Updated: May 23, 2020
Many knew my grandfather as a United States Marine; a veteran who served in the Korean War and flew with the 1st Marine Air Wing as a radar operator in a Skyraider plane. Some knew my grandfather as a New Jersey Detective Sergeant who served for 35 years with the Mountainside Police Department. Others knew him on the golf course or maybe for his love of the New York Giants. Most knew him at the pub.
But, no one knew him like we knew him.
If I did the math right, Jerry Rice was a son, a brother, an uncle – the great-grandfather to (so far) 20. He was “Dad” to Joey, Karen (John), John, Jim (Barbara), and Eileen.
He called everyone, “Pal” – and one lucky lady, “Red” – his wife of over 50 years.
And 23 of us called him, “Pop Pop.”
And, today – May 5, 2020 – a day I never really thought would ever get here – has come. You’re probably going to hear a lot of stories about my Pop Pop in the days to come — all of them are worth hearing and reading and remembering – because he is, genuinely, a LEGEND. And, as my Uncle John put it, the “Only Legend.”
These are just some of my stories — as I remember them – as they more or less came to me...
Just five months ago, on New Year’s Eve, we found out that Pop Pop was diagnosed with lung cancer, and it shook us. But, if anyone was going to beat lung cancer – well, it was him.
A couple weeks later, after going through options — he was told he would have 5 weeks with no treatment. And true to his nature, his response was, “Well, that won’t work. I’ve got things to do...”
That was my Pop Pop.
At 86 years young, he still had things to do.
My first memories of my Pop-Pop were of the photographic kind – not necessarily things I’ve remembered on my own, but moments captured in time of me and him – his 3rd grandchild, a little blue-eyed girl, “Karen’s Oldest.”
A photo of my grandparents holding me during my Christening.
A snapshot of him holding me in his arms as we laugh...
My sister Kellie and I sitting on his shoulders, as he sat in his recliner — we were his barbers that day. The man always had a black comb on him, his grandkids were always the revered stylists for his prized thick silver mane. No matter what we did, no matter how many barrettes we added, no matter how many grandkids had been working on his new ‘do – crawling all over him at one time — it was always perfect.
It always filled the room with laughter.
My Pop-Pop and I also shared a love of chocolate ice cream. I imagine there are other people in the family who love chocolate ice cream. But it always felt like we were the only two people in the world who loved chocolate ice cream.
When my parents began dating, as the story goes – my Pop Pop did a background check on my dad.
Who, was, himself…a police officer in the state of New Jersey.
My mom was embarrassed. But, also, it seemed kind of like Pop Pop did background checks on everyone…like it was going to the store to buy milk on Tuesday.
As kids, we’d laugh hysterically any time the story was told – because, OF COURSE, Pop Pop did this. That’s just what you do for family.
And, now, come to think of it…it wouldn’t surprise me if he had files on anyone and everyone who came close to our family.
He was a man of integrity. He loved this country. He believed in truth, and he often spoke those truths. Yes, from letting me know how he REALLY felt about my chameleon colored hair to the moments when those truths had you whispering in public, “Pop-pop! You can’t just SAY that to the bartender! He’s got other people to serve…” but, of course, he wasn’t going to wait all day for his rum and coke.
And, if I had been honest, we had been waiting a while. Pop-Pop took on roles he never had to, and, without getting into any of them – I will tell you this: he fought tooth and nail for each and every one of us. Yes, our family was a large, loud, intense family from New Jersey complete with drama and chaos from time to time – but he had time for us all, and he LOVED us all.
Even growing up, even as the family still grew, I knew we were a big family – and I still have no idea how my grandparents, Jerry and Red, ever did it. But I can’t ever remember them not being there any time we called, either.
In this family, we showed up for each other.
The smallest group of grandkids I can ever remember there being was...five or six. Once, they took half a dozen of us to Roy Rogers. I have no idea why, perhaps there didn’t have to be a reason. I just remember – even then – being in awe of how they wrangled six miniature orders. Although, I can almost hear him saying, “No, this is what you ordered, so this is what you’ll eat.”
