Papa

From the outside he sounded like a statistic, and not a very happy one.  Blinded in one eye at the hands of a father in a freak accident when he was 2 or 3.  School drop out.  Married at 17 to a woman 4 years his senior.  A father at 18.  Buried his firstborn son at 34.  A father four more times to only daughters.  

His daughters would tell another story.  The hardest working man that they knew, who could be relied upon to be the best manager at the grocery stores he managed for years.  A tough dad that demanded they work hard and do better than he did.  One who rarely showed emotion, instead showing love through providing for his family.  A man who was respected and well loved at his job, in the neighborhood, and at church.

His grandchildren would tell another story.  A loving, kind, funny Papa who wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was (good or bad) who always had coffeecake on the counter and circus peanuts in the cabinet for when they came to town.  A man who with one hand movement that we all know, would ask if you wanted to do his favorite past time, playing cards.  He would play at any and all hours, with whoever would join him, sticking to the four or so games he loved the most and would gladly teach anyone who didn’t know how to play.  We knew him to have the patience of a saint, a rite of passage in childhood was learning the seven hands of progressive rummy, which is a game I have yet to play with anyone other than him.

Just like I was with Nana, I am selfishly happy that I was the oldest grandchild.  I had him all to myself for nearly four years and he was vastly different grandfather than he was a father.  He would often reminisce with stories about me when I was a baby or a toddler.  Mom didn’t work when we were growing up, so she would spend several weeks down in North Carolina in the summers and he doted on us.  He took us fishing, taught us how to play golf, took us swimming in the lake, and brought us on his “paper route” in his rural neighborhood, which consisted of Courtney and I bouncing around the bed of his pickup truck while he brought newspapers down the long driveways of his favorite neighbors.  We would often accompany he and Nana at one of their timeshares in the mountains.  The smell of coffee and Busch beer will always remind me of their house because neither of our parents drank coffee or beer.

He and Nana came to visit me a couple of times in college and I was thrilled to have my grandparents come and visit.  They would take me out to dinner at one of his favorite buffet restaurants and would press a $20 bill into my hand when we got back to my dorm.  He would write to me on instant messenger, keeping up with the latest slang better than I would.

He loved holding his great grandsons, Chase and Ryder, when they were babies and would be quick to come into the house and take them out of the arms of whoever had them.  He was proud to be a great grandfather, and I am so blessed that he was a great grandparent to my kids.  One of Ryder’s first understandable words was “Papa” and there’s a reason for that.

He quit smoking cold turkey when his best friend died over 30 years ago, but had health issues from all of the years he was a smoker.  He had quadruple bypass surgery nearly 25 years ago, and then by some miracle, my sister, Mom and I were staying with he and Nana when he had a stroke almost fifteen years ago.  I still remember him giving us the thumbs up as he was wheeled out of the house.  At the hospital he cracked jokes with the nurses, played cards with us in the “visitor area” and nearly got us kicked out of the unit because we were laughing so hard.  Thankfully he didn’t have any lingering effects after that episode.  Because of his heart problems, he was an avid walker.  Rain or shine, the only thing that slowed him down was ice.  When his wife fell ill six years ago, he took over the role of caretaker and did it well.  After Nana passed away, he even learned how to cook.  And although I know it would literally kill Nana to hear me say this, he made a better macaroni and cheese than she did!

His work ethic never wavered in his 86 years.  We would all shake our heads with disbelief when he insisted that he continue to work in his 80s at a drugstore he had once managed.  His manager would often tell him that he was the best employee that he had.  He kept his home and later his apartment as immaculate as he did the stores he worked in.

He was a lover of country music, baseball, and Duke basketball.  He would religiously follow the sports teams of the colleges his grandchildren attended.  He would regularly stay up later than anyone else if he was watching the end of a game.  Despite his cleanliness, he would hoard magazines that he knew his girls and grandkids liked.

He would claim to be introverted, but when he moved into a retirement community after Nana passed away, he was known as the “cruise director.”  He was the ringleader of a group of 18 or so that would play cards every single day and he would get my aunt who lived down the street to print out copies of the rules for the games he played most often.  

He would brush it off and shy away from any compliments that anyone ever gave him, but he will be missed by anyone who ever knew him.

A month ago, we went down to North Carolina and I ran a race with my sister and cousin.  Papa’s hearing hadn’t been great for years, so when the boys were around, it was hard for him to focus and hear.  The second night we were there my husband brought the boys to their other grandparents’ house, so it was much quieter than it usual.  He was more “Papa” in those couple of hours than he had been in years.  He told stories about the people who lived in his community, made fun of my sister and beat us all handedly in cards.

When we dropped him off that night, I had no idea that would be the last time I would see him.  We had such a great night and so much fun and I am so grateful that is how I will remember him.  But I wish I had given him one more hug, told him one more time how much I loved him and let him know what a great grandfather he was and how lucky we were to call him ours.  

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Nana

This past week I lost my last living grandmother, my mother’s mom whom all of the grandkids called Nana. She had endured a year-long battle with a form of leukemia prevalent among elderly people whose blood gets worn out after decades of doing its job. She is survived by her loving husband of 64 years, her four daughters, 10 grandchildren and 1 great grandchild. She will join her son who passed away in adolescence close to fifty years ago.

