of their Oldsmobile, and take us to Steere’s for ice cream. He would sing the ice cream song—“I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream, Ra, Ra, Ra.” On the way home, Alisa and I would lick our cones while chocolate jimmies would fall all over the back seat of the car. We loved going out for ice cream with them. But “everything in moderation.”

He believed in working hard because hard work never killed anybody. He, along with his two brothers, had an ice company, a cinderblock company, and a Texaco Gas Station. When my sister and I were little, we were riding in the car with my mother, Mamielle, and my Auntie Joan. They stopped at the Texaco to get some gas. While the car was being filled with gas, Mamielle and Auntie Joan were having an argument over a mattress. My sister had had enough. She yelled “Go Mommy go!” My mom listened. She went. She hit the gas, and the hose ripped away from the pump and gas spilled everywhere. When Papa Joe saw the mess, he probably said, “It could be worse.” He didn’t stop working until he was in his 70s, something that was a bit unusual in his day. At the end of the day, he would look down at his hands and say, “These hands have done a lot of work, boy I’ll tell ya.” Very true.

Papa Joe believed that “man’s greatest romance was achievement and success.” He would tell us to never give up on anything because “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” If things didn’t go your way, you were told to “keep your chin up, take the bull by the horns,” and finish what you started. He would say, “If a task is once begun, never leave it ‘til it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.” That last saying always drove me nuts, but it always made me want to try my best and finish the job at hand even when I really wanted to quit. I think Papa’s children and grandchildren would agree with me. Take your time to do things correctly, because we all know that “A stitch in time saves nine.”

We were told to “ask questions.” We were also told that “life is not a path of roses, and there are many thorns along the way.” However, it “all boils down to common horse sense.”Don’t create your own problems” because “if you want to dance, you’ve got to pay the fiddler.” “Experience is the best teacher,” but “the young learn from the old.” A person could only do so much to help you, because at the end of the day, “the rest is up to you.”

Papa Joe was a true gentleman to everyone he met, but he also recognized that “You catch more flies in molasses than you do in vinegar,” and that “One hand washes the other.” He would also say to “live and let live.”

“Life is what you make it.” “Life can be beautiful. It’s how you live it.”

If one of us told him something that impressed him, he would say, “You can’t beat that,” or “You’ve got something there.” If he was less than impressed, it was “Anyone could’ve done that,” or if something didn’t make sense, it was “Something’s wrong somewhere.” If it was something he was telling you in confidence, “That’s between you and me and the lamppost.” If it was something he saw in your future, “See what you’re coming to.”

In his 106 plus years, he’d seen a lot. When he was born, the Model-T Ford was introduced. He was only 6-years-old when World War I began. He was about 55-years-old when JFK was assassinated. He was 93 when 9/11 hit, and 105-years-old when the Red Sox won their last World Series. But as he said many a time, “That’s history.”

We were very lucky to have Papa Joe in our lives for so long. Every year that passed, especially in the later years, we were especially thankful. He lived to see his 9th great-grandchild, Gavin born almost two years ago. His eldest just turned 17 this past May. Last year, we were lucky enough to have him attend Karen and Sal’s wedding. Somebody had passed out during the ceremony. At first I thought it was Papa. Instead, it was a 20-something year old bridesmaid who was dehydrated. Maybe that’s because “The first 100 years are the hardest, and then you coast.”

Now, “I’ve got to go see a man about a horse.” “Oh, God bless you all” and “don’t take any wooden nickels.”