Ingrained in my memory is the vision of my grandmother standing aboard some fancy cruise ship in the 1970s in her sexy plus-size bathing suit waving into the lens of Grandpa's old-fashioned "moving picture" camera.
For my family, Katie and Frank Cassa were world travelers. From these trips, I have dozens of T-shirts and primitive-looking straw dolls with "Bermuda" sewed on them in ribbon, which have either been packed away in my parents' basement or given to charity and recycled by now. But as a memento to remember each one of her voyages, my grandmother bought herself a simple household souvenir: a ceramic spoon rest with the name of the place she'd visited written on it.
After the spoon rests started to build up, my handyman grandfather began inserting hooks into the plaster walls of their downtown Brooklyn brownstone so my grandmother could proudly showcase her travels to all her frequent visitors. To me, however, the spoon rests symbolized something greater than travel: They were a token of the undying love shared between my grandparents for more than 50 years.
Soon after she died, people started bringing Grandpa spoon rests back from vacations. They knew my grandmother had enjoyed collecting them, and that my grandfather missed her. It wasn't long before he decided to collect them in her memory.
In fact, each time he received a new one from some far away destination, he'd nail it on the kitchen wall - just for her.
As crazy as it sounds, Grandpa decided to honor his love for my grandmother by continuing her collection of spoon rests.
To become the World Record Champion Spoon Rest Holder. Most people in the family laughed at Grandpa's aspiration. We'd say, "Could there be a Guinness Records category for spoon rest collecting? Who would collect spoon rests, anyway?" We soon learned: Frank Cassa, that's who.
I'm not ashamed to admit that a portion of my honeymoon was spent searching for a spoon rest in Italy. (I soon learned these items are very scarce there.) My husband was more than relieved when we finally located a dusty one on a back shelf in an off-beat souvenir shop in Rome.
A few years ago, when I went with my best friend to visit her grandmother in Palm Beach, Fla., I sprinted for what seemed like a mile across the airport with minutes left before boarding time because I needed to locate and purchase a spoon rest with pink flamingos that I had spotted upon my arrival a few days earlier.
I've personally brought spoon rests back to Grandpa from at least a dozen places I've visited. Perhaps my favorite is the Alaskan polar bear spoon rest that was almost too cuddly looking to give away.
I am not alone in having joined this odd quest. Without much effort, Grandpa has assembled a small army of spoon-rest collecting disciples whose journeys are somewhat dictated by locating these sometimes hard-to-find items. If you know - or simply know of - Frank Cassa or one of his relatives, you search for spoon rests on your vacation. As a result, today Grandpa has spoon rests from as far away as Africa to as close to Grandma's heart as he could get - The Big Apple.
If you enter his home, you're likely to get a lecture about his prized collection. Grandpa will stand in front of his kitchen wall much the same way a teacher giving a lesson stands in front of a blackboard.
"The guy down the corner's sister-in-law got me this one on her trip to Las Vegas," he'll say, "and this one your aunt picked up in Cancun." Each spoon rest comes with a story about the person who gave it to him. And each time you talk to him, his collection miraculously has grown by at least a dozen spoon rests.
Before he heard a verdict from the Guinness Book of World Records, there were several years of phone calls and letters back and forth - all of it done by this octogenarian himself. I surmise the folks at Guinness had to investigate whether some guy in Bulgaria had the same idea as Grandpa.
In the end, it was all worth it, Grandpa says.
Today, his kitchen wall is covered with more than 475 spoon rests, and his name appears in the Guinness Book of World Records under "Largest Spoon-Rest Collection." (The record number of spoon rests is still being updated.)
But he only humbly accepts the title of champion. He made sure to share this distinguished honor with my grandmother.
In fact, this delightfully dedicated collector plans to inscribe "Guinness Book World Record Holder" on my grandmother's tombstone.
It has been more than 10 years since my grandmother died, and while her memory will live on in the hearts of many, it will always be memorialized by my grandfather's determination to do something very different and special for the woman he will always love.