Donna Gross’s whole life was in Kansas City, Missouri.
It’s where, as the “baby” of the family, she watched her mom answer phones for her dad’s washer/dryer repair business.
It’s where she started her collections of dolls, butterflies, Santas, and Dickens Village houses and shops.
It’s where she met her husband, Allen, raised their two sons, and spent a career as a reading specialist.
It’s where she helped hang balloons for her nieces’ and nephews’ birthday parties, and whipped up Tex-Mex buffets for dinner parties with friends.
It was home.
Then one day, the Grosses received a phone call. Their son and his wife, living here in the Washington area, were pregnant.
Something told Donna that she needed to go.
“I always said I would never leave my mom,” Donna said. Her mother at this point was in her 90s, and had moved to a condo just minutes from Donna and Allen. “And everyone we knew was there.”
But the voice in her head was loud.
She spoke with her other son, who also lived in Kansas City, and her brother and sister-in-law. And then she went to see her mom, who was in her favorite cozy camel-colored recliner, her beloved sewing machine just a few feet away.
“I said, ‘Mom, we’re thinking about moving to be close to this baby, but we won’t do it if you don’t want us to.’ And she said, ‘You’re right. Those first 10 years, that’s when you bond with your grandchildren. After that, they get busy with their own friends and interests. I understand.’
“It still brings tears to my eyes,” Donna said. “My mom had a special bond with all six of her grandchildren and her eight great-grandchildren. She and my dad were always there for all of us, and she understood we wanted to do the same for our son’s family.”
So Donna started packing up. She and Allen spent more than a year downsizing, sorting through the lifetime of memories packed in boxes and displayed on shelves. She gave her Dickens Village to a friend, who still has it resting on her piano. She gave her grandmother’s antique music chest to one of her nieces. And her son and daughter-in-law made plans for Donna to be their baby’s caregiver while the couple worked and attended school.
Baby Juliet was born on October 4, 2012.
Donna turned 59. She retired on a Friday and was in the car the next morning, headed for Washington.
Moving here brought a whole series of new beginnings.
Sticker shock, for one thing.
Donna, who never much liked traffic, girded herself for a commute between her new home in Woodbridge and Juliet’s home in Alexandria.
And being grandparents to Juliet and her little brother, Lincoln, has brought more moments of pure joy than Donna can express.
But something else changed along with Donna’s zip code.
“Suddenly, we were seeing people who were very different from us, and that’s not something we had much of in Kansas City,” she said.
Donna’s first job was in a cafeteria making crab delight sandwiches when she was 15. That’s the first place she encountered black people; two of the chefs were black.
“Even as an adult, I had one teacher friend who was black, but that was about it,” Donna said. “You really had to go out of your way there to see people who weren’t white.”
In Woodbridge, the Grosses found a home in a very diverse neighborhood. So many of their neighbors not only look different from them, they have very different life stories.
Earlier this summer, the Grosses attended the Ramadan fast-breaking meal at BPC that the church shared with friends from the Ezher Bloom mosque.
“We walked in, and I thought, I have never been to anything like this. This is an opportunity we would never have had if we had not made this move.”
Donna was a little nervous about the food, which the Muslim guests brought. “I’m a super picky eater,” she said.
But she enjoyed it. And more than that, she found her table companions delightful. The Grosses happened to sit with members of the Culha family; Evren and Meryem have three kids. (The two families are pictured below, at the dinner.) “My granddaughter [Juliet] is really shy, but after about 30 minutes, she was sharing the same chair [with one of the Culha kids]. I think kids help to break the ice.”
At the end of the evening, the couple asked the Grosses if they would like to join them in their home for an Iftar (fast-breaking) dinner.
“I was so touched and honored,” Donna said.
They all gathered a few weeks later in the Culha’s Fairfax apartment, Donna sitting on the floor, playing with the kids, Allen and her son Justin talking with Evren about politics.
A few weeks later, the Grosses returned the favor and included the Culha family at Lincoln’s birthday party, where they shared fried rice and chocolate cake.
It’s an unexpected, beautiful friendship.
“This change in our lives, at this stage in our lives, it has opened us up more,” Donna said. “I am so grateful.”