Jessica Lane/Konik Pix
When Grace Lesinski became a widow after 60 years of marriage, she thought she’d be alone for the rest of her life… until an old sweetheart moved in next door.
"Let’s see what’s going on today," Grace Lesinski sighed, opening her New Berlin, Wisconsin, senior facility’s monthly newsletter. After noting some upcoming events, the 85-year-old widow scanned the list of new residents — and one name made her breath catch in her throat. Ralph Wisniewski.
In a flash, she saw him in her mind’s eye: the handsome 14-year-old boy, her middle-school sweetheart who had smiled as he leaned in for her very first kiss. Ralph had made her laugh, set butterflies dancing in her stomach, and showed her how magical love could be. But it can’t be the same Ralph Wisniewski… not after more than 70 years, Grace reasoned. What were the odds of that happening?
Still, a few days later, Grace gathered her courage and knocked on his door. A tall man with snow-white hair answered, staring warmly at her through his glasses.
“Are you the Ralph Wisniewski that went to school at St. Mary Magdalen?” Grace asked, her heart pounding.
“Yes,” he said while squinting, curious.
And as the memory of their shared kiss rushed back, Grace drew a breath, smiled, and uttered, “Hi… I’m Grace.”
Joy Comes Full Circle
With only 18 students in the sixth grade at St. Mary Magdalen Catholic School in Milwaukee, it hadn’t taken young Grace long to notice the cute boy who’d kept smiling at her in class. They’d begun talking, and soon Ralph was coming by her house, where they would sit on her backyard bench while he’d make her giggle with his silly jokes. They had gone for walks, and he’d given her rides on his bike. And one memorable afternoon, Grace and Ralph had shared their first kiss.
But after graduating from middle school in 1947, they’d gone to different high schools. As much as Grace had hoped he’d still come by, Ralph became busy with sports and new friends. She’d often look at the autograph book where Ralph had written, "Dear Grace, When you get married and have a hubby, I hope he is a little chubby," and smile, but as the weeks went by, Grace had tucked the book away, knowing it was time to move on.
When she was a senior in high school, Grace had met John and they’d married in 1955 and raised four daughters. And like it does for most, Grace’s first love had soon become just a sweet memory.
Years passed, and when Grace and John neared their 80s, they’d moved into the Regency Senior Communities. Sadly, just three years later, after 60 years of marriage, John had passed away. Although Grace’s family lived nearby, her days had become long and lonely without him by her side.
But as Grace stood in Ralph’s doorway that day, she felt a stirring of hope blossom in her heart again.
“Grace? My goodness!” Ralph echoed, confusion, recognition, and joy swirling on his face. “Come in! Come in!”
Suddenly, Grace felt like a schoolgirl again and shyly declined his invitation. But a week later, Ralph invited her to bingo. As they chatted, he shared his life story. After a stint in the Air Force, he’d married and had five children with his wife of 54 years. “I lost Elizabeth in 2012, and it’s been hard on my own, which is why I moved here,” Ralph explained. “It’s lonely having no one to talk to… until now.” And the smile on his face melted Grace’s heart.
Grace and Ralph began spending time together, laughing and reminiscing. And when they’d lightly touch hands, Grace felt her heart beat a bit faster… just like it had so many years ago.
“I considered you my first boyfriend,” Grace admitted. Ralph said he’d been just as smitten with her in their middle-school years.
Today the two don’t define their current relationship — the joy of being reunited against all odds is enough.
“Meeting Grace again after all these years has meant the world to me,” Ralph grins. “She makes life less lonely. And I’ll admit, the crush is still there!”
Grace blushes. “It’s lovely to be together again and to feel his big hugs every day,” she beams, squeezing Ralph’s hand. “With so many sad things in the world, we are proof that life can still hold unexpected happy endings!”
3 Surprising Benefits of Reminiscing
1. Reduces stress. A recent study out of Rutgers University in New Jersey showed that when experiencing acute stress, participants who recalled happy memories for just 14 seconds significantly slashed levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while simultaneously increasing feelings of positivity and well-being.
2. Strengthens relationships. Taking a trip down memory lane with a loved one is study-proven to strengthen relationships and allow for more intimacy. “Reminiscing creates a strong feeling of belonging,” agrees Constantine Sedikides, PhD, a leading expert on nostalgia. In addition, research shows that reminiscing on your own can decrease loneliness by activating reward centers in the brain and fostering feelings of social support.
3. Improves memory. New research has found there are powerful neurological benefits to reminiscing. In fact, one study at the University of Sydney in Australia discovered that people who talk about their past in groups boost their overall recall by 12 percent and dramatically improve their performance on complex tasks like puzzle-solving.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.