Sunday, October 22, 2006


I couldn't write better characters than my real-life maternal grandparents if I tried, and believe me, I've tried.

Nanny and Pa are not easy for me to describe; they have been everything from the best to the worst, sometimes helpful, sometimes hurtful, not always easy to love, and yet always loved.

Nanny and Pa are what cause me to continually reevaluate my definition of 'old'; since Pa has recently turned 75, I can now say with certainty that 75 is not old. I might say that they are what I aspire to be at their age, but in truth, I often think that their social life rivals my current one, age be damned. Nanny and Pa are members of the Moose - Pa is an officer, he has a maroon blazer and everything. He spends a lot of his time (too much of his time, if Nanny is to be believed) cooking breakfast and bartending for his fellow Moose members. They also bowl in a league, and play sandbags, and darts. They volunteer at Meals on Wheels. They enjoy gambling my mother's inheritance at various casinos. They often go out on Saturday night - spaghetti dinner (or roast beef!) at 4:30, and then dancing all night long (or until approximately 9pm, whichever comes first). They say they like traveling, but really, they don't. A 3 day bus tour is a lot for them; once out of the house, Pa starts cursing and complaining, and Nanny is filled with regret that even a cooler full of beer and numerous naps cannot assuage. But they never learn.

They have been married for 55 years, and to see them dancing together is like watching love. As for 'in love' - the romantic in me wants to say yes, but honestly, I don't know. I don't know if they were ever in love. I don't know if we can ever really know that about another couple, but I do know that I hope they were, and I hope they are. I hope they are happy,and I believe that they are. They met on a blind date, fixed up by one of my Nanny's sisters. My Nanny is tall and my Pa is short, but luckily he had a sexy motorcycle, and the rest is history.

My Pa seems to me a fairly straight-forward man. He's definitely on the short side and has a large pregnant belly that forces him to always wear suspenders if he hopes to keep his pants up. When we were little, he used to entertain us at the supper table singing songs with lyrics such as "there once as a dog named Jack, he pooped all over the track". We thought it was great. He always tells the same story about me: how he used to get me tap-dancing in the front hall, because the tiles in there were appropriately clackety and I loved the accoustics. My favourite time spent with him was out fishing early in the morning. Nanny would make us sandwiches and tell us to dress in layers, and out we'd go to catch us some delicious perch. He always thought that I should bait my own hook, and I always assured him that it would never happen (it never did). Nothing reminds me of him like a bamboo fishing pole with a red and white bobber on the end.

He worked in the same mill for years and years; he would always bring us home stacks of old-fashioned computer paper, the kind with perforated edges that we would tear into strips and fashion into jewelry. He tells bad jokes and he lives to tease - occasionally taking things a bit too far for senstive teenage girls. He is also known for "The Claw!", which consists of him digging his fingers into your neck when you least expect it, while yelling "The Claw!". After a good meal (he defines a good meal as one in which he convinces Nanny he is sticking to his diet, but has actually snuck in at least 2 helpings of everything), he likes to sit in his recliner, unbutton his pants, and snore for about 20 minutes. He's a meat and potatoes kind of guy, with the exception of chinese buffet and pizza, which he only discovered in his 60s. As a little girl, I was fascinated with the fact that he wore dentures - sadly, he has worn the same set for decades and now refuses steak because it's too hard to chew. He can be incredibly stubborn when it suits him.

He burns black in the summers from all the time spent on the boat, but his legs are always lilly-white. He wears slippers for driving and shoes with a heel when he's taking his tall wife out dancing. Of course, my sisters and I were always angelic, but he would often tell our rowdier cousins they'd "better settle down or I'll fix your wagon." In 25 years, I have never seen him fix a wagon. But he did build us a Barbie house once. Unfortunately, never having seen a Barbie, the dimensions were too small for Barbie to stand up in her home, so it became the My Little Pony house instead. As a grandfather, he has changed more diapers than he ever did with his own kids. Apparently, he has really mellowed out in his old age, and when I see him playing with the babies in the family, I find the stories about The Strap a little hard to believe. But then, my family is known for its unlikely stories.

The story about Nanny tying my uncle up to a tree and chasing him down with a lawn mower is slightly more believable. Not that Nanny is mean, but she does have her moments. She is a perfectionist without knowing what a perfectionist is. She has instilled pimple paranoia, body issues and bad parenting complexes in anyone who gets within 10 feet of her. I remember my mother occasionally avoiding my Nanny's house when I was younger, although she likes to believe that my Nanny isn't necessarily being hurtful on purpose.

