When I think of my Nana, a thousand images spring into my mind. Warm cinnamon toast, made carefully in the oven. Cooked to the perfect balance of melted toasty butter with just the right amount of softness left.
Stew simmering on the stove, its savory, delicious scent encompassing the whole house.
The smell of Vicks permeating the house in winter from the old cast iron pot of water sitting on the floor furnace in the hall.
My head on her lap, her running her fingers through my hair as we watch the Jeffersons in the late evening. The light scent of Estee Lauder body powder, Oil of Olay and a hint of moth balls hanging in the air.
Lying on opposite ends of the couch with our feet overlapping beneath the handmade afghan while the Lawrence Welk show plays into the late night hours. I remember I was always fascinated by the shiny lipstick on the singers’ lips.
Watching the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. I remember Nana kept telling me it was history being made and very important to watch. I was excited to see an actual princess.
Watching her small hands deftly work on whatever sewing or crochet project she happened to be in the midst of. I remember being amazed as whatever it was seemed to suddenly take shape beneath her carefully working hands. A plain cloth with faint markings became a beautiful landscape of color. A few skeins of yarn gradually became one of those warm, cozy afghans we snuggled under while watching TV in the evenings.
Lying under the blankets in her bed in the early morning, listening to her singing, humming and whistling in the kitchen as she did whatever it was she did in the early morning hours. . .until I decided I was tired of being alone. Our funny habit of me staying in bed and calling, “Naaaaaaanaaaaaaa?” Waiting to hear her answer of, “Whaaaaaaatteeeeeee?” Which I followed with, “Come heeeeeeeere!” And she answered with “Coming!!!” I will forever remember the skuff-thump, skuff-thump, skuff-thump of her house shoes as her rapid, short, steps approached from the kitchen to give me a morning hug and kiss and to sit and chat for a few minutes before I got up to start the day.
A freshly peeled carrot after school while I sat on her couch watching Woody Woodpecker. She was forever in the kitchen or on the back porch doing laundry or dishes or standing in her kitchen “corner” reading some article or something interesting that caught her eye in Readers’ Digest.
Watching her eat her nighttime cereal over the kitchen sink. I rarely remember her sitting down at the table to eat with me. Standing in the hallway at the phone shelf, talking to a friend or one of her sisters on the phone. I remember her mostly in motion. All the time. Except during those lazy evening hours when we sat and watched TV while she sometimes crocheted or dozed.
Summertime on the swing set while she “piddled around” in the yard. Tending her beloved flowers, mowing her yard, stringing pie pans around her tomato plants to keep the squirrels away.
I remember she always thought she was TOO. . .something. Too fat, too wrinkled. . .her house was too dusty. . .but to me in those childhood years, she was perfect. And those memories are still perfect and peaceful and a place I can retreat to when real life gets too busy and overwhelming.
As I became a grown-up myself, I of course began to understand that she wasn’t perfect. She carried a lot of anger toward a lot of people. Bitterness that at times almost incapacitated her mind and emotions. She had been hurt. She had hurt others. She had a skewed view of life and people and the world. The prism of her personal experiences bent the light of the beauty of life around her into something a little different than the rest of us see. I remember when I came to tell her I was to be married, she sat me down and told me she had to tell me something important about marriage. “All men cheat, Jennifer. Every. Single. One. It’s just a fact of life and there’s nothing you can do to change it. You just have to live with it.” I remember thinking how sad it was that she viewed the world this way, but understanding that her experiences left her trying to make sense of how certain things had happened to her. She had come to the conclusion that life is pain, and her pre-marital talk with me was her misguided way of trying to save me from pain.
She was not perfect, but she was mine. She disagreed with some of my adult decisions, but she kept on loving me unconditionally. As my own emotions made the transition from the little kid who only believes people are good or bad, to the grown-up who knows that we are all broken and doing the best we can, I came to appreciate how well she loved me. And she loved me WELL. She loved me in a way that made me never question that she did.
In the last years, as her memory began to leave, she sometimes couldn’t place me right away when I came to visit. The last time she truly knew me, I came to visit with my two young daughters. Upon arrival, she was confused as to my identity, but once my mom and I explained who I was, I saw a spark of recognition in her eyes. We visited a bit, she held my youngest . . .a baby at the time. . .and sang the little songs to her I remember from childhood. We took a picture together and I felt joy in her company. It became laced with sadness as we prepared to go. We stood up and I leaned down to hug her goodbye. She pushed me back and caught my face in her hands, pulling me almost nose to nose as she looked me squarely in the eyes. In that moment, we were both there, 100% connected. I saw sadness and deep love in those weary brown eyes. With her teeth gritted together in a way that made her voice sound fierce and strong, she said, “I sure do love you.” We kissed one another’s cheeks and hugged the tightest hug. As I waved from the doorway of her room and prepared to depart down the hall, I knew in my heart that we had said goodbye for more than just the day. I knew she would not know me again. And I cried off and on for two days.
I saw her again a few times between that day and her death and her mind never knew me again. I felt like her heart did. We sat and visited and she told me stories of her youth and her family and the farm she grew up on. I enjoyed learning about that part of her life. It seemed as the dementia took her present and recent past, the distant past became a fresh and vivid memory. I remember hoping that those memories brought her peace in those last years.
As I went to be a part of laying her remains to rest yesterday, I found myself feeling empty. As I looked at the shell that used to contain her spirit, lying there in the clothes she had so carefully selected for her “homegoing” years before, I did not feel closure. I forced myself to touch the cold hands in the lace gloves folded neatly on her stomach by the undertaker and I did not feel comfort. I felt dark. Cold. Heavy. Distant. At the cemetery as the minister read the 23rd Psalm, I felt lonely. Sad. Hard. I looked at the tombstone that had her name and birth year engraved on it. I recalled childhood years as she brought me with her to the grave of her parents that same stone marked. I remembered how anxious it made me feel that her name was already on it all those years ago. I remember crying and asking her why she would have her name there and telling her I couldn’t bear the thought of her dying. I remember the calm and matter-of-fact way she would answer that it was just practical. We all were going to be laid to rest someday and this was to be her final resting place. I thought about the way my mom said she kept asking to go home in her last months. And I shed a tear or two, and whispered goodbye as one does at a funeral. But still I didn’t feel as if our relationship was finished. I felt robbed of goodbye. Like it couldn’t be over. Like something inside me was left incomplete.
Then this morning, as the plan to write this memorial piece began to take shape in my mind, I started to understand why yesterday brought me no comfort. Just like in the biblical account of old, when the disciples of Jesus spoke with the angel at His tomb and were told He was not there. . .yesterday when I tried to draw comfort from being with her body, no comfort could be found because she is not there. And our business feels unfinished because it IS unfinished. We will be together again. Someday we will sit together again, and our minds will be clear. And we will know one another on yet another level. We will love purely with no pain, or sorrow, or bitterness, or fear in the way of that purity. She will know me again.
We will feel pure joy. Music is my language, and so in order to fully open up and grieve, I’ve been listening to songs this morning that minister to my heart. Lyrics from a few different ones weave together today to flesh out how I’m feeling. I’m happy that she is now free from all the heaviness she carried. That she is now free to leave her heart wide open and to “love and have no fear.” That her heart is young again. . .free from all the scars and hurt and sadness that made her weary while she was here with us. Free. That’s a weighty word. . . and a marvelously weightless one. She is free. . .and I truly do not selfishly wish her back here with me. But I do miss her. And I feel a renewed fervor to “Hold on to Jesus with all that I have” to see her again. . .
When I Get Where I’m Going by Brad Paisley
Homesick by MercyMe