my nana

Ten years ago this week, my beloved grandmother lost her battle with breast cancer. She was 79 years young, at least until that horrible disease ravaged her body and took over her bones. 

She and I were very close from my beginning to her end. I am the only daughter of her only daughter. I was the first granddaughter. We three generations had a special bond. My Nana and I had an incredibly strong connection and served critical roles in each others’ lives. 

The summer after I was born (1969), my parents had a huge celebration. There is a four-year gap between my middle brother and me, in which came two miscarriages and prayers for another child. And yes, they were hoping for a girl to complete our family. My grandparents were so happy and proud that day. It was as if the whole family had declared, “behold and rejoice — it’s a girl!”

The summer I was five, my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack while playing golf. I remember the ride to the hospital in our old station wagon, sitting on a bench in the long white hallway as my mother went to identify him. We sat there in silence as Nana drank her ice water, worried, waiting. She was just 55. 

We were always close before, but after that it was different. She joined us on every family vacation and we became roommates, friends and travel partners. She’d pick me up at school, take me to dance class, come over for dinner, invite me for sleepovers, and we’d play cards and games or go to the movies. We spent a lot of time together, even more than with my mother, who had gone back to school when I started kindergarten. 

She was unconditional in her love and devotion to me. She always accepted and embraced me, even through the most difficult times. She was the best grandparent and friend a girl could have. 

She didn’t have much besides her adult children, grandkids, and some close friends. The family farm and store had burned down years before, leaving them with nothing as it was uninsured. She built a small dessert catering business from scratch — food was her comfort and baking her solace. She loved to feed everyone. She loved entertaining, and of course a good party. A number of our family pictures are of the dining room table “spread.” To Nana, food was like a good hug — a comforting expression of love and care.

Many of my most treasured childhood memories are in the kitchen with Nana (there’s a book there somewhere, I’m sure). I’d sit on the counter and watch or help in some way — stirring batter, buttering cake pans or lining cupcake pans, placing doilieson platters, and especially licking the bowl. It’s a wonder I never got salmonella from so much raw egg batter. She also cooked a few memorable dishes — e.g., fresh cioppino in summer — but baking was her specialty. Ah, the smells of the kitchen. 

She constantly tinkered with recipes, always trying to improve an already good thing. I inherited her love of food, and as an adult would often call her while in the kitchen, seeking tips. After she died, this was the hardest habit to break — I’d often catch myself picking up the phone in these moments and then remember. I also inherited her treasured recipe box, with her experimental adjustments scribbled in the margins from years ago. 

She was gloriously happy at our wedding. She adored the Amazing M and kept asking when we were going to get married. “I’m not getting any younger, you know,” she’d joke. She knew we were right for each other. We didn’t yet know the other reason for her prodding. She was so thrilled when we got engaged. She visited sites with me, helped plan the menu, and advised us on kitchen necessities. There’s a wonderful picture of the two of us on my wedding day, beaming in each other’s happiness. Just as the shot was snapped, we noticed her sunglasses had fallen into her ice water, and we are both laughing. 

Six months later, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. We learned that she had discovered a lump long before, yet she let it go. She hated doctors and hospitals. She hoped it would just kill her quietly. She told no one. After a few telltale signs of illness — loss of weight, appetite, weakness, exhaustion, a fall — she finally went to the doctor and her secret was revealed.

I was shocked, appalled and angry that she let it go for so long. I fell into a deep depression. She would put up a fight, but her prognosis was poor. I knew the outcome already. I knew she would suffer. I had watched my father succumb to cancer when I was 16 and I was aware of my anticipatory grief — I knew what it was like to lose someone before they were already gone. My body knew how to grieve, but that didn’t make it any easier. My mind was conflicted, my heart heavy. 

She went through surgery and treatment, hospital and home care. I visited her as often as I could, sitting with her while she rested, watching movies, making protein smoothies when she couldn’t bear to eat much. She even tried medicinal mari.juana, but it didn’t help as much as we had hoped. Even talking about food became another pressure. Losing the will to eat was devastating to her.

At one visit on a good day, M and I sat with her, listening to the story of how she met my grandfather, how he courted her, how they eloped when she was 18, and how my mother was born just a year later. I had heard the story before, but there was a beautiful light in her eyes as she retold it. It was as if she could see it, like she was re-living the experience. Her heart came through in the telling, and it was hard not to tear up when we could feel her joy and sadness in those precious moments.

Near the end, she was afraid to let go. We all told her it was okay, that she didn’t have to stick around for us. She had no faith in heaven or an afterlife, and I think it frightened her to think it would all just end. She was never one to miss out on anything.

In May 1998, she finally came to peace with letting go (for this I am grateful), just months after meeting her first great-granddaughter (my first niece), just weeks before my mother’s 60th and days before my 29th birthday. We love and miss you, Nan. You’re still the best. 

