To enjoy your work and to accept your lot in life … that is indeed a gift from God. –Ecclesiastes 5:20
Aunt Marilyn calls me upstairs to show me what she has recently discovered in a bureau drawer. When I arrive she points out certain jewelry boxes and shows me their contents. Then she opens several hand painted pictures in cardboard covered frames that revealed rosy-cheeked images of her young brother staring back at us. She hushed her voice when she wonders out loud why her mother had created such a shrine. The obvious answer was that Calvin had been her next to last child, her baby. Uncle Calvin died from a brain aneurysm while lawn mowing and was found with clenched arms and a scowled, violent face, on his side, in the catholic cemetery where he worked. Nana refused an autopsy so Uncle Calvin’s death was only a guess; Nana did not want his secret known because it would have been too hard to bear. I was in college at the time and relieved to hear of his death. He scared my sister and I when we were little and we gave him a wide berth whenever we visited. There was something about him that in our innocence we didn’t trust. I overheard my mother and her siblings talking about Uncle Calvin’s drinking and threats he made toward his mother – which may have fueled mistrust into my early adult years.
Occasionally Nana mops her mouth and chin with a towel that she tucks in between herself and the cushion of the lounge chair that she sits in to ease her back. Nana watches the baseball playoff series on her old TV set balanced on a stand about six feet from her recliner. She hasn’t seen an end of a game since; her son, on night-shift duty, puts her to bed around nine or ten at the latest. Nana complains that she can’t sleep at night; she lies in the middle of her hospital bed and stares at the ceiling until she drops off around four or five in the morning. Whenever she has trouble with her sleep it throws off her medication schedule that affects her eating and response to pain. She falls asleep during visits, head forward or to the side, bobbing and rolling.
When alert, Nana can stay on top of our conversation, adding directions or correcting Aunt Marilyn. Her mind is still quick and doesn’t miss the minutest detail. My mother has said that more and more of Nana’s days are bad because Nana is forgetful and bitter. Often, her sharpness has erupted into hurt feelings and arguments. My mother has an extremely low tolerance for spiteful words, complaints, and in some cases, painful truth. She remembers each phrase as if it was said yesterday and prefers quiet to pacify her wounds; everything tends to remain stuck in her heart forever. I don’t think that Nana has ever been intentionally mean toward anyone; she is frank and thrifty with her remarks. Nana has always been to the point; by her definition life is short and hard, you must live it morally and steadily to your deserved end.
Nana’s rules for living: 1) take responsibility for your actions; 2) no need for a thank you beyond initial politeness; and 3) dress appropriately for the weather.
Nana was born in 1907 on March 10th. Her birthday was a week away from Grampy’s and we grandkids thought that this was a remarkable coincidence. Nana’s birthdays were low-key affairs; I can’t remember much to-do about cakes, although there was always a party that combined celebrating Nana’s birthday along with Grampy’s. My mother would give her mother a card filled with dollar bills; one bill for every year of her life on her real birthday, in the morning, when she arrived to get us children prepared for school as my mother rushed off to teach. Nana would always try to refuse the money and mom would always demand that she take it, saying, “Take it, Mom and spend it on something that you need.” Nana would say in return, “No, no, no. You keep it. I have everything I need!” Back and forth they would go, ending with mom tucking the envelope into her mother’s sweater pocket on the sly. It was like a ritual of a comic mother-daughter dance. Susan and I would ask Nana again and again if she had spent her birthday money and she would tip her head back and chuckled, “No, no. Not yet. I have everything I need!”
