I have flown to the East Coast to visit with my grandparents every weekend for the past month. Although, I am not certain ‘visiting’ is the best term to use under the circumstances. Especially since I was traveling to say goodbye to one, and to comfort another. But it shows just how quickly your life can change.
One day you are fixing someone’s breakfast, pouring silver dollar pancakes and dicing peaches, and the next, you are writing their obituary. I have never felt such loss. But rather than crying in the car, the shower, in airport terminals, or while listening to Ingrid Michaelson sing, I am trying to focus on the things I have learned over the past 30 days instead of what I have lost. (Although I have done all of those other things too.)
So, I guess what I am saying is, I imagine the next several posts will talk a lot about death. I hope they do not make you sad. I hope you do not find them particularly dark or inappropriate. But the morning my Nana died, my aunt Dot said, “You haven’t lived until you’ve helped someone die.” And I think she is right.
The truth is, the deaths of my Nana Dot and my grandfather Charles have taught me a lot about what love and family look like – in all their forms. And I would like to share some with you.
Lesson 1 – Play the hand you are dealt
I played cards for the last time with my Nana October 23. We played Kings in the corner – her favorite. The earliest memories I have of her involve some form of gambling. God help you if you screwed with her Bingo markers, God help you if beat her. You see, my Nana played to win. Even against 6-year-olds. Even at UNO.
My Nana thrived on competition. And she always cheated. Though, I never caught her. But we long suspected there was some validity to my Grampa’s claims. The first real evidence came the day my parents moved my grandparents out of their home and into theirs last month. My dad flipped over the kitchen tablecloth and found a lone queen tucked face up underneath in front of Nana’s chair.
But in addition to always playing to win, my nana taught me how to shuffle and deal. How to play the hand you are dealt.
She grew up poor. She was born the day after Christmas in 1926. Her mother was taken to Quincy City Hospital – the same hospital where I was born – in a horse drawn sleigh. Her father died when she was 15. She and her mother learned how to make do living off $33 a month.
“We survived. I had a pair of shoes for church, a pair for school,” she said. “I had one coat. The Salvation Army helped a lot. We had to pinch pennies. We used to tighten our belt. We went without clothes we didn’t need. We used a lot of hamburger, a lot of oatmeal.”
My Nana saved tin foil for as long as I can remember. And butter cartons. She didn’t believe in charge cards. If you couldn’t pay for it, you didn’t buy it. My grandparents paid for their last Crown Victoria in cash. And my Nana carried about $3,000 in cash on her at all times in a purse that was probably older than me.
She cooked clams, pulled ribbon candy, and worked in the press room of the Patriot Ledger stuffing inserts into newspapers. She worked hard her entire life. Even after her retirement when she had emphysema and struggled to simply breathe.
My nana taught me how to create opportunities out of nothing. Bluff if you have to. Don’t give away your hand. Play as though the game means something – even when you aren’t playing for anything at all. Celebrate the victories. Even the small ones. For the record, she won her last game. And she didn’t cheat.