PEOPLE's Voices from the Coronavirus Crisis will share firsthand accounts of the people facing unique challenges during a global pandemic

By Rob LeDonne
April 07, 2020 09:00 AM
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Rob LeDonne

Rob LeDonne is a New York-based culture and comedy writer who would frequently visit his aunt Jennie Graziano’s nursing home in Brooklyn, New York, and sneak her red wine. LeDonne could no longer make those trips when the facility went into lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic in late March. Graziano would test positive for COVID-19 on March 19, her 93rd birthday, and die on March 22. Here, LeDonne pays tribute to the colorful woman who helped shape his life — and gave him plenty of laughs.

“Hey, buddy,” my Aunt Jennie would say when I’d walk into her room the nursing home where she was living, which would be invariably followed by me asking what she was up to. “Oh, just sitting on my ass,” she’d respond.

Feisty, with a witty one-liner always at the ready, Jennie Graziano was a true New York City character. (She predated the Empire State Building itself, after all, having been born in 1927.) Jennie spent her entire life in the borough of Brooklyn: first living downtown, then in Canarsie. It was to her Brooklyn nursing home where my family and I sent a bunch of goodies – flowers, balloons, butterscotch candies – to her to mark her 93rd birthday. “Don’t spend your money on me,” she’d say, perhaps not really meaning it, but also probably annoyed that we’d be adding more stuff to her already-cramped space. “Hey, don’t break my chops.”

Jennie was always dressed to impress – she’s seen here on her birthday with me as a child. During family parties, I can remember enjoying the last dance of the night with her to The Spaniels classic “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight.”
Rob LeDonne

In fact, she’d always tell you exactly what was on her mind. Like a shock comic, she reveled in joking about sex to my mortified family. “What, do you think I was made with a finger?” was an old saying that she loved repeating, the meaning of it equal parts puzzling and raunchy. Her sweetly sardonic attitude stayed steady even if you were a stranger. There was the time when, tipsy with margaritas, she approached a member of the Hell’s Angels as my cousins looked on, embarrassed. The two wound up bonding over the embroidery of the patches on his leather jacket; she was a seamstress by trade.

She was barely angry when my father accidentally set her mattress on fire after falling asleep with a lit cigarette. (But she loved retelling the story!) During a family trip to Las Vegas, she promptly blew her full week’s gambling budget the morning they arrived; everyone chipped in extra so she wouldn’t be sitting in her hotel room the rest of her vacation. Growing up a child of the Great Depression, sleeping with her five sisters under a pile of coats in a single bed, Jennie would tend to keep food until well after its expiration date. If you weren’t in a party mood she’d deem you a “dud,” and like a true Italian-American, she’d frequently gulp down a mixture of red wine and Coca-Cola and then proudly announce to anyone who would listen that she was “half-stunod,” or drunk.

Jennie and her love 8-Ball painted the town in ’50s-era New York. Here they are at the famed Central Park eatery Tavern on the Green.
Rob LeDonne

There were also numerous tales about her long-lost love. He was a character 10 years her senior known by the moniker of 8-Ball because of his thick black hair. Before they fell out, 8-Ball treated her good, from dinners at the famed Tavern on the Green to nights on the town seeing the likes of Frank Sinatra, her favorite singer of all time. In fact, Jennie was absolutely obsessed with Frank, having been an original Bobby Sox girl, which is what they called his ’40s-era teen fans. She had his picture hanging in her living room her entire life.

Jennie lounging with her long-lost love, 8-Ball. He knew things were over between them when he invited her to see her idol Frank Sinatra and she said she was busy.
Rob LeDonne

She loved getting family together in her apartment, whether through cooking southern Italian specialties or throwing parties under the light of a disco ball that hung in her living room long after that glittering era faded. That’s why one of the only things I was truly worried about when it became apparent coronavirus was reaching N.Y.C. was that we wouldn’t be able to trek to Jennie’s nursing home to visit her on her birthday. So we sent along the gifts, which ended up being delivered to an empty room; two days beforehand, she was admitted to the hospital with a fever.

Jennie loved pets and kids, and shared a mischievous sense of humor
Rob LeDonne

The last time we spoke, we said we were praying for her and she replied, “I know.” Jennie became one of New York City’s earliest COVID-19 cases when we found out she tested positive on her birthday, March 19, four days before the virus took her from us March 22. As Jennie would have said, “I have luck up my ass.”