During World War II families were given stars for every son lost in the war. Nana would point out which relatives lost sons and how many stars graced their windows. Nana was lucky during the Vietnam War; she sent off three sons and got them all back. Uncles Norm, Calvin and Andy served in Vietnam. Uncle Norm was a Marine; he was awarded 2 Purple Hearts and served several tours of duty. He was a Master Sergeant and wanted to stay with his men. He still bears the shrapnel in his back. Uncle Norm, Nana’s youngest son, stays with Nana through the night, some nights he hardly sleeps due to her restless sleep. Like a child she keeps asking to be brought out to her chair and then after a few minutes be put back to bed again. Uncle Calvin had a desk job in Saigon; he only served one stint in the Air Force. Uncle Andy flew in tankers that fueled the bombers, he used to tell us kids how hard it was to align the boom into plane’s gas tanks, and that he had been flying in an explosive container just waiting to go off. I am fuzzy on a lot of these facts, I was young and most of what I know about my uncles and their service to our country was pieced together from words said above the dining room table; words certainly not meant to be heard by impressionable young girls.
Nana worried and literally prayed her sons home safely. Worry was Nana’s part time job. I always thought it was a Slovak trait to worry away the night. Nana’s children always wanted to know how she slept. “How did you sleep last night, Ma?” they’d ask. “I didn’t sleep so well, I dozed off after the game but kept on waking up,” she replied. Nana dozed during Queen for a Day and Art Linkletter, even though she would deny it to us kids. We would sit down, Nana with her tea (sugar and lots of milk, the way I like mine today) sitting between my sister and I. She would comment on the funny things Art Linkletter’s kids would say and then we would hear her soft snores. Nana’s head would tilt back and forth until we thought it could snap right off! “Nana, you’re sleeping!” we’d both holler at her, waking her with a start but she always said that she was just resting her eyes. Nana rested her eyes during the day but couldn’t sleep at night, in the dark, Grampy besides her dreaming Navy dreams. She would worry about Aunt Midge with her then three, later thirteen, children and her husband, Uncle Patrick, on Air Force One. She would worry about my mother getting a full time teaching job, the icy Vermont roads my mother traveled to get to her school, Aunt Marilyn’s sick child, if the front door was locked; whatever pricked at her mind would be worry fodder. Nana’s worrying became a family joke. On entering her kitchen, Nana’s sons tease her about worrying her night away. During the 1970s Nana switched to gory news items, what my Maine cousins called the Death List. Nana shared bloody stories of murder and child abuse with grizzly details as warnings to us growing (and impressionable) teenage grandchildren. The Death List was mostly directed at Nana’s own children and it usually began with, “Did you know Mrs. Stevie So-and-So died, they found her in bed dead four days, God rest her soul. Poor woman was starting to dec…”
Susan and I often felt like we were living in ancient times whenever we slept over Nana’s house during school vacations. The upstairs (second and third floors) were not heated. My sister and I shared a bed in the upstairs front room; its bed was made up with rough, line-dried flannel sheets, layer upon layer of wool blankets, and warmed up with a hot water bottle. Nana cooked on a kerosene stove in the 1960s and she looked like she enjoyed cooking on it – this may be because she was so efficient and had mastered the hot and cool zones of the old appliance. Her soups, casseroles, and roasts always arrived at the table correctly browned, stirred, seasoned that my own mother, aunts, sister or myself could never seem to quite imitate. Mom said that it was because her mother used lard in her pie crusts and nut and poppy seed rolls, and that since there was so much bad fat in lard it was hardly used anymore. Breakfasts in Nana’s warm brightly lit kitchen were old-world-picture-book special. I usually ate cereal with toast and juice but Nana believed in heartier breakfasts. She might cook up some oatmeal or scramble an egg, fry some potatoes crisp and brown. Her English muffins were buttered and grilled to a crusty perfection. If cereal was served, Nana let Susan and I choose from little boxes of cereal not allowed in our own home – full of sugar and sinfully sweet! She would pour milk into a little china cat pitcher and let me pour the milk from the cat’s mouth spout into my bowl. I identify the smells in Nana’s kitchen with Nana herself; she smelled like pared apples, fresh noodles, stuffed cabbage, and hot-out-of-the-oven cinnamon roles with raisins and icing.
