Sunday, June 17, 2007

Erin was my grandmother. When we were little we called her Grandmommy, but in the last few years of her life we called her Nean. Like good grandmothers everywhere, she was an excellent baker of cookies and pies, as well as the famous Way Family Granola, and she had the ubiquitous jar of hard candy that had solidified into one big piece. Unlike good grandmothers everywhere, she wasn't particularly warm or effusive with her affection. She was very reserved and liked things to be done the proper way. When we were frustrated with her, we'd secretly call her passive aggressive, but she was really just assertive, even though it came in a "frail old lady" package.

She always seemed slightly sad or disapproving, but that was due to the structure of her face more than anything else. She didn't like talking about herself, and even after we asked, she never told stories about what life was like during the depression and WWII, other than the basic facts of names and dates and who moved to what town after marrying who.

My fondest memories of her have to do with the house in Center Harbor, NH she and my Grandfather bought when we were born -- when we were older, she told me that they bought it so they'd have enough room for us to come for extended stays. The entire second floor of the house was just for guests. It had a huge backyard, a hammock, raspberry bushes and wild blueberries, croquet... and they lived a short drive to the lake's beach. My grandfather would chop wood while my grandmother worked in the kitchen. We visited for at least a couple of weeks every summer, and (I think) every other Christmas. When we grew into pre-teens, they sold the house (breaking our hearts) and bought a boring cookie-cutter one in town, because "you didn't want to visit anymore." Which was probably true, but we wanted the house to always be there just the same.

I remember getting a 12-inch of "Do They Know It's Christmas" one year, and making Nean listen to it, since the song had been in the news a lot. My grandparents always had the radio playing classical music, so having Nean listen to a "rock" song was a novelty. After the song was over she smiled politely and said something vague like "that was fine."

We also watched E.T. (the movie) on cable with her at our house in Jersey. We all loved it and thought she would too, but after it was over she said she had liked it, but that it was "no Wizard of Oz." I was offended (even though it's true). She liked to catch Jeopardy every night, and loved to watch stuff on PBS that may as well have been broadcast from another planet (as far as I was concerned), like the Kennedy Center Honors.

She wasn't a frivolous, silly person, so when she *would* be silly -- flashing a funny face at the camera, or gamely wearing big green Hulk hands (a photo of this is on my parents' fridge door) -- it was beautiful and surprising, like seeing a unicorn.

When I went up to sort through her things a few weeks ago, after she was transferred from her apartment to a nursing room, I found that she had kept every single card we had ever sent her, plus of course all of the various pieces of "art" we'd given her on holidays. She loved us, and wanted us to visit more, to write more. She was very proud of us and loved showing us off to her friends. I think she never really understood my sister and me when we were kids, who were weird and volatile and moody and sparkly, while she was always calm and in control and had lunch on the table at noon every day because that's when lunch is. But -- once after a fiery outburst with my sister (we were home on a break in college) she found me alone and told me that I was sensitive -- and she meant it as a compliment. It was the first time I had ever remotely considered that being sensitive could be a good thing.

Nean died around 4 a.m. Tuesday morning. She was 90 years old.


S-Way said...

Well done.

One note: that photo of Nean with the Hulk hands is on Mom and Dad's fridge, not mine. Though I wish I had a copy. I've been thinking about that picture a lot; it really reflects something true about her, to me. Much more so than that somber formal portrait she distributed to us a few years ago. I used to think she was a very sad person, but recently the word I have been using for her is Imperious. She knew what she wanted and she made it happen, others be damned. She had power.

debl said...

I'm glad you liked it. I wrote a lot more about the Center Harbor house but it really had nothing to do with Nean so I saved it for another time.

P.S. I changed the fridge thing, plus removed her full name so this won't come up in Google.