My Nana was born in 1899, which as a child, confused me. How could someone be from the time before the 1900’s and be alive? To be fair, that would only make her 64 when I was born, the youngest child of her youngest child. Still, that number seemed to be magical, as if she was not only from another time, but from another dimension. She knew all kinds of old-fashioned things, lost arts and ways, that I found fascinating and comforting.
Nana was a professional nurturer. She had 5 daughters who grew up during and in the aftermath of the depression, and she was used to making due with whatever she could scrounge up to make a nice home for my grandfather and her daughters. She made the clothes my mother and aunts wore, cooked and baked everything they ate, and kept her modest house clean and covered with doilies. She excelled at the domestic arts, and was also a pretty decent painter for someone without any formal training.
When I was small, I would spend nearly every day at Nana’s with my mother, who it seems could not be trusted to be alone with me. My mother’s schizophrenia was barely reigned in during those years, and my father told the story of racing home from work with his heart in his throat after getting a phone call from my mother, who said that the voices were telling her to put the baby’s hand in the fan. The fact that I have both hands is a matter of that white-knuckle ride my father took, and the little bit of sense that told my mother to ask from help before obeying the voices. It was decided that we would spend every day with Nana, newly widowed, until Dad was done with work.
During those days, my Nana showered me with hugs and attention and love, all while endlessly listening to me prattle on. I don’t know how she stood the pain of seeing my mother, deteriorated to obviously paranoid and delusional, while keeping up with an active and very talkative toddler. When I got my own first home, I unwittingly started to decorate it like an old lady, trying to recreate the warmth and security I felt at Nana’s house.
She would make me very weak coffee with milk and sugar, so I could have coffee while she and my mother did. I had an old playset of pots and pans at her house, handed down a million times, including dishes and a couple of food items – a plastic lobster, a corn on the cob, and one other thing I don’t quite recall. I don’t know how many meals I served Nana which were variations on that menu, but she happily ate them all, along with gallons of imaginary tea. I felt safe napping in her back bedroom, with the sound of the small planes from nearby Teterboro airport buzzing overhead as I slept on the chenille bedspread. Of course, she still believed that you treat burns with butter, and held some odd beliefs – “Let’s eat dessert before dinner tonight, like the Jewish people do.” – but was never unkind, and tried to keep the peace with everyone. My cousin once admitted to me that Nana told her, in strictest confidence, that she was her favorite grandchild. We laughed when I told her that I had been told the very same thing. I’ll be that all of the grandchildren got the same special message. Whether that was the healthiest thing or not is up for debate, but it made me feel special, and my cousin said the same.
There was a time, when I was a teenager, that I was angry at Nana for not having stepped in and helped us financially when my Dad could no longer afford our house, when I was four years old. In those days, health insurance didn’t do very much for mental illness, and my mother’s multiple shock treatments cost an extraordinary amount for a family living on a postman’s salary. Eventually, he could not pay both the medical bills and the mortgage, and something had to give. My father’s parents helped out a bit, but Nana didn’t. There was a belief in my mother’s family that somehow my father had caused my mother’s illness, because she had been fine up until childbirth. Unfortunately, it was childbirth that brought out her schizophrenic tendencies to the fore, but ignorance led them to blame my father, and therefore, no financial aid was forthcoming.
The shame of having to move back to apartments after having made it into a house was more than my father could bear. Besides the loss of face, the most heartbreaking part of losing our house was losing our family dog, who we could not take with us into the “no pets” apartments my father found. I watched as my brother handed over the leash of his beloved dog to strangers, and then watched his heart break into a million pieces, some of which he left on that front porch.
I held onto that anger for some years, trying to reconcile the loving woman I grew up with and the stingy woman who would let our family suffer such a downfall. With maturity, I came to understand that she was living on very modest means herself, and wasn’t in the position to save our house. Also, I could understand how it seemed like cause and effect that my father’s entrance into my mother’s life corresponded with a lively, intelligent and talented woman descending into madness. The heartache they must’ve felt to see such a change in my mother was probably overwhelming, and they needed somewhere to place the blame. So sad for my father that people’s understanding of mental illness was still in such an ignorant state at the time. He didn’t deserve any blame for anything, except for his drinking, which I’m sure he did to cope with a terrible situation.
Now that all of this is well in the past, I remember my Nana extremely fondly, and find that in times of trouble, I put myself back in her house, in that back bedroom, and I feel the warmth of the sun streaming in the window, while I snuggled in chenille, and the familiar sounds of the small airplanes buzzing overhead. I think of her when I take my coffee with too much milk and sugar, and I wish that I could talk to her now, woman to woman, and find out who she was when she wasn’t nurturing everyone else.