If Susan and I got up early enough we could watch our grandfather prepare his special breakfast. He enjoyed a combination of cold Red Hots (spicy hot dogs in red casings), stinky Limburger cheese, and innocent lamb’s tongues on rye toast. The lamb’s tongues fascinated me. I would stare at the jar, at the bizarre pink tongues floating in liquid, and feel sorry for the little lambs that lost their tongues. Grampy would interrupt my thoughts with an offer to share a taste of his cheese or a closer look at the tongues but I always shook my head no. Once I asked my grandfather how the farmers got the lamb’s tongues out of their mouths, never imagining the lambs were killed, and he answered seriously, “When the little lambs open their mouths to say baa, the farmers pull out their tongues with pliers!” The look of horror on my face must have caught his attention because he patted me on the top of my head before letting me rush to Nana’s open arms. My grandmother clucked her tongue at my grandfather and folded me into her apron to comfort me. I refuse to eat lamb to this day.
Life around Nana’s house was very demanding; she served Grampy without the least bit of hesitation. She complimented his paternal nature. I always wondered why he forbade Nana to get any new appliances during his lifetime because it made no sense to me. On wash days my sister and I would help Nana wash the clothes. After Nana hauled three galvanized tubs up from the basement and pulled the wringer machine from its hiding place, we would commence with the day’s washing. The tubs were placed in a clover fashion in the middle of the kitchen, the wringer machine made the stem with its drain hose in the sink. Powdered detergent, bluing and bleach were used with alchemist precision to achieve the whitest, most bright clean clothes humanly possible. Our little hands were never deft enough to wring the clothes during a rinse but we were good at sorting and throwing clothes into the wringer machine. My mother had caught her elbow in the wringer when she was a little girl, I am not sure if she was being teased by her siblings or if she alone was responsible, but every time we did the wash with Nana, she would admonish us about horsing around the wringer end of the machine. Of course, with this kind of warning we gave life to the wringer machine, it became our enemy, an adversary so wicked that it had to be watched at all times so as not to catch a hapless child up in it’s hoses or gears and squish one through it’s terrible rolling mouth. Left to our imaginations we created such horrible monsters that the house is haunted to this very day! To go in any upstairs room without company still requires the obligatory glance around the room before entering, sharp hearing is a necessity for picking up footsteps and creaking doors. My heart still quickens whenever I go up stairs to look for something or walk pass my uncle’s closed bedroom door.
Before either my sister or I could tell time we relied on the Worumbo Mill noon whistle to get us into the house, washed and seated for dinner without a warning call from Nana. Grampy required that the noon meal be on the table exactly at twelve o’clock whether he was home or not. Occasionally Nana would poke her head out the side door and ask my sister and I to go to the club to get Grampy in time for dinner. We understood that Grampy was talking politics to his constituents at the club. We had nailed up his campaign posters on the huge front maple tree (now gone), porch and any surface within our reach along Free Street, to his delight and consternation. Our timing had been off due to it not being an election year. We had to remove the posters under the watchful eye of our grandfather while he good naturedlly fielded jokes about his early bid for his own seat from his neighbors.
The Slovak club was located one street up from our grandparent’s house, an easy walk through Mrs. Karkos’ yard. We timidly knocked on the back door of the club and wait for a man to ask us what we wanted, we always shouted “Andrew A. Karkos!” Laughter and smoke curled out of the dark doorway and in a few minutes Grampy would appear, waving and shaking hands as he left his fellow democrats to their debates. As we wound our way back through Grampy’s cousin’s yard we would arrive on Nana’s porch in time to hear the noon whistle blast. It was Grampy’s rule that dinner had to be on the table at noon whether he was in his chair or not – our full plates would be waiting for us as we struggled out of our jackets and hurried to wash our hands. All of Nana’s meals were homemade; Susan and I loved her macaroni and cheese and, of course, steamed red hot dogs with spicy Gulden mustard and relish. Grampy got to stab a Red Hot with his fork, making it squeal to our delight. At home mom would never allow us to serve ourselves with our own utensils, each platter or bowl had its own serving fork or spoon. Nana’s meals ended with dessert – cowboy peanut butter cookies topped my favorites list.
