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A bride, her grandfather, and a love story

There’s no way this wedding ceremony was going to happen without 92-year-old Gilbert Wahlberg

Audrey Mazzola talked with her grandfather Gilbert Wahlberg at Oakdale Rehabilitation & Skilled Nursing Center in West Boylston, where her wedding will  be held.
Audrey Mazzola talked with her grandfather Gilbert Wahlberg at Oakdale Rehabilitation & Skilled Nursing Center in West Boylston, where her wedding will be held.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

WEST BOYLSTON — This is a love story.

It’s a tale about a sweet-and-touching engagement and an upcoming marriage set against the backdrop of a killer pandemic.

But its foundation lies in the story of a little girl who grew into a young woman with a special bond with the old man who sat before her in a wheelchair here early the other morning. He was wearing the unmistakable smile of love that she has known all of her life.

She was born on his birthday 28 years ago, a happy and celebrated coincidence.

Before he taught her how to drive, he was her chauffeur, taking her to T-ball practice and making sure she got to after-school track training on time.

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Over the years, their unusually close grandfather-granddaughter bond grew, if possible, only stronger. A fine wine. It aged well.

And now, as Audrey Mazzola approaches her wedding day in a few short weeks, she is visiting 92-year-old Gilbert Wahlberg, the man who helped shape who she has become.

“Papa,’' she told him in the courtyard of the Oakdale Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center here. “I’m excited to get married here. We worked everything out. We’ve got the decorations. We got the OK’s from everyone. It’ll be really nice.‘'

Yes, it will. But “really nice” doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s wonderful, really. Something worthy of a Hollywood studio.

If Audrey’s grandfather couldn’t come to her wedding, well, she would bring her wedding to him.

And so that’s what she and her fiancé will be doing in five weeks, exchanging vows in the nursing home’s outdoor green space that will, however briefly, become their wedding chapel.

“She loves him very much,’' Audrey’s fiancé, Nathan Allen, told me. “It’s really important to her that he’s present at the ceremony. That was one of the things that pushed us to have it sooner rather than later. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future with the quarantine?

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“He’s a great guy. It’s a great story.‘'

Actually it’s two great stories. Two love stories that now span three generations.

Audrey Mazzola said goodbye to her grandfather, Gilbert Wahlberg, after visiting him in the courtyard at Oakdale Rehabilitation & Skilled Nursing Center in West Boylston.
Audrey Mazzola said goodbye to her grandfather, Gilbert Wahlberg, after visiting him in the courtyard at Oakdale Rehabilitation & Skilled Nursing Center in West Boylston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Gilbert Wahlberg was born in Providence in 1928 and raised in Pawtucket, where he graduated from high school and decided, with a friend, to join the Marine Corps. His friend had second thoughts and backed out. But Gilbert raised his right hand and took the military oath.

“They put us on a train and hauled us off to North Carolina,’' he told me.

His military service took him as far as the Mediterranean Sea. When his hitch was over, he settled into his family and work life, starting a fastener and supply company in Rhode Island. He and his wife, Ellen, also started a family.

“When we got older and driving, he said, ‘You are responsible people. I am not giving you a curfew,’ ‘' recalled his daughter, Ann Mazzola, a nurse and health educator and now mother of the bride. “If we were later than we said we’d be, dad would look at us with his steely Marine Corps stare and say something like, ‘I’m disappointed that you didn’t keep your word.’ ‘'

Audrey Mazzola remembers her grandfather’s big red van, the one with the chairlift that took Gilbert and his wife across the country and would later carry Audrey and her brother to short grocery store trips.

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Eventually, Audrey’s family home was converted to accommodate her grandparents. Her father’s office became her grandparents’ bedroom.

“We have a big blended family,’' Audrey told me. “During the summertime, he would put us to work on whatever landscaping task he had. We just wanted to sit inside and watch cartoons. But he made us work.‘'

And pay attention. And learn.

“He’s a man of few words,’' Audrey Mazzola said. “I remember I asked him, for a school project, about why he joined the Marine Corps. And he told me: ‘I did it because of the honor.’ He didn’t want to talk anymore about it.‘'

But young Audrey was paying attention and she became a student of her grandfather’s habits. He was obsessed with breakfast, a building block for a good day’s work. When there was a chore in front of him, he did it. He never had to be asked. He was teaching. Quietly. And by example.

She learned that her grandfather — who lost most of his mobility recently — once drove a limousine, transporting socialites from Florida to Newport and then back to the South. She learned about his brief stint as a private investigator, a job that once led to the exoneration of a politician whose wife had falsely suspected infidelity.

Her friends called him Papa. And, after she met a young man named Nate at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, that’s what Nate called him, too.

The steps that will soon lead to the nursing home wedding here reached cinematic heights on Feb. 29. While Audrey was attending a Bernie Sanders rally on Boston Common, Nate was at home. And he was busy.

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“Nathan had fibbed and told me he was doing something for school and he was actually meeting my parents for lunch asking for their blessing,’' Audrey said. “I was exhausted and the apartment was totally clean. I didn’t think anything of it. ‘Oh that’s nice.’ There were candles. He never lights candles. I should have known.‘'

And then she did. Emerging from the bathroom, fresh from a shower and with a towel around her head, their pet rabbit, Sigmund, wore a note around his neck.

“And it says, ‘Will you marry my dad?’ And I look down and Nathan’s on his knees with this ring. And it’s the most perfect ring in the world. It’s pretty much identical to the one my dad proposed to my mother with.‘'

 Audrey showed her engagement ring. She and her fiancé will be married in the courtyard in order to have Gilbert present.
Audrey showed her engagement ring. She and her fiancé will be married in the courtyard in order to have Gilbert present. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

In the background, Sam Cooke was sweetly singing:

Cupid, draw back your bow; And let your arrow go; Straight to my lover’s heart for me, for me; Cupid, please hear my cry; And let your arrow fly; Straight to my lover’s heart for me.

If that’s not a perfectly executed proposal, I don’t know what is.

And, then, with their wedding set for Sept. 4, preparations began in earnest.

And, as Nate knew by now, that meant finding a way to make the bride’s grandfather an honored guest.

“This is important to her,’' the prospective groom said. “And it’s important to me.‘'

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Ann Mazzola said her father did not hide his emotions when he learned that his granddaughter’s upcoming wedding would be built around him.

“He looked a little thunderstruck,’' she said. “I got a great big grin and a ‘Wow!’ He knows how much he means to her.‘'

How much he means to her was as plain as the loving smiles Audrey and her grandfather exchanged the other day under the shade of a tree outside his nursing home.

“I miss you and I’m looking forward to seeing you at my wedding,’' Audrey told him.

There will be 200 people watching those nuptials on a Zoom call.

The most important people in the bride’s life will be in her grandfather’s adopted garden as lifetime vows are exchanged. In the age of COVID, the bride and her family considered simplicity to be the safest approach.

“I do have to wear a mask for the ceremony so I picked a white one,’' the bride-to-be told me.

“I never thought we’d be at this stage. I remember back in March when I was like, ‘Oh, this will blow over in two or three weeks.’ And now, it’s July. So that part I’m not too thrilled about. But I’ll just pull my mask down and smooch him. And then we’ll go to dinner somewhere.

“The size of the crowd isn’t important to me. I just want to marry my husband. And I just want papa there. And that’s really all I care about.‘'


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.