Last week, my dad's mother died. She was ninety on her last birthday and was suffering from a myriad of heart-breaking ailments: dementia, hip replacement after hip replacement, breast cancer that they didn't even try to treat, and finally a stroke, among other things. This last stroke left her unable to swallow, which was a pretty clear indicator of the end for her. I haven't seen her in probably ten years, if not longer. She lived in England, you see, along with the rest of my dad's family. He's the only defector. The last time he saw his mother was 8 years ago, because for too long now, she wouldn't have even recognized him. Her husband has been dead for almost twenty years. I was only four years old when he died, so I have more memories of my grandmother than of my grandfather, but they both are precious to me.
We call them Nanny and YaYa. I couldn't tell you where that came from, but I've always loved it. Those names were always one more fascinating, unique layer to my English heritage, which I take great pride in. Nanny's funeral will be in June. My dad, my sister, and I will be there. My dad will be speaking, like he did at his father's and my mother's funerals. We talked on the phone for a little bit yesterday and I offered to help with the eulogy if he needs, so he charged me with forming some thoughts about dear Nanny from the perspective of me and my sister. So here they are:
She had the most lovely, childlike little giggle. Watching her laugh at my dad's jokes was a delight, as she playfully scolded him, "Oh, Michael," followed by a series of giggles.
I was always intimidated to talk to her on the phone because of her accent. I loved it so much and have always wished I had the same one, but as a child, I was terrified if I didn't understand her she would be disappointed or think me a silly American. I always had Dad right there, listening as well, to translate when the accent became too thick, or the phone connection was bad (hello, 1998), or she used some English slang or jargon that I didn't know.
She seemed so small, but sturdy. She looked like a perfectly pleasant Englishwoman, but one who could hold her own as well.
I'm fascinated by the fact that she lived through the second World War, and the London bombings to boot. The idea that she was one of the children sent out to the country to preserve a generation seemed so romantic and idyllic to me. That is, when focusing on the country and not the war zone left behind. I wish I had heard more of her stories.
I remember going to the big grocery store with her where she bought frozen pizzas for me and my sister, because we were such picky eaters as kids. I remember the smell of those exact pizzas too.
I don't remember it at all, but I know the picture. When she and YaYa pretended to be the king and queen of England for Meredith's (my sister) birthday party, well, I don't think anything could ever outdo that party.
I remember how she said my mother's name, Laura. It sounded like Looorah, and made my mom seem even more classy than she already was, if possible.
I remember the way she smelled. She smelled English. I don't know how else to describe it. Old-fashioned, elegant, sturdy, proud. I think she wore Chanel No. 5, but that's not what I remember smelling. I loved her Nanny smell.
When she used to go through every male name in the family until she finally landed on the right one to address who she was talking to, I thought it was endearing. Now I realize it was more of a warning sign. "George, Pete, Malc, ugh, uh, Michael! Michael would you pass me the sugar?"
One time when I was about five or six, probably, I asked a question which my dad answered. I looked at him and said, "I wasn't talking to you, fatbelly." It's a family joke now, my little insensitive attitude, but Nanny and YaYa didn't find it quite as endearing and laughable as most people do when they hear the story. I've always been a little embarrassed about them disapproving of that moment.
I remember her little house in Ipplepen. Drinking tea. Being fascinated by the chairlift on her stairs, and even more fascinated by the fixtures in the bathroom- pull chains on the toilets and showers, what a strange, foreign land.
She didn't like for silverware to be crossed over each other, forming an X. She asked my mom to fix it one time. Superstition, I suppose.
I wish I knew more about her. Maybe I will hear some stories next month, but she is the last of her siblings to die. An entire generation gone. Uncle Pete, Aunt Mol. The many others whose names I remember when prompted, but only then. I'll tell my own children one day about Nanny and Yaya. I'll tell them these things and about England, and one day take them to see those places. I'll take them to the Newton Abbot market day, Broadhempston where my Uncle Malc lives, Portobello Road, the Bloomsbury Park Hotel on Southampton Row in London where we looked out our window onto the pub in the alley and the ballerinas pirouetting (drunkenly, I'm sure), and the little church in Ipplepen where my grandfather, and soon my grandmother, are buried, where my parents were married, and where my sister and I were both christened. I'll show them the kneeling pillow with my name on it. I'll tell them these stories and more that are sure to come. I will make them overly proud of their English heritage. One day, too, I'll be someone's little Nanny who they love dearly and will miss when I'm gone. A little old lady who lived in the old days with stories and stories to tell.
Every time I drink tea, I think of my English family. Every time I drink tea, I'll raise my cup to George and Betty Head, my Yaya and my Nanny.