My grandmother died in 1994 and not a day goes by when I don’t think about her. Her habits, techniques, opinions and spirit permeate my daily activities. I chose Nana as my grandmother name (as did my sister) because she was Nana. I have three siblings and I was always sure that Nana loved me best. As I grew up, I realized each of us felt that way. That was the power of Nana.
Nana did not have an easy life. She was orphaned in her early teens and married a man who physically abused her to the point of hospitalization. My mother recalls learning early to stay out of his way. My grandmother divorced him in an era where divorce was a stigma. She raised four kids plus the niece and nephew of her ex-husband. Plus took in a boarder and his son. She worked in the woolen mills to support this family. Their small house did not have indoor plumbing. She never learned to drive a car. She had to endure the tragedy of losing a son to a factory explosion. A daughter developed crippling mental illness.
She married that boarder (which was undoubtedly a scandal at the time) and they moved to his family homestead which they lovingly restored. Just as things were looking up, he suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak or walk.
And, yet, she did not feel sorry for herself. She carried on. She taught her husband – my Grampy – to walk and speak again. She tended an enormous vegetable garden which fed them year around. Nothing was wasted. Not a vegetable, not the water the vegetable was cooked in. (“All the vitamins are in that water.”) Before it was fashionable, she foraged, she ate local and produced artisan pickles. She made quilts, afghans, doilies, ceramics. She cooked and cooked. She watched her soap opera and drank tea after school with my little sister.
Toys at Nana’s were simple. Lincoln logs. A roll of butcher paper and pencils (not even colored ones). But we were never bored. It was at her house that we learned about nature. How to find fiddleheads in the woods, which weeds are “good” to eat, how to hunt for salamanders after the rain. Speaking of rain, during heavy, warm summer downpours, we were allowed to grab a bar of soap and “bathe” outside.
Growing up in a large family, it can be hard to feel noticed. Nana had the time for each us and honored our uniqueness. When you couldn’t talk to your parents about something, she was both a great listener and a wise advisor. Despite what may seem like a considerable amount of misfortunate in her life, Nana was endlessly optimistic and ever cheerful.
I was fortunate to have my grandmother in my life into my thirties. Although I wish for more, I know she lives on. She lives in my own humble garden where there are cuttings from her plants and a large white stone that accented one of her her perennial beds. She lives in my house where examples of her handiwork and her collection of carnival glass abound. Most of all, my Nana is in my heart where she now shares space with a little girl named Lo. It is probably too aspirational for me to be for Lo what Dorothy Kelly Springer is to me.
And yet, I will strive to be a Nana who loves unconditionally, teaches the simple magic of the world but doesn’t make her eat dandelion greens.