Carla Grosso had no intention of letting a worldwide pandemic scuttle her son’s senior prom.
At first, when coronavirus didn’t look like the wrecker of social lives that it has become, the Palm Beach, Florida, mom of two figured she'd host her son and a group of fellow seniors at her house if the event got canceled. Then stay-at-home orders and social distancing kicked in and the invite list shortened — significantly.
Fortunately for Dominick Grosso and his date Paige Houck, their families live just a block apart and had become one extended social unit of sorts even before the term COVID-19 entered the public lexicon.
So when Royal Palm Beach High pulled the plug on its Roaring ’20s-themed rite of passage, Grosso got to work, online-ordering her way to Jazz Age ambiance complete with Gatsby-esque winding stair backdrop, faux crystal wall sconces and cardboard cutout Roadster.
“She was determined we’d have a prom our senior year and keep everybody safe at the same time,” Dominick said.
Like a mother at Christmas with toddlers in the house, Grosso kept the details of the big night under wraps.
“I had to announce when I was coming out of my room,” he recalled.
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When he and Paige shuttled from her house to his, they had to yell inside from the garage announcing their presence and wait for the goods to be stashed.
While Grosso directed production, Paige’s mom, Renee Houck, an assistant principal at the high school, took over catering. At Paige’s request, Italian takeout from Basilico’s was secured. A chocolate and vanilla sheet cake declaring Prom 2020 in Royal Palm’s trademark blue and black was ordered and a photo of the couple planted prominently atop the icing.
Paige and Dominick met sometime in middle school.
She was the girl in the neighborhood he was crushing on in seventh grade. He was the boy she didn’t crush on until he had another girlfriend in their sophomore and junior years. This year, their senior year, the Royal Palm Beach High athletes finally connected.
No one doubted the two would attend prom together. Dominick’s prom-posal (no one just asks you to go to prom anymore) involved an Easter egg hunt and a homemade ticket to the big night.
Paige got her dress long before spring break even rolled around. Dominick anticipated a later trip to Men’s Warehouse. But before he’d gotten there, the store, like so many others, was shuttered. He borrowed a slightly snug blue suit from one of Paige’s older brothers instead.
On the big night, timed to coincide with what would’ve been the big night at some swanky venue, the couple, family in tow, headed to Palm Beach at sunset for their prom photo session — first round with masks on.
And then they returned to a transformed backyard complete with fog-filled effects — dry ice in the pool — and a DJ — Dominick’s high school freshman sister.
Dinner, dancing and even games ensued with a guest list that included both sets of parents, Dominick’s sister, Paige’s two adult brothers and their dates.
“The only people we see is each other,” said Paige’s father, Leroy Houck, who, along with Dominick’s mom and dad, works for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. “We are fortunate to have an extended family of sorts.”
A prom date with your parents, brothers and sisters wouldn’t seem like a winning combination, but Paige and Dominick would disagree.
“I went to my junior prom. I enjoyed the pictures part of it, but I’m not much of a party, dancing type,” Paige said. “I had more fun with my family and his than I would have anyway.”
Across the country, roughly 3.7 million students have seen their high school senior events turned upside down by the pandemic. And more than a few have successfully improvised. Actor John Krasinski hosted a virtual Prom 2020 for his YouTube show Some Good News.
But in their circles, Paige and Dominick report they’ve become the envy of friends, who have seen snaps from the night via social media.
Paige’s dad said the teen was devastated when the girls senior softball season was canceled. Her 18th birthday has also fallen in the social desert created by the need to put the brakes on the coronavirus.
“It was great to get to see her get into her prom dress and to at least have a little glimpse of normal," Houck said. "To give them both something happy.”
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Dominick’s mom couldn’t agree more.
“We’re blessed that we have our health, and we’re blessed that we have not been sick from this illness,” Grosso said. “But it does stink for the seniors. They can be happy they don’t have the virus, but in the end there still is a little bit of a disappointment.”
Grosso is intent to deliver some hallmark memories before the books close on the Class of 2020.
She is planning a senior picnic, senior breakfast and a backyard graduation. The only thing she couldn’t deliver was a theme park grad bash excursion.
Given time, she probably would’ve figured out that one, too.
Follow Sonja Isger on Twitter: @sonjaisger