So today, my Italian side of the family, my mom’s side, the “Vecchios” – (I know – we sound like something straight out of “The Sopranos” ) – is getting together at my cousin Nicky’s house for a ginormous family reunion. It’s the kind of family reunion we used to have every single summer, back when there were still very young kids and babies in our big and growing family, and when I was much too young to have experienced any of the really big stabbing pains of life. Back then, when I was still just a kid; all I was concerned about was what was Auntie Josie making for the cookout, would there be volleyball playing in the yard, and how long could I hang out with my cool older cousin Nicky, who sort of looked like Jon Bon Jovi and played the guitar. Today, I am almost 50. Auntie Josie wont be making any dish for the gathering because she is dead, most of us are too old for volleyball and will probably opt instead for some laughter and chatter, and the gathering is being held at my cousin Nicky’s house – Auntie Josie’s son. Through a series of odd and exciting events within the family, we recently became aware that we have another family member. She lives in NY, and she got in touch with Nicky and my mom and my Aunt, wanting to connect with all of us and get to know us. So we set up this reunion to meet her, and to reconnect with each other.
We have not had a big family gathering like this in years. In decades, really. Some of us have seen each other off and on through the years at weddings and funerals, and some of us havent. My husband’s funeral was one of those funerals. Nicky and his wife Julie, who I adore, traveled all the way from Massachusetts to New Jersey to be at Don’s funeral and pay their respects. About a year prior, they traveled to NYC and the four of us hung out a lot. I remember sitting on the stonewall right by Radio City Music Hall eating our Magnolia Bakery cupcakes and joking around about how Nicky looked hilarious standing up eating a cupcake (because Nicky kind of looks like a big, bad mob boss type ) There were a lot of jokes about: “take the gun – leave the cupcake!”, said in really terrible Marlon Brando imitations. We laughed and laughed that day.
Don and Nicky really got to know each other. They both shared a passion and talent for music, and both played guitar. Whenever they saw each other, they would be talking about chords and riffs and techniques and other musical things, and Don was always like a kid in a candy store around Nicky – the same way I always was around Nicky when I was a kid. I ended up buying Don a guitar that Christmas from the store where Nicky taught lessons, and then Don drove hours one day just to have a guitar lesson with Nicky. He often wished we lived in the same state as them so he could keep taking guitar lessons. (online lessons werent really a thing yet back then.) When I bought him that electric guitar, I remember him just hugging me over and over again and saying: “I have the bestest wife in the world.” He was always happiest when he was playing music.
Life is extremely different now, and yet, some things are oddly similar or feel familiar. Nicky and Julie have recently gotten to know my husband Nick a bit more, and they all get along great. Nicky and Nick are both Italian, and both share a passion for food, and a talent and love for cooking. One of the ways I honored Don after his death was to gift several guitars to Nicky, so he could put them to use at his music school, BAND GIG, which is a hell of a lot like “School of Rock.” Don thought this was pretty much the coolest thing ever, so I know he would be thrilled to know that kids are jamming some Aerosmith or Zeppelin with their parents or siblings or friends, on his guitars. When my book was finished, we held one of my largest Book Signing Events at Julie’s art / frame studio (she is super talented in her own right), where Nicky provided live music, singing and playing his guitar at the event. Don was beaming that day.
This is one of those posts where Im not really sure what my point is, other than today will be an awesome day, and sometimes an emotional one. Not everyone puts such deep thoughts into a simple family reunion, Im guessing. But for me, I see most things in life through my widowed lense. Honestly, its almost impossible not to. I am forever changed because Don Shepherd lived, loved me, and died. For me, I won’t look back years later with regret or melancholy, wishing that I had seen or felt the importance and the meaning of this beautiful family reunion. I see it right now. I feel it right now. All the big and tiny moments of life that matter – I am able to sit inside them, recognize them as they are happening for their beauty and their sadness and their loveliness, and I am able to breathe them in with the wonder of that small child from years ago who looked up to her older cousin, and didn’t know anything yet about loss.
And knowing all of this is the greatest of all the unexpected and sometimes unwelcome gifts I have received from widowhood. I know the importance and the fragility and the lightning fast quickness of life, and I am able to actually live the vital moments in real time; savoring every single second, and knowing all too well that I cannot slow it down.