Saturday, August 20, 2016

One hundred years of memories, and I can't wait to hear more

My grandmother Teresa, the one with the tiny chair 

I visited my dad's 100-year-old cousin today. (First takeaway from the visit: Please, God, let me have those genes. Not just the longevity, but the one for great hearing and beautiful skin. She looks fabulous and is sharp as can be.)

I've seen Jennie once or twice over 50-plus years, but Dad had a lot of cousins and everyone was scattered, so the children and grandchildren of those cousins don't all know one another. I recognize the surnames; besides Lavias, there are DeFinos and Sodas and Romeos and Punellis and many more that I can't recall. I'm friends on Facebook with first and second cousins I've seen probably only once, if at all.

I'm curious about this side of the family. On my mom's side, we were closer; I grew up very attached to my aunt and saw my Nana quite often. I look like that side of the family, and for whatever reason, I feel more connected to them.

But the Lavia genes are in there, too. The curls. The tendency to ruminate. The slender-ish legs and big bellies. The introversion. No doubt I'm my dad's daughter.

But Dad didn't talk much about his family, and I've always wanted to know so much more. So when Jennie sent me a photograph of my paternal grandparents after she cleared out her house to move into an assisted living community, I wanted to do better than send a thank-note.

She seemed happy I wanted to visit. I hope that when I left, she was as happy as I was that I had come.

I was delighted to listen to her talk. She showed me photos of her family, told me of her childhood in Des Moines and Chicago and about a boy who was sweet on her when she was 15. She told me about my dad and his brothers as young men -- "good-lookin', every one of them."

She brought to life relatives I'd never known. My paternal grandfather, her uncle and godfather, who died when I was 4, was a carpenter at Mercy Hospital just north of downtown and walked to and from work; sometimes she'd meet him on the sidewalk and talk to him a little before she reached his house. He was so talented with his hands and could build anything, she said. (This made me laugh at the memory of my unhandy dad, who relied an awful lot on duct tape.)

She loved my uncle, my dad's oldest brother -- the one my dad seemed to see and speak to in the days before he died. His name was Emilio, but he was called E.A. or Tony or Milly; in World War II, he was a prisoner of war in Japan. He survived, but died young, in his 50s. I was 9.

"Tony was the handsome one; since he lived in California, you know, he probably could have been in movies," Jennie said. "We were the same age, so he would have been 100, too. And probably would have still looked good."

She remembered, vaguely, my dad's little sister, who died tragically at age 5, and that the family was never quite the same afterward.

My dad, she said, was the funny little one who followed his older brothers around and was close to his mother, who died when he was 16. In what was, for me, the sweetest part of the conversation, Jennie described the grandmother I never knew as being "tired, you know, with all those boys running her ragged, and with cooking all the time, and she was sick so much."

She brought my grandmother to life for me by describing the tiny rocking chair that was hers; she was only about 4 feet 9 or 10 inches tall, and it was a chair made for a child. She would have rocked my dad in that little chair.

Jennie talked about her life, too; how difficult it had been a few years ago to bury her son, who died of lung cancer; how much she still misses her parents and the siblings she's lost. How difficult it was to leave her home on the south side, to sell or give away many of her possessions and try to find space in her tiny apartment for the others she couldn't bear to part with. How the new place is fine, but it's not home.

When I was young, I had relatives in, as we called them then, nursing homes. I didn't visit those relatives enough. And although I saw my dad several times a week, there were instances in which I complained about visiting him because I believed myself to be too busy.

Maybe it's because of the degree to which I miss him, and my aunt, and my grandparents, and all the others who are no longer around to tell me the stories I crave hearing. Maybe it's because in my line of work, I understand the value of older adults and their stories. Whatever the reason, I'm unspeakably grateful for today.

And I'll keep going to see Jennie as long as she'll have me.

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