It was December of 1991. I was a freshman in college and life was carefree. Christmas break was just around the corner and I was excited about the upcoming time off from school. My best friend was getting married over the break and I was looking forward to some time back home.
Grandpa Ruggiero and I had always been close and about a week before our break, he called to check up on me. The conversation was a typical one of me telling him of the things going on in my life and Grandpa sharing with me the things he was doing. Grandpa hadn’t been the same since Grandma had passed away a few years before, but he was trying to move on. I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation, but I do remember the happiness I felt when I hung up. I had always been grandpa’s little girl and he always knew how to make me smile.
About a week later, exams were over and I was headed to my first destination of Christmas break. I was to be in my best friend’s wedding a few days before Christmas. My fiancé and I traveled from Ohio to Indiana for the event. Snow was falling down as we drove, but we enjoyed the ride. We arrived to my best friend’s apartment and met up with other friends we hadn’t seen since my fiancé and I had left for school earlier in the fall. The next day was the wedding and things were hectic, but it all went smoothly. The next morning we had to head back to our hometown to spend the holidays with our families.
About a day after we arrived home, a hospital in Florida called. They wanted my mom to know that her dad was ill. Grandpa Ruggiero didn’t want us to know, so we weren’t allowed to call the hospital to check up on him. We could only sit and wait. I tried to go on like normal and I don’t think I fully understood the scope of the situation.
Then on December 23, 1991, I was out with my fiancé enjoying the day as we headed off to the mall to hang out together. We decided to stop by my other grandfather’s house on the way home to say a quick hello. As soon as we arrived, grandpa asked me where I had been because my dad was trying to find me. I explained that we had been at the mall and were headed home but wanted to stop by for a minute. Grandpa had a serious look on his face as he proceeded to tell me that my Grandpa Ruggiero had passed away earlier in the day. Nothing could have prepared me for that. We quickly said goodbye and headed home.
Once I got in the door we immediately began to pack. My family was to leave first thing in the morning for Florida. We didn’t have the money to fly, so we prepared for the long car trip. We traveled all day on Christmas Eve that year. It hit home hard as 20 years earlier on Christmas Eve my father had lost his mother suddenly.
We drove straight through the night and arrived on Christmas Day. A neighbor was waiting for us and let us into grandpa’s house. I will never forget that day. As we entered grandpa’s home, all of the paperwork that we needed was ready for us on the kitchen table. He made sure that we had all of his life insurance, banking information, and anything else that we would need to take care of his finances and burial. As I went into the living room, I noticed an end table with pictures of my grandmother and pictures of me. They took up a good portion of the table. What struck me was grandpa’s last gift to me. Before he left for the hospital, he took a plastic rose and pushed the pictures aside. He set that rose there in front of my pictures as his last gift to me.
It was a lot to take in that day and I know grandpa’s neighbors could hear the sorrowful wails that came from my mother and I. Having to say goodbye to someone on a day like Christmas is nothing that anyone expects to do. It was clear that grandpa did not intend to be back when he left for the hospital.
I still have that rose to this day tucked in the back of my closet. It is a bittersweet gift that he gave to me on Christmas. He didn’t give me a trust fund or leave behind an expensive gift for me to find. Rather he found something simple but beautiful. Grandpa didn’t expect or want great things. He lived simple and always kept what he did have nice. He appreciated everything and always told me I could do anything as long as I put my mind to it.
That rose is a simple reminder of my grandfather’s love for me and helps me remember that it’s not the big things in life. Rather, it’s the little things. It’s the phone call to see how you are, it’s sharing stories with each other, it’s a simple gesture to remind each other the significance each of us plays in the lives of the ones we love. It’s not how much we got in the material sense.
Now that I am a mother, Christmas has become a simple event. We focus on the reason for Christmas and gifts are not extravagant. We stay home and enjoy each other’s company. My children may have never met their great-grandfather, but they certainly will be learning many things from him. Grandpa’s legacy will certainly live on.