By David Zachary Mazzei
My first memory of my grandfather begins when I was two years old. I recall lying in my bed at Gonny’s (Sylvia’s) apartment, looking up at the Raggedy Ann doll, Mickey and Minnie Mouse and other Disney-like characters that watched over me as I slept. Upon awakening, I remember drinking apple-juice in the kitchen, as she introduced me to my Grandpa Bill. I specifically remember his large, brown leather work boots, because they were about the same size as me — the same type boots he wore for the next 29 years. I remember the feeling of amazement, looking up to him. He held my grandmother’s hand at the table and smiled at me. I remember him telling me about the house he built on the river, called Riverbluff, where Gonny would soon live with him. He said I would need to come visit! Riverbluff would soon become my home away from home.
Around 35 years ago, my grandfather discovered a listing for overgrown acreage, along the Nansemond River, in Suffolk. The land was covered with brush and weeds, and an old, dilapidated and abandoned farmhouse was centered on the property. The property had been on the market for quite some time, and at first glance, many would see it as too much work to make into a residence. However, keenly, Grandpa Bill pushed his way through the brush to the property’s edge and uncovered the magnificent waterfront, spanning the entire western side of the tract. He knew exactly what he was looking at. He saw great potential in the land; he saw the old house as a piece of history and art project. Being an engineer by trade, he knew exactly what could be done, and he could foresee the potential for an amazing home.
For the next five years, Grandpa Bill turned his vision into reality. He worked weekends with a team of helpers, and little by little he created a dream out of the forgotten landscape. They cleared the brush, restoring the house closely to the original to preserve its historic character. He created swings that hung from the pecan trees for us grandchildren to play on, a flower garden for my grandmother, homemade bird feeders with special contraptions to fight the war against the squirrels (a funny story for another day). He built a tractor shed, which housed two tractors, one for Gonny and one for Grandpa Bill. How I remember the tractor rides, a joy for everyone. Many of his grandchildren call him Granddaddy Tractor.
Inside the house, my grandfather singularly built the floors, the walls, the cabinets and even the tables and chairs. He loved clocks, finding them fascinating and artistic, and so the house was filled with many great clocks of all different types: large clocks, small clocks, cuckoo clocks; it was like an orchestra at the 12-hour mark.
Almost as much as he loved my grandmother, he also loved trains, and so inside the house was a magnificent miniature train set, assembled by him, with its own dedicated room. All different types of engines and cars. I remember being so fascinated as he showed me the trains running the track, pushing a button and hearing the horns and seeing the smoke. One of the cars would deliver M&Ms to me to eat at the end of the track. Also, in Grandpa Bill’s house is my Gonny’s piano: the start of my love for music, where Gonny taught me to play.
The genius in Grandpa Bill’s design was that regardless of your age, your relation or your history, once you stepped foot into this creation, you would feel comfort, inspiration and peace. One that my grandmother, his children, all grandchildren and I had the gift of being able to have in memories forever. You could say this was one of the greatest pieces of Grandpa Bill’s many crafts. With its historic farmhouse, green rolling hills surrounded by forests, waterfront views, birds and flowers and a tantalizing sunrise and sunset, Riverbluff was Grandpa Bill’s piece of heaven on earth that exemplifies his spirit of dedication, love and creativity.
Grandpa Bill reminded me of many things, through his actions toward others. The most important of all: how to treat people. He used to tell my grandmother, “Gonny, you’re wonderful!” followed by a kiss. Little things like this can change another’s life.
Grandpa Bill introduced me to the trumpet. He gave me the courage to begin playing it in sixth grade, telling me how much he loved the marching band of Virginia Tech (then VPI) and jazz music. He would play recordings for me, tell me stories of band camp. And to this day I continue to play trumpet. My cousin Jonathan, also a trumpet player, and my cousin Seth, a drummer, also learned the same musical appreciation from Grandpa Bill. And now, we all think of him and his appreciation every time we play.
Grandpa Bill taught patience and selflessness. If you knew him, you would know that, if you asked him a complex question, you would not get an immediate reaction or response. You’d wonder if he even heard the question. He would laugh, smile and say, “Sylvia, you know I heard the question the first time.” Then with his engineering mind, he would take his time, processing every scenario and solution, and no matter what you asked, or who was asking, he would give you his very best answer, every single time, with such clarity. He made you feel like no matter what you had done, or where you had been, you were always important and valued, and he encouraged me to be this way.
On the other hand, Grandpa Bill also taught my sister Jessica and me how to sneak candy and treats while Gonny was in another room! He taught me ice-cream jamborees, where we would eat ice cream in the kitchen with way too much chocolate syrup until we nearly felt sick. He taught me to set my alarm clock 30 minutes before I have to wake up, so I could “soak in the bed” and build up my motivation instead of just having to pop out of bed at the first alarm. He also knew how to joke and laugh so hard that tears would roll down his face and he wouldn’t be able to finish the punch line! He once told me the most hilarious story about his first date. He drove the girl home from prom, took her to the door, kissed her good night and was so happy that he walked home and didn’t realize he left his car in her driveway until the next day.
Grandpa Bill was a resident engineer on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, executive director of the Virginia Port Authority and president of Associated Naval Architects. He was also a sailor, a musician and a wood sculptor. But more importantly, he was my grandfather. The people we spend time with can define who we are, and their energy and love will forever live on through those they have touched.
All of us grandchildren are blessed to live on with the lessons, love and memories that Grandpa Bill gifted to us during his life.
David Zachary Mazzei is a grandson of Bill and Sylvia Weinstein Craft and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.