My Grandmother Found The Love Of Her Life At Ninety
“I have a boyfriend,” said Grandma over the telephone. It was August of 2016, and I was pretending to be in Arizona although I had in fact moved to Istanbul. For years Grandma had been saying that I should stop travelling to Turkey because it was “a very dangerous place.” Having decided that the truth wasn’t worth her worries over coup attempts, mass arrests and repeated bombings (okay, maybe she was just a little bit right), I’d immediately turned the conversation to Grandma’s news. I wasn’t expecting, of course, that her life had suddenly become more interesting than mine.
“He’s ninety-three,” she declared. “And such a gentleman.”
“I thought you didn’t want one of those?”
(A year after Grandpa died, I’d told her to get a boyfriend. She’d reacted as if I’d suggested the purchase of a straitjacket. “What would I want one of those for? I’ve got a dog!”)
“Things happen,” said Grandma.
“Our caregiver introduced us two months ago.”
“Is he a friend or a boyfriend?”
“A boyfriend, definitely,” she said with a joyous tone I’d only heard her use once before, just after she adopted her dog, a sweet poodle mix named Fifi. “He takes me out to dinner a couple times a week.”
“Do you hold hands?”
“No. It’s not convenient. We both have canes.”
I proudly told my coworkers about Grandma’s relationship. They said, “Isn’t that cute? She has a companion.” Everyone assumed that the relationship would continue thus: romantically platonic. But I hoped for more.
Grandma was born in Brooklyn in 1926, married in 1945, and widowed in 2010. She no longer drives and complains that email and Skype are too difficult but still lives alone in New York and Florida townhouses. As a child, I spent a lot of time with her, partly because I liked it, partly because my parents wanted to offload me and partly because I was to serve as the female child that Grandma had longed to have instead of four sons. (When my father called to announce my birth, she exclaimed, “I’ve finally got my girl!”) While I was in primary school, Grandma and I sewed doll clothes on her Singer, gathered string beans and tomatoes from her garden, watched romantic movies while eating buttered popcorn, and played with makeup and nail polish. I also watched her paint still life watercolors, a hobby that substituted for the romance she wished she had had instead of her strained marriage. Even at the age of ten, as I listened to my grandparents’ arguments from the back seat of Grandpa’s caddie, I wondered why they didn’t just get a divorce already. And so, after Grandma was widowed, I could almost understand how Fifi the dog could seem superior to a husband.
But after Fifi’s newness faded, Grandma became increasingly cranky. When I visited her in Florida for a weekend in 2015, hoping for some meaningful conversations about her life, she was only interested in the weekend’s to-do list. On Sunday afternoon, she threw a fit because I’d clogged her garbage disposal with kale stems. “Don’t you have a disposal at home?” she shouted. “Don’t you know that you can never ever put greens in it?”
“Actually, I put kale stems in my disposal all the time—”
“Go to your room!” she bellowed.
“I’m thirty-nine,” I said.
“Don’t sass-mouth me!”
I grabbed the dog leash and called Fifi instead of fulfilling my sentence. While walking, I remembered my uncle saying that Grandma had struggled with depression for most of her life. At one point, probably in her thirties, she’d become so despondent that she’d walked out of her New York house barefoot, wearing only a nightgown in the middle of winter. This knowledge helped me maintain a contracted patience during Grandma’s continued muttering about the horrors of the clogged disposal (even after it was fixed). On Monday morning, a few minutes before I left for the airport, Grandma apologized for her outburst. I kissed her forehead and said, “It’s ok.” But I didn’t promise any future visits.
Trying to put this incident aside, I sent Grandma a copy of my favorite novel, Love in the Time of Cholera (geriatric romance, hint, hint). When I asked what she thought of it, she said, “Not really my thing. I prefer Danielle Steel.” So we couldn’t spend a weekend in the same house; our literary tastes didn’t agree; and she obstinately refused even the possibility of a boyfriend. But if Grandma was into Danielle, it meant that she hadn’t given up on love. And that was why I was so thrilled with her August 2016 boyfriend announcement.
