A repost: part six of my Nana stories. - Cricket
Though she played the part admirably when it suited her, my grandmother was no sweet little old lady. She was far more Dorothy Parker than Betty Crocker. She had a penetrating intelligence and a quick wit. A sharp eye and a sharp tongue. Had she ever acquired the habit, she would have made a rare drunk. She played favorites ruthlessly and made no secret that I was her favorite.
This did not always endear me to the rest of the family. In the end, I was largely forgiven. The matter was out of my control in any case. I think it was clear that our love for each other was genuine. I could tolerate her when few others could. She would accept my company even in her black moods. It was the sort of relationship you might find between two porcupines: prickly on the outside, tender underneath.
Almost every Boston-Irish family tree has an Italian branch. Mine is no exception. In 1912 my grandmother's father sailed from Naples. Possibly he was from Casa Macchia di Pietro in Calabria. Perhaps not. He was 28. I know little else about him beyond this.
My grandmother's childhood was brief and unhappy. On this point she and her brother firmly agreed. For most of the family, to ask about these early years was to enter very dangerous territory. She and I seemed to have a tacit agreement. I was free to ask what I liked as long as I did not expect a truthful answer.
I think she wanted me to remember her life the way she wished it had been. It was her way of making peace with the past. She shared with me what she chose and took the rest with her. I loved her too much to ask for more.
Though she likely had roots among rough-hewn Calabrian farmers, there was more than a touch of ancient Rome about her. She had a strong presence despite her physical frailty. I could easily imagine her in the company of Julia Augusta, perhaps even as the transmigrated soul of the Lady herself, if I believed such things.
She took her role as matriarch very seriously. You did not visit my grandmother. You paid court to her. You needed to be sensitive to her moods and observant of the rituals. Though it could be exhausting, I mostly enjoyed the game. There was something timeless about it. As I grew older, there was a subtle shift. She began to treat me a bit more like a grown man. Still, there was never any question of equality. She was my grandmother and I was there to serve. That was our economy.
Servant, butler, valet and chauffeur. Cook, sous-chef, handyman and gardener. Assistant, undersecretary, jester and minstrel. In a pinch, manicurist and barber. I had to be prepared to play any of these roles at any time. Sometimes several at once. I was not her only help, of course, but from the length of my to-do lists, it seemed many tasks were mine alone.
As the MS slowly took more of her mobility, my to-do lists grew. In the end, she had to move from the antique houses she preferred to a modern assisted-living apartment. Strangely, this was the one year that we did not get along. At first, we both thought it would be all for the good. She would have access to round-the-clock help and I would have less work to do. Her apartment was nice enough and she made use of all the services offered. Yet we grew ever more peevish with each other. Our visits were tense, crabby, and further apart.
We had thoughtlessly sacrificed the way we showed each other love: she put aside her fierce independence to ask for help, I provided it. Our love was not an abstract thing. It was an organic part of living our lives together. We could not live separate lives, then come together to compare notes. We had to share the details: making beds, cleaning bathrooms, preparing dinner. Sometimes the simplest things are the most important. Somehow we found our way back. Love never fails.
Many of Nana's neighbors found an excuse to visit when I was there. At times, there was a steady stream of callers. She always received them politely, her impatience visible to me alone. Yet I wondered about this. What drew them there? In all seriousness, I think it was the onions.
It was an assisted-living complex, not a nursing home. The residents were free to live as they liked. All the apartments had kitchens. Few people used them, though. Most chose to take their meals in the first-floor dining room. The halls seemed sterile. But Nana and I were busy cooking. Baking bread, simmering sauces, frying garlic and onions, preparing her meals for the week. In her apartment, life was still being lived. I think her visitors were drawn in on the aroma of the onions. Perhaps they were wondering if they had lost something.
Nana's door is never locked. To lock the door would mean a painful trek across the room to unlock it. Besides, she is expecting me. I knock anyway, then enter.
She sits writing at a corner table. Looking up, she fixes me with an appraising eye.
My God, you're getting fat, Christopher. What you need is a good diet.
The whole tone of our day will be set by my reply. I pause briefly.
I love you too, Nana.
She softens and smiles. I have said the right thing.
The coffee here is terrible. Tastes like it was made with tobacco. I saved it for you.
There is no irony in her voice. I smile. So begins a new day as life goes on.
It is not better to give than to receive. It is essential to do both. They are two sides of one coin. In giving, we receive. In receiving, we give. In this we create the ties that bind us together. This is how life was meant to be.
Sometimes the simplest things are the most important.