On the way into Nana’s funeral today a lady who knew her from church stopped me to say what a lovely woman she had been…and always so well dressed! What she closed with hit the nail on the head: They don’t make them like her anymore. Nana never wore pants a day in her life, and wore heels until she could no longer walk, despite crippling arthritis. Born a DeFransisco, no one had more Irish pride – or made a better spaghetti sauce. She liked her seltzer ice cold, her soup boiling hot – or it got sent back – and her French fries “cremated.” She tried to order medium-rare hamburgers at McDonald’s.
Nana elevated being a homemaker to an art form; as a child she had all of her dollies bathed, fed, dressed, and lined up by 7:30 a.m., her “washing” already hung in her clothesline. She was a born hostess; my favorite way to get a rise out of her was to loudly complain that there was never anything to eat in her house. (My other favorites were to loudly say that something “sucked,” a word she couldn’t abide, or to offer her Mexican food.) I don’t think anyone ever left her house without a sandwich made from an array of meats and cheeses that were always, always in her fridge: hot capicol’ and provolone, washed down with a cream soda – things I always had at Nana’s but never bought for myself. Her guest bathroom was always fully stocked – even if most of the items expired 20 years ago. A true child if the depression, she left behind drawers full of shoelaces; other favorite finds were birthday candles from the 1950s (probably the ones used for my dad’s first birthday cake), and a bottle found in the liquor cabinet of something called “froth” from 1978.
When Nana and Pop-Pop came to stay at my childhood home, unpacking their Cadillac was a major event. Nana traveled with a pillow at her elbow and another at her neck, a can of hard candy and her crossword within reach and a tartan blanket in her lap, crooning along with Sinatra or Bing Crosby. Out of the car would come suitcase after suitcase, more pillows, hangers full of immaculate sweater and skirt sets, furs, scarves and other hanging items, shopping bags full of gifts for her grandkids, Italian meats and cheeses and tins of cookies. Before my high school graduation I was having trouble removing black scuff marks from my white shoes. Nana tried three or four stain removing potions she had packed and brought with her before finding the one that did the trick. Now Eric knows why I travel with bags and blankets and tissues at my feet – and why my packing lists are so long.
Some of my favorite memories are from when I lived in New York City, taking the bus from the Port Authority to visit Nana and Pop-Pop in New Jersey, joining them for holidays or a weekend, or when I got to tag along on fun outings in the city – a Broadway show, their 50th anniversary brunch at Tavern on the Green. One of my happiest days was my graduation from NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences. My dad was recovering from a heart attack and my parents couldn’t be there*, so Nana and Pop-Pop came with my aunt and uncle and cheered their hearts out from the balcony of Radio City Music Hall when my name was called. Nana greeted me afterward with a bouquet of roses: “These are from your Dad, he’s so sorry he couldn’t be here – but when you thank him he might not remember asking me to get them, he’s on a lot of medication.”
In addition to her heritage, Nana’s other sources of pride: her nursing degree, her firefighter husband, her faith, her prodigious offspring – from two children sprang 8 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren – so far. Of the countless religious items she gifted, I think none was so frequent as the St. Gerard medal, patron saint of expectant mothers. You could expect yours in the mail several weeks after your wedding. She never missed a party, wedding, shower or baptism if she could help it. At my cousin’s baby shower she threatened my brother’s fiancee lest she not get an invitation to her then-hypothetical child’s baptism, after complaining that she hadn’t gotten one to my niece’s baptism – never mind that it had taken place in Australia with only myself and my husband in attendance. She also never missed a birthday – in fact you could always expect a call the night before so she could be the first to wish you happy birthday. Every holiday, big and small, warranted a card with either a check or a small bill with the instruction to treat yourself to a little something; as we grew, this came to include announcements that our name would be remembered at masses said for Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day…I think the budget of her home parish will need to be reworked now without her habitual donations. To the end, she never lost her razor sharp wit, never stopped reminding the hospital staff that she was a nurse, never stopped praying – her nephew was fond of saying, “Aunt Doris has a direct hotline to God; she spends an hour on her knees every night running down her list of people to pray for.”
Nana bequeathed her possessions early and often. Look behind any picture or piece of furniture in her home and you’ll find a name beneath the words “promised to.” Admire an item and she’d matter-of-factly declare she would leave it to you in her will – and then make a note of it. I happened to be at her house once when she was going through her closet and went into raptures over her collection of hats and fascinators from the 40s and 50s, still in their original boxes. Those boxes are in the trunk of our car now as we drive to Staten Island to lay her beside her husband. Next to them is a box of her Belleek shamrock china, another legacy, and her sewing box. Because while I don’t think I’ve ever done anything before 7:30 a.m., never mind washing, and I don’t iron on any day of the week, Wednesday can be for mending.
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields
and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
*Mom later made it to the university-wide ceremony in Washington Square Park.