The Women Before Me

nana-mom-meIn this house we have chocolate cake for breakfast.
We never bother with silly things like bedtimes or brushing our teeth.
—Practical Magic, 1998

Life is short. Eat dessert first.
—Mom (started by someone else, adopted by mom long ago)

Listen to your heart, honey. Your mind is far too practical.
—Nana, 1918-2014

I’d like to introduce you to the people responsible for all the wonderfully bizarre portions of my crazy. My mother, aka “I was raised by a crazy woman” as you’ve heard me refer to her. And my nana, aka Fran or Frannie by those in her life other than me. These two women are stronger than any man I’ve ever known, more amazing than any magic trick I’ve ever seen, and wiser than the most scholarly among us. And they’re mine.

My mother is one of the toughest, hardest, strictest people on the planet. She’s straight forward, no bullshit, and can be mean as hell, but has a heart that softens the blow. She’s also goofy, lighthearted, and has a silly streak with a twisted sense of humor. She taught me to stand up when I find myself face down, and to help even those that don’t deserve it. She will stand back and let me fail or fall, but is always there to patch the wounds, mental or physical. She has always supported my dreams with the commentary of keeping a day job and watching my back. And she’s been both my biggest supporter and worst critic when it comes to my writing (it took more than several publications and many years for her to actually like something without having anything bad to say about it—I was certain she was a pod person that day!). She’s a nutjob that can make me laugh at the silliest and/or meanest things (really Mom, the feeb count?). And she can shame me or shut me up with nothing but a look. She gave me the sense of humor I have, and the sensibilities I rely on. She taught me to be strong. She taught me to be practical. She taught me to survive.

But this is more about Nana than Mom.

My nana? She’s the sweetest, kindest, most joyful soul I’ve ever known. She taught me to fish, and dream. She supported my horror habits early on by allowing me to stay up late on Saturday-sleepovers and watch the horror double features on Night Owl Theater as a child. She’s the reason we take pictures of our mishaps before we call 911 (no really, I fell down the stairs when I was three and this woman took me to Sears to get professional portraits of my double black eyes). And she whispered the above quote to me when I was much younger than I needed to be to understand it—I get it now. To some, she’s this quiet onlooker, enjoying her spot at the edge of the family circle and listening to the ruckus and stories and laughter around her. To others she’s an adventurer, always up for the Casino or a trip (though we’ll get to that “one trip” later.). To me, she’s always been something else.

We had many a quiet conversation between us, and even more one-line commentaries of the actions around us. And in those moments I both laughed and cried. The time I caught her looking at my grandfather (her ex-husband of many years at that point) with a loving memory twinkling in her eye, I raised an eyebrow. Her quiet comment caught my breath and held my heart. “I will love that man for the rest of my life, but I will not marry him a third time.” It brings tears to my eyes to this day to remember that moment. To so fully understand the meaning of those words. Words that haunt me on occasion. And when he was dying in the hospital, then married to the red-headed-she-devil (no, it’s okay. I’ll call her that to her face, because my nana said I do not have to be nice to her), Nana waited for me to get to town. After hugs, she asked me to bring her to visit him, “Because I know you will get me in there without her.” I laughed. Drove her to the hospital. Vanquished the she-devil. And gave her the time she requested. Needed.

nana-rosesMany giggles came either from this wonderful woman, or because of her. When she turned 90 we had a big ‘ol shindig. Relatives from far and wide. My cousins who couldn’t make it sent 90 red roses. That’s a lot of damn roses, people. She was placed on the hearth surrounded by her roses for pictures, all prime and proper. Then my camera came out and the fun began. She laughingly played along when I requested the rose in the teeth shot at left (possibly my favorite picture of her), and the only reason she wouldn’t let me throw them all on the rug and have her pose ala American Beauty was, “I’ll never get back off the floor!” She always had a twinkle in her eye as she watched everyone around her (her love and pride for us evident), and often snickered at off-comments we would make to each other. She was silly and openly wicked with me in our whispering, and yet, no matter how old either of us got, I was still prone to climb up into her lap and cuddle.

See, I was lucky as a child. My aunts and uncle had all moved away from home, so my sister and I were the only grandchildren who were local and I got to spent a lot of time with Nana. When I was younger we lived only three houses away. When she moved to the country, we added a lot of Saturday-sleepovers to give Mom some breathing room. I have so many crazy memories of her. Far too many to list them all, but a couple highlights would be apropos I suppose. Sitting on the huge JC Penny’s catalog at the table so I could reach (that was our booster seats back in the day and I’ve always been the short one). Being jealous of the wonderful smelling shakes she always made for the grown-ups (grasshoppers). Loving that she was allergic to strawberries but grew them anyway so my sister and I could gorge ourselves on them (yes, she’s the reason for my strawberry problem). Sending me to the garden to pick peas, fully aware I was going to eat more than I brought back into the house. Black patten leather shoes. White fur coat complete with muffs on a five year old. The dessert cart. Accidentally bleaching the one pair of name-brand pants I ever owned. Knowing that she purposely let me climb the pine tree and learn for myself why sapping trees are no friend to little girls with long hair. Crock pickles. Pointing at a vast forest at the edge of the river and saying, “Your great-grandmother is buried by that tree”—which one, Nana?! Making tents out of sheets on her clotheslines. That childhood Little Golden Book that I am determined to get my hands on for my little Raynebow. Hiding for hours in a corner of her attic because it smelled of age and memories and secrets. Her music box and Estee Lauder powder. The fake white Christmas tree. And that morning I was leaving the house to go to my first class of the day in college, and she was sauntering in with a smile on her face to visit mom—having JUST ended her hot date from the night before (go Nana!).

She survived the depression with a family living in her chicken coop. She was a nurse, mother of four, a single mother for a time, married and divorced my grandfather twice, worked her butt off, loved as hard as she lived, and lived a long full life. She was amazing. She taught me many things, and gave me advice so I could learn many more for myself.

The funniest lesson I take away with me is the one she taught me by making the mistake herself. See, that hot date from above turned into an honest-to-goodness boyfriend, and he absolutely adored her. Mom and I giggled at him being an older man (she was 70 he was 85). At one point, he wanted to take her on a trip to Europe to have an adventure. She declined. I gasped at her decision and occasionally teased her afterwards. And in the end, the last time we discussed it, we decided “if a man offers to take you to another country for an adventure—you pack your suitcase!” It’s the only mistake I’ll ever admit she made in her many years.

Looking over this, I see I’m bouncing between present tense and past. I’m not fixing it. I’m still adjusting to the reality of her passing. It’ll adjust itself with time, when I’m ready. Sleep tight, Nana. Thank you for helping to make me the wonderful-crazy I am today. I hold your memories and lessons dear, and will never forget either.

Note: I wrote this before the funeral, but it needs a brief addendum. A nursing student interviewed her for an assignment a while back and we had it printed and posted at the funeral. From the end of that paper — Frances believes she’s had a pretty good life, with ups and downs, goods and bads, but if given the choice, she wouldn’t change anything about it. If she could give any advice for the living she would say, “Just be happy.”

Will do, Nana.



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