And I can remember him introducing us to someone he knew – at Roy Rogers.
He always proudly introduced us, no matter where we went or how many of us there were – from Chrone’s across the street to a pub in the middle of nowhere. My Pop-Pop knew someone from everywhere. And, it was always-always about who you knew.
It was not unusual to tell him a story, or to ask for help, and have his response be, “I know a guy…” – complete with Jersey accent.
To this day, I think Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino somehow crossed paths with my Pop Pop and they used HIM to become THEM.
It’s honestly the only thing that makes sense…because no one – NO ONE – wears white shoes and a white belt like Jerry Rice. No one.
The first time I brought Sean to meet my big Jersey family, I brought him down to my grandparent's basement – I imagine we were on a house tour, but also – my Floridian born & raised someday-to-be-husband had never been in a basement...and I just couldn't imagine a life without having experienced a basement.
As I turned to head back upstairs, he stopped and stared at the wall above my Pop Pop's desk. I could see him REALLY trying to figure something out. And then –
"Is that...your grandfather AND PAUL NEWMAN?"
I came back to where he was standing, looked at the image and shrugged, "Huh. That definitely is my Pop Pop and Paul Newman. There's probably a story behind that..."
And I'm sure we asked Pop Pop what the story was...but, for the life of me...I can't remember how that story goes.
After we moved to Florida in 1993, my grandparents visited when they could – and we spent birthdays, holidays, and graduations all together here, too. He came for us, of course – but…we also had some pretty good golf courses in Florida, too.
And we always had rum and coke waiting for him.
Shortly after I turned 21 – it must’ve been our first Christmas without Kellie – I ran out to get rum and coke for Pop Pop before their plane landed with my youngest sister Stefanie along for the ride. I had no idea that you could not purchase Bacardi for your grandfather with your innocent 14-year-old sister in tow.
That’s how new I was to buying alcohol.
I mean, I get how it looked NOW…but at the time I was just begging this person to sell me the rum for my grandpa and…he didn’t seem to understand the necessity. He had clearly never met Jerry Rice. Pop Pop probably would’ve showed him his badge, and got the Bacardi on discount. I just looked suspicious.
No matter, Stef and I wound up driving to another liquor store down the street where she stayed in the car, and I bought the Bacardi.
When we lost Kellie in 2004, my grandparents were some of the first to arrive, sometime that afternoon on April 10th – before the rest of the family descended upon our home the next day – having caravanned down the east coast throughout the night.
Like I said, we show up for each other.
And while that entire week, and the months and even some of the years after it were a messy blur in the aftermath of losing my young sister – I can vividly remember my Pop Pop, before heading to the airport, looking me in the eyes, and with tears in his…he said, “Be strong.” I nodded – a silent promise.
And, I’d like to think that in the 16 years since…I held up my end of that promise.
In 2012, just a year before I turned 30, I was laid off. I was lucky to still live with my parents, but I was otherwise completely broke. My photography business was non-existent, and a solidly shattered spirit took root – the bill collectors kept calling.
I was selling insurance at the time. And by ‘selling insurance’ – I do mean, ‘spending a lot of time in my car crying at how horrible I was at selling insurance.’
Somehow, my Pop Pop learned about it and got me on the phone – he was sending me a $1,000 loan, to use however I needed. I had to pay him back, but in my own time, and only once I got back on my feet. There were no questions, this was happening.
The day I received the check, it was the most money I had seen in ages – maybe ever. I used it just as instructed, and four weeks later learned I had landed a part time job as a Social Media Manager. A few months after starting that job, I sent my Pop Pop a $1,000 check with a handwritten thank you note (he was right, it was better than email.)
A few days later, he called to make sure I was in fact back on my feet, and I assured him I was – I was finally able to pay bills again. The bill collectors stopped calling, and the sunnier side of my spirit returned.