In September, I called for updates. Boyfriend had started using his cane on the left so that they could hold hands while walking into restaurants. The week prior, he had driven Grandma home from dinner, seen her to the door, and given her a photo of himself. At their next meeting, she gave him her photo. In 1940s etiquette, this exchange meant exclusivity. In October, Grandma said her beau had started coming into the house for a cup of decaf after their dinner dates. “And he’s quite a kisser, I’ll tell you, but the other day he tried something I wasn’t ready for.”
“Details,” I said.
“I’m not telling,” she replied.
“What are you afraid of, Grandma? Getting pregnant?”
“I’m not ready. We haven’t been going that long.”
I found Grandma’s antiquated slang adorable. She and Boyfriend weren’t dating. They were going.
“Grandma, he might think you aren’t interested.”
“But I don’t know if I want that.”
“Who doesn’t want that? Count yourself lucky you’ve found a man who still can.”
“He can wait.”
“At ninety-three? Listen, Grandma, maybe I could teach you a few things—”
“Maybe I could teach you a few things!”
When I called in November, Grandma told me she’d bought Boyfriend a new suit because she wanted to take him to the family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Even though everyone else would be casual, Grandma insisted on being accompanied by a well-appointed man. I remembered her arguments with Grandpa about his old “dungarees” and terrible barber. Thankfully, Boyfriend was more compliant.
For Christmas, Boyfriend gave Grandma a silver and diamond necklace. Smart man: the way to Grandma’s QVC-addicted heart has always been jewelry. For his present, Grandma took him shoe shopping (she hated his “god-awful” loafers) and also invited him to sleep over at her place. “We’re so in love!” she told me on our Christmas Eve call.
“Did you buy lingerie?” I asked.
“At my age? Are you kidding me? He’ll be happy with what he’s got.”
“Does he take Viagra?”
“No. Says he doesn’t need it.”
I called her the day after Christmas. “Well? Did you?”
“No. He had diarrhea. The big night is postponed to my birthday.”
While I was at lunch on December 29th in Istanbul, Grandma’s ninetieth birthday party was just finishing up in New York. I received photos of a beaming couple on my iPhone: Grandma, dressed in an elegant pink outfit that she herself made decades ago, was sitting in an armchair; well-suited Boyfriend was leaning on the chair back. The best way to take a photo without canes, obviously. I showed the pics to my motley group of Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and Arab coworkers. They marveled at this ageless love affair, especially since Grandma is in better shape at ninety than most Middle Eastern women at seventy-five.
A few days later, I made another phone call, this time to Florida. “Did you finally do it?”
“Sort of. It was late after the party, and we’d had too much wine. But it was good, whatever it was. He drove me to the airport the next morning. It was so hard to say goodbye! We’re talking three or four times a day on FaceTime.”
“You learned how to use FaceTime?”
“Yep. On my iPad. By the way, I bought some cute nighties and a black lace bra and underpants.”
“Don’t push it.”
I heard kids screaming. “Where are you?” I said.
“Walgreen’s. His ninety-fourth is next week. I’m picking out a card.”
“Get two, Grandma. One sexy and one romantic.”
“Ok. You know, I should have done this boyfriend thing a long time ago.”
“Don’t you remember I suggested it after Grandpa died? You said no way.”
“Well, you were right. It’s a good life.”
I called again on Valentine’s Day, knowing that Boyfriend had just arrived for a two-week visit. “I bet you’re having a better Valentine’s Day than I am,” I said to Grandma.
She sassily replied, “I bet I am, too.”
A man asked, “Who is it?”
“My oldest granddaughter. The one who tells me to buy sexy underwear.”
Boyfriend took the phone. “Hey, Nektaria,” he said. “I’ve got to thank you for the lingerie help.”
“No problem. I’ll keep working on it until she gets a thong.”
“Looking forward to it.”
“And I have to thank you for making Grandma so happy,” I said. “She’s a different person.”
He laughed. “Well, not too many people our age get to have a romance. Anyway, let’s meet soon. I’ll tell you stories about your grandmother that you’ve never heard.”
This was an offer I couldn’t refuse. “I promise to visit as soon as I can,” I said.
By Nektaria Petrou