I suppose that every family has a primary and secondary set of grandparents. My mother’s parents were the ones that I saw daily. They lived around the corner and there was an endless stream of phone calls, drop-ins and involvement. It’s not that I didn’t see my father’s parents — at the very least I saw them every Sunday at church — but I didn’t have the same sort of childhood relationship with Nana and Pop that I did with Grandmom and Granddad. My mother was the kind of person who had a strong sense of family obligation. After my Pop died in 1997, my mother called Nana every day to check in and make sure that she was ok. Mom was the one in our family who kept track of things, who listened to Nana’s worries about the peeling paint on the front porch or the Medicare bills that she didn’t understand.
After Mom died a decade ago, I started calling Nana. At first I thought it was because I wanted to check in and make sure that she was ok, but in hindsight I’m fairly certain that I was really doing it for myself, clinging to what little family I had left. We would talk every week. At first it was the slightly awkward cross-generational conversation: How was church, Nana? How are you feeling? How’s the weather?But over time, things changed. I didn’t notice it as it happened, but we started talking. Really talking. I came to better understand her faith and how that played a role in her entire personality. We talked about her health, not just the “oh, I’m fine,” but actual discussions of what was going on with her, and what that meant medically. (I suppose that’s a perk of having a granddaughter who’s a medical writer.) She told me stories of her childhood, and funny tales of what was going on in her assisted living community.
In exchange, I told her about work and life and travel. I kept her actively involved in the life of The Assistant, from our prenatal care to weekly postcards sent via Red Stamp with current photos and a little blurb about what he was doing or saying. And Lord, was she funny. How did I not notice that until she was in her 90s? A few years ago, at the age of 93, she was hospitalized with an e coli infection. Let’s face it: nobody bounces back from e coli in their 90s. But there she was, plugging away. Granted, it took some of the wind out of her sails. She never did return to her pre-illness strength, and couldn’t go back to her assisted living apartment. They transferred her to a nursing home, which is the scene for one of my favorite Nana stories of all time.
“They sent in a social worker today,” she told me. “Well, they said she was a social worker, but I think she was a psychologist. She asked me lots of questions about my attitude and how I was adapting to my new home. And then she said, ‘Ruth, do you ever think about leaving this place?’ and I said, ‘Oh! Heavens no! There’s only one way out, and I’m not ready for that yet!'” And the laugh that accompanied that story… oh, the laugh!
She could have been despondent about being in the nursing home, but not Nana. She saw it as an opportunity to meet new people and have a new set of stories to tell. And tell she did for those last two years, until she was too weak to speak. Today would have been her 96th birthday. I miss her, deeply. I miss our friendship. I still have voicemails from her, saved to my phone for eternity, even though they say nothing of consequence. But today I will be grateful for the fact that the world got to share her love for 95 years. Not a bad run, Ruthie. Not bad at all.