Hearts and Flowers
He was nearly eighty-five.
She was a mere youngster of eighty.
Together, they’d raised a family of eleven children to adulthood.
There had been others; those who died at birth or in infancy but were never forgotten.
In stereotypical Italian fashion, they lived in a large homestead on a big corner property in Atlantic
County, New Jersey. As the children grew, they helped the family by working in the gigantic
truck garden that supplied some of the food for their generous table.
Many of the children went to college … the boys in particular … while all attained a level of
accomplishment that would make any parent proud.
The unmarried children lived at home, helping with the chores as their parents aged. Finally, they
held the responsibility for the entire household … its financing, upkeep and the family activities
that never seemed to cease.

Because my mother’s sister married into this clan of Cairones, we were often guests at the
Sunday feasts. It’s a memory that often comes back when one of my kids asks if she can bring
someone to dinner and I’m tempted to refuse.
No one was ever refused a place at Cairone’s.

The dining room dominated the entire household.
And the table literally filled the room.
Only the very slender attempted to move about once everyone was seated … there was no room
to maneuver around the table, except for the chairs at the doorways to adjoining rooms.
Out of one of those rooms came some of the best Italian food ever produced … the Cairone
kitchen sent forth mountains of spaghetti, roast beef, salads, vegetables and always a dessert or
two.

Grandmother Cairone, petite and dainty, always presided over the dinner and made sure everyone
ate plenty.
Grandfather Cairone was a quiet man.
As a kid, I often wondered what he was like when he was young, since his silence didn’t betray
many personality traits. Even allowing for my age, I knew enough to figure he must have said
something within this brood … must have done something that encouraged them all … to have
ended up with such fine offspring.

As a romantic teenager, I wondered what kind of marriage these two people had.
Of course I knew they’d done their bit and more for posterity by helping to populate the planet,
but I wondered how much was just family-arranged pairing and how much was real feeling.
Did they really love each other like the stars in the brand new television shows they called soap
operas?
Was there any passion in their lives as they struggled and worked to support so many children?
Did they genuinely care for each other or was their married life staying power simply done
because  it was the “right” thing to do?
In many years of Sunday dinners, I never saw or heard anything that might betray any emotion.

One Sunday, just before I left home to go off to college, we were again at the Cairones’ dinner
table.
Grandmother, having serious health problems, reigned over the family from a chair nearby.
My mother, who operated a small beauty shop in our home, had brought her cutting shears with
her to do Grandmother’s hair. Illness had made it hard to handle, since its generous length had
never been shorn, but tucked securely into a large knot at the nape of her neck.

With her eyes closed against the shock of the loss of her hair, Grandmother allowed Mom to
cut it away.
A few minutes later, sporting a stylish, shorter “do,” she opened her eyes and checked the
reactions of those around her for a hint as to the result.

None of us really mattered, though, as she finally settled on her husband and said in that tiny voice
of hers, “Well? How do I look?”

His reaction has stayed with me all these years.
It’s been my definition of a perfect Valentine.

He rose from his chair, walked unsteadily to hers and knelt painfully in front of this woman he’d
lived with for well over sixty-five years.
Taking her perfect little oval face in both his work-worn hands, he whispered, just loudly enough
for her and those of us nearest to her to hear, “Antoinette, you’re always beautiful to me.”

That love was no accident, no sham.
It was what many seek throughout their lifetimes, but never achieve.
It was lovely to behold, those two aged souls having eyes for only each other in a room of
noisy onlookers.

Grandmother died shortly after that.
Grandfather lived a few years longer, but in near silence and increasing frailty.
Life without the one was nothing for the other.
They gave meaning to the words “I love you.”
Even though we never heard them uttered.
                   



             
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