Nana (October 2010)

Note: my wonderful Nana, Florence, passed away October 2010, at the age of 98.  She was too amazing, as you’ll see.  I wanted to write something and read it at her funeral, but my sister convinced me that it’d be too long and nobody would want to sit through it.  

I’m not sure I could’ve gotten through it myself.  But here it is, in the extended version.

A few years ago I wrote a story in which the beloved Nana of a main character died.  My character was a journalist, and so her Nana wisely chose her to deliver the eulogy.  What I wrote was simple and, I thought, moving.  In fact, a writer friend of mine asked for permission to use parts of it when she killed off her main character in an epic story she was writing.  Of course, it’s a different business when it’s your loved one who’s passing or passed away.

These last few months, my Nana’s been on my mind almost constantly.  I’ve been trying to think of a single word that would characterize her.  And I finally came up with one.  I know maybe the great-grandchildren won’t agree with me on this one, but the word is ENERGY.

How else can you describe a woman who gave so much to her family for so very long?  She got married in her mid-20s and was a mom within two years.  Then her two oldest daughters got married in their mid-20s, and became moms within a year.  So, by the time she was fifty, she was a grandma four times over, that fourth time on her own 50th birthday.  By contrast, I’m forty-nine now, and my girls are just 16 and 10.  Imagine how much energy you’d have if you were a grandparent at just fifty, knowing that your kids had grown up, married, and settled down; and you could enjoy that next generation…then send them home when they got to be too much for you.  I can’t do that.

When the four of us, my sister and I, and my cousins Scott and Cheryl, were born, it was the 1960’s.  The 60’s were maybe the last decade when women either wanted to, or were expected to, or could afford to, stay home with their kids.  My dad worked, and so my own mom was what used to be called a housewife, and my sister and I did our best to drive her nuts.  I’m sure we succeeded on more than one occasion.  But I’m sure mom also knew that help wasn’t too far away; once we moved from my folks’ original apartment in north Jersey, we got a house within walking distance from where Nana and Pappa lived.  Even when we moved to Howell Court, we were still just a five-minute drive away.

My Aunt Mar and Uncle Dave, on the other hand, both had jobs that meant they were out of their home all day.  In those pre-daycare days, what would you do?  I mean, nobody would turn their kids over to strangers to be fed, burped and cleaned, right?  Even leaving out the potential cost, who could do such a thing?  It was almost unheard of.  Our family had a secret weapon: Nana.  She practically raised Scott and Cheryl, and later, our younger cousin, Nick.  I recall spending many a preschool weekday at her house myself.

I have to tell you, I was jealous of Cheryl and Scott, because even though we saw Nana often, they got to be with her ALL THE TIME when they were little, and beyond—even when they started school, they often spent afternoons there too. (No after-school programs that I knew of, back then.)  They were SO lucky!  But I knew by then that I was fortunate too.  Not only did I have a full set of grandparents in those early years, but mine lived just down the road, not in another state, or even another city.  Why would your grandparents live somewhere else where you couldn’t see them all the time?  What was that about?

When I was little, Nana constantly amazed me.  Unlike my own mom’s, and, I admit, my own, her handbag was a marvel of organization.  She always knew where everything was, and if a child needed a tissue or a stick of gum while in church, or anywhere else, she could find it immediately, with no digging.   Nana was a buffer between siblings while in quieter places, making sure we failed yet again to fight and/or kill each other.

She was a wonderful caregiver, and an excellent cook.  She may not have taught me to cook, but I still use some of her recipes, which she was kind enough to give me some years ago, after I got married.

I always tell my kids about her potato and tomato salad, the taste which I’ve never been able to duplicate.  I console myself with the thought that it must be the lack of Jersey tomatoes where I live that causes this issue.  She used to fry us hamburgers in her little skillet, and serve them to us on Wonder Bread with the crusts cut off—a messy dish, sure, on that very soft bread, but one we loved.  Her white metal pantry cabinets always held candy for us kids, usually Baby Ruths or whatever our Pappa liked.  For him, when he was home for lunch or dinner, she used to make a dish that still grosses me out—a mixture of meat, eggs and escarole she called giumbaut (not sure about the spelling).  And, of course, all the other wonderful Italian dishes in her repertoire.

Family holiday dinners at her little house were absolutely crazy.  The adults ate in the living room.  I always seem to remember that we’d bring in the picnic table from outside for that purpose.  Us kids, just the four oldest cousins at the time, got to eat at the little kitchen table, closest to where the food was prepared.  It was loud to all of us, but for Nana, who was raised with I-still-can’t-remember-how-many siblings, it probably seemed a lot quieter.   She’d grown up surrounded by family; we were lucky enough to carry on that tradition for her and with her.  I remember her telling me that in the early 1930s, in the depths of the Great Depression, that all of her siblings of working age had jobs, so money was never a difficulty at that time.  She told me she wasn’t even AWARE of the Depression till she got married and it was just the two of them, with one income.

Nana had originally planned to be trained as a dietician, but those plans were abandoned in favor of her husband and kids.  I loved hearing her stories about her family, especially her oldest brother Jim, who at a certain point was estranged from the family and was never really seen by them after that.  I wish I could remember if she told me why that happened.  She told me about her mom and dad and how they met; the mysterious origins of her father and how the woman who raised him wasn’t his mother, or even a blood relation, but who had given him her last name, De Marco.

