As told by her Grandson, Romeo Lombardi
Grandma Rose was only ill a few days before she passed away. It was like a knife in my heart when I was told she was gone, a pain I could not show or share with those near to me. She was more to me than my own mother who would have been saddened if she knew I cared more for Nama Rose than I did for her. But it was true.
They say your life flashes before your eyes at the moment of death. Well, it happens when you lose someone as dear to you as my Nama Rose was to me. The reality that she was gone hit me again as I approached her casket and the vision of her beautiful face came into view. The twenty-one years of my life with her flashed before me in an instant. I wanted to reach out and touch her but my hand trembled so I withheld it. I was alone and would never see her again, be able to talk to her, be near her. I wanted her to hold me once more, to feel her hands pull me to the comfort of her breast, to hear her soft words that worked magic on me.
I was painfully shy as a youth and stayed to myself most of the time. I’m still shy but thanks to Grandma Rose I’m able to deal with it – sort of. Meeting new people is still a challenge which I know I must overcome if I’m ever to find a potential life partner. Loneliness is my motivation to conquer this problem. Easier said than done, unfortunately.
Nama was always there to make sure I wasn’t lonely. She would play games with me and let me win. I was shy, not stupid – I knew what she was doing and loved her all the more for it.
She was also instrumental in obtaining a puppy for me. I heard her arguing with Mother in the kitchen and thought she had lost the argument until a few days later when an eight-week-old puppy trotted into my room and began to cry. I could not believe my eyes. I picked him up and named him Max. He stopped crying and has never cried since.
I was nine-years-old at the time, but Max could not have arrived at a more opportune moment. I so needed a companion and Max was perfect. He slept with me from the day he arrived, much to the chagrin of Mother who laid out impossible rules which I faithfully kept. Eventually, she softened to the idea of an animal living within her walls. Thankfully, and with the help of Nama, he was housebroken in no time and continued to be well behaved. Except for school, he was with me everywhere I went.
I had just turned twenty-one when Max’s tired old body gave out and he was gone. It was horrible; no one warned me what it would be like. Six months later Nama passed and I was alone – truly and desperately alone. Mom and Dad didn’t understand my sadness and told me to snap out of it. Any remnants of feelings I had for them died with their coldness to my needs.
The funeral for Nama was traditional and very boring. I didn’t realize how many friends she had until that day. It was comforting to know she was so widely loved. I was standing with my parents at her graveside, while Reverend Stephan executed his tedious and never-ending eulogy when I noticed someone standing at a distance from us.
It was an elderly woman who looked vaguely familiar. I assumed it was one of Nama’s friends, and continued looking at her while I waited for the good Reverend to shut-up. She saw me watching her and threw me a kiss which I thought odd; I looked away.
As everyone departed, they threw a single rose into the open grave and went their way. Mom and Dad, and I were the last to leave. I let them go first. As they departed, I gathered up a hand full of roses from a funeral wreath and scattered them across the top of her casket. Mom saw what I had done and stared at me in disbelief. I smiled, ignored her, and walked to the limo.
As we got into the limo I saw the woman again off in the distance. I paused. This time she waved to me. I automatically returned the greeting and got into the limo.
“Who were you waving at?” Mother whispered.
“What do you mean no one? Who were you waving to?”
“That woman over there.” I pointed.
Mother looked out of the limo window and then looked at me. “There’s no one there.”
I looked again, she was still there … “Over there, by those trees.”
Mother looked again then looked at me in the most peculiar way.
“It was probably one of Nama’s friends.” The limo pulled away.
Mother said nothing and sat back.
As we rounded one of the bends in the driveway, just before the cemetery exit, I saw her again. I leaned forward and raised my hand at the window when she waved.
“That’s not very funny, Romeo.”
She just glared at me and looked away.
It was at that moment I began to suspect that Mother was not able to see this woman, whoever she was. I blinked my eyes and shook my head slightly. Perhaps I was seeing things that weren’t there – out of grief for my loss.
We were several blocks away when the limo slowed because of heavy traffic. I glanced out of the window and sat up with a start. There she was again at curbside, only this time I could see who it was. I silently gasped, ‘Nama’ and followed the image as we drove on. She was laughing and waving her arms with so much joy.
“What’s with him?” I heard my father whisper to Mother.
She whispered, “Nothing.”
I sat back and began to chuckle to myself – it was Nama and they couldn’t see her. The ghost of my beloved Nama was still here among us. Joy ripped through my being at the possibility of seeing and talking with her again.
The driver pulled up in front of my apartment house and I got out. “See you guys later,” and closed the door. The limo pulled away as I stood on the curb looking in all directions hoping I’d see her again. I didn’t, and decided I may have been seeing things after all – or had I?
Life returned to normal and I became aware, once again, of my loneliness, only now it seemed more acute. I often wondered if Nama knew I was gay. My guess is she did and saw no reason to mention it. She just loved me like no one else in my life. I could certainly use her advice and guidance regarding my love life. My shyness persisted and seemed to ensure I would live and die alone. Not a very happy conclusion but what else was I to think.
