Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Sweetest of the Peas ~ Winning the Doggie Lottery

Sweet Pea was our family's first foster dog. I wrote briefly about her in my post "Forget Diamonds ~ This Girl's Best Friend is Golden". Golden Rescue South Florida recently shared a post on their Facebook page from another organization looking for positive stories about fostering and adoption. I immediately thought of Sweet Pea. This gentle soul, who we weren't sure would ever get adopted now has a life that not only most dogs, but even most people would dream of. 

Sweet Pea's first night on her new bed
In the summer of 2011, our family decided to become a foster family for Golden Rescue South Florida. We had adopted our sweet Makani as a puppy from the organization. We love Goldens and thought it would be a great experience. One day in August, I saw a post on Golden Rescue's Facebook page announcing that they were looking for a foster family for an older Golden that was being surrendered. Our late Golden Baja lived to the ripe old age of 15, so we were familiar with "Golden Oldies" and knew that they were as sweet as can be. I contacted Golden Rescue and told them that we'd love to foster the dog. I asked how old she was and was told that they were not sure.
They put me in touch with the person who would be surrendering the dog, who was a friend of the owner. She brought the dog, named Sweet Pea, to our house that evening. Sweet Pea was not at all what we expected. She didn't look much like a Golden at all. She had been shaved, so her fur was very short. The fur around her eyes was stained dark brown, making her look a bit like a raccoon. Her sparkly silver collar was worn out and falling apart. She had a hard time getting around. The woman didn't know a whole lot about Sweet Pea, just that her owners were in the middle of a divorce and each moving to a place where they couldn't take Sweet Pea. I was told that she had been living with the wife and that the husband was a tugboat captain and spent most of his time out at sea. [It didn't dawn on me until a few weeks later that Popeye was a tugboat captain and his baby was "Swee' Pea".] I asked the woman how old Sweet Pea was and her response was,"I've been told she's 11." She gave me the owner's telephone number so that I could contact her for more information.

Pretty girl!
In spite of looking more like a yellow lab, Sweet Pea definitely had the disposition of a Golden and immediately lived up to her name. She truly was the sweetest, most gentle dog we had ever known. It was obvious that she couldn't see or hear well, her breathing was heavy and labored, and her teeth were in pretty bad shape. We immediately came to the conclusion that she was older than we had been told. I tried contacting her "mom" several times, but could never get a response. The one time she answered, she told me that she was busy and would have to call me back. She never did.

Golden Rescue arranged for me to take her to see one of their vets, Dr. Stetzer at Central Animal Hospital in Boca Raton. He is a wonderful, caring vet, who got down on the floor to examine this sweet old girl. He said that he estimated her age as between 11 and 13 years and said that she seemed relatively healthy for her age, in spite of her breathing difficulty. He explained that the dark fur around her eyes was due to a bacteria and that cleaning the area with a little peroxide every day would help. He shaved a lot of the dark fur off and explained how to treat it. Dr. Stetzer hinted at the fact that we should consider adopting Sweet Pea. We hadn't planned on adopting another dog, but it seemed unlikely that a dog of her advanced age would get adopted. 
Me and the Sweetest of the Peas

I went out and bought Sweet Pea a new pink collar with flip-flops on it and a soft, fluffy hot pink bed. She deserved to have pretty things. I took photos of her for Golden Rescue to share, in hopes of finding a family to adopt her. Sweet Pea seemed very happy with us. Makani didn't seem to mind having her around at all. She posed no threat to him and she slept most of the time. Honestly, Makani got along better with Sweet Pea than any other dog we fostered.

After we had Sweet Pea for a couple of weeks, I received a call from a potential family. The woman had two young children and she said they were looking for a dog that would play with the kids. I thought about Sweet Pea, who preferred lounging on her fluffy pink bed to going outside, and politely explained that I didn't think Sweet Pea was the right dog for their family. After that call, it was weeks before the phone would ring again. We had almost decided that Sweet Pea was meant to be part of our family.

Gorgeous photo of Sweet Pea on Flagler Beach
One Saturday afternoon, six weeks after Sweet Pea had been surrendered to us, I received a call from Lee Ann. She had met a single man named Rob from Miami Beach who had recently lost his dog. He was specifically looking to adopt an older dog. She had done a home visit and said that he seemed perfect. She gave me his number and told me that he wanted to come meet Sweet Pea. If he thought she would be a good fit, he would adopt her on the spot. I was determined not to get my hopes up. Rob sounded very nice on the phone and he arranged to come meet Sweet Pea that afternoon.

