In 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared the first Sunday after Labor Day to be Grandparents Day. This year it will be Sunday. This was done to remember and commemorate all the sacrifices and contributions of our grandparents. Every time I see this diamond on my finger, I am reminded of my grandparents’ love for each other.
My grandparents grew up on the mean streets of Brooklyn, in the shadows of the Williamsburg Bridge. At an early age, my grandfather, Willie Warren, had to learn to defend himself. Turns out he was pretty good with his hands and was soon making extra money in the boxing ring. He also had a job at Quincy Stables as a sugar sampler, whatever that was. His best friend, Willie Curtis, was a jockey of some renown at Belmont racetrack. They cut quite the picture when they went tomcatting around town. Then one day, Willie the jockey invited Willie the boxer to the Catholic church dance.
Willie the boxer used to say the closest he ever came to being knocked out was the night he met his friend’s sister Sarah. There was an immediate attraction between the two until she found out about the fighting. She said there was no place in her life for a hooligan of his kind. Willie wooed Sarah for months until she told him, make up your mind — a boxing ring or a wedding ring, you can’t have both. Willie went back to his manager and explained his decision. But he needed money for a diamond engagement ring. The only quick fight they could find was a tune-up fight for an undefeated contender to the crown. The winner would get $600 and the loser $60.
They trained for weeks for this fight and Sarah, although she disapproved, knew that it meant a lot to Willie. He had promised this would be his last fight. Every day, Sarah would come to the gym and call up the stairs, “Willie, Willie Warren.” And Willie would be at the top of the stairs and say, “Gotta go, fellas, Sarah’s waiting.”
The contender, when told Willie was using the money to buy an engagement ring, said when I get done with him, after the doctor bills, he’ll be lucky to get her a ring from a box of Cracker Jacks. Willie’s trainer didn’t tell him that story until just before he stepped in the ring. Willie knocked him senseless in the sixth round, but not before holding him up for three rounds, just to beat him some more. Try as they might, Willie could not be talked into fighting the champ. “I gave Sarah my word.” Willie never regretted it for a minute.
But I never knew that Willie. My grandpa was the gentlest, kindest and loving grandpa in the world. You could always tell where he was by following the laughter. After he left the ring and race track, he got a job at Radio City Music Hall as the doorman at the stage door. He kept the Stage Door Johnnys from bothering the Rockettes. Everyone knew who he was and if he said you weren’t getting in, that was the end of the discussion. People asked him about working with the famous Rockettes and he said, “When you work with them every day, they are more like your sisters. Besides who wants hamburger when you have steak at home?”
Grandpa and grandma had three children. My mother was the youngest. Willie saved enough money to buy a house in Queens, which is where I grew up. After Saturday night baths, my brother and I climbed onto grandpa’s lap to watch TV before bed. Every Christmas, grandpa would pile all his grandchildren into taxicabs for the Christmas special at Radio City Music Hall.
Grandpa passed away when I was about 10. After he was gone, grandma moved into the bedroom next to mine. Late one night when I was reading and should have been asleep, I heard her call, “Willie, Willie Warren.” I thought she was having a dream and talking in her sleep. Then she said, “Oh, Willie, it’s so good to see you.” I fell asleep, wondering what grandma was dreaming about.
The next morning we found that she had passed away peacefully in her sleep.
And I think of their love for each other every time I look at this diamond on my finger.
Karen Reilly grew up in New York City and traveled the world before settling in Leesburg.