a month ago today nanny died. she slipped away, as unexpectedly as a 90 year old woman can. she also slipped away peacefully, holding my mom's hand. for that i will always be grateful.
here is the photo that went along with her obituary:
and here is the eulogy i delivered at her funeral. it was a hard thing to do, but in the end, a very healing experience. she had a rich life, with lots to be proud of.
Nanny was especially known for a few things: Her beauty, her love of a good party and her adherence to propriety. Because of her high standards for the “right way” to do things, the first question we asked ourselves when planning her funeral – and the question we asked every time a decision needed to be made – was “What would Nanny want?” So as I sat down to write her eulogy, I asked myself “What would Nanny want me to say?”
We live in an era of disclosure. Of the personal made public. Nanny – and most of her generation – did not. However, I searched my heart about how to best honor her life, and I think my grandmother had a lot to be proud of. Things that give perspective and bring dimension to a life she kept mostly private. Things about Nanny that I feel are worthy of sharing and deserving of respect. Things I am proud of and want to share with you today.
So instead of writing a eulogy, I decided to share what I wrote the night she died, trying to gather my thoughts about her life:
Today, even in death as your head rested peacefully on stiff white hospital sheets, your beauty never betrayed you. Translucent, flawless skin. Your regal forehead and pretty lips. Your rosy cheeks and blue eyes, they were an ally to the end of your days.
Ladylike, elegant, devoutly Catholic, charming, flirtatious…Most people would agree that these adjectives described you. But what many people didn’t know is just how stubborn, tenacious and willful you could be. And these traits too were your allies until your dying day.
Perhaps being born to immigrant families just 6 years before the Great Depression, in an America paused between wars that would define important moments in your life, had something to do with the grit you developed. Mile markers like WW I, The Great Depression and WW II have a way of making life stingy, fearful. But instead you cultivated a life of plenty and laughter and family gatherings that reminded us all that it isn’t what we have but who we have.
Perhaps having a mother who worked three jobs and a father you adored but who liked his Irish whiskey a little too much also gave you the courage you would need to carry on. The rationed butter, Aunt Ann’s handmade dresses made from hand-me-down fabric, the non-divorce “divorce” between your very Catholic parents at a time when such things were whispered, shameful secrets…all of this gave you resolve.
The unexplainable jaw tumors that caused you to lose your teeth at 15 – just before your first prom (and yet you went anyway with a closed-lip princess smile so you wouldn’t miss the party) – and the broken back that sent you to a Berkeley Chiropractor three times a week (long before such things were cool)…the same back that plagued you with chronic pain to the end of your days…these painful experiences gave you the ability to tolerate pain with little complaint, to suffer in silence and instead to distract people from your distress with wit and charm and sassy jokes. In fact, you were frustratingly good at changing the subject when you didn’t want to talk about something!
Perhaps being of an age to choose a husband in the middle of a war that sent young men to unknown fates had something to do with the tenacious way you and Papa stayed married through thick and thin for 60 years. While I always knew the Oakie boy wooed the City girl, and that you were a wartime bride, it took me years to discover that you and Papa actually eloped instead of having a formal wedding! You, with all your rules of propriety, managed to sneak off during a summer vacation to Minnesota leaving only a note for your poor mother so you could escapee on a Greyhound Bus to meet Papa in Bremerton, Washington before he was shipped off to Pearl Harbor.
After only a day as a married couple, you bravely sent your new husband off to war, returning to San Francisco as a new bride with no husband beside you. Because there was no other option, you were forced to drive the car - a stick shift no less – back from Washington to California even though you had never driven before! Gasoline was strictly rationed so your only choice was to hopefully fill the gas tank with tractor gas stamps – sent by the father-in-law in Oklahoma you hadn’t met yet – if and when your tearful pleading could convince the gas station attendant to accept them.
Your love for Papa made you grow and adapt in ways I’m sure you never considered possible when his flashy smile and bright eyes swept you off your feet. His rough and raunchy humor against your proper ways. His late night kitchen raids and your endless bowls of chef salad. His childhood on the farm and yours in the City. But you two made a good team, a balance that created a beautiful family. You cheerfully accompanied Papa on trips to Oklahoma throughout his life – in the early days by Greyhound bus when Larry was an infant, changing cloth diapers in 100 degree heat with no where to put the dirty pants other than taking them along to the next stop and rinsing them out in cracked and dirty bus stop sinks. Always a trooper, you bathed in tin buckets, snuck off from his Baptist relatives for Catholic Mass when you could, you drank sweet tea and ate fried foods or homemade ice cream…far cries from your San Francisco life.
Growing up in San Francisco was an important part of your legacy and would always be a source of pride for you. Born on a farm in Minnesota, you were the youngest of three children which earned you the nickname “Babe.” When you were 3 years old, your parents moved to San Francisco’s Mission District to raise you and your older siblings – Billy and Lauretta. Growing up in the city you raced down hills on metal rollerskates, rode the cable cars (or “dinky’s”) and made a general ruckus with your siblings and your best friend Claire. There were tennis lessons, a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge the day it opened, and kick the can in the street. Once you even hid for hours behind a basement door after kicking a boy so hard you thought he would chase you home.
