Leo A. Balistreri, My Grandpa

Yesterday I lost my grandpa.  It was not totally unexpected, as he had been sick for some time, but it was still quite a shock.  We were planning on visiting him that night.  And to be quite honest, knowing he had been basically bed ridden for some time has done little to lesson the blow.

What can you say to sum up a great man’s life in one simple blog post?  I don’t know.  So I won’t really attempt that.  I’ll just share some of my thoughts and memories.  I don’t have all my favorite photos and videos, they are on an external hard drive back in Elk Grove, so I’ll use what I can find on my computer and Facebook for now, then probably share some more later.

Balistreri Chrsitmas

My grandpa was really the patriarch of our family.  Like many stereotypical large Italian families, we are all very close and gather regularly.  Holidays are spent together, we often vacation together, we meet up just to eat or say hi.  Beyond being family, I’d say most of us are also friends that we happily choose to hang out with.  And a lot of that revolved around my grandpa and grandma instilling these values and traditions in us.

Sunday gatherings for pasta dinners at their house was always a treat.  It was also a time to tell stories, laugh at jokes and throw around the football.  And every meal started with grandpa saying a little speech and prayer.  Here’s an example from his 84th birthday.

And usually the speech had at least one or two jokes that we could laugh at.  Because that was one of the great things about grandpa, he didn’t take himself too seriously and always had a great sense of humor.  His jokes were usually pretty corny, but his turn of phrase and often bizarre sayings were always hilarious.

It was refreshing in a world where so many former service men become embittered ultra serious.  But his time serving in Germany did nothing to take away from his upbeat personality and friendly nature.

Leo Balistreri on a tank in Germany

I was extremely close to my grandpa growing up.  At least one day a week was “Grandpa Day“, where the grand kids would all spend the day at grandma and grandpa’s house.  These days were filled with grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches, Nacho Cheese Doritos, and a garage freezer full of Ding Dongs, Ho Hos, Twinkies and Juice Bars.  So we were pretty spoiled.

We’d climb the cherry tree, hunt for frogs and salamanders, set up odd Rube Goldberg like traps to catch birds, fly kites at the park, search through the attic for treasures and whatever other crazy fun ideas popped into our heads.

One of the things we loved to do was read the comics together.  Well, more accurately he’d read them to me, well after I knew how to read them myself.  We’d got through the entire newspaper together, and this is really where I got my love of comics.  We particularly enjoyed Garfield, Peanuts, Pickles, The Far Side and Dennis the Menace.  But our favorite by far was Calvin and Hobbes.  We read all the book collections too.  My grandpa was a big fan of comics from long ago, growing up loving them.  In particular he liked the Yellow Kid.  It was always interesting to see the comics he grew up.

And he always encouraged me to draw.  He really got a kick out of seeing the things I came up with.  Here’s a couple of examples.

my dragon drawing

my fly comic

If it wasn’t for him I probably would have never fallen in love with comics, and wouldn’t be drawing them today.  Part of my motivation was always to make something I thought he would enjoy.  Maybe to give back some of what he gave me.

It is an odd coincidence that I am currently working on a kid’s book about a boy who loses his grandpa.  Here’s a fitting drawing from it.

A Message For Grandpa

He also instilled my fascination with the supernatural, reading and telling me countless ghost stories and tales of horror.  He even took me to the cemetery to search for ghosts.  Not to mention reading the entire Goosebumps series.  Plus our weekly viewing and discussion of the X Files.

Grandpa’s house really felt like a second home.  I often slept there, and was welcome to pop in announced anytime.  And this was from infancy to well into my teen years.  And even as a cynical, moody teen I often chose to spend time hanging out there after school or on weekends.  And even though I knew everything as a recently found ultra liberal and routinely clashed with my grandpa’s more conservative nature, it never did anything to diminish how close I felt to him.

grandma and grandpa

It made me feel good to carry on his tradition and attend Bellarmine College Prep, even though it was a tough choice at the time.  Not every red blooded punk loving teen would choose to go to an ultra academically tough all boys Jesuit school.  And I certainly wouldn’t have if grandpa hadn’t encouraged it.

And he was always there to help me out.  When I needed to present my report on the history of computers I got the bring in my ringer and have grandpa speak to the class on the early days of IBM and share his fascinating personal experience working on the first ATMs.  When I needed a Ben Franklin to star in my short film for science class (Electric Ben) he was more than happy to step into those pantaloons and wonder out into a field carrying a lightning rod.

Then I was really proud that he was able to be there when I graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

grandparents at graduation

Of course the whole family was there too!

Balistreri family at UC Berkeley

And it was really special to see grandpa become a great grandpa when he got to know my children.  I was really happy that my kids got to experience some of what made my childhood so special.

four generations of Balistreri men

Grandpa and Juliana

So in a lot of ways my grandpa helped shape me into the man I am today.

I don’t really have any closing words, beyond that I was lucky to have a man like grandpa in my life.  And I’ll miss him.  I’ll end with him singing one of his favorite songs, Clancy Lowered the Boom, with his sons.

grandpa waving


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