Small-towns suck. Growing up in one pretty much establishes your place in the world as either a worker in the town’s factory or one of the farmers who own 90% of the land outside city limits. In the event that neither of these options suits you, you’ll find yourself looking for a place elsewhere. For me, this came in my heroes and idols, usually scientists, actors, and the occasional parkour athlete. However, there was one figure, Alex Sallustio, I knew in person who was different from everyone else in my life. A lot of who I am as a person and how I approach life and social situations comes from Alex, but it wasn’t until I visited him a final time that I realized just how much he’d meant to me growing up and how much this idolization of him had changed.
It was mid-spring of 2022 when my wife and I were back in our hometown visiting with family and friends. Our vacation was almost over, and we were about to make a last-minute visit to see Alex. He’d always been a close family friend and, in many ways, was an adoptive grandfather to my siblings and me. My older brother Adrien would also be there as he’d been staying with Alex during his recovery from surgery. I hadn’t seen either of them for over two years and wasn’t sure what to expect from them.
When we got to Alex’s house, my older brother greeted us at the door, hugged me, and awkwardly said hello to my wife and son. He was extremely excited to see me and had always been an affectionate fellow, but he wasn’t the best around little kids. I walked into the living room and said hello to Alex.“I brought you some Swedish meatballs!” I told him.
“Oh good,” Alex exclaimed, “We’ll be eating for weeks off that!”
Alex always loved good food. He was someone who was very in touch with his Italian roots, and cooking was a significant part of that. One time he told us the story of when he got in a fight with his roommate at college. He’d been cooking a pot of sauce for spaghetti in between working on some other things. As he went back and forth between his work and the kitchen, he was perplexed at the seemingly increasing sweetness of the tomato sauce. “That’s odd,” he thought but shrugged it off, added some salt, and left. But a few minutes later, he returned and found it sweeter still. “Why is this still sweet?” he thought and left again for a few moments. When he returned for the third time, he caught his roommate adding sugar to his tomato sauce–one of the cardinal sins of cooking spaghetti. You don’t mess with another man’s seasoning, especially not if that man happens to be Italian.
Looking back, I think Alex is part of why I love cooking now. In Italian-American culture, cooking isn’t seen as a woman’s occupation as it is in most of America. Instead, the creation of large, lavish banquets was an important part of familial life for everyone involved.
Back in the present day, as my son ran around Alex’s house while we talked, I thought how strange it was that I had played in the same spot at his age twenty years ago. My siblings and I would constantly take every opportunity we could to visit Alex’s house, sometimes without permission which landed us in hot water with Mom on one occasion. Alex always seemed happy to see us; I can’t imagine that he always felt like having three hyperactive kids around, but he never complained once. He even came up with nicknames for us. Mine was ‘Vinnie the Guinea,’ my older brother was ‘Luke the Kook,’ and my younger brother was ‘Joey the Doey.’ I think he may have run out of ideas on that last one.
Although I was usually grouped in with my brothers for all intents and purposes, Alex still had a different impression of me compared to my siblings. He would always refer to me as the shy or quiet one. I never felt that this was an insult; I was proud to be the one who listened more than he spoke. But given his Italian roots, I wonder if Alex meant it in this way or if he thought there was something genuinely wrong with me.
Italian culture is very different regarding what is polite in conversation. Huge gestures and loud tones make their conversations seem overly aggressive to outsiders. For my family, interrupting or talking over one another was frowned upon. But for Alex, this is just how you got your point across. Whenever he came to our house, it was almost impossible to get a word in edgewise. No one minded this when it came to Alex. He was the kind of person who’d led a fascinating life and seemed to be able to recall it perfectly.
Alex was a brilliant storyteller and would often regale us with stories about his time in the Air Force during the Cold War, his life growing up in Philidelphia, or his constant run-ins with customer service. He was of the old-school ideology that “The Customer is Always Right!” And since he was regularly a customer, any slight against himself could not be tolerated. I always admired this about Alex. In hindsight, I’m sure he was every retail employee’s worst nightmare, but for a young boy who was constantly unsure of himself, he was the kind of strong, self-assured role model I found myself drawn towards.
After all these years, I couldn’t help but tell a vast difference between the man I had once admired for his sharp wit and quick words versus the one before me. There was less of the witty banter I had known from him. He seemed tired and struggled to recall details. I couldn’t help but feel a bit saddened about this. Growing old is a part of life at some point, but it can be difficult when it feels like the people we once knew aren’t the same as the ones we’re seeing now.
Nonetheless, I must have also seemed different to Alex. Here I was, an adult with my own life and family; I must have seemed so much different than the six-year-old that used to run around his house. In a lot of ways, it felt like we’d swapped places. Now I was the curious-minded person eager to share things I was learning, and he was the one trying to get a word in edgewise. They say you should never meet your heroes, but I’d like to submit that perhaps you also should never surpass them.
In the end, this visit ended up being the last time I saw Alex before he finally retired and moved to be closer to his family. He’d been talking about this move for many years, and I’m happy he’ll be closer to his family during the rest of his rehab. But at the same time, I’ll miss seeing him. I learned a lot from Alex regarding the kind of person I want to be and what I want to avoid. He was witty to be sure, but behind all that was a man who was always interested in learning new things and always took time for people. Alex may not have been my real grandfather, but he still felt like a part of my family, and although we now differ in many ways, I still believe I’m a better person today for getting to know him.