The young bride and the handsome groom stood, reverently, in the cathedral and quietly uttered their wedding vows as directed by the priest. He spoke almost no Italian and she spoke no English, yet they had managed to get to this point, this day. It was April 8, 1946 and, although Ralph Edward Miller and Alessandra Maria Valeri had already been legally married for a few days, this – their church wedding – would become what they would regard as their true anniversary for the next forty years.
Ralph had grown up poor in rural Oklahoma, with numerous siblings, and had joined the Air Force at 18 in order to develop some skills and perhaps see the world. Alessandra had been raised by her aunt and uncle on Via Clelia, just outside of Rome, and, prior to meeting Ralph, had been an independent young woman with many potential suitors. He was the American one. She didn’t care for the Italian guys, so she married him.
As a military family, they and their three children – Howard, Carolyn and Ralph Jr. – lived all over the world. The family moved from Colorado to Pennsylvania, Okinawa and Morocco (where their younger boy was born). She didn’t drive until she was in her 30s and he was gone a lot. Yet dependent as she was on him from a practical and financial standpoint, she still managed to master English as well as snippets of Japanese, Spanish and, when their older daughter studied it in high school, Latin. Later, she studied for her U.S. citizenship test and passed. He, meanwhile, studied catechism and converted to Catholicism as an adult.
About the latter, I’d heard a story once about the time Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door. “Afternoon! Mind if we take some time to tell you about what we believe?” Absolutely, said Ralph as he invited them in. He then spent the next several hours going over with them in fine detail what it was that HE now believed. They never returned.
When it came time for Ralph to retire, the family tried to return to Denver (where another of their children had been born; they still had a house there) but somehow wound up in New Mexico instead, in a small town called Alamogordo, which I think must somehow mean “Edge of Civilization” in Spanish. It was a sleepy farming community, nestled in what the locals referred to as Dog Canyon. One could almost hear the lonesome coyotes baying at night during the sweltering summers there. White Sands National Monument was nearby, and Holloman Air Force Base, where Sandra could pick up groceries and sundries, was a few minutes’ drive away.
They settled in, tended a few modest vegetable gardens and some chickens and had a fourth child. By then, their other children were teenagers (or nearly there) and, one by one, they graduated high school, moved on to jobs or college and married. Two of the three left the state. Their youngest never moved out of the family home.
Next came grandchildren. In rapid succession were Matt and Nora (within the same week), then Clint and Andy (same year), and Chris and Stacey. Some years later, Crystal was born.
As a child, I was only vaguely aware that my grandparents were a bit of an odd couple. Grandpa was 6’1” and lanky; Grandma was almost a foot shorter with curves. Grandma would regularly lose her temper and shout excitedly, arms flailing a bit, when things went awry. Grandpa would then calmly reply, in his subtle drawl, “Sandra…” and somehow smooth everything over. Grandpa was a practical, no-nonsense kinda guy; Grandma was a self-taught artist who cycled through various media (oils, watercolors, cross stitch, dollmaking) as she grew bored. She was the head of the household, but he would openly disagree with her when necessary. Yet I never saw their life together as anything but loving and accepting.
My grandpa was a low-key, generous man and the quirky, often misunderstood sense of humor that several relatives seem to have inherited apparently originated with him. No one could deliver a joke or clown with a completely straight face like Grandpa. One time, my brother and I had a toy drum we asked him to autograph. He wrote “Joe Blow” in perfect cursive and handed it back to us with a “Here ya go!” On another occasion we, for whatever reason, had a skullcap with cat ears that had been part of a child’s Halloween costume. We begged him to try it on. He pulled it over his head backwards, fastened the Velcro under his chin and said “How do I look?”
One day, he got the notion that he should teach us grandkids to drive in his beat up, 1950s-era Ford pickup. I was 9 and my brother was 8. During his turn, Andy cocked the steering wheel back and forth a bit, the way he’d seen on TV, yet managed to keep the truck going fairly straight while sitting in Grandpa’s lap. I knew better – I held the steering wheel as perfectly still as I could. On the ragged, rock-infested land my grandparents owned, we started to veer sharply right when I did this. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!!” he shouted, “You’re going into the pickle patch!” I attempted driving again almost a decade later with better results.
