If you’re a regular OG reader, you may recall that my grandmother was a very influential person in my life. Sadly, she passed away one year ago today. At the time, I made no mention of it. However, on the one-year anniversary of her death, I’d like to celebrate her life by sharing an adapted version of the eulogy I gave in her honor. You don’t need to know my Vavo to enjoy who she was or what she represented. Namely: love.
Rita made you laugh . . . She made you feel special. She made you feel important. She made you soup. She baked you bread. She made a room brighter, a meal taste better, and guests always feel welcome. When my brother, Reece, and I were little, we looked forward to “pajama parties” with our Vavo. In hindsight, these were simply nights when Vavo would visit and sleep at our house. We didn’t play exciting games, make popcorn, or watch movies. Vavo was the party, and today, we gather to celebrate her.
My grandmother’s life spanned 77 years and two countries. She had 13 siblings, a beloved husband, 4 children, 33 nieces and nephews (and that’s a conservative tally because those nieces and nephews had children . . . and their children had children . . . you get the idea), 6 godchildren, 8 grandchildren, and 1 great-grandchild. This is a large family by any standard, and yet, Vavo had plenty more love to spare—for friends, neighbors, the church she attended, the kitchens in which she occasionally worked, and most recently, the nursing home where she lived. Wherever Vavo went, the family expanded.
She made you laugh . . . made you feel special . . . made you feel important. Life looked like fun if you were Rita. It looked busy and boisterous and uncomplicated and kind. My cousins Heather and Michelle remember once, as kids, when the allure was too much. They wanted to be like their Vavo. And, on one particular night, Vavo caught the two little girls making “sweet bread” on their grandmother’s bed using baby powder (which—you have to hand it to them—is a creative stand-in for flour).
To make a meal or gift for someone, with your own hands, whether small and common or intricate and inspired, is an honor and a joy. Many of us learned this from Rita. When I was seven, she made me a white dress for my First Communion and at 17, one for high school graduation. Even when her mind wandered relentlessly and her speech became clumsy, as in her final days, her hands were often still going through the motions of sewing, folding a hem with precision, knitting a scarf, crocheting a tablecloth, or mending a button. This is how she wanted to pass her time, and I believe it’s where her tired mind felt most at ease. Mother Theresa once said, “There are no great things—only small things done with great love.” Nowhere was this more evident than in my Vavo’s actions and approach to life.
Rita spoke often of a concept she called her “best life,” which she would tell you was comprised of many “million dollar days.” These had nothing to do with money, of course. It was her way of communicating life’s emotional currency—days that were easily worth a million dollars for the joy, laughter, and simple pleasures they contained. These days included many of you (and many other family and friends living overseas or unable to attend today). Most likely, they entailed feeding you . . . whether you were hungry or not . . . They also contained other things that Rita enjoyed, such as: rising early, a first shot of espresso; music, preferably played in the kitchen, to which she could sing along, to the tune of a simmering panella on the stove. On a million dollar day, she might go to church or the fabric store. Delight in a brimming fruit bowl on the dining table because she liked to look at pineapples and think of her family’s farms in the Azores. Maybe she’d indulge in a pair of well-made Portuguese or, possibly Italian, leather shoes or a simple peanut butter sandwich. She’d wear a fine scarf and, perhaps, a rain hat. She liked rain hats. She also liked a second shot of espresso and 2-3 more throughout the day. To you, this might sound like a lot—but they are so small, she would tell you! She’d shower her family with kisses and embraces and relish unannounced company. For some people, the thought of entertaining houseguests without advanced notice is utterly anxiety producing. Not Rita. Her children recall always being able to bring anyone home, anytime. Whether it was one friend or seven, there was always enough food and good cheer to go around.
I hope you’ll permit my saying this, but while it might have been Jesus Christ who invented the trick of turning a single fish into enough to feed a village . . . My Vavo could do that too.
Yet, she didn’t feed our bellies as much as she filled out hearts, which leaves us to wonder: What will we do now?
We’ll honor her spirit in all the ways that she taught us. We’ll make each other laugh. Make each other feel special. Make each other feel important. We’ll think of Rita when we bake bread or make soup or delight in doting on our children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews. We’ll talk to her in our prayers and sing to her in the kitchen. We’ll marvel at the beauty of hydrangeas, a signature flower of the Azores, the sweetness of pineapple, and the crisp feel of an expertly tailored piece of clothing, remembering her appreciation for these small pleasures. We’ll maintain a sense of playfulness regardless of our age and accept people for who they are, regardless of anything but the content of their hearts. We’ll do small things, with great love, as often as we can, and we’ll live our best lives.
My Vavo was my best friend, a trusted ear, an open heart, and the cornerstone of my faith. She often reminded me, “Habecca, God don’t sleep” and helped me to understand how this could be true. And while Rita’s body is at rest, I know that her spirit isn’t sleeping. (Maybe because it’s hopped up on espresso). It’s with us here today and always.