She told us about the scandal in her family when her oldest sister, Mary, and another sister, Anna, both married men literally old enough to be their father; and how, in the 1940s, an oppressively Catholic time, one of her sisters wasn’t even allowed to have a non-Catholic in her bridal party.  Many of these things were shocking to me at the time she told me, but what I didn’t understand at first was that she was from a different time, and even a much different world, where things that seem small now could tear a family apart.  I know she never wanted that for us.

She met our Pappa, Nick, when she was 19, married him 5 years later, and lost him 35 years after that, when the four oldest cousins were in grade school, and when his namesake, Nicky, was a toddler. We were heartbroken, all of us, but none of us the way Nana surely was.  I didn’t go to the funeral, since I was just 11, but I’ll never forget my big, strong Uncle Dave coming back to the house in tears afterwards.   That, more than anything, was a sign of how final that event was.  I didn’t even see my Nana cry until several days later.

I’ve forgotten to mention her sense of humor, which could be a little bawdy at times.  She referred to her lady parts as her “cookie,” and once actually I saw her hold a platter near her lower abdomen, stating she was “putting her cookie on a plate.”  (Yeah, and I’m really not kidding.  I almost wish I was.)  Anytime we received a money gift in her presence, she’d claim that the recipient owed her those funds.  And let’s not forget what she tried to pull over on her married granddaughters: patting her lap and beckoning our husbands to her, insisting she loved them more than their wives did.  Sometimes they took the bait and pretended to be tempted.  She was hilarious; we all loved it.

Nana was amazing in a different way, too.  She was what I liked to call the psychic in our family (I maintain that each Italian family has just one at a time).  She told me about the various superstitions she’d grown up with as the child of two immigrants, and the ways they might affect your life.  Also, she was able to predict the gender of all six grandchildren, and about half her great-granchildren as well.  The exception was my cousin Scott, who’d moved out-of-state, and whose wife was unavailable for Nana’s personal service.

Her method was simple: when I was pregnant with my first child, I stood near her, and she put one hand on my belly, and the other on my butt.  In short order, she proclaimed I was having a girl.  My doctor was amazed by this non-invasive procedure when I told him about it, and said he “could sure use someone like that here.”  After my daughter was born, Nana looked at the way her hair grew on top of her head, and told me the next time, I would again have a girl.  My sister, on the other hand, has two sons; she consulted Nana when they were considering baby #3.  Nana told her she could hope for a girl, but she would undoubtedly have another boy.  So this is why I have two nephews on that side instead of three.

Even though she never really asked us for anything in celebration of her birthdays, or Christmas, we tried over the years to get her great gifts, ones that we hoped would be able to convey how much we loved and appreciated her.  At first, the grandchildren gave her little knickknacks, like tiny ceramic figurines that bore legends like “I Love You This Much”.  I do seem to recall one memorable Christmas when my aunt, uncle and cousins bought her a padded toliet seat.  As silly as that sounds, she loved it.  It was crazy.  We’d send her flowers, but she told us she didn’t like them because “flowers die.”  One of my cousins then had the bright idea of replacing flowers with balloons; that too was a big hit.  Most recently, I’d send her a mini Christmas tree, with its own set of ornaments and lights, to commemorate all the Christmases I’d spent at her house, in her fortunate company.

She really didn’t like the idea of us having parties for her; yet, under the guise of a graduation party for me, we managed to fool her into attending her own 70th birthday party at my folks’ house.  In fact, her younger sister Margie even stayed at her house, cooking for days the food meant to be served at “my” party.  Many years later, after I was married and living a thousand miles away, the rest of the family lured her to another celebration: her 90th.  She may not have been thrilled about the whole idea at first, but she was by all accounts delighted with that surprise.  I was sorry my husband, kids and I had to miss it.  Lucky for me, both those occasions were documented and turned into photo albums, which were always kept out for anyone to peruse and smile over.

Her house wasn’t the largest or the fanciest.  Good Lord, she had furniture that was probably thirty years old when she passed away; the paintings on the walls never changed; and the carpet, if I recall correctly, was still orange.  She refused to have anyone come in to replace it and make it less ugly.  But the smallish entertainment center held many pictures of us, so many that new ones had to be placed in the front of each frame, covering up the older photos.  There was even one of all the grandchildren with our respective spouses or fiances, taken a month or two before my wedding specially for Nana.  And I haven’t even mentioned the photo collages in the hall, all of which assured Nana of familiar, beloved faces within her sight almost all the time.

This last bears out the one really true thing I wrote in my fictional eulogy: that all Nana ever wanted was to be surrounded by those she loved.  On Christmas Eve, just before the traditional fish dinner, we’d all get up and walk around, hugging and kissing and wishing each other a Merry Christmas.  All except Nana, that is; as the matriarch of our little clan, she simply sat in the dining room in sort of a place of honor.  She accepted our wishes and returned them to us, along with the kisses and love we always knew we could count on from her.  We may have tried to protect her feelings over the years, glossing over or omitting things that we felt could hurt her, but she was always most concerned about how we felt.  She accepted all from those she loved, without judging harshly, always loving us back.

We were fortunate to have known her, to have had her love for so many years.  And so we gather one last time around her, so that she might feel our love again, and remember it always, as will we.