Sunday, April 20, 2014

I like to think...

It was small…red…and had the perfect phrase painted on the side… “Going to Grandma’s”…and I wanted one.  I can remember friends talking about their summer vacations and spring breaks and long weekends. 
“What did you do during your vacation?” teachers would ask.
“I spent a week with my grandma,” the students replied.

As a kid, I felt cheated in a way.  I can remember actually WISHING that my grandparents lived far away just so I could go visit them.  It just didn’t seem right that I was denied what my childhood brain decided was the way life should be.  I should have had at least one grandmother that lived far, far away.  But no.  My grandmothers lived in my town.  Instead of riding for hours and hours in the car, Mawmaw lived (and still lives) half-way across town.  Visiting her was as simple as stopping by Dad’s shop after school.  Nana lived on the same street.  Visiting her was as simple as riding my bike to the other end of the street…a simple bike ride that took no more than five minutes.  And that was only because over half of the trip was uphill.
As kids, we didn’t need a holiday or special occasion to have dinner with the grandparents.  All we needed was dinner time.  It happened all the time.  Weekday…weekend…Saturday lunch…it didn't matter when.  The majority of my childhood memories contain not only my parents and siblings but also grandparents…aunts…uncles…cousins…or some combination of all of the above.  As a child I felt cheated out of some rite of passage because my family all lived in the same town as me.  As an adult, I now know
that I was blessed beyond measure. 

Blessings come in many shapes and sizes.  One such blessing looked like Nana.  Little bit short…little bit round...a slight waddle to her walk.  She could cook like an Italian master…bring a dying plant back to life…and her Christmas tree was a sight to behold.  Light seemed to follow her wherever she went.  She loved to laugh…wore crazy shoes…and believed that faith could cure most ailments. 

In the good old days, Nana spent DAYS AND DAYS decorating her Christmas tree.  She started with a simple, artificial tree decked out in white lights.  The topper came next…always an angel (eventually one that moved) with stiff strings of crystals and greenery adding a glow that seemed to come, not from the lights, but from heaven itself.  Next came the clear or crystal balls that she hung near the trunk of the tree.  “To add an extra sparkle,” she said.  Nana made ornaments out of Styrofoam, sequins, beads, ribbons, and straight pins.  Spheres…cones…boxes…even a small house…she had an eye for all things artistic, sparkly, and shiny.  She finished the tree with a smattering of handmade, store-bought, and gifted ornaments.  Front and center was always an orange, clay cat…T.C. was his name…meant to be a replica of their own fluffy, orange cat.  (Side note…I absolutely blame T.C. for my allergy to cats.  I wasn’t allergic to cats until after he died, and we have the pictures to prove it.  I’m pretty sure he’s haunting me.)  Nana was very particular about her tree, and she would only let us help her decorate when she was almost finished.  She had to have everything “just so.”  And it was always beautiful…gorgeous…inviting.  I like to think I’m a little bit like Nana when it comes to Christmas trees.

Most Christian homes have a cross or two hanging on the wall.  Most Catholic homes have a crucifix or two hanging on the wall.  My nana’s house always had both…a LOT of both.  She had a few sprinkled around the house in some of the obvious places…bedrooms, kitchen, even in the hallway.  But she also had a lot of crosses gathered on an otherwise blank space.  She was never quite finished with it, either.  There was always a little more room…a beautiful little gem of a thing…some that seemed to be a special reminder of someone or something.  Some, she would say, she bought “just because she wanted a prize.”  While my collection is nothing like hers, there are several crosses decorating the walls in my own home.  I like to think I’m a little bit like Nana when it comes to crosses on the wall.

Nana's canisters live in my kitchen.
Like all truly southern families, food was always present when family and friends gathered together…and my southern family was no exception.  Add Nana’s Italian heritage on top of southern hospitality and you get meals that leave your taste buds in bliss and exhaustion as you roll yourself away from the table.  Nana cooked her spaghetti sauce for days.  Literally.  Yes, she had a quick version that she could whip up in a few hours, but her REAL sauce…sauce planned for in advance…began its journey roughly 36 hours before dinner time.  Her magical concoction of tomatoes and spices brewed and simmered in the massive steel pot. At some point, large pieces of lamb were added to the pot along with the most amazing meatballs ever rolled and browned before taking a swim in the tomato-y goodness.  As family and friends began to gather for the feast, Nana carefully lifted the meat from the spaghetti sauce and separated it into two bowls.  Noodle of choice?  Rotini…also known as “drills” to my baby brother.  Lewis would stab a couple of needles with his fork, pop them into his mouth, and immediately act as if a drill was going mad inside his mouth.  When I go to the grocery store for pasta, I instinctively reach for rotini.  My sauce rarely takes days to cook, but my meatball recipe gets better and better each time I cook them.  I like to think I’m a little bit like Nana when it comes to cooking for family and friends.

Laughter is the best medicine.  Always.  And Nana was no stranger to laughter.  She loved television shows and movies that others considered weird.  “Are You Being Served?” was a ridiculous British comedy that came on at 10:00 on PBS, and it was always one of her favorite shows.  “Don’t you want to watch the news?” people would ask.  After all, most adults watch the news.  Nana didn’t watch the news.  “The news is depressing,” she’d say.  “This makes me laugh.  I’d much rather laugh than be depressed.”  I hate watching the news; the news is depressing.  I’d much rather laugh than be depressed.  I like to think I’m a little bit like Nana when it comes to watching the news.

The addition of the Turner Classic Movies channel was both a blessing and curse for my childhood.  The curse part came first.  Nana was OBSESSED with that silly channel.  More often than not you would find a black and white movie playing on her television when you walked into her house.  Spencer Tracey, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh, and, of course, Shirley Temple were regulars in her house.  We spent hours and hours watching movies together.  She taught me to love “The Little Princess” and “Heidi” and “Boys Town” and “National Velvet” and countless others.  “They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” she’d say.  At the time I thought, “Yep.  Now they make movies in color.”  Now I think, “They just don’t make movies like that anymore.  Those were the good old days.”  People always ask why “Gone with the Wind” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” are two of my absolute favorite movies.  I like to think I’m a little bit like Nana when it comes to movies.

“Eat your carrots…they are good for your yeyes.”
“I’m going to get you on your goolie!”
“I love you…a bushel and a peck…”
“Miss Lizzie had a baby…”
“Jeepers…creepers…where’d you get those peepers?”
“Round and round a ballie…”
“I’m going to bock ya, bock ya!”
“I love you.  I love you.  I love you.”
Nana had a way with words.  If you didn’t know her, you often had no idea what she was talking about.  She had her own language…some crazy mixture of her Sicilian parents, her Bronx upbringing, and her many years in the south…and her general “Nana-ness.”  The woman knew how to turn a phrase.  But the last quote will always be my favorite.  “I love you.  I love you.  I love you.”  Spoken slow and deliberate…those are the last words my nana said to me.  As I was leaving her house in February, she hugged me close, and ever so softly told me that she loved me.  “I love you, too, Nana,” I told her.  And I meant it.  I still do.  My Nana was an amazing woman.  And she left an amazing legacy.  I can’t garden like she could.  My pasta sauce will never taste like hers.  And my Christmas tree will never shine quite as brightly as hers once did.  But I love to laugh.  And I decorate my house with crosses.  And having old movies in the house is more important than bread and milk when the snow starts to roll in.  Sometimes people tell me that I have a way with words, and I love my family and friends with my whole heart.

I like to think I’m a little bit like Nana.