When I was in graduate school, I befriended a guy named Chris one day at the gym. I had been watching him while I was in aerobics class. He was riding an exercise bike and thoroughly absorbed in a magazine. I don’t know what made me so bold but after the class I walked up to him, “All those beautiful girls prancing around in front of you and you have your nose buried in a magazine?” He looked up at me, trying to figure out if I was being serious or not. “I’m just teasing you,” I answered. I wasn’t being coy; he wasn’t my type. I guess I was just trying to strike up a conversation.
Chris and I became fairly good friends and hung out together often. We had virtually nothing in common except for the fact that we both had degrees from UPenn. He loved UNC basketball; I was completely indifferent. But, I had nothing better to do, so I watched the games with him. Eventually I met Chris’ friends, most of whom were fellow doctoral students in the psychometrics department. And, through Chris, I eventually met one of the most important people in my life: Grace.
Grace and I initially met around 1992. No sparks flew; it wasn’t an instant friendship or anything like that. During that period of my life, I was very guarded. I did not know how to be myself here in the “Southern Part of Heaven.” I had yet to figure out how to finesse my Yankee personality into something that suited more civilized Southerners. And I was still nursing the broken heart that remained after my first long term relationship ended. So, with a few exceptions, I kept most people at arm’s length.
After adjusting to life in the South and spending some time in therapy, I was finally ready to “get a life.” Grace and I kept crossing paths through Chris, at church, and at the School of Public Health, where we were both students. Little by little we started to spend more time together, but it was a fledgling relationship at best.
Then my house burnt down.
While I was pulling my life back together, I temporarily moved in with one of my professors and his wife, who quickly became a dear friend during our morning coffee chats. At the same time, Grace was having serious problems with a roommate who had a slew of personal and financial problems that made things like keeping up her share of the rent problematic. Grace and I talked and we were both game to become roomies. So Grace facilitated her roommate’s transition to another housing situation, and I moved in.
Of course, all my belongings fit in one box so “moving in” took all of five minutes. I did have money from my rental insurance settlement, however. To show you how naive I was I felt rich because I had $17,000 in the bank and the clothes on my back. As Bugs Bunny would say, “What a Ma-roon.” Grace and I went shopping, “Ok, whatever you don’t have I’ll buy.” I don’t remember everything that we purchased that day but I distinctly remember buying a food processor and a 21” television.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that Grace was going to be the best roommate I ever had. And, shortly after we moved in together, we each vowed that we would be each other’s last roommate so that we ended that phase of life on a high note.
One day I was telling Grace a story about one of my married friends, “The way she talks to her husband. Man, if I were him, I’d tell her to go scratch.” “What did you say?” Grace looked at me, her big brown eye wide with excitement. I repeated myself. “You mean like ‘Go scratch your ass?’” she clarified. “Yeah,” I responded still not quite understanding her reaction. “I’ve never heard anyone say that in English,” she explained. I had heard the saying within my own family my whole life, but I never knew it was an Italian saying.
Looking back, I now realize that moving in with Grace was like finding my own personal Rosetta Stone. Grace, like me, was Italian-American. But her parents were from Italy so her connection to that country was not only stronger and deeper but something she truly understood. More importantly, my grandparents grew up about 30 miles away from Grace’s ancestral home so our families shared many customs and foods that I often didn’t have in common with other Italian-Americans. With Grace I discovered that many of my idiosyncrasies were deeply rooted in a cultural heritage that I only partly understood. And in our shared apartment I felt a sense of “home” that I had never experienced with anyone else, like I had found a missing piece of myself.
Grace and I enjoyed each other immensely. We made each other enormous gourmet meals. She coached me through my first (and last) at home bikini wax, an experience that left us rolling on the bathroom floor laughing at my complete ineptness. We were like sisters, completely at ease, running around the house half-naked and baring our souls with equal abandon.
I had a male friend over for dinner shortly after I moved in with Grace. He asked how the new roommate situation was working out. “It’s great,” I said, “We are so comfortable with each other we don’t even bother to dress half the time.” He called me a few days later, “Now why did you have to go and tell me about you and Grace running around naked?” “Why?” I asked. “Because now I keep having dreams about having a three-way with you guys,” he replied candidly. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or appalled. When I told Grace she responded, “Oh, I’m so flattered.” That’s Grace, she always takes things in the best way possible.
During the time that Grace and I lived together we were each dating the men we would eventually marry. Marco came along first and was delighted to have Bill come along and bring some “fat-full” food into the apartment with him. Two became four quite easily and we always enjoyed our times together, cooking, dancing, late night philosophizing, rollerblading, eating, hanging out, eating some more, …
Grace and I kept our shared vow. A few months after we each became engaged, Grace packed up her belongings and moved in with Marco. Bill, of course, claimed the space she vacated. But even he couldn’t lay claim to the part of my heart that will always belong to Grace.
Our lives took us in vastly different geographic directions. In 1998, Bill and I moved to California and Grace and Marco moved to Marco’s native Venezuela. Grace embraced her new life overseas the way she faces everything with a sense of humor and a sense of adventure. We stayed close via the phone and Internet and she remained very much a part of our lives. When Amelia was born there was never a question about her middle name. She would be Amelia Grace, after my beloved friend.
Our lives moved us here and there, we became mothers, we grew up and faced grown up problems like everyone else. And though we have always been separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, our hearts have remained juxtaposed.
Grace was here three weeks ago for business but stayed with us. She prepared wonderful meals – a marinated flank steak, a typical Venezuelan meal called pabellon of shredded beef, frijoles negros, and white rice; seared pork tenderloin with roasted potatoes and French green beans (from her father’s garden in Syracuse no less) – that I was happy to enjoy a few mouthfuls of. It brought back such happy memories of the nights we gorged ourselves together in graduate school. She helped with household chores, she held me through my coughing fits, she sat with me in my silence, and she laughed with me in the moments that Chester allowed me that indulgence.
I love her. I guess it is really that simple. I cannot imagine what my life would have been without her. I wouldn’t be me. She held an all-important key. It is amazing the difference that one person can make in someone's life and, my guess is, that each of us serves as this person for many people during the course of our existence. I guess that's why "It's a Wonderful Life" remains so popular; it reminds us that we are all important and essential to someone.