Saturday Snapshot Story #9

nana, grandma and me
My first Christmas with my nana and grandmother, 1972 (photo by Bob Hendrick)

My Nana

As a young child, my paternal grandmother was a big part of my world. My grandparents lived two blocks over from us until I was eight years old, when we moved to Duxbury. Even after our big move, I’d spend overnights at their house. My maternal grandmother, Mabel who was seated behind me in this photo, lived in Pennsylvania. These two couldn’t have been more different from one another. My father’s mother, Eleanor, was the one I called Nana. She loved me madly and let everyone know it. For years, she desperately wanted to have a second child and hoped it would be a daughter. My grandfather, Wally, and her had a loving but volatile relationship. The stories about their fights were epic. Fueled by post-WW2 trauma and alcoholism, the kettle was on a low boil at all times. During the years in between my father and my uncle’s birth (they were thirteen years apart), Eleanor lost five or six pregnancies. It was a devastating period for her. She was an Irish immigrant and had four other siblings. As she lost babies, she watched her sister, Mary have child after child. After Eleanor and Wally moved out of Southie and into Quincy, she was physically isolated from her family. They had one car and my nana didn’t drive much. She battled depression for years and self-medicated with alcohol. As it was described to me, she went on “benders,” beginning around Thanksgiving and ending after New Year’s. My father told me her father Patrick, died around the holidays, which was why Eleanor drank so heavily. He died from complications due to alcoholism. Like so many, our family’s history was steeped in booze, a product of past traumas, ones that had gone unnoticed and untreated.  

Nana immigrated from Ireland as a young girl. She grew up in the city of Boston and encountered the complications of a father who couldn’t hold a job and a mother who worked as a housekeeper with a low wage from the local hospital. Her husband, Wally, went off to war early in their relationship. He came back from WW2 disabled after he lost his right arm during the invasion in France. Wally was in the army and his unit stormed the beaches in Normandy. I remember watching the film, Saving Private Ryan, and talking about it with my father. The detailed portrait of the scene where the men came off of the boats and ran into crossfire on to the beach was brutal. The recreation of war, where my grandfather battled, and visually seeing the horror of it was informative and shocking. How did he ever survive? Emotionally, the effects of war raged on long after he landed stateside. Unfortunately, there was little understanding of mental health and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was years away from being a diagnosis. The men who were exposed and participated in wartime events were labeled as having “shellshock,” a blanket description of a physical or psychological injury.  My grandfather received a purple heart and a prosthetic arm, both remained tucked away in the same drawer. Unlike the arm, which was physical evidence of his suffering, the emotional scars weren’t as visible, but always present. He worked for Amtrak and, once he retired, his use of alcohol increased. He didn’t go out often, or at all, really. He sat in the kitchen drinking Schlitz beer in a thick haze of cigarette smoke while watching television. 

My uncle B and my nana were extremely close. I know my father loved her, but I think she drank quite a bit when my dad was a child. My father was a tender and kind man with a quick wit, which I believe he got from his mother. Although, my father had a filter and executed his dry humor with precision, my nana was more direct and at times, her words were cutting. Over the years, I heard people in the family comment about her saying, “her name should have been Rose, because she always told it like it was…” a gift and a curse. No one had to guess what she was thinking as she offered her opinions freely. I mention this history but was not my experience with my nana. Going over to her house was like a having the best playdate ever. She had bins of crafts and she let me create things with glitzy sequins, ribbon and glue. We watched hours of old movies together and stayed up way past my bedtime eating orange sherbet. The way she looked and spoke to me made me feel important, valued and seen. She was my personal cheerleader and spoiled me rotten. I loved her with my whole heart, and she knew it. 

My grandfather died when I was nine and a few years later, Nana joined him. I was twelve and a half when she passed. I remember my father dragging me up to her casket at her wake to say good-bye. I didn’t want to say it. I didn’t want to believe it. I certainly didn’t want to see her in that way. I saw my Dad cry three times in his lifetime. This was the first. In the months and years after her passing disagreements over willed assets and handling of the estate led to tension between my uncle and my parents. In her death, I lost both of them—my uncle and her. My father rarely spoke about her or my uncle or the estrangement between them. It was if my nana had vanished. Holidays were lonely and her chair went vacant. I remember saying to him during this time, “I don’t know what your relationship was with your mother, but she was everything to me, and we never talk about her!” and I huffed out of the kitchen in a hormonal rage. Resentments and bad blood spilled over our family, leaving little room to grieve or to heal.  

In revisiting the memory of her, I feel blessed to have had a nana who was slightly obsessed with her granddaughter. As an adult looking backward, I see the significance she held in my life. She had time and attention to give and I was the lucky recipient of that gift. Love is simplistic in nature. If it is given fully, without expectation, without judgement, it is of the highest vibration. Through connection and pure presence, we are able to greet each other soul to soul. There is nothing more sacred. For a little over a decade she bathed me with unconditional love. I was too young to see the wounds she carried. I only saw her light. I was as enamored of her as she was of me. If only we could all see past the way pain manifests in other people’s lives and see who they truly are. Beings of love. When everything is stripped away, love is what remains. I feel her with me, as I do all of my ancestors as I pen these pages. Reflections weaving the past and the present together in hopes in creating a future focused on healing, forgiveness and viewing life through the lens of the heart, not the mind. The medicine our ancestors bring to us is palpable, accessible and they are here cheering us on. We are the future. We are the light. We are love. 

1 thought on “Saturday Snapshot Story #9”

  1. You have to get to the beaches of Normandy at some point. All the film in the world doesn’t do the scene justice.
    Another great essay.

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