Three years ago, I recorded my maternal grandparents for the first time. They were just entering their 80s. And I was home visiting seven years after leaving New Jersey for Tennessee.
For as long as I've been alive, my grandparents have lived in the apartment just below my parents’. Until I left at 22, Nono and Nona were always present—for better or worse. If I got home after midnight, I came in through their apartment in order to not wake my dad; I slept in their spare room and wrote college papers on the floral coach they have in their living room beside the wallpaper, from presumably the early 1980s, of deer standing in the middle of a forest. I watched thousands of muted hours of soccer at the kitchen table with my grandfather, as he cursed and shouted at coaches and players on the TV screen.
As I get older, time feels like it’s accelerating on me. Which has made me wonder: how much more is that the case with my grandparents? The sand that had once filled the top bulb of the hourglass of their lives is now trickling quicker than ever down the neck to the other side, where I won’t have them with me anymore.
If I don’t document their stories now, in their own words, I may never get the chance to.
On a recent trip to see my family, I let the Voice memo on my iPhone run for hours as we spoke. I jotted down notes of half-remembered memories: my Nona's upbringing in a largely Italian neighborhood near the Central Cordoba soccer stadium in Rosario; my Nono's in a humbler setting on the outskirts of the Parque de la Independencia. Their chance encounter as teenagers in that park after a state fair; the corny line my grandfather used to draw in my grandmother; their move abroad to Australia in the 1970s, then the United States four years later, then Argentina again for eight months before finally moving for good to the U.S. in 1984, where they settled in the city where they and my parents still live today.
Educated formally only through sixth grade and by trade a panel beater (what Americans call auto body technicians and Argentinians call chaperos), my grandfather is a natural storyteller. Who knows, under different circumstances, what he would’ve done with his life if he had had the privileges I get to enjoy.
Today I am a writer, in part, because of the way his storytelling captured my imagination over the years.
As boys, my brother and I listened intently as Nono recounted stories of his youth. How he jumped fences at soccer stadiums and outraced mounted police before hiding in the crowd to catch a game. How, as a farmhand in the campo, he laid under eucalyptus trees, hoping to see, as his friends told him he might, the apparitions of dancing gauchos (all he saw was the occasional fight between giant native ducks). Remember pet goldfish as a kid? Nono had them too. Except he got his by climbing up light posts in the park, stealing the globes from the top, then filling them with water and fish from the park fountain.
Here is another story, which I only learned about this last visit.
In the first image, at the top of this post, my grandfather is the man standing to the far left. He was then working as a manager for Cametal, one of the largest auto body shops in Rosario at the time. In 1961, the company’s employees—about 100 men—organized an internal soccer tournament. Each team was divided by trade: carpenters, painters, panel beaters, finishers, etc. My grandfather was the player-coach of the panel beaters, whose team went by the name El Martillo de Oro (“The Golden Hammer”). Though they fought valiantly, the Golden Hammers were bested that day by the finishers, who did not apparently have as cool a team name.
In typical Argentine fashion, the tournament culminated with a huge asado at the park, beef, sausage, and wine aplenty for winners and losers alike.
On the surface, I thought this was a soccer story. But, as we spoke, I realized there was something else here.
At Cametal in the early 1960s, my grandfather built the prototypes and molds that the panel beaters used for repairing buses, which made up most of the company’s business. Even though he was known for putting in 16-hour days to get a job done, he was as likely to skip a day of work if his boyhood club, Rosario Central, was playing. He headed to the stadium early to watch their under-17s, reserves, and the first team play. My grandmother, Nona, tells me he even missed work sometimes just to go to practices (which meant he both wasn’t making money and was leaving her to watch my mom alone as he sat around at a soccer field bullshitting with other not-at-work guys all day).
Argentina is the land of Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. The place where, at the 2019 unveiling of Maradona as head coach of Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata, a medium-sized club comparable to the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars (i.e., they hardly win anything, but aren’t total crap), a fan outside the stadium celebrated by dancing around with a chainsaw.
The average Argentinian soccer fan is equivalent to your most obsessed college football or professional basketball fan, amplified by 1,000 (give or take a chainsaw).
That crazy has a tendency to leak into other areas of life as well.
At Cametal, my grandfather and the guys watched, chatted about, and played soccer together. A selection team, which Nono wasn’t good enough to make, played in Rosario’s Metalworkers Championship. But Nono was also doing labor organizing within the company. He formed a cooperative with 50 of the laborers. They chipped in money and were able to buy anything they needed, from tools to wine and sweetbreads for holiday parties. When the bosses awarded cash prizes for the hardest workers in the company, Nono told the men they were being duped into working longer hours, risking their health and spending time away from their families just to make the owners richer. When he won the prize himself, he asked the bosses to split the money evenly between the men he managed instead. He was a troublemaker; a co-worker called him a caudillito, a Latin American brand of populist leader who is both charismatic and dictatorial.
Eventually Nono pissed off enough higher ups at Cametal that he got fired. It sucked. But, it wasn’t as bad a situation as when he got fired from his first panel beater job at San Antonio. That time the message came via police who were at his door to arrest him for a report of destruction of property—but that story for another day.
Getting fired for the second time helped Nono realize something.
“It was partly my fault,” he told me when I recorded him. “My bosses no longer had any idea what to do with me. I made life impossible for them.”
After Cametal, Nono went into business with a close friend. That didn’t end much better. They didn’t buy insurance for their shop, it burned down, and they lost nearly everything. That was the sign, he felt, for him to leave the country and try elsewhere. In Australia and the U.S., Nono had to work for bosses again. And I know, from the 25-plus years of his work life that I got to experience, he was just as stubborn and abrasive for them as for any boss he had worked for in Argentina.
Nono finally retired in 2015 at the age of 77. He now spends most of his time at home flipping between soccer games (still cursing at the TV screen) and cowboy movie reruns, letting the family chihuahua take him on a walk to the park, and spray painting garden gnomes, outdoor tables, and chairs Christmas colors.
I have the tendency to see myself as very different from my family. I think it’s a common feeling for a lot of first-generation immigrant kids. A lot of first-generation college kids. But, it doesn’t even take that. Technology separates us from our parents and grandparents. Age does. Culture. Religion. Taste in music. Pastimes. There's a long list we can look to if we’re trying to figure out the ways we’re alien to each other.
When we start to listen to our family member’s stories, however, we realize we’re not that different after all.
Rosario Central is my favorite team because of my grandfather. I speak Spanish fluently and with words my Argentinian contemporaries tell me haven’t been used since the 1970s, in part, because I spent so much of my time downstairs talking with him. He is a living history textbook, and I was enraptured by all he had to say—until I got old enough and technology got good enough that I could fact check him. At my cushy white-collar job, I bust my ass—though considerably less so than my dad and Nono busted theirs at much harder jobs.
At this cushy job, I also make life nearly impossible for my bosses. Which, I guess, means some things really do run in the family. And there's nothing wrong with that—as long as, for the sake of my wife and daughter, my story doesn't also end with getting fired.
Are you interested in recording your family’s stories? Reach out to me. I can help you get started. Or I can work with you to record and share them. Email me: briancanever (at) gmail (dot) com.