Regina’s family and my family go back several decades. Her mother, in fact, was best friends with my grandmother. In the mid-1970s, when hordes of New Yorkers moved to Minnesota – my mom’s family and my dad’s family included – Regina’s brother and other relatives were among them. But Regina stayed in New York through the 70s, and I only knew of her and her mother through stories my grandmother told. My grandmother even insisted she was “Italian by association,” attributing her gregarious nature and love of pasta, I presume, on the influence of Regina and her mom.
But in the early 1980s, recently divorced, Regina and her two sons finally joined the rest of her family in Minnesota. I recall my family being very excited to have her in town, and it was at a dinner party back then when I first my her sons. My Dad was so happy to have his childhood friend living so close, he introduced her to me with his arm around her and giddily noted that she was – to the day – exactly one year older than he was. That evening, her younger son Joel tied a necktie on me so tight I couldn’t breathe, so I ran to her older son Henry (who, like the rest of us kids, was banished to play in the basement, but was too old to play and so just sat on the couch and watched TV). Thankfully, Henry loosened the tie in time and I’m still taking in oxygen as of today.
At the other end of the decade, Regina invited my grandparents over for dinner. It was just another in a series of get-togethers they’d enjoyed over the decade, but this time, Regina called my parents and invited them, too. My parents, being the social butterflies that they were, declined the offer, but Regina called back to see if maybe I could come over with my grandparents – I could entertain Joel, she said. And so, one evening in October 1989, I traveled the hour-long car ride out to the small town where Regina, her sons, and her roommate Val lived. The house smelled wonderful – they had prepared some sort of Italian dish that I had never heard of, and there was Billy Joel, Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra music playing on the stereo. Having not seen each other in probably half a decade, Joel and I became fast friends that evening – discovering our mutual love of old movies, rock music, and laughing at our families.
A month later, having nothing special to do during the Thanksgiving break, Regina again called my parents and asked if I wanted to spend the long weekend at her home. I was so excited to go! A week later, on the Wednesday night after school let out for the Thanksgiving break, my family drove me to a parking lot in Shakopee, where we met up with Regina’s family (it was a good mid-way meeting point).
I spent an even longer time at Regina’s during the Xmas break.
And over the summer, I probably spent a total of two weeks at her home.
And for the next four or five years, I went out there as often as I could.
And here the thing I want to note specially: When I was there, I wasn’t just there to be with Joel, I was there as a guest of the whole family. At nearly all my other friends’ homes, we’d play down in their basement, or we’d go off by ourselves to the movie theaters, the malls, or the restaurants. But at Regina’s, it was different. Joel and I played board games with Regina and Val. We ate all our meals with them, and when Joel and I decided we were going to see a movie, Regina said, “Sounds like fun, I’m coming too.” A few times, Joel and I rented movies and his mom would request that we not watch them until she got home from work because she wanted to watch them, too. And I don’t mean that she did those things because she was trying to keep an eye on us, she did them because she genuinely enjoyed spending time with her son and with her son’s friends. We talked about all manner of concerns – and she really wanted to know how I was feeling or what I was thinking about certain issues in life.
I even went grocery shopping with them, she expected me to help put away the groceries, and I had to help Joel with the dishes every evening – and Regina even hollered to me one evening to come back in the kitchen and “fix” the cups, which I had placed upside down in the cabinets. I argued that upside down was better – because then dust didn’t settle in them. She argued that right-side up was better, because then they’d dry thoroughly and, anyway, no cup was going to languish in their cabinet long enough to get dusty. Regina had no qualms about fixing my hair or telling me to straighten my shirt before we went out. And in the car, we all sung along to Billy Joel tunes. And every time we passed under the “Noel” sign that hung in town during the holidays, Regina shouted “Leon” – because that’s what it looked like as you drove away from it and she thought my ability to talk backwards was hilarious.
She was so outgoing and so friendly, I never knew what to expect next. One day I walked in the door and she introduced me to another person who was living with them for a while, and every time I came over there were new people I’d never met before that she, Val, Henry, and Joel declared to be their best friends. Honestly, this sometimes annoyed me, because I just wanted them all to myself, but now I see that they were just extremely hospitible – they opened their home and their hearts to everyone they met. Another time, I walked in the door and everyone was dancing…there just happened to be a great song on the record player and, even though some unpronounceable Italian meal was getting cold on the table, how could they resist? Even once I had my driver’s license and was free to go where ever whenever, I still loved going to their house for a few days to “get away from it all” – Regina’s house was my vacation.
Of course, in time, I really was too old to sleep over at their place. Once I was married, Jennifer and I got together with them a few times, but not often. Joel’s ever-expanding circle of friends left me behind as I was comfortable with my same small repertoire of buddies. Still, it was always a treat to see Regina. At every religious convention, every family gathering, every wedding, we greeted each other with a hug, and she asked, “How’s my boy?” as if she viewed me as her kin.
The last time I saw Regina was completely fortuitously – Jennifer, Owen, and I were about to board an airplane to visit my Dad in Florida. There, in the terminal, was Regina. It was odd to see her alone…I hardly recognized her without a group of friends or family in her vicinity. She was just sitting there, reading quietly. In the hustle to get on the plane, Jennifer and I decided not to approach her until we boarded. There was an empty seat next to us and so, once the seat belt sign shut off, I walked over to Regina. I placed my hand on her shoulder and I said, “Hello Regina, would you like to come keep us company?” She looked up from her magazine and breathed in surprise. Her face lit up and her eyes became watery, it was almost as if this Italian New Yorker was positively suffering without having anyone to talk with, and she heartily accepted my offer. She came and sat by us and, for the next two hours we talked…about baby Owen, about her grandchildren, about Val, about the trip to Florida, and other things. As we got off the plane, Regina phoned Val to say she’d arrived safely and she said, “Guess who I was with on the plane?” And then she told Val that we were an answer to her prayer – we gave her comfort and distraction from an otherwise nervous, lonely time on an airplane.
So I say she was my friend – even though she was a quarter-century older than me – and not merely my friend’s mom. Uniquely, Regina alone was the one parent I looked forward to visiting just as much as my peer. She was both an extroverted, gruff New Yorker, and a warm, sensitive human being. She treated everyone – including her son’s 12-year-old friend, with respect and dignity. The idea of being both a parent and a friend to one’s children is, I know, not universally held by all moms and dads. But I try – only try, not succeed – to keep that in mind with my kids: they’re not tenants rooming in my house or little servants to boss around, but real people with their own opinions, hopes, and needs. And I hope, someday, they’ll look back on me as both their parent and their friend.
Thanks to Regina, I know it’s possible.