Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Beautiful in time

If, in the words of Paul Simon, it is "terribly strange to be 70," how much stranger still it must be to turn 97.  Which my grandmother did this past week. 

That's her with my dad there, and my two oldest leading the party.  :) As a kid, my family visited her weekly at her apartment, where she lived alone till she was 92 (while legally blind).  I remember trying to appreciate her every Sunday we came, thinking, "Gosh, who knows how long she'll be with us?" 

At her current rate, she'll outlive us all. 

(Mom and I and she.  I know lot's of exciting pics today. :)  Nowadays when I visit her, it's in the nursing home.  Despite her fierce independence, breaking a hip was the last straw in a series of physical maladies that required her to get daily help.  This still irks her no end. 

She sits most of the day in her big chair, praying her beads.  She wears headphones now to amplify sound for her hearing, so it looks as though she's always "tuned in" to some silent music.  On a ribbon around her neck hangs her watch, which she can read with much squinting; macula degeneration was not kind to her.  She listens for footsteps.  And when she realizes you've entered the room, she'll put on a slight frown and waggle her fingers on her lap. 

"Now, who's this?" 

"Just me, Nana."  Or I'll mention whatever child(ren) I've brought with me.  You have to shout.  Even then, she may not hear what you're saying.  Sometimes she'll pretend she did, and then embark on a completely different conversation.

"Katie!  I haven't seen you in ages!"  She will say this regardless of whether it's been two months, two weeks, or two days. 

"I know, Nana.  It's great to see you.  How've you been?"

"Can't complain."  This is abundantly untrue.  She can, and does, and has reason to.  But she likes to try not to. 

"So, who've you seen that you like better than yourself?"

She's fun to sass with. "Why, no one Nana."

She grins.  "Now Katie... you know I don't expect that of you..."

At some point in our every conversation, she will ask this: "Now I have a question for you: why am I still here?"  She asks it with both humor and true sincerity.  And she's not talking about the nursing home.  She's talking about planet Earth.

What can one say?  "Nana, I don't know.  That's a question to ask the good Lord when you see Him."

"Well, apparently He doesn't want me yet."  She's pouting.

"He wants you here, Nana.  You say so many rosaries for all of us.  Maybe if you quit that, He'd take you." 

She's grinning again, in mock horror.  "Now Katie!  You know I'm not going to do that!"

"I know Nana.  Thank you.  We enjoy having you here, after all."

But she's not enjoying it.  She has outlived all of her siblings and most of her friends.  She's even outlived three of her roommates.  She's grateful for how well she is doing mentally, and for the physical abilities she still has.  Yet for a fiercely independent woman, being confined to walker and chair is awful.  Once a constant knitter, she's stopped because she can't bear to know there's mistakes she can't see to fix.  She tries new craft activities, like stringing beads, but it is hard because her fingers don't work.  Everything is hard.  After almost a century of white bread and butter, lots of black coffee, and grueling physical work, she's still here.  "I never thought I'd get so old," she muses, fumbling for her water cup.

Selfishly, I'm delighted she lived so long, as it's been great to get to know her as an adult.  As a kid, Nana really seemed to hold to "children should be seen and not heard."  The mom of four boys, she always combed my hair the wrong way when she did it.  She would always talk about the same friends, names I didn't know.  She had only a few toys in the apartment.  I didn't really appreciate her when I was young.  But I do now.

Her life is a fascinating one.  Born in 1916 (that's like World War I time; it blows my mind!), she was named Elvira Louise Arans.  She hates her name ("How could you do that to a kid?  Katie, don't you ever name a kid after me, promise now!")  She made her peace with "Vera" as a nickname.  Her earliest memories include wood stoves, oil lamps, and horse and buggies.  Her father Bertrum was in the cavalry; she remembers him picking her up to give her a big hug when she was very small.  And that's the only memory she has of him, since he ran off on the family shortly afterwards.  We still aren't a hundred percent sure where he ended up. 

There is much evidence her mother was Native American, a fact which was busily covered up in those days.  (Now it's like way cool, for scholarship purposes at the very least, and I have cousins and siblings rapidly digging up more evidence and attending pow wows meanwhile.  Okay fine, so I've been to a couple myself.:)  Later her mother remarried a man my grandmother greatly respected for his faithfulness to the family, but who would be considered abusive these days.  He didn't believe girls should read, for instance.  She and her sister had to sneak books into the house.  Since her birthday usually fell during Lent, it was usually not celebrated. 

She had to leave school after eighth grade to work in a factory where she packaged toy pianos; "It was common in those days," she says, without a shred of self-pity.  Later, she worked as a housekeeper in the homes of the wealthy, and kept her ears open.  "I got my college education there," she smiles.  Her love of reading has also made up for her lack of schooling.  Today, she fumbles diligently with her old cassette player till she can hear her books. 

Her husband was the handsome "new boy" in the town of Winchendon, Massachusetts.  His father and he had come down from the north after his mom died, leaving his sister in a convent school in Quebec.  As soon as she saw him, she apparently announced to her friends, "I'm going to marry that boy one day."  "And I did!" she still gloats.  She once chuckled and told me her brother Bert publicly presented her with Vaseline for her honeymoon.  "I was mortified!  That cheeky guy!  Don't tell anyone."  (I'm not Nana, just blogging about it.:)

They were very happy.  Moving to Providence because "Roger Williams Park was so beautiful!" they soon had four boys.  When they could, they would walk to Fox Point to get ice cream.  And my grandfather would take his boys down to watch the trains come into the station.  He worked in "cold storage," which I believe means he helped deliver cold meats and milk and other refrigerated items.  He picked up odd construction jobs around the city as well.  And somewhere, he also acquired tuberculosis.  It was just a few years shy of the knowledge of how to treat it successfully. 

