I wrote this post shortly after my grandfather died in the summer of 2014, and read it at his funeral. It’s been slightly updated, but I am posting this again because today would have been his 108th birthday. Happy Birthday, Papa Joe!
Giuseppe Celona Jr. was born 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’ve ever met. He would greet us with a “What’s cookin’?” Or we’d greet him with, “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 grew pumpkins almost every year for his grandchildren. He practiced organic gardening before most people knew what it meant. He loved to talk politics. He listened to his “talk-back” shows on the radio as he called them, and always read the newspaper to keep up. When Alisa, my two children, and I visited with him at the nursing home about a month before his death, 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 tools—an oilcan, 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, as well as a lifelong friendship with the Renolas.
He was smart with the dollar and practical with his spending, even when it came to gift giving. 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. For example, he always said that “marriage is a partnership,” but that “such is life, with or without a wife.” When he couldn’t get his point across, he would sing, “What’s the use, oh what’s the use?” When he was dealing with a stubborn person, 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, and would compliment the cook by saying, “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. “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—boxes that were hidden throughout the house, and that we would always find. He loved ice cream, especially coffee ice cream. He especially loved to eat it with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and as he served us he sang— “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream, Ra, Ra, Ra.” We loved eating ice cream with him. But “everything in moderation.”
He believed in working hard because “hard work never killed anybody”. He, along with his two brothers, owned an ice company, cinderblock company, and a Texaco gas station. One time my mother accidentally ripped the gas hose from the gas pump while her car was being filled at his gas station. When Papa Joe saw the mess, he probably said, “It could be worse.” He didn’t stop working until he was in his 70s, and 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.”
He 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 advice was inspiration to us all. 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.”
Some of his other lines included, “You can’t beat that,” or “You’ve got something there.” “Anyone could’ve done that,” “Something’s wrong somewhere.” “That’s between you and me and the lamppost.” “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 the 2013 World Series. But as he said many a time, “That’s history.”
He always said, “The first 100 years are the hardest, and then you coast.” This is evident in that he lived to see his 9th great-grandchild, Gavin, born over three years ago. His eldest, Alec, is now a freshman in college. In 2013, he attended Karen and Sal’s wedding. They have since had their first baby, so the great grandchildren count is up to 10. We were very lucky to have him in our lives for so long.
Now, “I’ve got to go see a man about a horse.” “Oh, God bless you all” and “don’t take any wooden nickels.”