Walking with Grandma

“You are my baby’s baby.”

She would look at me and say in the sweetest voice, “You are my baby’s baby.”   Five words.  Incredibly powerful. Soulfully significant…resonating within me for decades.

There are moments in life when you miss someone so much that you just want to pick them from your dreams and hug them for real.  -Charlie Brown.

Yes…Charlie Brown sure had that right.

My grandmother, Frances Geluso Bonfanti, was a little force to be reckoned with.  Though she be but little, she is fierce.  She was born on December 22, 1912.  I was taller than my grandmother, and I’m barely 5’1″ on a good day. And I was her baby’s baby. (My dad being the original “baby”.)

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photo courtesy of Elaine Barone Bonfanti
She was the best.  Her giggle was contagious and jovial. Her hands were delicate and tiny, but strong.  I can still feel her hands holding mine, even now.  The tender, softness of her cheek,  when I would kiss her”hello.”  The way she would perfectly refold the wrapping paper, after opening gifts, so she could use it again.

I loved my grandparents’ home.  The now-vintage, black velvet wallpaper, running my fingers over the fuzzy designs.  Or the orange glass candy dish that lived on the white, arched shelf in the dining room.  Sugared-coated  jelly candies inside, just waiting for little fingers to sneak some, if only you could lift open the heavy glass lid without getting caught.

Sometimes both my grandma and grandpa would be waiting on the porch, sitting in their little folding chairs with tattered seat cushions, for us to arrive on Sundays. My grandfather would pinch both my cheeks as his greeting.

Sometimes, my grandmother would be in the kitchen cooking.  Italian operas could be heard in the back sitting room, on Grandpa’s cool old-fashioned radio.  But boy, could she cook up a storm!

The smells of her creations permeated the air as soon as you entered the house on Sundays. Huge Sunday dinners.  Three kinds of meat, tons of vegetables, pasta…you name it, it was most likely on the table!   She made the best rice balls and breaded cauliflower, hands down!  I mean, honestly, I was a kid and I was eating cauliflower!?img_4263

There are moments in life when you miss someone so much that you just want to pick them from your dreams and hug them for real…

Sometimes after dinner, Grandpa would play incredible Italian operas on the piano by ear, no less. And we would sit and listen for hours.

But mostly, we would walk.  After dinner.  We would walk together, Grandma and I.   Sometimes we would stroll around the perimeter of the backyard, while she spoke of the Rose of Sharon trees in the gardens. To this day, I have a special love for those trees.

And sometimes, we would saunter down  to Chelsea Lane and back.. Chelsea Lane was this little dead-end side street.  Again, we would walk and she would tell about the flowers or the gardens in the neighborhood.  I hung onto every word she said.

We would walk.  In any weather.  Rain?  No problem. She would be donned in her plastic rain cap and off we would go.

That was our routine. What I could count on.  It became my safety, my security.  My “normal” during a time in my life, when everything felt like a swirling tornado frantically spinning out of control.  Walking with my grandma became ingrained inside my soul.

Connections are interesting in that way.  What we connect to, bond with. I am sure the strong memory thread is different with each of us.  But nevertheless, connections are why we are here. And the attachment I felt towards my grandmother would prove to be crucial in my life as an adult as well.

I loved my grandma.  I loved her with my whole heart.

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She made it to my sixteenth birthday.  

I lost my grandmother 3 months later, on August 19, 1991.  She was in the hospital for surgery on her carotid artery, which went well. I remember visiting her in the hospital. But I was so scared of hospitals at the time.  All I wanted to do was leave.  She was a little confused when I saw her, and I left with my sister, and cried all the way home.  She had a massive stroke a day or two later…and she was gone.  I didn’t even get to kiss her goodbye…

There are moments in life when you miss someone so much that you just want to pick them from your dreams and hug them for real…

She made it to my sixteenth birthday. She wasn’t there to watch me graduated high school, or college.  She was gone.  My world was crushed.  There were supposed to be so many more years of walking with her.  There was so much I still wanted to tell her…

Being one of the youngest grandchildren, I believed time had cheated me when he took her. Sundays at my grandparents’ house was my safe harbor.  My grandmother had represented stability and love. And now that was gone too. Excruciatingly painful.

Devastated, I cried uncontrollably at her funeral.  Sobbed uncontrollably.  I remember walking back to my sister and brother-in-law’s car, still hysterically crying. I couldn’t stop.  I didn’t want to stop.  My heart felt a kind of pain it had never experienced before.

Maybe the proper reaction was to remain a certain sober composure. But that was not me. That couldn’t be me, even if I tried.  Not a girl who loved the world, and her grandma with her whole heart. All I knew, is that my heart felt like it was going to burst into a million pieces and crying was the only reaction appropriate in my eyes.

I wasn’t sure if my heart was ever going to be okay again. Life is so fragile. As a 16-year-old girl, I was not prepared for loss.  (Is anyone ever really prepared?)

