When my grandfather died, my grandma, in traditional Italian custom, wore black for an entire year. I thought she might never emerge from the dark shroud of grief that had enveloped her. My mom regularly asked Grandma to spend the night at our house so she wouldn’t have to be all alone in the big dream house which she and my grandfather worked their whole lives to have; the house he spent less than a year in, and all of which was spent battling the cancer that would quickly take his life.
I wondered how Grandma would manage all alone. Without my grandfather as a steady companion, who would she dote on, serve like a king, and jump at every command? My grandfather, a traditional, domineering, Italian man loved my Grandma, but also loved to complain about everything she did.
The food was never warm enough, seasoned enough, or portioned large enough. The house was never clean enough, the TV was never loud enough, and the coffee was never strong enough. It’s an understatement to say he was a difficult person to live with. So it should not have surprised me to find that Grandma, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, came out of the darkness and embraced a new life without Grandpa.
Within time, Grandma began attending social functions at the local Senior Citizen Center, referred to as “The Center,” but pronounced “The Centah,” in her Long Island accent.
Ever the social butterfly, she quickly acquainted herself with other folks and joined them on group travel excursions. She and her senior friends were seldom sedentary, as they planned and set out on day trips to Atlantic City and Foxwoods Casino where they would take a chance on striking it big with their pension checks—which Grandma did quite regularly. She quickly became well-versed in travel destinations outside her local neighborhood. And we all soon became accustomed to Grandma asking if a location we discussed was in proximity to one of her travel destinations.
“Is that near the Villa Roma?” was a question I often was asked whenever I talked about my upstate New York stomping grounds. I soon learned that the Villa Roma was a Senior Citizen mecca, with its exquisite food and amenities.
Without my Grandfather holding her back, Grandma was now also able to travel to all the places she’d dreamed of, like her parents’ birthplace of Italy, and she was no stranger to cruise lines whose claim to fame were trips to popular places like the Caribbean and Alaska.
She became worldlier in her seventies and eighties than most people in their thirties and forties. And the pièce de résistance: Grandma allowed herself to find love again. At age 87, Grandma is now on her second boyfriend, or as she says, “companion.” But if you asked her if she’d ever marry again, she’d throw up her hands in irritation. “Who wants to be bothered with that? I don’t need anyone to hold me down!”
I can only hope that as I age, I am able to capture some of the vitality and joie de vivre that Grandma embodies. She is a living Fountain of Youth and an exception to the rules. While most people her age are drinking their meals through a straw in a nursing home and watching Wheel of Fortune, Grandma is busy filling her social calendar and taking trips to far-flung places.
I never would have guessed it in those early days and months of mourning, but the passing of her life partner allowed Grandma to embrace life in a way she never had been able to before. And I am still amazed how, at 35 I look forward to quiet New Year’s Eve celebrations at home while Grandma is whooping it up with the other seniors at the local VFW, complete with annoying blow horns, leis and gaudy tiaras.
Maybe one day I’ll have the opportunity to travel to exquisite places like Rome or the Cathedral of Notre Dame. And when I do, I’ll be sure to call Grandma first, and get the scoop on everything I need to know.
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