My Nana, Marie, was one of a kind. While I didn’t know her in her hey-day, I’m told she was fun-loving, funny, and had a great personality and sunny disposition. At one point in her life, she owned a business, a diner I think. Nana gave birth to six children, the first of whom was born while Nana was a teen, and who was raised as Nana’s sister. Nana’s adult life, and consequently the life of her family, was not easy. Among other things, Nana was an alcoholic, at a time when very little was understood about that crippling disease – and when the “treatment” was to lock her up for months at a time in the state mental hospital. (If you think they didn’t understand alcoholism back then, believe me, the understanding and treatment of mentally ill individuals was worse.) As the son who lived in town, my father often found himself in the role of caretaker to his mother. His stories, told with the distance of time, are both funny (in a macabre sense) and hair-raising.
I was a kid and didn’t know anything about that stuff. To me she was just my Nana Marie, and I loved her. Nana was a great baker. I can still remember the coconut cake, decorated with silver dragees, she made for my sister’s first communion. I also remember baking bread with her at her house. We made a tiny, child-sized loaf just for me, with a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar on the top crust.
Unlike my siblings, I got to spend some quality alone time with Nana. As luck had it, I was the only one who attended half-day kindergarten at the school across the street from her house. I have truly happy memories of time with Nana, going with her to the beauty parlor, baking, walking on errands in her neighborhood. After kindergarten, I moved on to the Cathedral grade school, and my half days with Nana ended. She passed away shortly after that.
Years later, in graduate school studying counseling, I first learned about the disease of alcoholism. Not that I hadn’t known of it before, but I learned details about its long-term effects and generational impact. I also learned more about the gritty realities. And I was horrified to realize that my parents had knowingly allowed me to spend time alone with someone whose alcoholism made her, by their own admission, untrustworthy.
That summer (when I was working on my MA), my father’s youngest sister visited from her home in Florida. We sat outside one warm, June or July evening, chatting and telling stories from the distant past. My aunt, who had been removed from Nana’s home to live with my grandfather and his second wife, made a comment about not understanding how a mother could let go of her child and never want to have contact again. And suddenly, a side of my mother emerged that surprised us all. She was on fire for the truth: and out came the story of how badly it had hurt Nana to lose her youngest child. Though kept secret from my aunt, Nana had written and called. Had begged for contact and been denied. Mom said, “I can’t let you go on believing she didn’t want you. Losing you broke her heart.” I can’t speak for anyone else who was there, but hearing that story broke mine.
As the vehemence of the conversation wound down, I remember saying, “Still, I’m a little shocked you let me spend time alone with her. I was awfully young, only five, and you knew she didn’t have good control.” And my mother, the woman of fierce compassion, responded, “She would call and beg me. I almost always said no, but sometimes, I just couldn’t bear to. She always promised she wouldn’t drink if I said yes, and she knew that if anything ever happened to you, it would be the last time.”
I sat on my parents’ porch late into the night, after the conversation had quieted and people began moving inside to get ready for bed. I thought about the sad stories I’d heard, and the things my parents saw and experienced in caring for my grandmother. I thought about how it was not right for children to endure these things, to have such grim pictures of a parent indelibly imprinted on their memories. And I realized something that has brought me a lot of joy ever since. I saw that my mother had given Nana more than quality time with one grandchild. What my mom did for her was to give her a rememberer: someone whose only memories of Marie are good ones. Shouldn’t we all have at least one person who remembers us as our best self? I am so happy to be that person for my Nana Marie.