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To this day, I am extremely thankful that my father always had (and still does) a video camera in his hands.  He videotaped my 16th birthday dinner.  I (as usual) borrowed it from him and shot my own video as well.  Recently he sent me the DVD of that day.  There I am, behind the camera, videotaping my grandmother. Her smile. Her giggle.  It was all there. Strong sentiments soared once again.

A few years ago, my counselor at the time, posed an important question.  I was going through a very dark time in my life, full of anxiety and pain.  Finding light in my day was almost paralyzing.

So she asked me, to think of a time in my life, when I felt complete peace.  No anxiety.  No pain.  Just peace.

Walking with Grandma…” I whispered.
She asked me to repeat myself because she couldn’t hear me. Maybe I was supposed to respond with a recent experience.

But again, I said, “Walking with my grandma.

Complete peace? No pain?” She asked again.

Yes…“I confirmed.

Can you feel it right now? ” She asked.

I closed my eyes and imagined.  Suddenly and instantly, I was transported back in time, and there she was, walking next to me.  Yes. I could feel it. I knew EXACTLY what that felt like as if it were yesterday.

So she told me that was my guideline, my baseline,  as I was bravely taking steps forward on this new journey of mine.  That’s how I would know.  If it feels like “walking with grandma” then it was safe, and I should keep moving forward.

If it didn’t, then I was supposed to drop that bag and not pick it up again.

And I did just that.  With every step forward, if I could feel Grandma with me, I was okay.  There was light. On the contrary, if I could not sense my grandmother at all, I dropped that bag of darkness, and tried another path.  I just kept walking towards that light…

It started as just sitting outside on my front step.  Then it was planting flowers (her flowers from her house that my stepmother brought up to me here).  And more flowers.  And even more flowers.  The light began to shine within. img_4264

Yes…that felt like “walking with grandma.” Keep channeling the feeling.   Then planting led to walking…walking led to running.  Running led to hiking.  Hiking led to climbing.  No pain.  No fear. No anxiety.  Just peace.  Just free.

I followed every moment, every experience that emulated the emotions of peace, freedom and love that I felt when strolling along to Chelsea Lane and back with Grandma.  The more steps I took toward that light, the stronger I became within.

Until eventually, I was standing on my own two feet again.  On solid ground.

I know this sounds crazy, especially to those who are solely grounded in realism.  But in a way, my grandmother brought me back to life.

The pathway in my brain, in my heart, had such a strong existence from all of the times I spent with my grandmother, that during a time of darkness and pain, it was her light that broke through.

Today, every time I walk, without fail, a cardinal crosses my path.  A cardinal once followed me the entire time I was walking at Highland Park.  That was a particularly challenging day, and I was walking and praying, praying and walking.  The cardinal stayed with me the entire time.

When I purchased my house 4 years ago, I told my dad that the basement had an aura so much like Grandpa and Grandma’s home. That there was a strong presence there that made me feel safe.  I repeatedly asked myself over and over, while moving into my new home, “please put me in a safe place for my children, a place where they will thrive and grow.”  When I looked into the backyard, there was a cardinal perched on the top of the bird feeder.  Yes, for this girl who does not believe in coincidence, that was a sign.  The cardinal can be seen in every season, in my yard. Sometimes on the front light post. Sometimes in the back yard.  But she’s there.

And…when I am hiking in the mountains, I feel her too.  The breeze that blows suddenly after a quiet summit prayer.  The tiny sunlight breaking through the thickness of the cloud cover.  The gentle flowing of the mountain brook.  All of it feels like “walking with grandma.”

The other day, thoughts and emotions about Grandma came rushing back to me in full force.  (which in turn, compelled me to write this blog.)

The shelf in my corner cabinet came crashing down.  Most of its fragile contents remain unharmed. All but one.  The most important relic that was tucked as safely as could be,  in the back of the cabinet, as to stay out of harm’s way.

My grandmother’s red glass.  It was my most treasured possession from my grandparent’s home. It was the only item I requested to be saved for me after she passed. (The fight for the infamous sugar bowl will be a good one now.) I used to play with it when no one was watching.  I would pretend I was a beautiful princess at a fancy ball, drinking out of my very fancy red stemmed glass.  In my home now, it would grace the living room shelf during the holidays.

Noooooo!” I shouted, as my children came running in the kitchen.  They thought I had gotten hurt.  I just stood there, frozen, whispering  and shaking my head “no, no, no.

I’m sorry Grandma…I’m sorry,” I sighed chokingly.

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Life is like that sometimes, isn’t it?  Broken, but not shattered.  Crushed but not destroyed. Challenged to find the positive instead.

Instead, that devastating moment, brought back happy memories, in the midst of the disappointment.  The light in the darkness.   Always light.  #findthelightinallthings

We all have our stories.  I am quite certain that if we put our stories together, we would complete the picture of my grandma.  However, this is just my perception. One piece of the story.   My memory from a little girl who loved the world  and her grandma with her whole heart.

Twenty-five years later, and I still miss her terribly.

There are moments in life when you miss someone so much that you just want to pick them from your dreams and hug them for real…

Her baby’s baby.

Waiting for you on Chelsea Lane, Gram,

J

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