100th birthdayI’m going to a birthday party tomorrow night.A 100 year-old birthday party. For a person.

And not just any person. My former grandmother-in-law. My ex-husband’s grandmother. The great-grandmother of my children.

Nana, as my kids call her, is a pretty remarkable woman. (What an understatement.) She’s of Sicilian descent and grew up in New York. Old-school. Loyal. Tough.

The first time I met her was when her grandson, my then-boyfriend, brought me to the Long Island home where he grew up. Years before, Nana had moved in with her daughter, her only child, shortly after Grandpa Sal, her husband, passed away. My boyfriend was just a few months old at the time. And Nana lived in her own apartment above the garage and helped raise not just my ex but also his 8 siblings.

I remember getting ready for that first introduction. It was anxiety-inducing. I was a grad student at NYU, living in a studio apartment on Fourth Ave. in Manhattan. Not much money. Not a large wardrobe. And most importantly, not much sense of style.

It took me hours to figure out what to wear. I ended up going with a long flowery Ann Taylor skirt, knee high lace-up boots and a black sweater. For good measure, I threw on the pearls I had gotten when I graduated from high school. Some sort of freaky preppy bohemian.

I knew when I crossed over the Nassau County border, and pulled in to the town of Garden City, I would be entering a world quite different from the Miami one that I had been raised in. Staunch Catholic to my Reform Jewish. Republican politics to my Democratic ones. Saks Fifth Avenue to my Sears.

Nana was an intimidating figure, even 20 years ago. The perfectly coiffed hair. The elegant clothes. The classy jewelry. Old-fashioned. She was the one I needed to impress.  Nana was the one whose opinion really mattered. I needed to win her over in spite of all my differences. I was in love with her grandson and she meant the world to him.

We sat in the formal dining room that night and I’m sure we had some version of the dinner I grew to love, even crave, over the years of my first marriage. Dinners that always started with a spaghetti or bucatini topped with her homemade tomato or marinara sauce, sometimes accompanied by strips of fried eggplant.

(The second course that night included a giant standing rib roast. I hadn’t consumed meat in over four years but somehow that fact was not relayed. Wanting to not make a scene at the table, and to please my boyfriend’s family, I didn’t bring this up. In fact, I had seconds. I’ve been a carnivore ever since.)

The dinner went fine. I got out without making an ass of myself. Though having meat after not having it for a long time gave me diarrhea but I was happy to get that first meeting out of the way.

And though Nana didn’t quite warm up to me that night, she had a few years later, when her grandson and I got married in front of a priest and a rabbi. And then even more so when I gave her a couple of great-grandchildren.

When we left Manhattan 14 years ago, we settled in South Florida. A few miles from where my in-laws had a house and lived for part of the year. And I loved going over there, sitting around the table and talking with Nana. Listening to stories of her childhood. And stories of my husband when he was growing up. Seeing her with her great-grandchildren. Knowing how special it was that they knew her. Really knew her.

I got divorced five years after the move. And one of the many things I worried about at the time was what would become of my relationship with her. I felt like I had let her down. And I didn’t want to lose what we had.

(You don’t want to get on her bad side. She once poked a 10 year-old kid with her cane at the bowling alley because he was blocking her view of her cherished great-grandson opening up his birthday presents.)

But she stuck with me. Continuing to welcome me. Telling me over the years that she loves me. And I love that. I love the way she loves me.

And I love her.

So here we are. Getting ready to celebrate her 100th birthday. On March 31st, her actual birthday. Going to a party a few miles down the road from my house. With my second husband. My first husband. My two teenaged kids with my first husband. My first husband’s girlfriend and her two kids. My ex-in-laws. And a crowd of family.

What shall I wear?

Image via suanie/Flickr