If you are ever in the mood for a nice downer of a documentary, watch "On Walden Pond."  That's where my grandfather was sent with his diagnosis, undergoing months of various treatments thought to be helpful at Zambarano Hospital.  Meanwhile, my grandmother sanitized the house in a panic, terrified her boys would get the same disease.  (They never did, though my dad will still test positive to a TB test from the exposure.)  Nana carried a lifelong repulsion to the smell of Pine Sol from that experience.

She took the train to the hospital as often as she could, though the boys could not get too near their father.  My dad remembers his dad's big hand waving from his hospital window.  Nana remembers "Freddy's" good spirits in her presence, even after he also developed meningitis.  She recalls how he always said, "Love you, darlin'" when she left.  And one morning at 5 AM, she got the call.  My dad was 5.  The youngest was 2.  Nana was 34.

I have a few good pictures of the two of them, and one precious recording of my grandparents singing a song at a county fair, with lots of giggling and teasing: "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane."  My grandpa was a goof, happily blaring the silly song while barely in tune, and was urging my Nana to do a solo.  You can hear my Uncle Richard's two-year old noises in the background.  I find it sadly ironic to think that my grandfather never got old enough to need a walking cane.  I find it somewhat comforting that the song is actually about someone getting handed all his things so that he could take "the midnight train" to paradise. 

Here's video of her party with my Grandpa's voice singing:

She was angry at God for awhile, she said, and for a short time was too mad to attend Mass.  After the funeral, she had to move her four boys to the Chad Brown projects, which today are a place you fear bullets but in those days was simply the poor folks housing.  My father remembers a family friendly neighborhood where many were eager to help the bereaved boys.  She refused to move back to Winchendon, worried she could not be a proper mother to her kids with so much family influence on them.  She wanted to raise them herself. 

At one point, an old beau turned up to court her.  She turned him down too.  But she smiles when she recalls, "For awhile, he tried singing outside my window, 'Are You Lonesome Tonight.'  He eventually gave up pursuing me, but he never married."  (She seems slightly flattered on that point.)

Eventually, she attended a Lentan mission preached at her church, and returned to her faith, choosing to be grateful that her husband did not have to suffer long, nor did he lose his mind to the meningitis.  She took up housework while her boys were at school.  She encouraged each of them to go into the military, and they all did.  They all married and had kids.  She is proud of them.  She should be. 

The rest of her life, she lived alone, but had many friends.  She was the president of the activity council at her apartment complex.  She drove her green Volkswagon bug everywhere.  She cleaned rectories for free.  She stuffed bulletins and counted budgets.  She's still a fierce Bingo player, though she now needs help reading her cards.  When she lost her sight, she still lived alone for another ten years, though the driving was over and the cleaning was limited, just as well since decades of scrubbing floors led to very sore knees and knarled hands as it was.  She continued to cook for herself, though she never knew which can she was opening for dinner.  "It's always a surprise," she says.

I am proud of her.  I see much of her in myself: the stubbornness, the tendencies to perfectionism, the independent spirit, all attributes that can be qualities or curses.  She claims something I said to her once really helped her, which I find hard to believe.  While preparing to go away to college after years of being a homeschooler, I was both nervous and in serious pain; arthritis started early for me.  It seems Nana was very worried, but I told her, "You gotta do what you gotta do Nana."  (I don't remember saying this, and am very sure I was just trying to quickly quiet her so I could focus on getting off to my long-awaited college experience without further family interference.)  But somehow, she found the words profound.  "I've always tried to live by that, ever since."  Yet she'd obviously been living that way long before I was born.

I rather wish, for her, that she had remarried and not had to be alone quite so much, yet I admire her wholeheartedness for her husband of ten years, and her unwillingness to compromise on the parent she felt she should be.  I am honored to know her now, and appreciate her prayers for her whole family: she has almost thirty great grandchildren.  I would appreciate your prayers for her too as she enters her 97th year on this earth, that God will give her increasing peace with His unique will for her as she gets ever closer to meeting Him (and shortly giving Him an earful of the questions she's acquired through life.)  May we all continue to age in grace and wisdom ourselves!  Grace and wisdom sounds a lot better than just "aging," eh?

She received many new clothes for her birthday from my parents, who visit her daily.  My dad looks like his dad, a fact which has always given her comfort.  "It's nice to see how he would have aged," she says.  (Dad's version of aging is just slightly less and whiter hair, so it ain't bad.)  As she opened her gifts, her roommate--slightly less refined in language than Nana--would shout out, "Hey Vera!  That looks sexy!  Better look out for the men around here!" 

She stopped unwrapping the red shirt and frowned, "What's she saying now?"

We told her.  She smirked, looking at the bright shirt, eyes twinkling.  "I think I can handle myself."

"He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end." Ecclesiastes 3:11


  1. Happy Birthday to your grandma! And that recording is so special to everybody, isn't it!

  2. What a sweet tribute to your grandmother, I really enjoyed reading it! Happy Birthday to her!