Thanksgiving came and went. We did not celebrate this year because of the funeral, but Christmas loomed ahead. I toyed with the idea of taking a trip to San Francisco for the holiday just to avoid my parents and the absence of Nama. With Max gone, I had no ties I cared about. Clark and Terry, two of my close friends, went to the City by the Bay every year around Christmas. I had refused the few times they asked me to join them. Needless to say, they were delighted when I suggested I go with them this year. Arrangements were made.
Mother was not pleased when I told her I wouldn’t be visiting them at Christmas. The tone of her voice only reinforced my decision to go. Because of a loveless marriage, I had become a surrogate husband for her, thus her reaction that I had somehow betrayed her by not fulfilling her expectations.
Departure was set for December 18 on Virgin American Flight 201 at 8 a.m. – arriving San Francisco at 10:35 a.m. – early enough to enjoy the day. Our return trip would be January 3. Seventeen delightful days in the City by the Bay. We arrived at the airport early to ensure there would be no delay in getting through the TSA man-handlers which, gratefully, went smoothly. We had time to spare before departure so we decided we better eat something in case the food on the airline was too terrible.
We had finished eating and were chatting about what we would do the first day in San Francisco when I saw her across the concourse. My heart leapt at the sight. It wasn’t my imagination, she was real and evidently going to San Francisco with us. I set my cup down and blew her a kiss. She laughed and returned it to me.
Clark looked at me, “Who are you throwing kisses at?”
I laughed, “Just an old friend I happened to see.”
“Which one?” Terry was all eyes.
She was still there but I knew they couldn’t see her. “She’s gone now.”
I wondered what she was up to. The boarding call came; we left the restaurant.
The plane arrived at 10:35 a.m. as scheduled; we checked in at the Fairmont Hotel a little before Noon. Since our rooms would not be available until 2:30, we decided to go to the Embarcadero and have either a late lunch or early dinner at the Boudin Bistro. I had been thinking about their sourdough bread ever since I decided to join Clark and Terry on this venture. I had ordered their bread from Chicago, but there was nothing like having it served fresh on site. We left the Fairmont and caught the Powell Street Cable Car which runs behind the Fairmont on its way to the Bay.
The weather was perfect and the cable car conductor was an experienced bell ringer which added to our enjoyment of the ride. Arriving at Aquatic Park, we helped the conductor, along with waiting riders, turn the Cable Car around for its return journey. The brisk breeze from the Bay energized us as we made our way to Boudins.
We were in the middle of our meal when I caught someone waving out of the corner of my eye. I almost choked on my food when I looked around and saw Nama sitting at another table across from a very handsome man in uniform. He was oblivious to her presence and continued eating. She just sat there with her chin in her hand, smiling at me.
I kind of chuckled to myself wondering if she was staking out a lover for me. He was certainly handsome and probably around my age.
“Romeo, what are you looking at?” Terry was all smiles.
“That man over there.”
“You mean the stud muffin in the uniform?”
“Yup. Do you think he’s gay?”
“Why don’t you go over and ask him.”
I laughed out loud, “Yeah, sure. Like that’s never gonna happen.”
“Do you want me to ask?”
“Terry, don’t you dare.” Clark was serious.
“Well, how else is he ever going to get married? He won’t do it himself.”
“He’s just eye candy, guys. But he does look lonely. Oh, well.” Nama continued to sit there smiling at me.
What if… kept running through my mind until he looked up and caught me looking at him. I turned away so fast I almost got whiplash. What a stupid thing to do. I should have smiled and then looked away casually. I didn’t dare look back again.
When we left the bistro he was gone and so was Nama. I felt a slight twinge of melancholy. All the what-ifs in my life that I never did anything about.
We wandered about the Embarcadero for an hour before heading back to the hotel, stopping at the Alcatraz kiosk and deciding we’d take the tour the following day. It was twilight when the cable car pulled into the Aquatic Park turnaround. We helped the conductor turn the car around, jumped on board and enjoyed the trip back to the hotel as evening shadows increased and the lights of the city came on. It was magic as far as I was concerned. I thought of Nama on the way back and the beautiful man she had been sitting with. Was she trying to tell me something? I wondered if I would ever know.
We arrived at the Embarcadero early the next morning and had breakfast before the 9:10 departure of the tour. We were leaning on the rail as the boat moved into the Bay. The smell of sea air and the cool breeze was so refreshing I couldn’t get enough of it. I had visited San Francisco several times and now wondered why I didn’t just move here and start a new life.
I sensed someone come to the rail a few feet away from me. I casually glanced to my left and almost jumped – it was him, the man from the Bistro last night. He turned and looked at me. This time I didn’t turn away, I just smiled.
“Hi,” he smiled. His braces glittered in the morning sun.
I laughed, “You’ve got braces,” and turned my body toward him.
He laughed, “Yeah. I figured I better do it before I got too old.”
“You were in uniform yesterday?”
“I’m a police officer.”
“Oh … day off?”
“Yeah, never been to Alcatraz before. You?”
“Tourist for a few weeks. I’ve been to the Island before. It’s very interesting. You’ll enjoy it.”
He moved closer, “Name’s Reed Mason.”