When he arrived, he and Sweet Pea seemed to "click" immediately. She went right to him, and he seemed to genuinely care for her. My Rob and I liked Rob immediately. He really seemed to know a lot about dogs, and he seemed like he would be a perfect new dad for Sweet Pea. He did, in fact, adopt her on the spot. Since this was our first experience with fostering, I didn't know what to expect. Do people who adopt typically keep in touch with foster families? I gave him my email address and asked him to please keep in touch with us, if he could. 

Sweet Pea in Alaska
Rob did keep in touch with us, emailing us on a regular basis with Sweet Pea updates and photos. Although he lived in Miami, he would bring her up every few weeks to spend the day with our family. He thanked us profusely for taking such good care of her. Sweet Pea even sent me the most beautiful bouquet of flowers I've ever received. Rob absolutely adores "Pea," as we affectionately call her. They do everything together. He took her for daily walks in Miami Beach and traveled with her to Islamorada, Flagler Beach, and to Tennessee (where she loved the cooler weather). Rob said that Sweet Pea loves people and everyone she meets loves her too!

Sweet Pea and her amazing Dad, Rob
on the seaplane in Alaska
Rob's vet diagnosed Sweet Pea with laryngeal paralysis, which explained her labored breathing. She had surgery and, in spite of her advanced age, came through it just fine. This spring, Sweet Pea seemed to have an especially hard time breathing while they were in Tennessee. Rob took her to the vet and the vet suspected that she may have cancer. We were all devastated. Rob told me, "she'll eat filet mignon every day for the rest of her life." He was determined to pamper her to the end. After a few more tests, it was determined that Sweet Pea did NOT have cancer - it was the pollen in Tennessee that was affecting her breathing! :) Rob decided to go ahead with his plans for a cross-country journey with Sweet Pea. They traveled from South Florida to Washington State, with a stop in Tennessee along the way. From Washington, they took the ferry to Alaska to spend a few weeks. Rob sent me messages and photos along the way. In every photo, Sweet Pea seemed to look a little healthier and a little happier (and she already WAS happy!). What an adventure! How many people, let alone dogs, get to experience such an exciting life?

Thanks to Rob's caring and generous spirit, we still have the privilege of visiting with Sweet Pea from time to time. For us, she will always be "The Sweetest of the Peas" and have a place in our hearts. Rob once told me, "I didn't save Sweet Pea, she saved me." I truly believe this sweet Golden girl won the doggie lottery! We are so happy for her and for Rob too. 

With Love and Aloha ~ Nancy

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

La Storia di Mia Nonna

I never had the opportunity to meet my Grandma Villa (mia nonna), as she passed away a year before I was born. I would have loved to have known her, because her story is as amazing as anything you read in novels or see in the movies. She briefly lived in a monastery, survived an earthquake that killed most of her family, and came to America alone with only a photograph of a man she had met once a decade earlier, who would become her husband and the father of seven children. This is her story... [Note to my Villa cousins: I've tried to verify as much of this information as possible - if anything is incorrect, please message me and let me know! Thanks! <3] Special thanks to my mom for helping me get the facts straight and for sharing this story with me, and also to my cousin Melissa, who provided the awesome photos in this blog post. Thank you both for keeping the Villa family history alive. :)
Settimia as a Young Woman

My grandmother was born Settimia Cerimele in Pescina, Italy on April 21, 1889. Her name reflects the fact that she was her parents' seventh (settimo) child. Several of her sisters grew up and married, as was the custom in the early 1900s. Many of them became teachers, which was one of only a few career options women had at that time. My great-grandmother tried to encourage her daughter to study to become a teacher like her sisters. But my grandma Settimia wanted to become a dressmaker - she didn't want to be a teacher and nobody was going to make her! (Love the attitude - I believe the Italian term is "capa tosta"!) So, rather than go to school to become a teacher, she decided to leave Pescina and went to live with the nuns at a monastery in Naples, where she learned to do beautiful embroidery (by hand). After about a year, she decided to return home to her family. Shortly after returning to Pescina, my grandma received a letter from a man named Gaetano Villa whom she had briefly met 10 years earlier while visiting a friend or relative. Gaetano had immigrated to America and was working with his brother, Giuseppi in New Jersey. He asked Settimia to come to America and become his wife. Her mother did not want her to go to America, so she chose to stay in Italy.

