I want Al and Carmela Varraso to adopt me as their grandchild. You will, too, when you hear their story.
The Varrasos, who have lived in the same house in Braintree for nearly 50 years, have six children and 11 grandchildren.
When he was in kindergarten, their oldest grandchild, Mark Berardi, fell in love with pyramids, mummies, and hieroglyphics. After lots of books and discussions about Egypt with his grandparents, “Gram” told him that when he graduated from high school, they would go see the pyramds together.
A family tradition was born. From Egypt to Australia to China to Europe, the Varrasos have shepherded their grandchildren all over the world. Al and Carmela, 81 and 80, respectively, are about to embark on a trip to South Africa with their eighth grandchild, Emily Bogosian, who graduated last year from Canton High School.
With their grandchildren, the Varrasos have crawled into pyramids, ridden camels, walked on the Great Wall of China, gone swimming at the Great Barrier Reef. Al even belly-danced on a Nile cruise — much to his grandson’s delight.
On Mark’s graduation day from Marshfield High School in 2005, Carmela wrote him a note and wrapped it up in a box: “We’re asking if you are still interested in visiting Egypt as we have spoken of oftentimes . . . ”
Or would he prefer a money gift of $2,000? “It’s up to you. Whatever decision you make, we’ll honor you.” It was signed, “Heartfelt love, Gram and Grampie.”
Each grandchild has gotten the same offer upon graduation from high school, and each has taken the trip, not the cash. The grandparents have a notebook for each — “Nicole’s Trip to Spain, June 5-14, 2009,” and so on — and delight in looking at the photos. On a recent day at their house, they laughed over pictures of themselves and their grandchildren on camels, with koala bears, on cruises, and in front of ruins.
“It’s a beautiful world,” says Carmela, “and I hope it broadens their horizons.” But her favorite part of the trips? “Being with them.”
Mark is 25 now, and a facilities manager at the Pinehills in Plymouth. He loved his two weeks in Egypt with his grandparents: the Sphinx, the pyramids and tombs, temples, hierglyphics on walls thousands of years old. And the camel ride. His camel was sluggish at first, and when the guide slapped at it, it bolted.
“The thing took off in a dead sprint with me on it having no clue how to drive,” he says. “When I finally turned the beast around, Grammie was laughing harder than I’ve ever seen her laugh.”
The next to graduate was Nicole Arata, from Orange (Conn.) High School. She chose Spain, and in June 2009, she and her grandparents boarded a flight to Madrid.
“I loved everything about the trip,” says Arata. “Living further away than the rest of my cousins, it was great to have my grandparents to myself and get to know them even better.” The other grandchildren, and their parents, live in suburbs south of Boston.
Al and Carmela Varraso are not wealthy people, and the trips with grandchildren are not cheap. Before she retired, Carmela was an administrative assistant. Al, a Korean War veteran, worked at the Fore River Shipyard, attending night school for 15 years to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Fitchburg State. He was 45 when he finished and became the principal of Blue Hills Regional Technical High School in Canton. The couple sent six children to college.
Over the years, they put the money away for each trip. They always go on group tours, and the 2010 trip to China for four of them — two grandchildren decided to go together — cost more than $25,000. Andrew Berardi had already graduated from Marshfield High, but waited for cousin Ryan Bogosian to do so at Canton High.
They started in Beijing, took a three-day cruise down the Yangtze River, rowing into gorges in sanpans, went to the Forbidden City — and lost Ryan temporarily in the crush of tourists. They saw the Terra Cotta Warriors dating to the 3rd century B.C., and walked up part of the Great Wall. “We walked; the kids ran,” says Al.
Their daughter Linda Varraso, chef/owner of Peppercornz on Main in Weymouth, remembers that when she and her siblings were growing up, her parents always budgeted.
“There were envelopes, and every week, they’d put money in each for food, utilities, and gas. We didn’t go out to eat, except maybe Burger King once a month,” says Linda.
Al says a two-family house he bought in Braintree yields rent that has gone into the grandchild travel fund. “I’d rather watch the kids enjoy it while I’m still alive,” he says.
And what did their own six kids get for their high school graduations? “Electric typewriters,” his daughter says, laughing. “Clearly, it’s better to be a grandkid.”
Between trips, Al and Carmela Varraso are busy volunteering nearly full time, Carmela for South Shore Elder Services and Friends of the Braintree Library. Al, a former Braintree selectman, school committee and Town Meeting member, is commander of the American Legion in Braintree and is on the board of South Shore Elder Services.
The triplets — Matthew, Alexander, and Christian Connolly — graduated from Silver Lake High School in Kingston in 2011, and went with their grandparents to Australia in January 2013. The boys snorkeled at the Great Barrier Reef, petted kangaroos and koalas, rode camels, and visited Sydney. At Ayers Rock, it was 120 degrees.
“By the time we got to Sydney, it was only 95,” says Al.
Next up is Emily Bogosian, who graduated from Canton High School last year. On June 6, she and her grandparents will fly to South Africa, and will travel from Johannesburg to Cape Town, including a wildlife safari. Emily will turn 19 during the trip.
Sterling Connolly graduates from Silver Lake this year, and has chosen to go to Portugal with his grandparents next summer. The last two grands are Joshua Arata, who graduates in 2015, and his brother Joseph, in 2017. They don’t yet know where they’ll choose to go, but both say they’re already thinking about it.
“I can’t wait to go on the trip,” says Joseph Arata. “I wouldn’t want any other grandparents.”
Nor would I. Adopt me?
Bella English can be reached at email@example.com.