EDITOR’S NOTE: Welcome to the A to Z Challenge, an exercise in self-flagellation we bloggers inflict upon ourselves to teach us discipline as writers and to build audience. During the month of April, I’ll be posting 26 times, once for every letter in the alphabet. Looking on the bright side, we can each be thankful this is an English language exercise and not Khmer, the language of Cambodia, which sets the world record with a 74-character alphabet! After some misgivings, I’ve decided to proceed with my initial idea of blogging about the special people in my life whose names begin with the appropriate letter. There will be difficulties, like having more than one special person whose names begin with the same letter, forcing me to choose. And then there are those letters — O, Q and X among them — where no name springs readily to mind. What will I do then? We’ll have to wait and see!
N is for Nana
By the time she was 92, Loraine had outlived nearly everyone. She saw one brother die in infancy, and another die young from scarlet fever. She saw her father commit suicide, then saw her mother die, along with another brother, and finally, she saw her beloved husband pass away. Her only child outlived her, but not by much.
Of course I never thought about any of that in the days of my oblivious youth. If I had thought more deeply about it, I might have understood why the woman I knew as Nana sometimes seemed so beaten down.
Growing up, we lived just a couple of miles from Nana’s house on Lennon Street in San Antonio. We spent a lot of time there, especially on nights when Daddy was away on business. I remember those evenings in Nana’s clapboard house, the rain making cozy, comforting sounds on the old tin roof.
That house was nothing fancy, but it was always tidy and clean. I wonder now if Nana tried to sweep her grief out of view and into the dustbin, though she never quite succeeded. Thinking back, there’s so much that was never said, and it might explain why I was so ignorant about all that had gone before. Maybe she thought it important to shield children from life’s harsh reality, and maybe she was right.
The oblivious child became an indifferent college student. I’d get small checks in the mail, all written in Nana’s quavery hand. It was spending money that helped me eat, helped me go on dates, helped me do whatever. There might also be cans of vienna sausages — vie-eenies, Nana called them — along with homemade cakes or cookies, all triple packaged in her trademark wrapping style, but I never gave any of it a second thought, took it all for granted.
Truthfully, I never thought of Nana very much at all during those years. It makes me ashamed now, especially when I grow annoyed with others who fail to acknowledge my own largesse. I tell myself that if only I’d known more family history, perhaps it would have been different.
But probably not.
More years passed, I graduated, and after Pawpaw died, I’d sometimes return to San Antonio with my wife and three children. We’d spend a day or two with Mama and Daddy, but before climbing back in the car for the return home, we’d walk to Nana’s house, which by then was right across the street. There she’d be, my Nana, alone with her pain, the sole survivor of her wiped-out family, sitting in a battered wicker rocker, patiently waiting . . . for what?
We’d talk awhile, but soon enough there’d be nothing left to say. We’d sit in silence, the only sound coming from the old mantle clock, ticking away the minutes of Nana’s life.
“Well, saddle up, kids, it’s time to go!”
What did she do, alone in that empty house? Her eyesight ravaged by glaucoma, Nana couldn’t do much other than sit there rocking. Television was difficult, and reading out of the question. What did she think about, hour after hour, day after day, slowly rocking to the beat of that ticking clock?
Oh, I think I know.
But hell, I didn’t care, no, not then. I was hundreds of miles away, busy with my own career and my own family. Where Nana was concerned, it was out of sight, out of mind. But that clock, it kept right on ticking, and by the time I finally returned, she was in a nursing home.
I remember that last visit very well. Blasted on pain medication, Nana insisted there was a black cat under her bed, and at other times, she’d see it climbing up the wall. My mother kept saying, “No, Mama, there’s no black cat,” and Nana grew more and more agitated. “Why can’t you see it, it’s right there!”
Perhaps the greatest kindest I ever did her was when I told her I could see the black cat, too. She calmed down then, relieved that someone else could see it. I told her I’d have someone remove it while she slept. The ungrateful grandson finally done something good.
It was 1997 when Nana died, and I can honestly say that in 2016, things are different now:
I am no longer oblivious.
I am no longer ungrateful.
I am no longer protected from life’s harsh reality.
Today, I think of Nana more often than I ever did when she was alive. Her battered wicker rocker sits unused in an empty bedroom of my too-large house. But it’s here, downstairs where I do my writing, that Nana is most often with me. In the stillness of my living room, we’ll listen to the old mantle clock, and I’ll turn to her and ask if she thinks my grandchildren will one day remember how it ticked, ticked, ticked away the minutes of my life.