23 August 2008

The Tribute That Should Have Been (RIP my wonderful Nanny)

I wanted to say a few words about my grandmother - Nanny, as we grandchildren called her - because she was one of my favorite people on the planet. Being with Nanny and speaking with her always brought me great joy, just as it brought her joy to be with her grandchildren. Though it never felt like it at the time, our conversations were always a learning experience. From her I learned not only how to cook, but how to give, how to sacrifice, how to be strong, how to deal with life’s difficulties, and most of all, how to give and receive unconditional love.
From a young age, I delighted in visiting my grandparents. Those weekly visits to their Yonkers home, and then to their home in Bethel, enabled me to learn to cook from the master. I’ll never forget all the years of “caving” the cavatelli macaroni and leaving pounds of it to dry on the dining room table. We could never get to eating it soon enough. Every time I came over to my Nanny’s home, she had the most delectable leftovers in her fridge and was ready to serve up any one of them as I walked through the door. It is impossible to recount all of the wonderful meals she made for us all. It was funny, because my grandfather (my Poppop) would always volunteer her services, saying, “Anything you want, Nanny will make it for you.” And of course, Nanny would happily oblige. Thankfully, I can still carry on making some of the traditional food she made, perhaps not as perfectly as she did, but I don’t know that there is anyone left who will ever be able to duplicate her stupendous manicotti.

In addition to being an outstanding chef, Nanny was such a generous woman. She never failed to sacrifice for those she loved, first in her roles as sister and daughter then wife, mother, and grandmother. Like most women of her time, she surrendered much of herself to those around her. I noticed this most after my Poppop passed away. I used to drive up from my home in D.C. about once a month to visit and try to help Nanny with what she might need – which was always nothing because she never asked for anything. Often I would offer to take her for a drive or ask her what she wanted to do, and she constantly replied, “Whatever you want to do.” I don’t think Nanny knew how to express her own desires. I think she was always busy helping everyone else. Though I wish Nanny had indulged herself on occasion, I think her demonstration of self-sacrifice is an example we could use more of in this all-too self-centered world.

Most of you know that Nanny was a woman of few words. However, her silence shouldn’t be mistaken for meekness. Her quiet demeanor belied her strength and fortitude. She had big hands – which I inherited from her and which I was once told signify an ability to handle things well. And that she did. She was “green” before her time as she never drove a car and always walked everywhere she needed to go. There was no such thing as a gym for Nanny. She used to walk miles to the center of town from her home in Bethel, hiking up a long steep hill at the end of the journey – and this occurred when she was in her seventies and eighties. During those same years, she used to cook her famous Italian omelet in her heavy cast iron-pan, flipping the entire pan over with one arm, and telling ME not to help her because it was too heavy. In her nineties, I had the pleasure of watching her take an exercise class in her retirement home. Not only was she the most nimble, she was one of the oldest participants and one of the few who never needed a walker of wheelchair to travel. And boy could she still cut a rug!

Nanny had an inner-strength, too. She dealt with more tragedies than anyone should have experienced in one lifetime, but she handled them with grace and courage. I don’t know how many people are aware of how she reacted when my grandfather died. From downstairs in their home, she heard him drop to the floor. She called 911 and raced upstairs to give him CPR – which she had never been trained to do. She was 81 years old at the time. She never complained, always telling me on the phone that she “had no aches or pains” and she was “doing great.” I even spoke to her the morning that she passed. She was in the emergency room awaiting surgery, clearly in pain, yet she assured me that she was OK and she felt fine.

Even as Nanny reached her nineties and could not necessarily recall what she had eaten at her last meal, she had a keen awareness of people and things around her. She was always observing and absorbing. I’d sit with her when I visited, sometime silently, and watch her look around. I could see the wheels in her mind turning and I’d asked her what she was thinking about. She’d just give me a sly smile and I’d have to pry out what she had been analyzing. At other times, I’d call her when I’d had a bad day. When she asked how I was doing, I’d put on my best happy voice so as not to bother her and say, “I’m doing ok,” to which she’d reply, “Just OK?” She could tell. Another funny observation she made was when I’d tell her that I wish I could be there with her, and that I think about her often. She’d reply, “Well, you’re not my granddaughter for nothin’!”

After nearly 96 years, Nanny knew that life came with its good and bad. She was not one to see the glass as half full, but not one to see the glass as half empty, either. She just saw the glass for what it was. Recently I’d been feeling sad that I did not see Nanny as often as I’d like and I kept telling her on the phone how much I wished I were there with her. She always responded, “Well, we just have to make the best of it.” That philosophy allowed her to carry on for so long. I think it was a realistic, healthy one that we all would do well to follow so that maybe we could have such a long and loving life as my wonderful grandmother.

Oh, and by the way, Nanny often said to me that she thought she’d “hit the jackpot,” meaning that she’d live to be 100 years old. Well, she didn’t quite hit that jackpot, but we all hit the jackpot in having her in our lives.

And now, to celebrate her, here is her favorite song, which she had taken to singing beautifully to us all in the latter years of her life …

I’ll be loving you always
With a love that’s true always.
When the things you’ve planned
Need a helping hand,
I will understand always.


Days may not be fair always,
That’s when I’ll be there always.
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year,
But always.

© Irving Berlin

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