One of the hardest parts of growing older is missing people who’ve passed. Today I’m thinking of my paternal grandparents, Louis “Luigi” and Francis “Francesca”. These two beautiful people made my childhood magical and left me full of warm memories.
They were the ones that hosted Sunday dinners with family, the table laden with mouth-watering homemade Italian food. There was the treehouse my grandfather built around the apple tree in their backyard, fully equipped with a tire swing. Saturday nights were for watching Love Boat and Fantasy Island with my grandmother.
On Sunday mornings my grandfather would head to the bakery at 6:00 a.m. for a fresh loaf of Italian bread while my grandmother and I slept in. My breakfast choices upon waking were warm sliced bread with melted butter or his famous thick-sliced French toast, accompanied by fresh-squeezed orange juice.
They spoiled me and loved me unconditionally, in the way only grandparents can. By revolving their lives around family and each other, they turned an ordinary life together into an extraordinary one. Their love and life stories are engrained in my heart.
One of my favorite stories is of how they met at a dance hall right after World War II ended. My grandmother was there with her sister and cousins. The place was filled with war worn soldiers looking for wives, my grandfather included. Grandpa said the instant he set eyes on my grandmother, who was about a decade his junior, he knew she was the one. He kept an eye on her throughout the evening and when finally she went to the restroom alone, he was waiting by the door as she exited.
The story that shocked me when I heard it was that they separated for a while early on because my grandfather started gambling. One day my grandmother went to the bank to withdraw some cash, only to discover that the money they’d had in the account was gone. My grandfather had gambled it away.
My grandmother left him, taking my young father and aunt with her. Her instructions to my grandfather were that she’d take him back once he earned back all the money he’d blown. To his credit, he did, sometimes taking on crazy gigs to do so, such as a stint as a private detective in New York. Also to his credit is that he never gambled again.
Grandma was a woman ahead of her time. While most mothers back in the late 1950s and 1960s were stay-at-home moms, she worked, first as a bookkeeper and then later, after earning a college degree, as an accountant. At one point she worked as a bookkeeper at a factory across the street from their house so she could look out the window and keep an eye on things.
Most important is that she enjoyed working. There was none of the agonizing over work/life balance or of finding her life purpose that besets so many women today, myself included. Grandma knew her purpose; it was to provide and care for her family and have a little fun while doing it.
She was also a strong helpmate to my grandfather. At one point he was having trouble finding a good job. My grandmother took it upon herself to write a letter to the city mayor, a fellow Italian, in which she highlighted my grandfather’s qualities and service to his country. She then asked the mayor if he had a job for him. The mayor responded by offering my grandfather a position as a groundskeeper at a public golf course. It was a job my Grandpa loved and kept until he retired.
When Grandpa died of heart failure Grandma, who was already showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, went downhill quickly. Without him there as her memory keeper, she was lost. One of the most heartbreaking moments in my life came when we were in her kitchen and she burst into tears because she couldn’t make sense of the numbers in her checkbook. She said that in all her years as an accountant, she’d never once made a mistake with the numbers, and now this. Eventually that horrid disease took her away from us.
Once, when I was pregnant with my youngest son and having a difficult last trimester, I awoke in the middle of the night because I felt someone sitting on the edge of the bed beside me. I thought maybe my husband had come in the room (he was sleeping in the spare room because of my nonstop tossing and turning). But no one was there, at least no one I could see or touch. Yet I could feel a strong presence. I felt afraid for a moment, then relaxed. The presence was so loving and comforting that to this day I’m convinced it was my grandmother.
Thinking of my grandparents makes me yearn for a simpler time. Perhaps that’s part of what I miss, not just them but the way life was with them; simple, relaxed, grounded in what really matters. For just a moment I can close my eyes and I am back in that place.