Tomorrow, July 1st, is my grandparents’ wedding anniversary. To celebrate, I’m making Papa’s gnocchi and meatballs and Grandma’s chocolate cream pie for my parents and brothers. As at all of our family dinners, there will be much laughter and teasing and no small amount of love. At tomorrow’s dinner, we thank Papa and Grandma for setting the example.
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Had I had the foresight, I would have been sure to ask my grandparents all kinds of things about their courtship and marriage, but I didn’t have what could be considered my first date until after they both had died, so by the time I cared enough to know the answers, it was too late to ask the questions. Once when I was in college, Papa delved into the topic, but I was too embarrassed and self-conscious to discuss it in any real way. “You’re not interested in the boys yet, are you?” were the words he found, and it was more of a statement than a question. Assuming he wouldn’t understand, I simply answered, “I haven’t found any yet who interest me. I’m—I’m picky.” Feeling stupid, I half-expected him to laugh, but he didn’t, of course. He just nodded his head slowly and, squeezing the back of my neck, responded, “That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with being picky.” Had I been braver, I’d have admitted to him and Grandma that I doubted I’d ever find a man I loved as much as I loved him—and that I didn’t think, dateless all my life as I’d been, that even if I did someday find such a man, that he would love me in return. Papa had set the bar. The summer after I graduated from college, I’d started writing a poem about him, but seven years later, I still haven’t finished it. I get as far as “You were my first hero, Papa, and the first man I ever said ‘I love you’ to,” and I again set it aside to work on another time. It has always just seemed too much to hope for: a husband as fine as my grandfather, a marriage as blessed as my grandparents’. And this is a conversation I wish the three of us had had.
When Grandma called one afternoon to let us know that Papa died, a few months before what would have been my grandparents’ 62nd wedding anniversary, my parents and brothers and I left our jobs for the day and raced to gather around her. As we sat around her in chairs and at her feet, Grandma handed me a book of her favorite poems and asked me to read “Should You Go First” by Albert Kennedy "Rosey" Rowswell. She had been reading it to herself just before we’d arrived, she explained. The last stanza buoyed her but further broke my heart; She was imagining their reunion--only five weeks away, not that any of us knew that then--and I was just aching for the past.
“Should you go first and I remain,
One thing I'd have you do:
Walk slowly down that long, lone path,
For soon I'll follow you.
I'll want to know each step you take
That I may walk the same,
For some day down that lonely road
You'll hear me call your name.”
At Papa’s viewing, Grandma joined me at his casket and tried to get me to stop crying, but it was quite awhile before I collected myself enough to see and speak, and when I did, Papa’s hands were what caught my attention. He wasn’t wearing a wedding band. I asked my grandmother if she had kept his ring “or. . . ?” and she replied that Papa had never worn one. I had never even noticed. He just never wanted one, Grandma explained, and the extra expense at the time they got married didn’t seem worth it. I nodded in understanding, and Grandma pulled me closer and said, “He always said that we were his jewels, our children and I--and later on, you kids, of course.” That set me off again, and Grandma rubbed the small of my back as I wept.
My grandparents didn’t exchange birthday or anniversary or Christmas presents with each other, and neither had grown up in a time or family that encouraged demonstrativeness or sentimentality. I never saw them kiss or hug. But Grandma would cook and bake Papa’s favorite foods, and Papa never returned from a walk in the woods without a bouquet of wildflowers for Grandma. He teasingly called her his “little Napoleon” because she was French—her family had come here from France years before Papa’s had arrived from Italy—and she would begin all of her retorts to him with a combination “Shhhhh!” and clucking sound. In 1993, my mom bought Grandma a book to fill out for me and my brothers in which she was to record her anecdotes and memories. A line in the book asks for a description of how she and Papa spent their days. She stayed busy with the “usual household chores,” Grandma dryly reported, and Papa spent his days “working, gardening, and picking at me.” I laugh as I reread that now, and I’m also remembering that my grandfather would often tell her, “You know what? You’re a good kid, Mum!” It would make us all smile, Papa working his charm this way on a now-blushing-but-still-pretending-to-be-annoyed Grandma. You’re a good kid, Mum!
As the final guests left the viewing, I asked my mom if she was sure that Grandma understood that she wouldn’t get to see Papa again after that night—it would be closed casket for the next morning’s funeral—and she said she thought so but went over to Grandma to see if she wanted to go up to the casket one last time before we took her home. Grandma did, and exhausted by the past few days, was gently led by some of the family to the front of the room. After a few moments, she collapsed onto Papa’s chest and whimpered, “Goodnight, my buddy.” My mom and just about everyone else in earshot completely dissolved then and hurried to help her, but I stood by momentarily too stunned to cry or move. It had just dawned on me that above everything else, my grandparents were each other’s friends. The very last thing she ever said to him taught me what I had most needed to know about marriage—and what I most wanted out of my own. After 62 years--more than six decades! more than half a century!--the very last time she looked at him, she was seeing “my buddy.” My buddy. “Papa and Grandma” was a friendship. Papa and Grandma were friends.
As a swift kick when we were already down, the morning we received the florist’s bill for Papa’s funeral arrangements, we also got the phone call letting us know that Grandma died. The only peace there was to be had that day was in the hope that they were finally (out of pain and) together again. Even in those short five weeks after Papa had died and we would speak of going to visit Grandma, it had been “going down to Papa and Grandma’s.” Before Papa had died, the only nights they had ever spent apart were those of my grandmother’s three maternity stays. Grandma had been ill the last six months of her life and had lived just as long as her doctors had predicted, but the fact that Papa passed on one month and Grandma the next still struck us as a detail most-fitting to their story. One of my second cousins told me at Grandma’s funeral that my grandparents “could have been a TV show!” As we sat beside each other waiting for the service to begin, she turned in her chair to face me and laughed in half-whispers, “Ohhhhhh, when they would start in on each other! You know, [your grandmother] didn’t have his sense of humor--she was so dry and quiet about things--but she still gave it right back to him! When we were kids, we’d look forward to their visits just to hear them together!”
Had I ever put any thought into it while my grandparents were alive, I’d have been able to figure most of this out, of course. That they were people before they were grandparents and each other’s friends above and beyond “Papa and Grandma” should have been no mystery. And I suppose I did understand these things on some level. While I was staying with them one summer week as a kid, the song “Friends and Lovers” came on the radio during lunch. Grandma liked it and asked why they didn’t make more nice songs like that. I was mortified--the song was about lovers!--and tried to change the subject. If 30-year-old Val could have a do-over of that moment, she would leave the blushing 10-year-old to her pancakes and listen more closely to the tale her grandparents were telling, for however long they had to tell it. Was Papa always your buddy, Grandma, or did he gradually become that to you? I am interested in the boys now, Papa, if you want to talk? There are no do-overs, though, so after saying thanks tomorrow for the gathering of family over gnocchi and pie, I will pray to Papa and Grandma that I paid enough attention to their story to shape a sweet one of my own.