Grandma never was one for swapping spit. "You did what?!" she said to me a few years ago after I revealed that I had French-kissed a guy.
"Years ago," she said, her brow now furrowed, "it meant you wanted more than just a kiss."
I took her meaning.
It's the type of conversation my grandma and I have had a lot of through the years. My mother died when I was 11, so my paternal grandma, Gramz, stepped in as my surrogate mom.
Sure, I had friends I could talk to about guys, but my grandma has always been my hand-holder when the labyrinth of love has been too difficult to puzzle through alone.
"Gramz, why did he stop calling?"
"He is a texting maniac and he won't stop! How do I let this guy down easy?"
"You think I'm going to end up an old maid?"
Then last July my grandma started asking me questions.
"Gordon keeps coming over and asking for a hug," my grandma told me over the phone. "What should I do?"
Gordon has lived next door to my grandma for 36 years.
"Well, he just lost his wife. He's probably lonely," I said, knowing my grandma was, too.
I dug a little deeper. "Do you think it's a 'Hey, you're a great friend, and I just need a little TLC' kind of hug, or an 'I like you, and I'm trying to slowly let you know I like you' type of hug?"
"Well," my grandma said, lowering her voice to a whisper, "maybe the 'I like you' type. He sometimes gives me a kiss, too."
"How often is he visiting you?"
"Hmmm. Every night."
How did I not know about this sooner? I just assumed she was spending her evenings the way she always did — in the sack with an autobiography.
Gordon is an 88-year-old mechanic who still works part time five days a week and whose talents include flirting with ladies and being at the right place at the right time. He was the one whose shoulder got wet with my grandma's tears after my grandpa died 11 years ago, the only one who heard my grandma's cries for help from across the garden after she had fallen on the icy driveway and broken her hip.
Gramz had been alone for so long, always contending, "I had your grandfather for 46 years. He made me happy. I don't need anyone else."
She never expected love would come knocking, never thought it would find her with the boy next door.
"What would you say if I said I was 'keeping Gordon company'?" my grandma asked me, practicing the question she would later ask my dad and uncle.
"You mean dating him?"
I was happy she was confronting her fear of loss, a loss that, in old age, has more to do with death than with breakups.
In talking with Gramz a few times a week for "Gordon updates," I heard the transformation in her voice, the giddiness that stems from a ripe case of zsa zsa zsu, as Sex in the City's Carrie Bradshaw would say: that butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling that gives you a reason to think the world isn't half bad.
The butterflies are forever fluttering for Gramz and Gordon. Every day after work he comes over for lunch, goes home for a few hours and returns for dinner.
He used to come at 6:30 p.m., but he started sneaking into grandma's kitchen for "the early-bird special," which means they now eat about 5:30 p.m., then sit on the couch and watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!
Gordon falls asleep sometimes. My grandma holds his hand. His presence alone is enough.
At 8:30 p.m., Gordon has to say goodbye.
"Be careful," my grandma says, as she always does when parting with loved ones. "And don't forget to call."
"Don't worry, Dot," he says. "How could I forget?"
He crosses the vegetable garden separating my grandma's house from his and then calls.
The phone rings once.
"That's his code for letting me know he got home safe," Gramz once told me. "It's dark out there. He could fall in the garden, and I wouldn't even know it."
Not long ago, Gramz said to me, "I'm getting a queen-sized bed, Mal."
"Are you really?"
"No . . . But I am thinking about it. When you're 86 and 88, love lives are pretty innocent, except for the occasional French kiss."
Was she telling me . . .
"Yes, we swapped spit."
"Not so bad, eh?"
"No, not so bad at all."
Mallary Jean Tenore is a copy editor/writer at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a school for journalists that owns the St. Petersburg Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.