Half of my mom's side of the family is Italian (her father/my grandpa). Although it feels like all of the relatives in the small Connecticut town are Italian because my grandma was a lone wolf when she met my grandfather. My grandfathers family was dominant in numbers, dominant in opinions. My grandfather had two siblings, a sister and a brother, both of which married and produced a few cousins for my mom and her 5 (now 4) siblings. Of course those cousins had little ones, which became third cousins for me, my sister, and our first cousins. The majority of this family still resides in the dilapidated coastal town that saw its heyday in the WWII era. Just as is traditional with Italian families, everyone lives close together (real close), eats a lot, and needs to have their voice heard.
My mom fled the small town when she was 18 to join the Army. After the Army, marriage, college, and starting a family, she moved back to Connecticut, but to a neighboring town. After I was born, my mom, dad, sister, and I moved to a different, but still east coast state- Massachusetts. We lived there for a bit before moving to the West Coast, where we pretty much remained. I think my mom got a lot of flack for moving across the country, but she and my dad had their reasons, and personally, I'm happy they made the choice they did. I would have a very different life if we had remained on the East Coast living so close to all the family, and all the drama. We made frequent trips to Connecticut, I'd say at least once a year.
I remember when my grandfather died in 2003, I became aware that my family and trips to Connecticut as I knew them would not be the same. Since we would visit once a year, everything was always the same- we would see the same people, do the same things. It's just how it was there. And it was comforting. My grandfathers funeral was low-key and well attended. It was like a mini-family reunion, albeit sad circumstances. My grandpa's sister Londie was the last remaining pure Italian relative from that side of the family. My great-aunt Londie was very close to my mom and my mom's siblings. They enjoyed her company immensely, and even more so after the passing of their father.
Early in January of this year, my mom took a trip to Connecticut to be with her mom. My uncle lives upstairs in the house the family grew up in, my grandma has the bottom floor. One of my aunts lives in a house across the street built on land my grandfather owned. One of my other aunts used to live next door in a house built on the same land, but now her son (my cousin) lives there, and she lives a few blocks away. Like I said, everyone is close. My grandma started having a more difficult time caring for herself, so up until my mom arrived, my uncle and aunts were doing the majority of the care taking, along with some weekly home visits from hospice. My mom spent a good 3 weeks getting bossed around by my grandma, feeding her, bathing her, and counting the gardenia blossoms. Throughout January, my mom would send me updates on my grandma, and when my mom cancelled her return flight to California at the end of January, I knew things were taking a different turn.
Early Sunday morning, 2/1, my mom informed me great aunt Londie had passed. Monday morning, 2/2, my mom informed me my grandmother had passed. Just like I had in 2003, I contacted my sister to try and coordinate flights arriving into town around the same time to minimize people making airport trips. Well, 12 years had passed since the last time we had to do this, and so much had changed. I was in Kansas City (actually on my way to the airport headed to Texas for a meeting) not in Seattle, and my sister was in Portland. Coordinating was just too difficult, so I let my boss know I'd be leaving the staff meeting early to fly to Connecticut.
When I arrived in Connecticut late on a Thursday night, I walked into my grandma's house, and it was filled with relatives. Even the full house couldn't compensate for the emptiness that was hanging in the air. My grandma was a fierce red-head and her presence was always felt. Friday morning was the funeral for Londie. Saturday was the funeral for my grandma. I had a long couple of days in front of me.
Grandma's funeral was almost identical to my grandfathers, but with more people making their way through the funeral home to say good-bye. I thought my grandma looked amazing, and so at peace. In her hands she held two perfect, white, fragrant gardenias. I learned at dinner after the funeral that my uncle went over to water the gardenia on Sunday, the day Londie died, and there was one bloom that had opened up overnight. My uncle went into the room where my grandma was still alive, but in and out of consciousness to let her know. The next morning, when my mom found my grandma had passed, another gardenia blossom had opened. Sometimes, it is so hard to be present in times of grief, but stopping to think about how amazing it is that my grandma got to take those two perfect gardenia blossoms with her forever makes it just a little more bearable.