Monday, July 26, 2010

A tale of two women

Since I started work last Monday (I know you're wondering how it is but I'd rather speak of such things anonymously on an anon blog I'm starting this week), there are things I miss from my pre-work life. Waking up without setting an alarm the night before...writing in the afternoons...lunching with family...staying up late to watch Gone With the Wind (again) on TCM (even though I own it) just because I can. But most of all, I miss hanging out with The Nana.

That six-week period, between when we moved back to California and when I had to start work, was amazing (for lack of a better term, and I know I overuse that word often but I really can't think of any other way to describe it at the moment). Having the freedom of my daylight hours to reconnect with Nana (who I wasn't that close to growing up) was wonderful. Though she's much older now, it was like I was given a second chance to reintroduce myself to her (and vice versa). And all it took was six weeks to erase a lifetime of formality and acquaintance.

It was grand. We'd go shopping every afternoon and scour the aisles at stores all over the tri-county area, filling our carts with nothing we needed but everything we wanted. (Tubes of coral pink lipstick (all her), coffee mugs, dresses, giraffe-print tote boxes, sterling silver wine-stoppers, authentic Portuguese olive oil. You name it, we bought it. (Her cart, suffice to say, was always much more filled than mine -- this was before I had the job, after all.)

We'd leave stores toting our wares in giant plastic bags, laughing the whole way home in her Volvo station wagon or her Land Yacht (a ginormous black Lincoln that belonged to my late grandfather) about the four ceramic chickens (of varying shapes and sizes) that I'd talked her into buying because of her well-documented obsession with the animal (they're all over her house: chicken sculptures, chicken tablecloths, chicken-shaped candles, chicken-print doormats. Heck, she actually just bought a red wingback chair with little chickens embroidered all over it. Without me, of course. I had to work that day. *pouts*)

If we weren't shopping for ceramic chickens or olive oil, than we were doing our other favorite thing together: antiquing. We'd spend hours at consignment shops and antique stores, strolling through the aisles and running our hands -- first old, than young -- across the wooden finishes of old tables and chairs and benches, marveling at the potential in such things with just a bit of sanding and the right stain. It was during these days in particular that I learned a lot from Nana, who's like the Obi Wan Kenobi of antiquing and furniture refinishing. Seriously. I am but a young Jedi when it comes to her knowledge of such things; she's been doing it all her life, back to her Betty Draper years -- yes she was a platinum blond with piercing blue eyes -- when she used to put my dad and his siblings to work sanding down dressers and tables with her in the backyard of their big stately house on a red-brick, tree-lined road in Moline, Illinois.

Anyway, every day the lunching and shopping would draw to a close (usually around 3pm), and we'd make our way back to her house where she'd reminisce about her life over a couple glasses of her classic iced tea (the secret ingredient? Crystal Light). It was during these conversations that I learned far more than I'd ever known about Nana. Sure I'd seen pictures of her back when she was spry (including one of her in a swimsuit on a beach feeding a sandwich to a man, who I should probably add was not my grandfather, on the cover of a 1940s copy of Holiday Magazine), but I never really pictured her having a life before my dad.

It's funny, isn't it? How certain people -- older family members, teachers, etc. -- all get frozen to a particular time period we tether them too? There is no beginning or ending for these kind of people. They just "are" -- held in place in our lives by markers like fathers and mothers, birthdays or graduations, Thanksgivings or Christmases. And any pictures we see of them outside of our parameters don't seem real. Like the Holiday cover my grandmother was on. I see it, but can't conceivably see that woman sitting on the beach, laughing with the sandwich in her hand, is actually who I've come to know as The Nana.

But over our iced teas every afternoon, between our shopping and our furniture refinishing, I began to see Nana as more than just...well...Nana. She actually had a life before she had kids and she even had a life before her marriage in the late '40s. Memories from her go back as far as the Great Depression, when she remembers neighbors and others in the community who'd lost everything come by her parents' house asking for handouts, food, anything to survive. She recounted her parents giving out food (luckily my great-grandparents were never affected by the Depression), and she remembered those people leaving, marking the stairs up to her front door with the symbol that food was being handed out at that address for any other passerbys desperate to eat. (Much like that "Hobo Code" Mad Men episode.)

She'd talk about her vacations in Florida as a young woman (just before she met my grandfather), when she and her girlfriends would dance with WWII GIs returning from the war. Or she'd tell me how some of the most favorite moments in her life were back when she lived in Illinois, near her best friend who also happened to be her sister-in-law. The two of them would load their old Norman Rockwellian station wagon up with all the kids (I believe they had around 11, combined) and antique all day with their children in tow. Just two young women in the 1950s, enjoying their all-American lives full of antiques and picnics and summer trips to Lake Michigan before things got complicated (her SIL fell out of contact after Nana moved to California in the early '60s with my grandfather) and the kids grew up. It's these times, back before the world changed and the country lost its innocence in the mid-'60s and on, that Nana misses most. I can tell by the way she talks about it.

Shortly before I started work, on one of the last full days I had with her before we'd be rescinded to weekends (if that), she told me in the car that she didn't see me as a granddaughter.

"You're more than that," she explained, laughing in disbelief that she even felt that way. "I don't know how to explain it, but I don't feel like you're my 28-year-old granddaughter. I look at you and I don't think of an age; I feel like we're the same age. We get along so well, that you're more of a friend. A good friend." She smiled, and I smiled back.

"Well, age is just a number," I said. "There's no reason why our age difference should be a matter. 20s, 80s, who cares? 'Cause I feel the same way. You're not my grandmother; you're a good friend."

Finally. Not only had we reconnected, but we'd moved past that onto a different, higher plane.

I still see Nana here and there. I try to make it over for dinner once a week and if I have time I stop by on the weekends, but because I work 40+ hours a week it'll never be the same. Then I start feeling differing shades of blue throughout my workday because of it. True, we have that bond that at this point is impervious to time, but still. It's different. I feel -- since starting work -- that there isn't enough time...and Nana's not getting any younger. I sit at my desk in SF, wishing I could be back in that station wagon across the bay, en route to some antique store or new Italian restaurant, listening to her stories. And then I feel sad, as though in a way I'm losing her all over again.


paisley penguin said...

I think it is so great you were able to reconnect with her and really create a friendship. This is something you will cary with you for the rest of your life.

Tears again at work (but good ones). Haev an AWESOME day!:)

Tami said...

all the more reason to make every single nanosecond count. My gma passed away when I was 15 and I regret not having more time to really know her.

Jessica @ Wanting Adventure said...

That's so amazing that you were blessed with that time with her! It sounds divine. :)

CameronPoe2409 said...

Beautiful post, amazing to be able to share so many memories with your nana xx

Chris Rodell said...

What a rich and friendly relationship. I feel sad for people who dismiss any individual over age or other visual traits. They're the poorer for it.

Mandy said...

That brought mist to my eyes reading that. You probably brought so much joy to her life in these past six weeks and vice versa, obviously. What a wonderful gift you gave her -- just spending time with her and letting her tell her stories. Most 'older' folks just want someone to listen to them and make them feel like they're a person, not a body about to exit the earth. Be proud of what you did, of what she did and just keep telling stories....

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