Today, I dusted the woodwork in honor of my mother. The smell of Lemon Pledge always and immediately brings me back almost 40 years to those begrudging swipes at the table legs in the dining room every Saturday morning.
But, today, my brain meandered over to my grandmother. My father’s mother. Nana.
When I was very young, my mother was grappling with a new disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and I spent much of my time with Nana.
Aside: My mother was a member of the Association to Overcome Multiple Sclerosis and, during the Three Mile Island and Love Canal ’70s, she proudly slapped a sticker with the highly regrettable acronym on our Gran Torino wagon: “ATOMS.”
Nana would meet me at home after school when my mother had to be in rehab and she would stay with me all afternoon. On bad days (which were never identified as such), Nana would pick me up and we would go to her house for dinner or I would spend the night with Nana and my Aunt Mary, who lived with Nana because she had Down Syndrome. I think in the ’70s, that disease was referred to in a whisper and those who suffered it were shuttled to various institutions.
Not in my aunt’s case. Nana took care of her, well after my grandfather had passed away and well into her own older age.
I always knew Aunt Mary was so-called “special,” and the two of them were inseparable, except when Aunt Mary worked in the cafeteria at a local school. Those days, she would come home dressed in her work whites, ready for a light dinner (Who am I kidding? It was always a heavy meat and potato dinner with plenty of butter and cream…mmm…butter and cream…) before an evening of game shows. She would kick her legs, clap her hands, or open and close her mouth (sometimes all three at once) in suspense as she watched the contestants on Wheel of Fortune.
I would glance over at Nana at those moments because I liked to watch the growing affection on her face as she observed her daughter with humor and feigned annoyance.
For some reason, Aunt Mary had to miss Wheel of Fortune while I was there so Nana wrote out the answers in pencil on thick-lined yellow school paper for Aunt Mary to review later. I watched her, confused. What difference does it make?
Nana caught my eye, shrugged, and said, “She likes it.”
But don’t get me wrong. Nana was a terrifying person. As is evidenced by the picture here, I’m not entirely convinced she got along with my mom even though she cared for her during her illness. And, though I remember her as any grown child remembers a doting and loving grandmother, I’m pretty sure she didn’t keep her opinions to herself.
Not incidentally, I love this picture of my mother, my father, and my grandmother. There is some serious something going on there.
Nana was tough. This woman silenced me–the youngest of five, the brattiest of the bratty, the whiniest of the whiny–with one look after I slapped a boy who had a broken arm. If I cried, she would swipe her hand in the air. Bah. She would have none of it. NONE of it.
When I was about eleventeen and trying out all the personalities…Was I funny? Was I intriguing? Was I sexy? Was I brooding? Was I deep?…I walked home from school with my angry face to see whether that fit okay. When I got home, she said very seriously, “Sarah, I drove by you on your way home from school. You should always stand up straight and walk with a smile.” It took me another 15 years to figure it out, but she was right. And, after writing out the words she spoke, I see they aren’t scary. But she was disciplining me. And I was scared.
In the early ’80s when Eddie Murphy generated a retro love for the Little Rascals with his Buckwheat impersonation, I purchased with my own money a T-shirt with the original Buckwheat, done in the way many people wore Che Guevara at the same time, or how Shia LaBeouf wears it now…really?
I got up in the morning, unfolded my new T-shirt, and wore it proudly to the breakfast table. Nana turned from the stove where she was scrambling eggs (always with the scrambled eggs for breakfast and crinkle-cut fries with dinner), spatula in hand, and said with dismissive judgment–if there can even be such a thing–“Sarah, why are you wearing a black boy on your shirt?”
I removed the shirt immediately.
The summer she passed away, the entire family was at our lakehouse in Maine–I was raised in Massachusetts and we summered in Maine…I know…I know…I’m one of those. Nana was visiting for a spell, and we were walking up from the dock after a boat ride. Not a grueling or long walk back to the house, but there are stones in the way and even the youngest of us could use a hand.
Sure, I had seen cuts on Nana’s head in the past. She blamed cans falling from cabinets, but in retrospect I realize that may not have always been the case and possibly she was stumbling more than she admitted.
She rolled down toward the water and was caught by a group of small trees on the edge of the water. (In my mind, I see her as having been “embraced by a group of small trees,” but I know that’s too sentimental.)
She slowly stood, partially because I suspect she was slightly shocked, and partially because she was old and rickety. It was the first time I had seen weakness and I felt a weird mixture of fear and sadness.
When she got to her feet, she brushed aside our “Are you okays” and shot me a sharp look of reproach in response to my face full of pity. She glanced around hurriedly as she dusted off her blue wool skirt (I swear she always wore a blue wool suit) and said, “Where’s Mary?”
Maybe she was concerned that Mary hadn’t gotten off the boat with us. Maybe she was concerned that Mary might fall herself. Or, most likely, maybe she was concerned Mary had seen her fall and would be scared.
That’s my matriarch.