~ by luna on May 20, 2008.

27 Responses to “my nana”

  1. What an awesome tribute. You have such an amazing way of reminding me about the ‘gems’ that still sparkle in my life despite the darkness. And my 90 year-old grandma is definitely one of them. Just wish there was some way to get her to grasp what on Earth I’m talking about when I tell her about IVF. But oh well… you can’t have it all 🙂

  2. Your heart shone with the love you had for your nana with your telling. She was an amazing woman. She lives on in you, in every cake batter you stir, in every story you tell, she lives on all around you.

  3. What a beautiful tribute. I lost my grandma over 20 years ago, and there are still times I want to reach for the phone to tell her something.

    You’re very fortunate that you had her.

  4. What a beautiful dedication to your Nana…I also call one of my grandmothers, Nana. Nana’s sure are special people!

    Hope you had a lovely birthday, Luna…

  5. Wow. I would love for someone to write such words about me some day.

    A life worth living. What a gift to have known her.

  6. She sounds very special. Just as you were to her.

    I like to think of people like that not as having died, but as having been “promoted” to Heaven. Bless her.

  7. Grandparents are the best. 🙂 My Grandpa died 10 years ago this October, & Grandma almost a year to the day later. I still miss them both horribly. Thanks for sharing your Nana with us. She sounds like a gem.

  8. You seriously have to stop making me cry. Or I need to stop reading your blog at work. *Sniff*

  9. How sweet and beautiful. Your love for her pours off of the page.

  10. She sounded like a lovely woman Luna. I am glad you have such warm memories of her!

  11. I’m crying. Again.

    Really, I think this is all we can hope for — to leave such a legacy of love, memories of a wonderful relationship. I’m so glad that you got to experience that, so sorry that it ended too soon.

    You do her proud, Luna, with such a tribute, with the way you care for others, and in the way you live your life.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  12. What an incredible and formative presence in your life…I particularly enjoyed your memory of your Nana tinkering with recipes. Mine did the same thing — though not always with good outcomes. Your recollections are a great tribute to her. She lives on with you…

  13. Your nana is one of those women who makes you wish you’d had a chance to meet her, hang out with her in the kitchen, learn some cool recipes from her, hear stories from her life. Thanks for the tribute to her memory.

  14. Your nana sounds like a wonderful lady, Luna; you must miss her a great deal.

    I have such a vivid sense of her in the kitchen, experimenting with recipes. A knowledge of and love for baking is a wonderful legacy to leave behind; you must reconnect with her every time you open her treasured recipe box.

  15. […] told naughty jokes to make me laugh while we waited in the heat. Ahead of us, my cousins escorted my grandmother, and ahead of them walked my mom with her husband, M’s parents, and M. I felt a little […]

  16. Your Grandmother sounds like a wonderful woman!

  17. […] brings me closer to my beloved Nana, who has been gone more than ten years now. I may even channel her when I get into the ritual. As […]

  18. […] of life she has left and whether she will be able to know her grandchild. I am also thinking of my nana and how my mom must be missing her today […]

  19. […] from kidney cancer. With him I also lost his parents, my grandparents. My mom’s mother, my grandmother, has been gone more than 11 years. Dead at 79 from breast cancer. Her husband died when I was just […]

  20. […] But we made it clear that we wanted to know everything. I reminded her how upset we all were when my grandmother hid her disease from us, and she agreed. We said we would do whatever we could to support […]

  21. […] My aunt insisted on buying groceries as a gift from my mom, so she could be there in spirit. (My nana was also there in spirit because I wore her bracelet that I haven’t worn since our wedding.) […]

  22. […] years, two days and two weeks Today was the 12th anniversary of losing my beloved Nana. I was so busy, I barely even paused to reflect. Didn’t even light a candle. When I was […]

  23. […] perfect moment: time Just before our daughter was born — before she was ours — my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My 40th birthday was days away. The baby we had been asked to parent was due at the end of the month. Just as I myself was (maybe) about to become a mother — after trying to build our family for seven years — I learned that I would soon lose my own mother, in the same awful way I had lost my father and grandmother. […]

  24. […] my own mother had survived the year, that she had lived to meet our daughter rather than joining her mother who lost her own battle to cancer a dozen years before. Still, I was grieving the vibrant woman she once was. Perhaps it was a bit […]

  25. […] of one.” But then I vaguely remembered my last cycle actually began on the 13th, which was my Nana’s birthday. She would have been 92, yet she had been gone 13 years. Now, I know that my last cycle […]

  26. […] had an incident and her doctor wouldn’t let her fly. Tonight we would have lit the candle for my Nana, who left this world 14 years ago today. And tomorrow we would have honored her in the best way we […]

  27. […] 16. His kids (my cousins) are like my brothers. His wife (my aunt) is like my second mom. His Mom (my Nana) has been gone too long now, 14 […]

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