My Nana was a tiny little woman; all bones, loose skin, and those big old lady glasses. She loved us something fierce - with an open heart, and open door, and open arms. She'd always want to stock up on her 'Nana hugs' before we left after a weekend, wrapping her bony arms around our necks, pointy shoulders and eyeglasses poking into all kinds of uncomfortable places. But we didn't care. We knew we were loved.
She was a woman of simple needs, only wanting to be surrounded by those she loved. She had two other grandchildren but they lived far away and she only saw our cousins once a year or so. We met them once when I was 9 when she took us to visit with her. I remember how weird it was to see her being a Nana to those other kids too.
She was't the best cook but she always had a freezer full of Eggo waffles and ice cream. She made one thing really well: butter tarts - and she'd make them for lunch if that's what we wanted. Or she'd walk us down to Woolworth's luncheonette and buy us a grilled cheese sandwich and an orange pop. Now THAT was a special day.
She wore cardigans and polyester suits and had a wash 'n set every week at the beauty parlour. She even had it coloured a soft brown until she was about 75, saying 'I know I'm not fooling anyone but myself but it makes me feel better.' Her bright red lipstick was a remnant of the days when she was a young girl growing up poor in Toronto and red was a posh colour.
We spent a lot of time there as kids, sleeping over on weekends. I think my mom enjoyed the break and Nana was trying to make the absence of her son, our father, a little less obvious. We had a lot of fun in her tiny apartment downtown on the waterfront playing dress up with her clothes, putting her curlers in our hair, watching the fireworks on Canada Day. We could stay up as long as we wanted, watching TV from her pull-out sofa but I always lasted longer than my sister. That's when she'd make me a cup of 'mother goose tea' and I'd enjoy a brief time with her alone before sleep claimed me too.
Nana was strong and wiry despite her tiny frame but always sensitive. She said her bladder was too close to her eyes because she tended to cry easily - a commercial on tv, a sweet birthday card, and she was a sucker for weddings, especially if they were on her favourite soaps.
I never knew my grandfather; he died when my father was just 16 after a long battle with Tiberculosis. My Nan was left to handle the household a lot even before he died because he was sick for many years. They moved to the city after spending many years living like pioneers in logging camps when he became really ill and no longer able to run the machines. She always worked hard, taking a job in a laundry and walking many miles to and from work every day because she never learned to drive.
I remember Nana talking about 'when I die...' a lot. 'When I die just put me in a big orange garbage bag and throw me out back into the dumpster'...or 'I feel bad for the person who has to come and clean out my drawers when I die', refering to the stacks and stacks of old greeting cards, letters, and photographs she kept stuffed in every one. Every table and shelf was covered with knick knacks, plates, candles, souvenirs. If you lifted one up to take a closer look you might even notice the little piece of masking tape stuck to the bottom with a set of initials written on it. Every single trinket had one. It was her attempt to keep things orderly for the divvying up of the loot...after she died. I coveted her shillelagh above all the others and I often wonder what ever happened to it.
Nana passed away in the spring of 2001 after spending the last years of her life withering away in a nursing home. She held on to her spunk for as long as she could, but deteriorated far too slowly. I think it was frustrating for her because she was so fiercely independant. It was very hard for her to rely on others and was very shameful of the way her body betrayed her in the end.
After Nana died, my aunt received a call from the Department of Social Services - there was an adopted family member looking to reconnect.
Adopted? We don't know anyone who gave up a baby for adoption....
As it turns out, my Nan had not one, but TWO sons before my Dad and aunt were born, both given up for adoption. But here's the kicker - the boys are biological brothers from the same father who she raised to the ages of one and three. I don't know any more about the circumstances that these most basic facts but, as a mother myself, I don't know how she could do it. What brought her to this decision? What on earth would cause a mother to give up her children. We're not talking from birth here, she was their MOMMY.
And was this what she really meant when lamenting about the clean up 'when I die...'?
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