My grandmother kept an enormous spruce burl in her front yard. It was nearly five feet tall, taller than my childhood self, a section of main trunk over a foot in diameter, the burl bulged out wider than my arms could reach around the base like an old man’s belly. Nanny was a painter and as a child one of my favorite paintings was of this burl. Her specialty was semi abstract natural subjects, and she had finished this particular painting by pressing the open end of a small glass jar repeatedly into the thick wet paint, spotting the work with perfect circles. She officially called it ‘Milton’s Burl’, a sideways nod to the mid twentieth century entertainer, but the family name for the painting was ‘Lawrence Whelk’s Dick’, in reference to both the phallic nature of the burl, and the bubbles that floated through the painting and Whelk’s television show.
Nanny held on to that wicked sense of humor for her entire life. 1999 was the year the movie Magnolia came out and I had heard it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Our local theater was still trying to make a go of it featuring less commercial, less main stream, independent-ish films, so when Magnolia played there, I took my mother and my grandmother. If you remember anything about this film, you will remember that it was a. over three hours long, and b. incredibly vulgar (rated R for strong language doesn’t quite cover the C bombs and F bombs dropped throughout). I didn’t know either of these things when I invited them to see the movie with me, I just knew that it was supposed to be good, it was nominated for Best Picture after all. As we sat through this interminable movie, I sunk lower and lower in my seat, wondering how it was possible that I had brought my 83 year old grandmother to see a movie that featured Tom Cruise as misogynistic sexual self help guru for men. When the lights came up and the shell shocked audience shuffled from the theater, Nanny turned to my mother and said with a straight face “I didn’t know it would be so f#*$ing long”. We laughed and I knew that I had been forgiven.
I ran to her house today, heading down Backshore Road in the rain. Is it possible to run back through time? I ran towards the house who’s door was always open to me no questions asked, where I knew where the cookies were kept, where you could watch the sun set over Penobscot Bay. It’s where I learned to ride my bike, where trout lilies bloomed in the woods, where the rocks on the shore changed their positions in winter storms and spring would bring new beach constellations to learn. It’s the place my heart aches for, part nostalgia, part blood on the soil. I don’t know what I was anticipating as I approached the house and stood in the drive way searching for the lines of the old house in the renovations the new owners have done. I thought I might be sad, that I might cry. Instead I stood there marveling at the old nested in the new. Then the door opened and the house’s new owner G stepped out and asked if I had knocked, said he was sure he heard some one knocking. I said no, and quickly introduced myself to explain why, though I had not knocked on his door, I was apparently stalking the house from the driveway. When he realized I had not been in the house since they renovated, he graciously invited me in to see. What struck me was how much remained intact, how the bones of the house, the contours, still showed through. The stairwell here, the deck there, this window, that view. It was an entirely different house, yet there were these physical echoes that held me close, that held my heart. Just enough to be of comfort in the face of such change.
If you are lucky in your life you have some one who loves you unconditionally, who you never turn away from, who you always strive to make proud. During those dark years when I hated my parents, Nanny was the one who taught me to drive a stick shift. When my first adult relationship fell apart because I walked away from it and fell in love with some one else, it was at her kitchen table I sat as she opened a bottle of wine and lent me a sympathetic ear. When dementia set in and leaving the assisted living facility made her anxious, I could still take her to the ice cream shack across the street, and sit with her as the soft serve melted into a fantastic mess all over her face and hands. I was the last person in the family to speak with her before she died. I was leaving for Spain the next day, and I stopped by the nursing home to say good bye. When I explained where I was going her eyes brightened and she told me she wished she were going too. A different sort of adventure lay ahead for her. That night, after my cousin called and told me to go to the hospital, and the ED doctor told us she was unconscious and that she was dying I sat next to her hospital bed holding her hand and laying my head on the edge of the mattress. I told her everything you tell the dying, and then I told her more. When I finally left it was 3 in the morning and I drove home slowly on a road untracked and lightly covered with snow. The next day I flew to Spain, knowing she’d never forgive me if I cancelled my trip for her, and that I’d never see her again.
Nanny was my first hero, and I can only hope that I am living a life that meets her expectations. I try to cultivate enthusiasm and curiosity and appreciation for beauty. Her profession was art, mine is writing and science and I am learning to approach my craft with the same discipline she gave to hers. For better or worse I embrace her old fashioned love of dairy products (though I don’t drink butter milk by the glass like she did) and when I need comfort food it is her spaghetti sauce I crave. She would have been 98 today and that makes it a good day to devote some time to her memory, to feel the weight of her lasting influence on my life, to re-member (literally) the values we held in common, and move them to the top of the list.
When I turn around and look ahead I see my 8 year old niece. The person my Nanny was for me, I want to be for her. I don’t think I can choose her heroes for her, but I’m going to try my hardest to inspire her and love her and support her in all of her endeavors. I want her to feel an ownership of my house the same way I did my grandmother’s. I want to teach her how to drive. My grandmother and my niece shared this world for three years delighting in each other’s presence every time they met. We should all be so lucky. Happy Birthday Nanny. Once again, the joke’s on me. Thanks for opening that door for me one more time.