And, in fact, it was that job – and, no doubt, his help – that catapulted me to where I am today.
In 2018, I married Sean, a tall red-headed Irish boy, on a beach in Florida – just two days before I went bald for Children’s Cancer Research – and my grandparents weren’t able to make it. A random, unexpected late March snowstorm shut down the area airports and try as they did – it just wasn’t going to happen.
I think everyone was waiting for me to fall apart, but I didn’t – I knew I couldn’t change the weather. But I could change the ‘no social media’ rules at our wedding.
Quickly, the morning of the wedding, Stefanie and I got to work on adding our entire family to the wedding Facebook group and texting to let them know they’d be able to see the Facebook Live – along with friends that lived out of state. We set up my phone on a tripod and hit the “go live” button just before the ceremony started.
It’s a moment that only happened because of that snowstorm, so that my grandparents could be there – but it felt so right to have everyone join us from wherever they could. No matter the distance, no matter the weather – tech saved the day.
In early 2019, it was a bit ‘full circle’ as I was able to call my Pop Pop up and tell him that I was flying him and grandma down to Florida – no questions asked, this was happening – for a week in March so they could join us where Sean and I got married at Captain Hiram’s for our 2019 St. Baldrick’s Shave. Where not only would Sean, my dad, myself, and my cousin JR be going bald to help fight kid’s cancer – but my mom would be too!
I’m so thankful that we got to make that trip happen. It’d be his last to Florida.
And, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it was really hard to say goodbye that time…
I could go on, literally, for days about stories that capture who my Pop Pop was – who he’ll forever be. But, I’ll leave you with my all-time favorite story –
I’ve done my best, every year or two to fly up to New Jersey to see family and friends. On a trip in 2011, I had a rental car to get to a few friends houses and capture a friend’s wedding. On the night I returned the car to Newark, Pop Pop came to pick me up. It was already dark out – easily after 9pm – but he suggested we stop by a pub for a pint.
Since I turned 21, I have not really been one to turn down a pub or a pint (something I’m fairly certain made him proud 😂) – but there was something special about a real Irish pub, with your real Irish Pop Pop.
We walked in, and live music filled the air. The pub was dark, I could only make out shadows, barely faces – but it was perfect.
We sat at the bar, looked over the menu — and decided on a Guinness each. Of course, he knew the bartender. I have no idea what we talked about or if we talked about anything at all, but we split a corned beef sandwich and I thought that was the coolest thing I ever got to do with my Pop Pop.
That was, until the band fired up an old Irish song.
The entire pub stopped in its tracks, and suddenly, as if on cue, everyone was clapping and singing along – Pop Pop and myself included. I never could remember what that song was (or how I even knew what to sing) and that’ll probably drive me crazy for the rest of my life.
All I know is, even then, I knew it was one of those moments I was going to cling to fiercely when this day came…and I was right.
I had to stop myself from saying, “He’s gone.” – because he isn’t. And, if there’s anything I’ve learned in the 16 years since that April day we “lost” Kellie – it’s that we didn’t.
They live in us. We’re they’re legacy. And that’s always what’s kept me going.
They say, if you’re lucky enough to be Irish – you’re lucky enough.
But, my Pop Pop made us all luckier, and we all knew it.
How lucky am I to have had almost 37 years of memories with my Pop Pop on this planet – with a man who loved life, loved his family, and lived every day out loud.
And I know today…he walked into a pub in the sky, where everyone cheered his arrival and bagpipes filled the air. Where the bartender already had a rum and coke waiting – or, maybe a Guinness – and he pulled up a bar stool between my sister and his brothers. He looked around, surrounded by all the faces who have gone on before him, and smiled.
“We’ve been waiting for you, Pop Pop,” she says.
They clink glasses, and he smiles again, “Happy Days.”
If you have the time, today – tomorrow – this weekend, have a rum and coke for my Pop Pop. Until we meet again...
To learn even more about Jerry Rice and his service, please click here.