Pescina, Italy
One night in January of 1915, my grandma had a terrible dream. In the dream, she saw a funeral procession traveling down the streets of her village. She went out on the balcony and saw that it was her mother's funeral. At the time, she was living with her mother, one of her sisters, and her nephew. She and her sister shared a bedroom in the house. Two nights after having the dream, my grandma's sister (whose bed was next to the window) wasn't feeling well. She asked my grandma if she would switch beds with her so that she wouldn't be next to the window. This simple act may have saved my grandma's life.

SS America - The Ship Grandma Villa Sailed to America
To view the ship's manifest, click here.
Early the next morning, on January 13 (it was a Wednesday, NOT a Friday, by the way) a magnitude 7 (intensity XI (11)) earthquake (on the Mercalli Scale) struck the Avezzano/L'Aquila region. The earthquake was one of the most destructive in Italian history. In researching the earthquake, I found this diary entry online (written by a man who had survived the earthquake as a boy), as well as photos and a video depicting the devastation. My grandma's home, her village, and many surrounding villages were destroyed. She lay buried underneath the rubble for days (in the middle of winter!) until rescuers were able to dig her out. An estimated 120,000 people were injured and more than 30,000 lost their lives in the earthquake. My grandmother lost her every member of her household that day, plus a sister in a neighboring village. The simple fact that she was sleeping next to the window may very well have saved her. After recovering from her injuries, my grandma decided to take Gaetano Villa up on his offer. Several months later, she booked passage on the ship "America," sailing out of Naples. One of her surviving sisters made her a wedding dress to take with her to America. I cannot even imagine how it must have felt to survive an earthquake, lose so many loved ones, and leave the country that she called home to move to America and start a new life in a new land with a man she barely knew. 
Gaetano & Settimia's Wedding Portrait
My grandma arrived at Ellis Island on March 9, 1916. Gaetano met her at Ellis Island, with only a photograph to help him identify her. (Remember, they hadn't seen each other in a decade!) They were married in April and settled in Westfield, New Jersey. Gaetano and Settimia went on to have seven children - one daughter and six sons, the youngest of whom is my father, Harvey. (Not a very Italian-sounding name, huh? Especially considering the fact that he also had brothers named Dante, Settimio and Guido!). They also had 22 grandchildren (the youngest of whom and the only one neither ever met) is yours truly. My grandparents lived in Westfield for most of their lives, but began spending winters in Pompano Beach, Florida in 1947. Since his parents had a home in South Florida, my father chose to attend the University of Miami, where he graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering. This is how my father met my mother, Alyce, one of the few remaining "native" Floridians! My parents were married in 1956 moved to New Jersey so that my father could work at his family's contracting business (aptly named "Guy Villa & Sons"). Four months later, just before Christmas, my Grandpa Villa passed away. My parents were chosen to bring Grandma Villa to Florida for a couple of months. They ended up living there for two and a half years (right on East Atlantic Boulevard! Their former house is now an antique shop!) before returning to New Jersey (only to return to Pompano Beach about 20 years later). 

Making Easter Pizza
My grandma Settimia Villa passed away in 1969, the year before I was born. I'm very sad that I never had a chance to know her (or my grandpa Guy Villa or my grandpa Henry Lee - one of the downsides of being the youngest grandchild on both sides of the family! I did have one amazing grandma in Clara Lee until 1999, though, and I am so thankful for that!). I still feel like I have a lot of Italian in me. 
Making homemade gnocchi with my Dad & Alana
I love to cook Italian (when I have time!). My Grandma Villa taught my mom how to make delicious homemade spaghetti sauce and my mom taught her children. (Although, I must admit I often cheat and use jarred sauce.) I love that my Grandma Villa made her own homemade pasta and made "Easter Pizza" every year. My mom had Grandma's recipe for Easter Pizza (which is actually yeast bread), so I try to make it on Easter (when I have time!) so that I can give a loaf to my parents to remind my dad of his mom. Once in a blue moon, my dad will make homemade gnocchi like his mom used to make. The last time he made it, we set up a gnocchi assembly line in the kitchen. I hope that Grandma Villa was smiling down on us. :)  I love knowing that some of the Villa family recipes and traditions are being kept alive throughout our family. Although I never had a chance to know her, I have to say that my Grandma Villa is one of my heroes (heroines?). She was truly a remarkable woman!

In loving memory of Grandma Settimia Villa

With Love and Aloha ~ Nancy