In my eleventh grade lit class we were asked to write a literacy narrative. It quickly became my favorite type of essay. What I wrote is incredibly special to me. And since this is a blog, I guess anything goes.
Notes for Nanny
“What appeals to me? There are things, points of view, uses of the language, habits of dress, ways of thought and believing that came to me from my grandparents and came to them from theirs. Things that are of good use in any situation, no matter what the future may hold.”
-Tommy Lee Jones
I balance on my tiptoes, brush my tutu out of the way, and bite my lip to gain concentration. I reach up as far as I can to take down the magnetic letters on the refrigerator. The warm sun runs in through the kitchen window that is directly behind me and warms my back. I turn around to see my older brother, McKinley, snickering. He loved to wait until my carefully constructed words were in order to come by and rearrange them. My sweet Nanny gives her best disapproving glare to McKinley and then grins as she tells us, “Get in the living room and let me finish cooking. Go see Papa.” I run to Papa, climb up in the recliner with him, and stick my tongue out at my brother. McKinley knew just as well as anyone else that when I was with Papa, I was untouchable. Papa smiled down at me, picked up a children’s book that was lying nearby, turned down the television so that the familiar sounds of his favorite western no longer danced around the room, and opened it to the first page. Rayna, my younger cousin, stopped playing with McKinley’s toy cars and trucks and made her way over to the rug in front of Papa’s chair. She sat down and leaned against his long legs and waited to hear him read. Just as he got to our favorite part where the wolf huffs and puffs and blows the house down, he was interrupted.
“Supper’s ready! Go wash up. Tammy, Raymond, and Barbara will be here before too awful long,” Nanny tells us from the kitchen. Papa closed the book and helped us do as we were told. Not surprisingly, since Nanny was always right, it was only about two minutes later that Mama, Uncle Raymond, and Aunt Barbara came in and sat down in the most loved room of the home: the kitchen. The kitchen was the heart of the home because that is where Nanny, the heart of the family, spent so much time. She enjoys cooking for others more than anyone I know. That is why it is no surprise that my messages on the refrigerator were always noticed.
On December 19, 2000, Nanny and Papa’s anniversary, our family was devastated to learn that Papa had Lung Cancer and advanced and aggressive brain tumors. Within a week, he was lying in a Hospice bed in the middle of the living room. This time was more trying than ever for my entire family. It was also the time that I happened to be really grasping the concepts of reading and writing. Every day, I would write Papa a note with sweet little messages to get better soon, and notes to Nanny that almost always said “I love you bunches”. She was busy dealing with the slow loss of her husband of over forty years, but she never stopped showing great love for her children and grandchildren. Amid such a tragic situation, she remained the rock of the family. When we would pull up to her house, I always jumped out of the car, ran inside to hug Papa, then Nanny, and made sure that I checked the refrigerator. This particular day, I followed the routine perfectly. I walk in the kitchen and notice that my “Jesus loves you and so do I” message is still showcased on the refrigerator before I go grab a piece of paper and my marker set to make today’s note. McKinley often helped me with spelling of words that I could not quite handle, and Rayna would always watch closely. Sometimes, she would even get a sheet of paper and try to copy my words and sentences.
The cold days passed slowly as his disease progressed. The hopeless attitudes were interrupted with moments of quality family time as Christmas approached. On Christmas morning, the whole family gathered around Papa’s bed and opened Christmas gifts. Uncle Raymond is famous for guessing what each present is before it is opened. “Alright,” he says as he grabs a neatly wrapped gift from underneath the Christmas tree, “this one is for Tammy. It’s a pocketbook. No, no. Yeah, it’s a pocketbook.” Everyone smiles, because he places his ear to the wrapping paper and acts like he is getting radio messages about what is inside. This radio station had no static, because he was correct. I looked around at everyone smiling and stopped when I looked at Papa. His bright smile looked strange against his pale face. Even at such a young age, and even though I did not understand most of the details of the disease, I could see his physical appearance changing. His strong spirit rested inside a weak, tired body. After the gifts were all unwrapped, we ate our traditional Christmas meal with very limited discussion. The minute “problems” no longer seemed important, and the small talk of what happened in last week’s football game or how the weather was seemed beyond inappropriate. It was hard for normal to happen, but every moment that Papa was with us was cherished.
January 6, only a couple of weeks after his diagnosis, Papa passed away. At that point, Mama, McKinley, and I basically lived with Nanny. The funeral was a sweet service in a small, packed, country church in Axson with a burial service following at the Axson cemetery. I placed a note I had written with red marker that read “I’ll always be your Cooter Boot” in the casket with his body. The nickname was reserved to only be used by Papa, so that was out thing. I liked to imagine that it was all just a terrible dream, and that my sweet Papa would be sitting on the porch with us again before we knew it, watching the red birds like we always did.
The next few months were really hard, but as time passed, Nanny could talk about Papa more and more without crying. Their marriage was a testament to the fact that true love and passion can take you a long way. When things were messed up, they fixed them. There was not anything Nanny could do to fix this, and that is what was so hard. I think that fact motivated her to not let any other relationship she had go badly. Tragedy sheds light on the importance of loved ones, community, and most importantly—the promises we have in Christ. Nanny’s faith became much more important to her. Nanny also grew even closer, if that was possible, to her children and grandchildren. I continued to write notes to her. By this point, the cedar chest that she stored all of our artwork and notes in was nearly full. Rayna was now drawing more pictures, and even ventured to use words with her gifts to Nanny. I remember walking into the kitchen one day and noticing that the note hanging up was not in my handwriting. It was not like the pictures McKinley commonly drew of deer or pick-up trucks either. In messy purple handwriting with yellow flowers around it, the paper read “Nanny, I love you ‘cause you’re so sweet and sour.” I laughed then, because I knew that this description did not have a chance of becoming a best-selling Hallmark encouragement card anytime soon, but now I appreciate the humor in it even more.
This past July, Nanny turned seventy-five. I bought a book of sticky notes and wrote “365 Reasons I love you” on the first sticky piece of paper. I dated each page after and wrote all of the reasons I love her. The reasons range from more humorous ones like that she has the best dressed dog ever to more meaningful ones like how she has instilled in me a strong sense of compassion and how she has shown me what it means to live—to really live and enjoy life.
What better way is there to enjoy life than to look back at things from the past? Nanny and I found ourselves looking back through the cedar chest of memories a few weeks ago. I found a note that I had written to her on one of her harder days that had “Smile Nanny. I love you. A whole, whole lot. So does Jesus. It will all be better” written in cursive. I found myself rewriting these same words a few days ago when I visited Nanny. Mrs. Higgs, her neighbor and best friend of decades, had passed away at the respectable age of ninety. Sometimes it is hard to find the right words to say in situations like that. I find myself wondering sometimes, why does our advice always have to include big words and fancy philosophy? I think we had it right as children. Smile, Nanny. I love you. A whole, whole lot. So does Jesus. It will all be better.