Nanny is tall, slim, and made up so that her face is orange and her neck white, with a clear line of demarcation between the two. She speaks poor English and poor French, but mysteriously, these are the only 2 languages that she knows. She is obsessed with keeping her home immaculately clean. My mother remembers a pristine home growing up, where if she accidentally entered the off-limits living room, she'd have to tip-toe out backwards, erasing the footprints left in the perfectly vaccuumed shag as she went. My Nanny always insists "It wasn't that bad" but my mom and her brothers look at each other in a way that says that it most certainly was. Although we are now allowed into the hallowed living room, evidence of her obsession is never far from view: her dining chairs all have booties on their legs so they don't scratch her hard wood flooring. She knitted the booties, of course. And she crocheted the doilies, and the table cloth is all her own needlework.

I like to think of Nanny in her lighter moments, like her famous machine-gun farts over a rapid-fire game of cards. Or the time the Macarena craze hit the Moose and she bought a fridge magnet that played a clip of the song so she could practice the moves in her kitchen. Or when she first taught me how to make her superb apple pie, but now insists that I'm the much better cook. Nanny loves to receive letters from me, but doesn't like to write back because her "spelling isn't good" (which is true, she even misspells my last name, but I find it endearing and wish she'd write anyway). But she's also an incorrigible gossip, and so when she has juicy news to impart, she'll write me a little note on those tiny pieces of stationary meant for grocery lists. Sometimes I'm a bit surprised at the tidbits she offers up about my Mom or sisters, and I can't help but wonder what she might be telling them about me.

In the memory book I have, her values are listed as home life (blech), family (blech), and religion (blech). Her dream is to see her grandchildren marry - woops, no wonder she complained so much when I eloped. Her fears include that one of her children should divorce or live out of wedlock (my mother, guilty of both), and seeing the world end (good old catholicism for you). Her favourite book is apparently Gone With the Wind, which surprises me because her favourite writer is Danielle Steel, and I didn't know she had it in her. Then again, she might be thinking of the movie. I remember we took her to see Titanic when it came out in theatres, and the last time she'd been to the movies was to see Porky's, which astounded me for all kinds of reasons. The one thing about the memory book that saddens me is the 'passions' section - it's left blank. I wonder about my Nanny, I really do.

Her one area of expertise is hostessing. She still has a hard time letting anyone else cook the big family dinners - no one else will make the requisite 6 kinds of meat and 87 desserts, including the lemon squares that only she can make. She can ramble off every kind of pie possibility, but she still can't get our names straight. But she's always there when we need her. Every time my mother went into the hospital to have another baby, I got to stay with Nanny ( a real treat, because Nanny had chocolate milk). I remember once my father picked me up to go home for a bit, and in the 3 seconds he wasn't watching me, I sat on a catepillar and he had to drive me back to Nanny's so she could tweeze the pricklies from my backside.

This is not an obituary, it only sounds like one. It's hard to write of memories without memorializing them. It's hard to think of them without thinking of myself. It's hard to admit that the next time I visit, it will probably be for a funeral - one of theirs.


At 10:03 AM, Blogger hemlock said...

What an incredible sketch indeed. Grandparents are interesting. I can still see my maternal grandmother giving the strap though... crazy woman.

At 7:13 AM, Blogger Michael C said...

My grandparents are two of the most interesting folks I know as well, too. They act like they can't stand each other and my grandmother is the one who taught me how to play poker and cuss. It sounds like your memories are a little sweeter ;-)

At 3:58 AM, Blogger Mark J said...

I wish mine were still alive. they both passed away relatively young, and I feel I would have more in common with them now than then. More life experiences perhaps?

At 4:55 PM, Blogger Mike B said...

Not really like an obituary, and thought provoking ... like michael c, it made me think of my grandparents, one of whom professed she couldn't stand the other but still stayed married to him for 50 years ... and the stories they could tell when you could finally get them reminiscing. BTW, you really should find out what she says about you.

At 6:36 AM, Blogger planner17 said...

You described your grandparents so well, I feel like I know them. I never met my grandfathers so it was touching to read about your sweet, playful Pa.

At 7:54 AM, Blogger Martha Elaine Belden said...

wow! i love this!

a better tribute i've not read in a long long time

At 6:38 PM, Blogger JK said...

Beautiful writing, very honest and natural. Thank you.


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