Tuesday, September 30, 2014

At Nana's House

The kids play with a miniature ceramic tea set with broken handles on my nana's green shag carpet.  I remember the silver tea set I played with as a child, but I know it must be tarnished and hidden in the basement.  I have half a thought to go looking for it, but when I open the door to the basement, the steps are blocked with boxes that she has tossed down.  She can no longer climb the steep steps and has no way to store what won't fit upstairs.  We find trash frozen in the freezer so that it won't stink up the house until someone can come to carry it off.  I think about how fastidious she was when she was able, how we would tease her about how she wouldn't sit and talk after family meals but had to be up washing dishes and straightening up her already tidy house.  I would bring back cheap trinket souvenirs for her from our vacations until she started "hiring" me to come and dust all of her knick knacks.  Lesson learned.  But on a recent visit, she handed me a familiar plastic Shamu coffee cup for me to take home.  When I took it from her frail hand, it was heavier than I expected, and she explained that she had been filling it with her spare change for her great grandchildren.  I'm reminded of how she and my papa used to give me my weekly allowance, a five dollar bill folded neatly in thirds, and my weekly school lunch money in change in a brown paper bag, again folded in thirds, and secured with a rubber band.

My husband and I are the ones to slip them money now for the groceries and bills that Social Security doesn't fully cover.  My mom tries to refuse it, guilty and ashamed, but I remind her of the years she worked and struggled to take care of me, working multiple jobs and barely getting by.  She had nothing to put away to save as it all went to living expenses and the opportunity to provide a better future for me.  As a child I pleaded with her to give up a job so that I could see her more and wouldn't have to camp out some nights on my grandparents' pullout sofa while she worked the late shift.  I even promised that I wouldn't ask for anything for Christmas.  I realize now that must have broken her heart as she was working to pay for the roof over our head and the meals on the table.  Now I assure her that we have enough to share, that it is our pleasure, while also feeling guilty and ashamed myself that the little bits we offer aren't enough to replace her leaking roof, to provide a better life for them, to be more present and close in their lives.

Nana gave up driving years ago, but I remember having to call her when I missed the school bus in middle school and she would reluctantly drive the few miles to our house to take me to school.  It made me nervous how she would keep her feet on both the gas and brake pedals as she drove, making for a jerky ride.  She preferred to walk anyway and try to entice me for walks around the block after we ate meals at her house.  I, a chubby kid, would plead that we could drive around the block instead; pushing the pedals would be exercise, after all.  I wonder if she misses getting out.  She stays at home except for the occasional doctor's appointment.  We say she is lucky to have relatively good health and still such a sharp mind at 92, but she is longing for something better, the "golden years" she says she never really had since my grandfather died twenty years ago.

I have watched her and my mother grow closer over the couple years they have lived together, relying on one another and caring for each other in their weaknesses.  They have learned how to communicate better, to show the love that has come more easily between them and me but that has been difficult between the two of them.  We are a family of women, mostly matriarchs.  My grandmother is the oldest of six siblings, with just one baby brother among six girls.  My great-grandmother died in her nineties after outliving several husbands and lived independently until her death.  My grandmother has been widowed for over twenty years now, and my mom, my grandmother's only living child, has been alone since my dad died in his forties (I was five and my brother was eighteen at the time).  There has been much hardship, but it has born a gritty determination, a strong faith, independence, and strength in my grandmother.  I feel grateful that this, along with her love, is her legacy to me.  She is proud that I have always loved to read and learn and takes credit for this (where credit is due).

She wants me to take her dishes, the dishes I wished for years ago when we still gathered around the table regularly for family meals and holiday dinners.  They are totally impractical for our life--you can't put them in the dishwasher or microwave, they are delicate and fragile, and difficult and expensive to replace.  We have small children and a small house, so fine china has never been a necessity or even a good idea.  While I long for this connection to tradition and memories, I have resisted boxing it up.  It is a goodbye that I'm not ready to say, a marker of transitions that remain unspoken.  But there are other things I am collecting and packing up as I think about our stories and what makes up a legacy.

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