"This collection is a series of vignettes, very short stories, on the life and experiences of my maternal grandfather,” writes Michael P. Riccards in the introduction of his book “The Ordinary Duties of the Day: The Collected Grandpa Stories.”
The former president of New Mexico’s St. John’s College, West Virginia’s Shepherd College, and Massachusetts’s Fitchburg State, the Hamilton-based writer adds that in addition to recounting tales of “a gentle, caring, hardworking, and honest man,” he is also offering a “series of stories on Italian and Italian-American life with their principles, customs, and anniversaries on display” and that he is “attempting to reconstruct and save the world of Italians in this country just as Philip Roth (also from New Jersey) and Frank McCourt recalled the worlds of Jewish and Irish life.”
While the stories take place in northern New Jersey, some of the themes and subjects are universal. Others are specifically from New Jersey, such as the following excerpt from the section titled “Leni Lenape,” which also provides a taste of the book’s style and tone:
Over the years, Grandpa worked for many rich people, and while they admired and trusted him few became friends. He did his work, and they paid him, and that was that. One family was the Tildens, a brother and a sister who lived alone in beautiful Victorian house off Woodland Road (in Madison). They were the grandchildren of the famous and fabulously wealthy Samuel J. Tilden, who had actually won the 1876 presidential election but was cheated out of it by unscrupulous Republican bosses. The electoral vote was a tie with some other votes in dispute for months. Finally, the Democrats agreed that they would support the Republican candidate if the Republicans agreed that they would pull out the remaining Union troops from the South. Only General Grant, honoring the Lincoln legacy, refused, but it happened, and the Republican nominee labeled angrily by Tilden supporters as RutherFRAUD B. Hayes, consummated the bargain. Tilden never ran again but compiled a huge fortune in New York City. Two generations later his grandchildren decided to leave the city and move out of the train line in Madison.
Grandpa took care of the Victorian inside and out, but after seven years, both Tildens decided they wished to enjoy more of the city and its culture, and they moved to a magnificent mansion on Fifth Avenue. They sold the Victorian house quickly, but they also owned 33 acres on the outskirts of the borough. In a magnanimous gesture, they called Grandpa in and told him that those acres were his severance pay. He could do whatever he wanted with them.
The acreage was overwhelmed with weeds and hills, but to Grandpa it was an incredible addition to his empire. (But) it was too much for him to turn over all that dirt, and so he hired a nearby farmer to plow up the soil and level the knolls.
Grandpa loved to walk the trenches and smell the fresh soil . . . But one day he glanced down and saw a group of arrow heads, some hard beads, and a long spear. Those were obviously remnants from the old Indian tribes who were supposed to have hunted near there eons ago. Grandpa wondered how they sold their lands to the white man, for he had only a bill of sale form the Tildens.
The more he thought about it, the more he felt uncomfortable with the ownership of the land, and after much hesitation he decided to go to the Falcone law firm to do a legal search. After some research, the younger Falcone told Grandpa that he had gone back to the royal grant from King Charles. “But who gave them to the king? What right did he have to seize Indian lands?” Grandpa asked naively.
Grandpa left disturbed and walked up to the library and asked to talk to someone who knew about Indian life in the area. The director was an anthropologist and knew all about the Indians in northern New Jersey . . . She mentioned that the descendents of the old Lenape would hold their monthly meetings at the local Elks Club. She gave Grandpa the chairman’s number and said to call him and go talk to the tribe members.
So he did and arrived to their surprise. Grandpa was politely introduced by the chief who remarked simply that “this gentleman has sought us out and asked to speak briefly to us as the last descendents of the great Leni Lenape.”
With that august introduction, Grandpa simply remarked that he had inherited 33 acres and found some relics which he brought with him. They nodded but said nothing. He then plaintively said he had farmed the land for two years and given away the crops each year. But he did not understand how the king of England could give away their lands, and so he wished to talk to them on the matter directly, man to man.
They stared at the old Italian, without saying a word. Finally the chief broke the silence, “You must pardon us, sir, we are not used to a white man asking our permission to use our land. May we meet for a brief time and discuss it together. We appreciated your being here.” Grandpa politely exited.
For half an hour, they heatedly discussed what to do. Some older members actually believed that Grandpa was a ghost of an ancestor sent to test their allegiance to the traditions of the tribe, traditions long forgotten by the ambitious young. But after half an hour, they called Grandpa back in, and with deep respect, the chief announced that he could do what he wanted with the land, but at his death, the land should be deeded back to the Leni Lenape Council sitting in that room. They profusely thanked him for respecting the land, respecting the traditions, and respecting them. White men have not been so honest or gracious, they agreed.
When (Grandpa) died in 1969, the lawyer informed the tribal council of their legacy. They met and prayed to the spirits to take up the soul of the Great White Framer so that on the summer nights it would float like gentle mists about their tribal lands.
Soon the leadership of the council change and the fate of the land came up. No one wanted to farm it (and) they decided to sell it to a developer who built expensive split levels on its acreage. The only concession they made to the Indians’ tradition was that they named the street cutting through the property, Leni Lenape Lane.
The Ordinary Duties of the Day: The Collected Grandpa Stories, Michael P. Riccards, 366 pages, $10, available on Amazon.