Smile before a tearRead Now
I’ve been pretty quiet for the last few weeks. It’s been one of those spells where life has been equal parts busy and dreary. I’ve been crocheting away, but too drained to post pictures or blog. And a couple of weeks ago, my Nana passed away. This feels sad, but also a relief that she isn’t sick anymore. She was my last living grandparent and it feels like I’ve crossed a threshold. There’s something strange about that layer of my family tree having all shuffled off this mortal coil.
I wasn’t able to travel back for the funeral, but I was able to Skype - so it feels like closure for saying goodbye, but my longing to be close to my family remains. I feel the urge to do something tactile and creative in her memory because I have such vivid tangible memories of her and time at her house. But I feel like I just don’t have the energy yet.
Joe Biden had a great line in his eulogy for John McCain where he promised that one day a memory would flash through our minds and a smile will come to our face before a tear to our eye. I’m not there yet with Nana, but when I am, I think my creative muse will give me the inspiration and energy to make something in her memory.
For now, I wanted to share the memories I wrote that my sister kindly read on my behalf at her funeral. Her life and story was remarkable and this is a slice of some of my memories.
My Nana was a school librarian. She had a clear love of books and learning, but don’t be fooled into thinking she was quiet or demure. She had strong opinions and she didn’t shy away from sharing them. As a school librarian, I pictured her like the hero in a movie about taking a ragtag bunch of kids and whipping them into shape - to win the state championship in a spelling bee or debate.
Sometimes grit and stubbornness are described as two sides of the same coin. I think this is very true for Nana. She could stick with things well beyond when everyone else would give up or think something wasn’t worth it. It seemed like the harder something got, the more Nana would dig in. I think I’ve got a bit of this in me, which means I have to actively try not to be too competitive in board games or I will win at all costs (and burn bridges along the way.) Nana had challenges and obstacles to overcome her whole life she and I think these only refined her inner strength. She was fiercely independent and one of the most strong women I have ever known.
Yet, as strong, stubborn, gritty and independent as she was, there was one consistent soft spot - she had a love of animals that just seemed to melt her. She always had animals in her life. I was only around for some, but the stories of the animals at Nana’s house became legendary - Pandora the poodle (and the frog leg oil incident), Tony the cat, Hammy the hamster. They really were part of the family and it seemed like she could never get enough of them. I remember being fascinated by the bird bath in the backyard and her hummingbird feeder (because I’d never seen one before.) She was always happy to share her love of animals with those around her and they always made her smile. She was like a mama bear - equal parts adoring and protective. And she would go to such great lengths to look after them. Including forcing Bompa to cut a hole in the furnace to rescue wayward Hammy.
She also had a great laugh. While she wouldn’t usually be the one cracking jokes, eliciting a laugh from Nana was like getting a standing ovation. It felt like such a validation. And there were moments of real joy, that I can’t imagine from anyone else. Her “hoo - hoo” meant you dropped your game of Hi Ho Cherry-o and ran to the table. And family gatherings brought out the storyteller in everyone. Everyone had their version of the classics, but Nana considered herself the true authority and made sure to correct any discrepancies between your recollection and hers.
I think it must have been her love of stories that wooed her to be a librarian. Her book recommendations were on point. I still can quote many of the Jack Prelutsky poems from heart (my favorite was “Homework, oh, homework, I hate you, you stink!) She would even get books signed by authors and illustrators and give them to us as gifts. I still cherish these and enjoy sharing them with my kids now and telling them about Nana. Many of my memories of Nana’s librarian days were book related. One of my first memories of Nana’s house was sitting in the den with Evan and listening to the Berenstein Bears on cassette (BOING!) And when I think of the White Bear apartment she lived in, I think of the string of cat mysteries she churned through.
She really seemed to love things with a bit of silliness or a humorous twist. She liked what she liked and there were so many things that must have brought a smile to her face that I found delight in as well. Even 30 years on, I have some visceral memories of things at Nana's house - playing with the jumping peg game, arranging the lights in the ceramic Christmas tree, cracking nuts in the nut bowl, winding the music boxes and playing around on the Casio keyboard. I’m not sure what it was, but there were so many things I only ever seemed to encounter at Nana’s house that they really left an indelible impression.
There were foods I would only have at Nana’s house - like grocery store sheet cake with big frosting roses for our joint birthday cake each year, or green salad (my Mom and Dad’s best shot at getting me to eat pineapple because it was disguised in mini-marshmallows and pistachio pudding.) And of course there was my favorite - KFC chicken littles with instant mashed potatoes! (I think instant mashed potatoes were informally banned in my house, but I knew I could get them at Nana’s and they still are a guilty pleasure of mine.)
Even some of my best childhood adventures were linked with Nana - like setting up the mish mash motel, or three wheeling and playing with model rockets in the field across from her house. She was a good sport for all kinds of shenanigans, but you knew that if Nana was around, she’d keep things reined in before they got too crazy.
It was really hard when she got sick after Bompa died, it felt so surprising and mixed up because Nana always seemed so strong. To see the way Mom and Dad needed to care for her was gut-wrenching. Not because she needed to be cared for, but because it seemed like the Nana I always knew was gone. But as time went on, it seemed like I could start to see some of the story-loving, animal-doting Nana come through, with some of the stubbornness toned down. Even after she started living in the nursing home, it was wonderful that not only could birds still be part of her life, but that when we brought Zoe and Noah to visit her there, they could all enjoy the birds together.
You don’t get to pick what kind of challenges you will have to deal with in life, but I think Nana showed how challenges mean you need to be strong, but you also need to have things that make you smile. In my own life, I hope that I can show this. Especially in sad times, where we have to say a hard goodbye, it is important to be strong, but it is also important to tell stories, celebrate the things you love and smile at the little things along the way.
I love you Nana and I am so grateful for the stories and smiles we’ve shared.