A dwindling family of stonecutters connects the living and the dead.
Seeing the Angel
When you are a kid you remember everything and everything is important.
Things you learn from your father stand out in time, as big and solid as a tree you can climb or walk around. Perhaps it's no mistake time works that way. When a thing happens it starts to live and goes on living inside you, especially if you're a kid.
It was the same back in 1956 when Anthony E. Grappone Jr. was 10 and marveled at the way his father's hands carved ivy and angels in blocks of stone. What confidence it took to cut into pristine Italian marble or Georgia granite. Tony's father seemed to connect to those great pieces of rock. At times, he knew the people whose names and dates he chiseled in.
Oh! and the tools: slab, crane, pulley, wheel, chipper, pitching tool, bush hammer. Together they created a crazy chortling rhythm in the masons' shop that hummed: A.P. Grappone & Sons, master carvers of memorials and monuments.
Forty-five years later, the family-operated business on Randolph Street still thrives. What makes the Grappones and their work unique is not the trade itself or the fact that it's been passed down through four generations. What is remarkable about these stone carvers is that they are, in most things, impervious to time.
That quality is made clear in everything from their air-conditioner- and computer-free offices to their workshop that could have been transplanted from Colonial days. And the simple philosophy transcends the physical place, too. For the Grappones, time is not motion that can be raced against but rather the climate in which all things, especially life and death, occur.
As it happens, death brings business to Tony Grappone and his brother, Albert. For nearly a century people have turned to A.P. Grappone & Sons to help them select a gravestone or memorial for loved ones who have died.
[image-1](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)"I've got to cut a stone down, so I'm going to pitch it down," says Tony Grappone. "Lord knows what I'd do if that belt ever broke," he says about the pulley that drives the sharpening wheel.I learned this last year when my family had to pick one out for my grandmother. She had lived 87 years in Richmond before cancer stepped in. In December 1999, she died in a hospital after doctors tried to steal the cancer away.
I was not initially part of the gravestone selection process. That detail was left to my mother and brother; I received a full report later. There were many of these reports or check-ins from family members and friends following my grandmother's death. Life did go on. Although it felt a bit hazy for a long while, like a sad dream you know you've had but can't quite remember.
My mother had made an appointment with A.P. Grappone & Sons a few months after my grandmother's death. Waiting was important. "When someone has just died, you're not in the right state of mind," Tony Grappone later assured me. The time, he says, provides a chance to accept a loss of a loved one and to consider how best to memorialize her. And the stone, he would tell me, should be "something personal that ties them to their previous life."
Upon meeting with the Grappones, my mother had her usual list of questions. She wanted to make sure the stone would be just like my grandfather's in every way. So they retrieved his original file. It contained all the stone specifications and requests my grandmother had made when he died 27 years before. My grandfather's gravestone had cost $200. My grandmother's would be $900.
It could take anywhere from six weeks to several months to order and complete the stone. The Grappones would confirm all the name spellings, dates and designs with my mother before the rock would be cut. The design would then be stenciled and carved with ivy, her name and dates sandblasted in. The Grappones are to install it next to my grandfather's plot at the cemetery. This will be the last detail in putting my grandmother's body to rest.
[image-2](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Letters and dates are cut out of rubber to expose what must be sandblasted out. Increasingly the Grappones are doing signage work like this marker for Westhampton College.Tony, 54, and Albert Grappone, 51, learned their craft from their father, who had learned from his father, who had learned from his father, Alfonso, a stonemason who immigrated to the United States from Italy nearly a century ago.
Alfonso first found work at a Philadelphia quarry, then moved to Virginia and sent for his wife and son, Albert Peter. Together, the father and son scouted Richmond for a location that would be good for business. They found one. From the slightly elevated spot on Randolph Street where A.P. Grappone & Sons has rested since 1904, three cemeteries Hollywood, Riverview and Mt. Calvary are a stone's throw away.
Today, two small buildings still are center of operations for A.P. Grappone & Sons. Inside the brick office, four desks piled with papers seem glued to the slate floor. File cabinets abound. White marble and plaster statuary peek from an adjacent, otherwise empty room.
A legion of black-and-white photos hanging from the walls catches visitors' attention. Some are pictures of the Grappone men; others are of various monuments. Most display the work of Tony and Albert's forefathers.
Two pictures bear the most significance for Tony. The first shows a cross-shaped monument hand-carved out of Georgia marble by his uncle Joseph 51 years ago. The cross is embellished with lilies; it stands in Hollywood Cemetery. Joseph, or Zep, as they called him, was a master carver whose work can be seen everywhere from the most detailed tombs to the limestone lions that greet visitors at the Virginia House. Recently, Tony spent five months repairing the marble cross after a branch fell and broke off a large piece. He was careful to carve deep into the marble to create vivid depth in his lilies. "My grandfather said it wasn't any good unless a bird could land on it," he says.
In the second photo, Tony and Albert's grandfather stands with his four sons. Each one died in the order in which he appears in the photo left to right. Joseph Grappone passed away last December. To the right of that picture was a picture of Tony, who promptly moved it to the left of the one of those deceased. "I guess I may be just a little superstitious," he says amusedly.
The place is full of work that fills up lifetimes. "We just go back and forth like crazy," says Tony. "I think we're daggone lucky to get out anything, personally, but we seem to get it done."
Each year a skeleton crew of six that includes Tony's wife, Gordon, turns out close to 500 pieces ranging in price from $200 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while gravestones and memorials account for 90 percent of their business, commercial jobs they've done like the stone graphics for the Richmond FBI building and marble showers at the Williamsburg Inn are more frequent now. What's more, apart from phones, a crane truck and the addition of a sandblaster, little has changed about the shop since it opened.
"Everything about the place is old," says Tony with a chuckle. "But that's just how we're used to working."