That is what everyone will read in the paper, this is the woman that I knew.

I was the first grandchild of the oldest daughter, and had four glorious years of Nana to myself. I named her (and consequently named my grandfather Papa) although she had insisted that she be called “grandmother, it never stuck. My stay at home mom would take me down to North Carolina to the only house I ever knew for weeks at a time when I (and later my sister) were younger. When we weren’t visiting, we would call every weekend and keep in touch that way. When I was about 3 or 4 (I remember this, so I wasn’t that young), I filed a complaint about Nana. She hugged me so tight that it hurt. That epitomizes her role as a person and especially as a grandmother. She loved so much and so hard, it hurt. That is her lifelong legacy.

Days spent with Nana were filled with baking cookies, icing cakes, pouring over baby pictures of my aunts, my mom and myself, fixing delicious southern style meals, playing cards, taking pictures and spending time in her garden or on one of the swings she had installed around the property after she had grandchildren. Once we were in school, we would still go down for a week at a time at least once in the summertime. If we got lucky, we would spend that time in the mountains at a timeshare that my grandparents owned. Mom and Papa would go play golf and Courtney and I would hang out in the condo doing crafts that Nana had brought for us to do. At their house, we knew that every morning there would be a gift waiting for us on the dresser in their room and store bought coffee cake (the ultimate treat for us) waiting on the kitchen counter.

 I always had a special place in my heart for Nana when I was younger, but once I grew up; I realized what a special person she was. She was the kindest person I have ever met. She never met a stranger, and never hesitated to tell you all about the strangers she met. She had an enormous heart, would give away everything she had to someone less fortunate than her and also had a wicked sense of humor. She was a religious watcher of entertainment shows on television and sometimes you would get half way through a conversation with her about Britney this or Brad that before realizing she was talking about celebrities. She was a fierce fan of the Braves (and later Nationals), Duke basketball (although she was really a closeted Carolina fan) and Virginia Tech football during and after my time there. She and Papa would stay up later than I would to watch the ends of games or during a particular lengthy and competitive game of triominos or Rummy cube.

Although she was 86, she could remember everything. Even until the day she died she was sharp as a tack. She remembered things about people and events that sometimes it would catch you off guard and you would wonder if she was finally losing it, but she wasn’t. She had just proven to you that her memory was better than yours. 99% of the time she was right about what she was talking about. I like to pride myself on my memory and I know that I get it from her. For her sweet side, she was feisty too. One of the first times my high school boyfriend (and later husband) met Nana, she told him to pull his pants up and that he needed a belt. When I would bring my child down to see her, she would fuss at me about putting him in some nicer outfits (particularly overalls), making sure he had on a dry diaper and had a full stomach. She would fuss at us for not eating enough, waking up too soon (she was a lifelong advocate of sleeping in and practiced herself), calling my unborn child a “kid” (she would ask me if he was a goat) or not helping out our mom. She was extremely protective of her grandchildren. She once chopped the head off of a baby rattlesnake that I came across one summer at their house and she was proud of my sister for breaking up with her mediocre boyfriend (and told her so).

I have so many wonderful memories about Nana. Her chasing down (as much as she could with a walker) a handsome college friend at our wedding that she had met at my college graduation. Waking up to the smell of coffee at their house (my parents didn’t drink coffee, so that olfactory memory was even more powerful). Her crying when I told her that she was going to be a great grandmother and not stopping the tears long enough to call her only daughter that didn’t know yet. Lying in bed with her watching movies that she had recorded off of TV for me and my sister. Swinging on their porch swing for hours hearing about her childhood.

I am selfish about some parts of Nana too. Her side of the family had longevity on its side. Her mother, brother and sister had been close to ninety when they passed away. When Brad and I discussed starting a family, I figured that my children would have memories of their great grandmother because I “knew” I had years before her time would be up. Now that she’s gone, I am so grateful that she was at so many special events in my life. She attended my high school and college graduation. She preceded me down the aisle at my wedding. She got to cuddle and snuggle and hug and kiss my son. She was able to spend five weekends with him before she passed away. But it makes me so sad that he won’t get to know her like I did. That he won’t get to experience the love she had for him or how much joy he brought to her. That he won’t whine to me that she hugs him too tight. Instead all I have are some stories I can tell him about the two of them, and some pictures. Although that is all I have, it’s going to have to be enough. And it is more than anyone else.

No matter your religious affiliation, there are some signs when someone passes away that you cannot ignore. The day after she died, Brad said in a passing comment before leaving for work, “Oh look, our roses are blooming again.” In December. You figure that one out.

I love you Nana, I will miss you until the day that I die, and I will never ever forget you. Thank you for hugging me so tightly. Thank you for being a role model on how to treat other people and how to love. If at the end of the day I have 1/8 of the compassion that you had, then I came out better than most. You were the best grandmother that anyone could ever wish for and I am so happy we had 29 years together. Your legacy will live on among all that met you and knew you and although we won’t be perfect, we will try to make you proud.