My 87-year-old nana, my dad’s mom, is the only grandmother I’ve ever known (my mom’s mom passed away when my mom was still in high school).
When I think back on our relationship, there are many memories – some fuzzy recollections, others vivid recounts of moments we’ve shared. I vaguely remember baths in my nana’s sink at the home my dad and his eight brothers and sisters grew up in just outside Chicago. I’ve asked Nana about this memory and she has said she loved to plop her grandbabies in the kitchen sink whenever she got a chance to wash our baby-soft skin and watch us happily splash in the water. I also have a picture of Nana, my older brother and me grinning as we eyed a monstrous ice cream sundae adorned with paper umbrellas that was surely a birthday treat to be shared. (My older brother and I share the same birthday.)
I remember her standing beside me as we posed for pictures on my Confirmation day as my sponsor and hoping that my faith would one day be as strong as hers (I’m definitely not there yet).
I recall phoning Nana on my wedding day and wishing she was with us to celebrate, but knowing she was praying for Dave and me and taking good care of my papa as he recovered from another bout of cancer.
I remember asking her questions about the Pope and the Catholic faith during a visit with her when I was still a newlywed. She answered my questions – some of them tough – succinctly and with a quiet assurance – a sure sign of a strong, unwavering faith.
I remember watching her hold Madeline, her first great-grandchild, for the first time and the way her liquid blue eyes shined with happiness. What a moment that was to see my nana holding my firstborn, three generations of women together in one space.
Just recently, I can hear her voice as she called to congratulate me for our newest reason to smile – another baby on his or her way. “It’s so wonderful that there are couples like you and Dave who aren’t afraid to have children.”
But sometimes I am afraid, and once I asked her how she did it.
“Did what?” Nana asked.
“Had nine kids,” I said. Like duh.
“Oh honey, if God gives you rabbits, He gives you grass,” was her response.
Clearly, Nana was of the God Family Planning mindset. God plans families; couples don’t.
I wasn’t sure about having nine rabbits or having enough grass to feed them, but I suspected I ought to take her word for it when she added, “God knows exactly the number of children you need. No one wakes up one day with ten kids. God gives you the graces as your family grows. You just have to trust Him.”
Aside from the memories and meaningful conversations between us, I’ve kept a stash of Nana’s letters to me. In one particular letter she wrote about volunteering with the Red Cross. As a granddaughter, I sometimes forget that she wasn’t always Nana or even a mom. She lived a whole other life before she became my grandma (she now has close to three dozen grandchildren). She even graduated from college – what a triumph for a woman in those days! I imagine she spent summers chasing fireflies with her sisters. I know she had a special devotion to her dad. Like any mother, she surely endured sleepless nights with a newborn and knew what it meant to be smashed with exhaustion. She was a girl, then a woman, then a newlywed, then a mom of little ones, just like me.
Nana hasn’t always had an easy life. She’s watched people die, including my papa, her husband of six decades. She lived with an alcoholic (also my papa, who was completely sober by the time I came into the world). But she’s never ever felt sorry for herself. I’ll meet other elderly people her age who seem so bitter or sad. All they can do is talk about their ailing bodies, all the loved ones they have lost, and their hardships. I can’t blame them, but when I talk to my nana and hear the cheeriness in her voice despite feeling lousy or her graceful acceptance of her aging body, I tell myself that’s she’s the kind of person I want to be if God willing, I make it to my eighties. It doesn’t hurt that her mind is as sharp as ever. She does New York Times crossword puzzles in ink and with a sure swiftness.
My nana is wise beyond her years even at almost 90, but she imparts wisdom without ever seeming holier than thou. She has always carried her crosses with dignity. She’s someone I will always think of as a model of faith. She’s my nana. She’s as wrinkled as a Sharpei with soft, downy hair the color of oatmeal that sticks up in odd places (she’s laughingly said she has permanent bed head), and she’s one of the most beautiful women I know.