Paper files with receipts and details are kept on every customer. Decades-old sketches of crosses, angels, cherubs and floral patterns are tucked away in dress boxes. Even many of the myriad tools are the same ones made a half-century ago in the shop's blacksmith room. The traditional wares are a comfort to Tony and Albert, who brush off modern amenities like they would the sand that drifts everywhere in the shop.
But the legacy of the anachronistic masonry business could end with this fourth generation. Tony and Gordon's only child, Matthew Anthony, was killed in an automobile accident in 1996. He was 17 and a senior at Atlee High School in Hanover.
[image-3](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Each stone that enters the shop is handled seven times before it is finished and placed in the cemetery.A black wrought-iron gate is almost hidden by a rectangular boxwood hedge that creeps in front of the A.P. Grappone & Sons office and workshop. Inside the gate is a showroom of pristine granite and marble gravestones lined up like hurdles black, gray, white and rose-colored models looking sleek on grass carpet. There is a sidewalk leading from the workshop to the office.
Stray rubber-stenciled letters that had spelled out a name on stone now stick to pavement like worms after the rain. Visitors after hours are warned to keep off the premises by six "No Trespassing" signs painted in gray and red from the same abundantly used stencils.
Around back of the workshop a stone garden grows. A white-flowering thicket has snared the broken wall. Tombstones are everywhere. Parts of the wall itself are replaced by tombstones. More of the stones are heaped in the corner of the yard. Some are cracked and didn't survive the Grappones' scrutiny; others were retrieved for one reason or another from cemeteries and discarded here. Over time, this slanted, tangled garden of dead grass, buttercups and ruined stones has become more and more confusing, though it must have become familiar to the Grappones. Quite possibly, by now they are unable to conceive of any other place.
Another day, another garden of gravestones. The severely cut slab of rose granite, bearing my grandmother's name and the dates Sept. 7, 1912 - Dec. 13, 1999, lies in a smooth grassy place in Maury Cemetery beside another slab of identical rose granite marking the grave of my grandfather, who died in 1972. I had been here once as a very young child and had returned one other time a few years ago, on a Sunday afternoon the spring before my grandmother died. I don't know exactly why I ended up at the cemetery on that Sunday. Something made me wonder if I could find it on my own.
Today, I am looking for it again. I have to feel my way to the spot. It's strange to see her gravestone here. Hers is a slightly softer hue than his. It still looks new. I brush the face of them both. She had admired the ivy boughs on my grandfather's stone and now hers bears the same. I say my heart's prayer but can't help feeling that cemeteries and all they contain are better left in God's keeping. I am small here, communing with gravestones and the silent earth.
[image-4](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Stone carvers have to look beyond the rock and try to imagine what the family sees. "It's a personal thing," says Tony. "Every stone we put out is a piece of us."Inside the workshop, tools tap and pound. The sandblaster roars. It's a busy day but that's to be expected: It's raining. "On a rainy day the phone doesn't stop ringing," Albert says. Albert wears a bright green polo shirt, khakis and Top-Siders and looks like he belongs on the golf course. His gray hair is tousled and his sun-kissed face appears to have visited some courses. He bends over and peers through a small opening in the sandblast machine to make sure it's doing an even job blasting out letters from a stone.
Triggering callers isn't all the rain has done. Tony's been trying to get two recently finished heavy ledger-shaped monuments out of the shop and installed in a cemetery.
"They say we need the rain but it just throws us back and back and back. It's just too much weight for the soft ground to take," he insists. Apart from dressing nearly identically, the two brothers don't resemble each other or even have much in common. They rarely speak, and when they do, they have to talk above the noise or wave and nod in order to understand each other. But what they share is forever.
The workshop is bathed in white light that bounces everywhere off gray stone and sand. If it weren't so dusty and pungent from the smell of glue and gas, it would make a nice gallery or greenhouse.
Tony's wife, Gordon, an artist, works quietly in her quadrant in the room. She learned the stonecutter's craft from Tony's uncle Joseph, and because she's quite good, she's been recruited to do much of the finer detail drawing and rubber stenciling. Gordon's petite frame and soft voice are perfect foils to her husband and brother-in-law.
An important part of their job, she explains, is to listen to what people want and interpret that into something meaningful on stone. Once she listened to a mother discuss how she lost her teen-age daughter in a car wreck. The grief-stricken mother felt a tinge of comfort when she found a natural rock that she was certain had the face of an angel in it. She wanted Gordon to see it, too, and to be able to carve it out of the stone.
"I was trying to see the angel," Gordon says, "but it was difficult to see what she was seeing."
Before lunchtime, Tony's got to pick up a stone from St. John's Church because the interment date of a man was given to them as his death date by mistake. Then he's got to track down his workers with the crane truck that has been at a job in Charles City. There's a funeral tomorrow at the city's Riverview Cemetery, and workers there have called to ask for his help in moving a huge stone out of the way for the gravedigger.
But for now, Tony's leaning on a 3-ton piece of granite. "Isn't that beautiful!" he says. It will be the first stone to mark the new side of Hollywood Cemetery.
His dust-covered apron's pockets keep his carving tools handy. He pulls out a clear plastic triangle that's weighted down by a glued-on chip of mahogany granite. "Necessity is the mother of invention," he muses. He slides the pencil out from over his ear, draws in his lower lip and gazes over the top of his glasses onto a sheet of vellum paper. The design for the pine bough cascading across the top has to be rubbed onto the smooth heavy stone before Tony starts to carve into it by hand. Tony's hands, worn smooth by sand and time, are ready. There used to be six pine cones across the top. Now there are seven. It's for someone who died who had seven children.
"They're hard to cut, but I love pine," Tony says. "That's going to be real pretty when I finish