It took me 27 years, and the fresh perspective of my partner, for me to feel the first whisper of understanding about who my grandparents are. He’s a veteran; she’s a warrior.
I passed through my youth unaware; innumerable visits, homemade meatballs, they babysat us when our parents traveled. The blissful ignorance of adolescence and the early twenties kept me moving in a frenzy through high school, through college, through graduate school, collecting experiences and memories. They came to every graduation. Through torrential downpours in 2003, blazing heat in 2007 and failing health in 2010.
And then, sometime in the last few years, Eric came into the mix, forming an adorable bond with my 90-year-old grandparents, adopting them as his own. But not before he started asking questions. Questions I had never thought to ask, answers my grandparents never would have provided without prompting. “What was it like in the war?” “What was it like to be apart?” And, later, “what’s your secret to a successful marriage?” And once the stories started to flow, they haven’t stopped. Maybe I just never listened. Maybe I never asked the right questions. But they seem to have all the answers.
And so we heard, finally, about when they were separated by war, when my grandfather was injured, deathly ill, marching through Burma, one of “Merrill’s Marauders.” When he received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his bravery in assisting his squad leader during a battle that left him with shrapnel in his neck. Eight Santoro brothers went to war, and eight came home. My grandmother never got the purple heart for the scars this period likely left on her heart.
She was at his side for more than 66 years. They lived in the same house, on the same floor, where my grandmother was born. She once taught me how to make homemade pasta. We had linguine draped over every surface in the house. She squeals with enthusiasm every time I arrive at their house, half my size, but double my heart. She always has fresh whoopie pies.
Now, we hear about how it was when grandma was pregnant, how “fresh” my Aunt was as a child. (My Aunt, for her part, describes my father as a “wimpy” child.) We hear about trips, and siblings, dramatic events, neighbors and friends. But, the best parts are the unexpected bursts of realness. They fought about what was on television, she said she knew what was on, grandpa raised his hands and waved them in exasperation, yelling “You know boloney!” Or when I ask about long-term relationships, what makes them tick, and she jokingly suggests her best advice is to buy a weapon.
And yet, she fussed over grandpa, through his recent difficulties, offering food, drink and an occasional tear. She is loyal, he is stoic. No complaints, no whining. She oriented him when he was confused, she continued to cook. She is powerful. They are still in love, even though he’s gone now. And they simply keep going, from one transition to the next until there is no more transitioning to do.