Your religious and social life centered around Mission Dolores church and Notre Dame, the girls Catholic school where you attended through 12th grade. While they forced you to become right-handed by pinning your left sleeve to your uniform skirt, in the end this sacrifice helped you cultivate beautiful penmanship that we all loved. One of my favorite stories from your days at school shows just how willing you were to dig your heels in and make a point, to right a wrong. There was a greedy rich classmate who was forever asking to nibble at your lunch. Week after week she wanted to take the best parts of your lunch even though she had the best lunches of all the girls. To get even, you executed an elaborate plan to give her a sandwich of thinly sliced Ivory soap the next time she asked for your lunch. It worked and she never asked for your lunch again.
Mission Dolores had other memories too. Your sister Lauretta was married to Leonard there, at Christmastime you always reminisced with happiness, with Poinsettias on the altar still.
After high school you amused yourself with dances and weddings, with brief stints at the post office and as a short hand typist. But you especially loved being an usherette at the Golden Gate Theater with your good friend Tootie. Here you met Ronald Reagan and once even ditched a famous actor after he asked you out for a date. You gave him the slip out the back alley – famous or not, you said, he was too short and fat for your taste!
Like anyone with a long life, you were no stranger to loss. You said goodbye to your gorgeous one-year old nephew and grieved with your sister whose loss no mother should bear. Then you lost your own father while pregnant with my mom. You lost a child of your own through miscarriage though women in those days really didn’t talk about that. In the late 1960s there was bankruptcy and the loss of your home which forced you to move to an apartment where you were responsible for scrubbing and painting them, always worrying what the neighbors would think of your beautiful and bohemian hippy daughter who did her best to dress up in Catholic school uniforms…until she got pregnant and I was born and that was the end of that. Luckily this fortunate accident brought you my dad, who became another son to you, and who you saved from Papa’s wrath by placing him in the kitchen chair and chopping off his long hippy hair with your sewing scissors so that he could actually date your daughter.
Your fighting spirit was a pain to us all at times, but in retrospect, in light of all you have faced, you needed your stern backbone to stay alive.
I give you so much credit Nanny for being a fighter. I’m sorry if I’m telling truths that you kept secret for so long, but we need stories like yours for courage…to put in perspective our good fortune and easy lives. You could have told them all sooner, but your stories came out quietly, reluctantly, hardly at all really until the very end of your life. Fortunately, I had the privilege of getting to know you not just as a granddaughter but as a woman. You and I would spend hours together in the car, or sitting at your kitchen table and chatting while we paid bills or I organized your pills into little boxes for you. You were a new widow. I was a new mom. We helped each other through the last 10 years and in the process, I learned so much about you. I am proud of your story and I think you should be proud of your life in all of its grief and glory.
As a grandmother you gave the best back tickles, let us sleep in bed with you – staying up late and watching tv – you made sack lunches for school and took us on vacations to Disneyland, Oklahoma and to Circus Circus in Reno. You and Papa came to almost every school performance, sporting event and important occasion. We worked beside you in the garden, made jam together, and went to church with you on Sundays. You instilled good habits like making beds each morning, doing the dishes after dinner and putting our laundry in the laundry bin. And you had certain Nannyisms like bringing us to the window in the morning, opening the blinds and saying: Good Morning World! And you signed your birthday and holiday cards not just with “Love” or “I love you” but with: I love you TOO much.
As a woman you taught me three very important lessons:
- A woman always needs her own rat hole. (Hidden pocket money for herself alone!)
- Black catches everything but men and money.
- Never reveal your fragrance. Or your age. (While everyone knew you wore either Chanel No 5 or Shalimar, you did successfully lie about your age until your best friend Claire passed and it no longer mattered that you were a year older than Papa!)
I consider each of these to be very important lessons. Whether we choose to live by them or not.
As you got older, and life got harder to live, it never stopped you from attending basketball games or school functions for the great grandchildren. You forged ahead, wheelchair and hearing aid and Victoria’s Secrets and all. It also never stopped you from attending your annual Notre Dame reunion Mass and luncheon. (I am honored to have become an honorary member of the Class of 42 as your tablemate year after year.)
When it was time to say goodbye to living in your own home, you resisted, not very excited to move into a senior community. But you soon adapted and looked forward to your daily lunches with ‘the girls’ at Merrill Gardens. It often struck me that this was the college dorm room experience you never got to have as a young woman and I saw you thrive. Wheelchair and all.
Just two months ago you survived yet another health crisis, ready to return home but needing round the clock care. Luckily, this time, it was really home to a beautiful house with your family all around. The last couple months of your life was spent with 5 of your great-grandchildren under your wheelchair day after day – probably driving you a bit crazy! These were happy, glorious, fortunate days. You came home to a feast in your honor, a table full of loved ones and happy faces to welcome you home. In the weeks that followed there were many family dinners, parties, afternoon football with hors d’ouevres and your grandsons, manicures with the girls, Sunday drives and afternoons sitting around the table in the backyard making peach pies. You were loved and happy.
Once you finally realized that your family kept their promise to you and never let you die in a rest home, you had won the battle and said goodbye to the war. The war of constant pain, and exhaustion, and wanting to live life but just being too overwhelmed to actually do your favorite things anymore.
We were surprised to see you go Nanny. If the death of a 90 year old could be a surprise, yours was just that. We thought we had months left with you and we were all looking forward to at least one more Thanksgiving. One more Christmas. But the blessing was your peaceful passing. If death is a birth to another realm, then yours was the easiest kind of birth. You crossed over so peacefully. Your hand in your daughter’s, a quiet gift of closure and a goodbye.
Nanny, as you always said: I love you too much.
Well that is all I want to say to you: I love you too much. And I’m so proud of you.