On Friday evening, I stopped by to see my Nana. She lives right on the way, just halfway between my house and my parents’ house. At 96 years old, she is still on her feet and living independently in an apartment within a retirement community. I cannot get over how much change she has seen in her lifetime, a girl who grew up in rural Vermont in the early 20th century and traveled by horse and buggy. After she graduated from the University of Vermont, she traveled pre-WWII Europe when she was 22, in 1930. She was 90 when she traveled to China and stood before the Great Wall. In between those trips are more years of teaching, child raising, church attending, charity contributing, and piles of ironing to do than you would ever believe.
I brought a blooming plant and KFC meal combos, in the smallest size they had. We put the plant on the window sill. Nana, however, was still shocked by the size of the portions. “Oh, I’ll never be able to eat all this!” “It’s the smallest they had,” I told her. “Oh, my!” she declared. (I was quietly relieved that Nana had no idea how much I go out to eat these days and how much bigger the portions are than that). She had set two places at the tiny table where she usually eats alone. We sat down and I almost picked up my fork and started eating when she said we needed to have a prayer. She thanked God for bringing me to her safely and for the good food.
As we ate, I updated her on my life. I asked about her winter in Florida with my aunt’s family. Nana responded appropriately, but something wasn’t right. There was no liveliness, all spark and animation was missing. She could not relate anymore to my present life. Nana was still interested and still cared to know, but the meaning was gone for her. As I talked, sadness settled into my bones. Nana and I could not connect. In a paradoxical way, I have outgrown her and she has outlived me.
Nana said her eyes had gotten worse, and indeed, her eyes were beginning to have the unseeing look of the blind. She patted her food with her fork and commented several more times on how much food it was and how she wouldn’t be able to finish it all. I searched for something to talk about that she could relate to. I tried for some humor. I told her about my second cat and the time both cats locked themselves in our bedroom while we were away.
I looked around her small, tiny apartment, at the many pictures of her four children, eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. The painting of her husband, the grandfather I never met, who died of cancer in 1956. I noticed that Nana had put out small Easter bunny figurines on the table. I wondered how much of it Nana could still see. When I talked, I wondered how much she was hearing. I wondered how much she remembered of what happened just moments before. I could feel in Nana and in the room, a sad pall. Nana spends her days sitting quietly in her chair, going over and over past memories in her mind and answering the phone when family members call.
After dinner, we put everything away, with Nana complimenting me exuberantly for finishing my whole meal. The much commented-upon chicken that Nana was unable to finish was put in the fridge. I looked around the apartment again. I was looking for something, but didn’t know what. I looked at Nana’s calendar and was amused to notice that where she had initially written “April” but then scribbled it out and wrote “Sarah comes, 6pm”. These days she was forever getting me mixed up with my cousin April. I went over to the bookshelf and told Nana how I hoped to get ahold of many of her original photos, now scattered in the possessions of many grandchildren, so that I could scan them into the computer and preserve them. A photo album caught my eye, with a small handwritten mark on the side “80th Birthday”.
“Oh I remember that,” I said. I was ten years old when we had a big celebration and family reunion for Nana’s 80th birthday. I opened it up and realized that it was a collection of letters from the family in honor of the occasion. There was an illustration I had drawn and forgotten, of Nana getting out of her car with a suitcase and my family running out to greet her. Then I wrote a page about how much Nana meant to me and concluded with the poem “Nana is very nice, Nana is very caring, and she is not afraid of mice.” Then I knew I found what I was looking for.
Nana and I sat down and I read to her each letter that her children and grandchildren wrote for her. Their love poured off the pages. They brought Nana back to life. As I read, my voice getting repeatedly strangled with emotion, Nana alternated between teary eyes and laughing and laughing with delight. Her memory was sharp, she knew exactly who and what event each letter referred to. Her quick humor readily responded to each joke and humorous comment. Each letter in so many ways conveyed what made Nana so special– the inherent belief of each writer that in Nana or Mom’s eyes, each was most special and most loved.
As memories came flooding back to Nana, I was graced with the return of the Nana of my childhood. The Nana who came visiting with snickerdoodle cookies and homemade applesauce. Nana who knitted and crocheted beautiful afghans for each member of the family. Nana who wore stockings, a skirt and blouse every day of her life, but would still get right down and roll down a grassy hill with me. Nana who, always, eternally patient and willingly, played game after game with me- card games, board games, toys, Barbies, fort building, hide and seek (even in the dark). She explored the outdoors with me and took the orders of a bossy child seventy years younger than herself. Nana who told me “stories of when Daddy was little” over and over and rubbed my back until I fell asleep. Nana who watched over me when my parents went away. Nana who watched her small, fairheaded grandchildren play in a sunlit river and told herself she would remember this day the rest of her life.
Nana came back to me.
“Sarah,” she said when we were done. “You have given me a wonderful gift.” Her hand felt small and frail in mine. She said how as she was getting older, she wondered what use she was anymore. How she felt so stupid, doing things like spilling food on herself and not being able to see it. But hearing these letters reminded of how active she had been and how much she had done for others. “Oh Nana,” I said with all my heart, “you’re wonderful.” “This has done me a world of good,” she said.
I cried as I drove on to my parents’ house, because I could not accompany Nana in her slow, painful walk toward the sunset of her life. But I cherished too, how I did find a way to help, for an evening.
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Apr 12th 2004Uncategorized