“Ah, that’s English isn’t it?”
“Yes, my parents are from the UK.”
“I think it has something to do with red hair, which you have.” I couldn’t believe I was so talkative with a total stranger.
“You got that right. And what’s your name? You look Italian.”
“I am … the name is Romeo Lombardi.”
He stood up straight and looked as if the blood drained from his ruddy complexion. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine. It’s your name that threw me.”
“Why? It’s not that unusual.”
“No, it’s not that.” He paused, “You probably won’t believe this but that name has been whispered in my ear ever since I saw you at the Bistro.”
“Oh, my God.”
“What is it?”
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, it’s just that …”
“What?” he moved closer.
He looked at me, waiting for more.
I moved closer and told him about her passing and how I had been seeing her ever since. When I told him I saw her sitting across from him at the Bistro I thought he was going to pass out.
“Reed, what is it?”
He looked at me with a deadpan expression, “That’s when I began hearing that name whispered in my ear. I thought I was going nuts.”
Terry and Clark saw what was happening and left us to ourselves. What happened during the tour caught me completely off guard. When we got to D block, where they kept inmates in solitary confinement, the tour guide asked if anyone wished to experience the darkness of these cells. I piped up and said I would. Reed said he would also. The guide ushered us into one of the cells and slammed the door. There was just a second or two of silence in the blackness that enveloped us, then Reed grabbed me. Our mouths found each other in the inky darkness as our tongues intertwined crazily. I was amazed at how I reciprocated without even thinking about it. His fierceness and passion overwhelmed me; I almost passed out.
When he released me, “I’m sorry I did that. It’s not like me to be so forward.”
“Sorry for what? I wanted it as much as you did.”
Reed reached out and pulled me gently back into his embrace and this time we took our time. We pulled apart and began to laugh as we heard the tour guide begin to open the cell door.
Clark and Terry moved over to us. “What the hell were the two of you doing in there?”
“Nothing.” I smiled.
“You are such a liar. It’s written all over your faces.
Clark leaned in, “Were you sucking face?”
I just smiled and looked at Reed, who grinned.
Clark looked at Terry, “They were.”
Terry agreed, “If they had been in there any longer, who knows what they would have done.”
We all laughed and moved along, following the tour guide.
On the way back to San Francisco, Clark and Terry left us alone. It was then that my life began to turn upside down.
“Romeo, I know I’m jumping the gun but if it weren’t for learning about your grandmother and hearing your name whispered, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
“It’s okay, Reed. I’m so shy I can’t believe I’m doing this either.”
“Stay with me tonight, please.”
I pinched my eyes, ‘Nama. Tell me what to do.’ And for the very first time, I heard her whisper in my ear, “Go with him.” I looked at Reed, “Okay, she said it’s all right to go.”
Reed stared at me wide-eyed. “Did she really say that?
“I swear to God.”
“Look, I have to work tomorrow so you’ll be free to be with your friends.”
When the boat docked, I took Clark and Terry aside and told them what I was going to do and that I’d meet them at the hotel in the morning and we could spend the day together. I thought Terry was going to jump right out of his skin, he was so excited and pleased for me. We bid them goodbye and went our separate ways.
I had read about passion but had no idea what it was like until I was alone with Reed. There are no words to explain it. At midnight I told him we needed to stop and get some sleep. He had to go to work and I wanted to be with Clark and Terry later on. He reluctantly agreed but we only got about four hours of sleep.
The next twelve days were intense and a whirlwind of emotions I never imagined. I didn’t see Nama again and Reed didn’t hear any whispering but I knew she was there giving her blessing.
With the third of January just a day away, Reed took me aside, “Romeo, this is selfish of me to ask, but I want you to stay. I’m looking for a partner and I’m hoping you are also. I’m not asking you to marry me right now, but I want to be with you to find out if this is a match or not. I’ll be disappointed if you say ‘no’ but I will understand.”
I looked at him very seriously and said, “No.” Then I smiled and continued, “How about if I come back in 30 days after I’ve tied up loose ends in Chicago? Will you still be available?”
“You bet your ass I’ll be available.”
I quickly learned the meaning of ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’ when the boarding call came for my return to Chicago. Clark and Terry went ahead while Reed and I lingered until the last moment.
On the fifth of February, I said goodbye to Terry and Clark and flew back to San Francisco. Mother said she would never talk to me again when I told her my plans and then hung up on me. Eventually, she did come around and we’re good friends now.
Reed was all smiles when I arrived. While we waited for the carousel to deliver my luggage, I spotted Nama in the waiting area. I grabbed Reed’s arm, “She’s over there.” I pointed.
“Nama. She’s the one in the red coat.” I held my breath that he would see her.
“Oh, my God. Yes, I see her.”
She blew us a kiss, waved, and disappeared. I never saw her after that but knew she would step back through the veil if ever I needed her.
Six months later Reed proposed, and, of course, I accepted. Clark and Terry flew out for the ceremony. A week later, Reed and I picked out a puppy from the humane society and named him Max.
The years have flown by, but each night before I drift off, I send a thank you to Nama and bless her for what she did for me and Reed … and Max too.