Grandpa had a gift for mishearing song lyrics. I remember sitting in the backseat of my mom’s Mercury Cougar, her driving and him in the passenger seat, while “Alone” by Heart (which was in the Top 40 at the time) played on the radio. He told my mom he couldn’t quite figure out what they were singing, but thought it sounded a bit like “how do you dance to a doll?” So for years we sang that whenever we heard the song: how do you dance to a doll? How do you dance to a doll?
Even in the tiny house on the tiny farm in the middle of the New Mexico desert, my Grandpa was part of the magic of my childhood. When I look back in my mind’s eye on summers (and the occasional winter) spent there, I scarcely remember the shabby faux-brick wallpaper in the kitchen or the dead tarantulas floating in a bucket in the laundry room; I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my Grandma, drawing, while my Grandpa good-naturedly clowned with my brother during summer vacation. Or I remember scooping fresh snow into our plastic cereal bowls – mine was pink and Andy’s was olive green – and my grandparents drizzling maple syrup on top when we brought them back inside one Christmas.
After what seemed like a lifetime in Dog Canyon, my grandparents and my Aunt Cindy picked up and moved to Tucson. It took some adjustment to think of them as Arizona residents (I was a junior in high school at the time) but shortly thereafter, we discovered Grandpa was ill.
He had been out driving his truck that day. When he went to shift gears, his right arm snapped and he had to be rushed to the hospital. In short order, the worst diagnosis possible came back: bone cancer.
Suddenly and swiftly, roles were reversed as my Grandpa, who had always been the rock of the family, became the weakest member and my Grandma and Aunt (and, remotely, my mom, who is an RN) became the ones fretting over what was happening. Would he die? Would he lose his arm? What are we going to do? He underwent surgery to remove the diseased bone and replace it with a titanium rod. Relieved, we all joked about airport security. All seemed okay for the briefest moment in time. Then the cancer spread.
Even as he was bedridden and dying, Grandpa maintained his sense of humor. He had an itchy scalp one day and was scratching just a bit enthusiastically when a nurse entered his room. Sensing her staring at him quizzically, he said “I’ve got bugs in my hair!” She wasn’t sure how to respond.
He was able to go home briefly before having to be admitted to the hospital again. He slipped quietly into a coma on June 4, 1991 and passed away mere hours later. I was on the phone with my then-boyfriend when my mom ran up to me, sobbing, to deliver the news. I couldn’t process things right away. Then it started to sink in.
We were unable to attend the funeral but visited Grandpa’s grave later that summer. In the days and weeks leading up to the visit, several of us had vivid dreams of Grandpa, my mom’s being the most spectacular. The night before we were to visit, she dreamt that she walked out of my grandparents’ guest bedroom and into the living room and found Grandpa standing there in his military uniform. He was young, maybe 25, but he instantly recognized her. “So you’re coming tomorrow, right?” And he grinned.
The next morning, five of us piled into my Grandma’s car and we drove to the military cemetery less than an hour from the Mexican border. “Baby I Need Your Loving” came on the radio and Grandma started to cry. My aunt, uncle and cousins met us there. The grave was small and nondescript but the name was unmistakable. We took a family portrait. Everyone smiled.
These days, many of the nuances of my Grandpa’s personality have faded into the recesses of my memory, but what does remain is the rock-solid knowledge that he was one of the good guys, a man who would quietly defend his family and step in as chief when needed.
Sometimes, when I’m awake late at night perplexed by a troubling issue in my life, I will call out silently “Oh, Grandpa, what should I do?” I may not get an answer immediately or even within the next several days, months or years, yet things always seem to resolve one way or another. I like to think that he has a hand in this somehow.
Occasionally, my mom says she will be out in her yard and out of the corner of her eye will catch a glimpse of her dad peeking playfully around a tree, saying hello. Even if the manifestation is simply her longing to see him again, it gives her comfort to know he’s still “around” in some fashion.
Any way you look at it, my grandpa’s body is gone but his quiet humor remains.