Snapshots of my Nana

It is Thanksgiving Eve, and my Nana’s birthday*.

My nana did not like to cook, but whenever I visited, she made chocolate milk in her blender to make it frothy, and she always had at least two kinds of ice cream, which we ate in the afternoon. It was wondrous to my child’s mind, the kind of spoiling that nanas do best.

My nana called me Steph, Dear, and Snoopy in equal measures, most of the years that I knew her. But her face would alight with recognition whenever she saw me, so it didn’t matter.

I thought my nana’s living room was scary. It was formal, dark, and Victorian. There was a large painting in a gold frame portraying the death of King Ferdinand. I could not understand why anyone would want something so dismal. There were ornate lamps with pointy crystals. I would stand at the edge of the room, in the kitchen, hold my breath, and run quickly over the Oriental rugs and past the marble coffee table and uncomfortable furniture to her sun porch, where she always sat working on craft projects.

My nana impatiently guided my small hands through craft projects I was not yet ready to do—my first embroidery at age 4, and an astoundingly detailed string art sailboat at age 6, with macaroni letters spelling out the name of our boat. I remember making a shadow box with a cliff we made from clay and rocks, a tiny lighthouse, and a tiny stairway down to the water with a tiny boat tied to a tiny dock. By then I might have been 8. We would start a project and when she ran out of patience, she’d finish it. My nana was not a teacher.

But my nana was an artist—a watercolor painter—and I wanted to be an artist like her. Her watercolor painting of the Sandy Hook lighthouse, where I grew up in New Jersey, hangs in my living room. I realized early on that I did not inherit her artistic talent (nor her love of Victorian decor). But when I was old enough, I’d help her make bows from curling-ribbon in large quantities for the Riverview hospital gift shop.

My nana had many friends through her women’s club and I remember their craft bazaars and charity craft projects. Two of my nana’s favorite friends were much younger and visited often. When I was little, my mom would tell me not to be upset when they came over. Mrs. Baumeister shouted because she was deaf, she’d explain, and Mrs. Serpico shouted because she was Italian, but they were never angry, just loud.

My nana did not like to cook, but she loved hosting parties. She had a swimming pool, and one of those small buildings called a cabana, with two changing rooms grown moldy over time, and scary spiders in the corners. She hosted a pool party for my 8th birthday, and decorated fancy cupcakes in pink, blue, and yellow. I wore a pastel rainbow bathing suit and had stripes of zinc oxide on my late-summer, sunburned face.

For many years, my nana drove a blue 71 Chevy Impala. The back seats were covered with a thick layer of dog hair, and the car was so wide that when we were buckled up, my brother and I could not touch each other. It also had electric windows. She drove to the A&P nearly every day, so I was surprised when I heard that she got lost driving home.

I loved being outside at my nana’s house. Her land went on forever. There were weeping willows next to the river, an old, boarded-up water tower, back woods with lily-of-the-valley in early spring, and a huge sycamore tree at the edge of the woods. She had two great copper beeches—I could climb one high enough to see over the roof of her house and all the way to the river. I could disappear for hours with her dog Snoopy–most of the time she didn’t notice we were out.

My nana had a green painted stoop on the side of her sprawling ranch house, and below it, soft yet prickly Bermuda grass. I loved jumping barefoot from the sun-warmed stoop onto the spongy turf. It was years before I wondered where that door went, the one at the top of the stoop. I peeked through the clouded glass, but all I could see were stacks of boxes and furniture inside.

Much later, I learned that it was a secret room inside her house. It was secret because the doorway was completely hidden by stacked boxes and furniture. Today we would call it hoarding, but to me, it was just Nana’s house. It was the visual, chaotic debris of a once-sharp mind.

I lost my nana long before she died, to Alzheimer’s disease. She didn’t like having her picture taken, so I have no photographs of her. Nevertheless, these snapshots are the Nana I knew, and I keep them in my heart.

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*Postscript: Today we moved my much loved mother-in-law, who has frontotemporal dementia, into memory care. I’m not yet ready to write about that journey, but I wrote this to honor my nana and hoping that my boys will have happy memories of their nana too.

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4 thoughts on “Snapshots of my Nana

  1. Love this. Your attention and recall of detail — for someone who doesn’t love details — is astounding. A great tribute to a special woman. Thanks for sharing a slice of your heart.

    My heart hurts for you tonight.

    Sent from one smart cookie (my phone) >

  2. Wow, thanks for this! It brings back so many memories that were on the brink of leaving. I remember your sailboat string art, Mrs. Baumeister’s yelling, that oddly weird & spongy grass by the green steps. Also remember the “guest house” which was really a rich kid’s playhouse at one time, with it’s miniature furnishings. The car was truly amazing, and it was many years later that I realized Nana drove a muscle car.

    The living room really was dark and creepy, but I liked that painting for some reason. She had a weird mechanical rolodex next to the phone with the shoulder rest attached. The bear-climbing-a-tree coat rack in the vestibule where nobody actually ever came or went. The back room section where the dogs got their baths that smelled like flea powder, except everyone (inclusive of humans) still had fleas. That cabana was cold, had two changing rooms, and was filled with citranella candles and vintage pool floats. It had a weird smell like someone had spilled last decade’s pool chlorine. There was a snake-like robot pool cleaner that terrified me.

    We never did art projects, but she liked to tell me stories. I’d ask her about her experience during WW2, if she remembered when the Hindenburg crashed, who our other relatives were. She’d sometimes fall asleep mid story, then wake up and continue like nothing had happened. I kick myself for not writing them down, because she was sharp and remembered so much detail.

    When I think about her now, i think about the incredible amount of change she witnessed in her lifetime. I have a hard time imagining that any generation has ever witnessed more. The car, two world wars, human flight, the moon landing, the first calculator to personal computers, the rise and fall of communism and our conflicts against it, 17 presidents including both Roosevelts. Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the WPA. The General Slocum, the Hindenburg, and Titanic. When she was born there were only 45 United States. It’s an extraordinary lifetime of change.

    Thanks for keeping these memories alive, sis! =)

    • Thank you for adding these tidbits–these are great. I’d forgotten about that scary pool cleaner. I have more (remember how Snoopy could jump over the pool fence to get a ball? the organ where I composed Flight of the Mosquito?). In hindsight, it didn’t look like the grandma of storybooks, but this is OUR Nana, and as a kid you aren’t encumbered by expectations of what your grandparents should be like. The change she witnessed over her lifetime was extraordinary.

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