After each meal Nana would scrap the vegetable peels and scraps from the pots, bowls and plates onto a section of yesterdays old newspaper. She would wrap the scraps up tightly in an efficient parcel-post-fold that wouldn’t give up its contents unless professionally unwrapped by the pig woman. ‘Waste not, want not’ was Nana’s proverb which amounted to feed a pig today, eat pork tomorrow. The pig woman came on a regular basis but to us grandchildren schedules meant little, we were always surprised to hear the pig woman shout out her greeting, “Halloo!” We would drop our crayons, scissors, blocks, and run to the porch window to watch the pig woman collect Nana’s scrap bundles from the shed. The pig woman wore pants that impressed us because we hardly ever saw adult women in pants, much less overalls. When asked about the pig woman’s name or background to pacify our imaginations, Nana would briskly shoo us back to our play leaving us the opportunity to create our own characters. The ragman called on a bimonthly schedule, as did the kerosene man and coal man (during the cold months). We grandchildren invented a life for each vendor to occupy our time under Nana’s lace tablecloth draped dining room table.
When Grampy wasn’t home he was either at the club, the track, the stock exchange, on the road collecting policy payments for his insurance company, or sitting in a House of Representatives committee meeting up in the state capital. Grampy was a legislator in Augusta and worked with Governor Muskie on bills and state budgets. Grampy’s attire was always the same, a uniform of sorts – a dark suit with a crisp white shirt and tie. He wore suspenders to keep his pants up and used a silver shoehorn to ease his feet into his shoes. In winter Grampy wore a dark wool overcoat and a fedora, creased smartly down the middle. This is how I continue to see my grandfather in my mind. Sometimes he used to remove his suit jacket, remove his cufflinks, and roll up his shirtsleeves. During hot summer months he removed his shirt and walked about the house in his sleeveless undershirt. Grampy dressed for dinner and after he would take a nap in the front parlor and we were cautioned to play quietly outside.
Years later, during my junior year in high school, Grampy died after waking from a nap, clutching at his chest. Mourners at the wake said that it was a good thing that Grampy hadn’t suffered, that he’d have made an impossibly demanding patient and that it was a blessing he went so quickly. I remember thinking that Grampy’s constituents were well represented by his sharp wit and intelligence, that although he served an immigrant community (Slovak, Polish and German American citizens) he had supported English as the state’s and country’s primary language. He was waked for 3 days so as to allow for his mourners to file past his coffin and offer their condolences to Nana. Governor Muskie sent his regards to Nana for Grampy’s funeral. Nana, twenty years younger than Grampy, was for the first time in her life about to live on her own.
My parents now live only a few towns away from Nana and deal with the day-to-day ups and downs of her health care. My mother calls every morning to confer with her sister Marilyn, about Nana’s night and how she is feeling. I am not on the regular calling list; I tend to get news of Nana’s health weeks after a certain low point or emotional worry. My sister matter-of-factly mentions a bout of flu or nasty cold that had Mom worried sick about Nana making it through another day, and I’ll ask, “When did this happen? Why wasn’t I told about it?” I have to call my mother particularly about my grandmother’s state of health and be to the point in my questioning. I’ve had to listen to my hunches to be on the cutting edge. I get angry that I have to respond to out of date news. I ask that I be called if anything serious happens. I tell my sister to call me at work or leave a message on my phone. I am the oldest grandchild and I feel that news of Nana’s health condition be relayed to me so that I can react; compose myself; plan my last trip up to my grandmother’s bedside in time to say good bye.
July 18, 2010 KBP/revised February 2012