It’s hard to sort through a lifetime of memories, especially when the whole of memories, both small and large, feel more like a lifelong anthology. How do you choose just one or two tidbits “worth sharing,” when it all comes together to create an entire volume of things worth remembering. Some memories don’t stand out with all the particulars in focus, and yet some feel crystal clear as if they had just happened yesterday.
There are childhood memories of Plant City and fresh strawberry milkshakes at roadside stands, of picking oranges in her backyard in Lakeland, of rolling out dough on a floured counter with Bop to make the dumplings while Nanny stood at the sink beside us picking the chicken.
I remember my feet on the brick floor of their Lakeland home and feeling a little bit intimidated by the guest room bed with the tall, heavy carved wooden headboard sitting on a zebra rug that her daddy shot in Africa years before. I was glad my parents stayed in that room. Our room had the books and toys Nanny had saved from my mother’s childhood for us. She anticipated us long before we were born and created a spot that was ours in her own home, she wanted us to know that we were always at home with her. I think she spent a lifetime anticipating and looking forward to spending time with the people she loved and making everyone feel at home with her. Nanny always made time for the people she loved, whether it was friends dropping by for a visit, family coming for days, or even just a meal together…she always made time for what mattered most.
Nanny outlived my Bop by a whole lot of years, but still in my mind they remain a power couple of memories and laughter and love. There are snippits of silly things she said to him, like the time he kept teasing her and she pointed to the long vertical scar on his stomach, evidence of a medical procedure in the past, and said with a grin, “Jay, you better stop, or I’m going to take that zipper off your tummy and put it on your mouth.”
And then there remain whole long memories of flying by myself on an airplane as a child to go visit them in Florida, sitting together at lunch in some of their favorite places where the people behind the counter knew their names. “Hi Nancy, who is this we have today?” the lady would say. “Mary, this is my granddaughter,” she smiled and squeezed me, “she came all the way from North Carolina to visit.”
We always went to the gas station after lunch and Bop would get out and pump gas so that Nanny never had to. Eventually when he was gone, she had to learn things like that. I remember her making what felt like a zillion of her “too too good to stop” cookies and filling tin after tin because at the end of any meal, they really were too too good to stop. She wrote down her favorite recipes for me when I was in college and gave them to me at Christmas one year. I still have them, scratched onto little cards with family favorites like those cookies, her own mother’s apple cake, or the Spanish Bean Soup that she got from a Cuban friend which has become a staple offering at family gatherings to this day.
I remember being young and certain at times that my parents were ruining my life, administering what felt like unfair punishments for running my mouth or disobeying their instruction. “Go to your room,” they would say. Words that, as a parent, I now understand mean, “Go away now and get yourself together, so that I can get myself together too!” But Nanny knew about all of that, I think for my parents and for me. She always waited just a few minutes before coming into the room where I was flung across the bed crying, and for awhile she would just sit and stroke my hair and not say anything at all. In fact, I don’t know that I much remember anything specific that she ever said in those moments, but in my minds eye, I can still see her sitting there stroking my hair on the side of a bed in her home in Lakeland, at the beach in the summer, and in my childhood room.
Maybe what mattered most wasn’t even what she said so much as that she showed up. Because one thing I remember most is that she always showed up. Nanny was there for the people she loved, and she leaves a legacy of loving others and showing up for them behind her.
When I think about Nanny too, we always have a good chuckle. She was dear and kind, but also hilariously naïve, always believing the best in others and not much realizing true motives behind some circumstances. “Mom, please tell Nanny to stop sending steaks,” I told my mother over the phone one time. “They keep sending them and we haven’t finished the last box she sent.” It seemed that she was a magnificent target for sweepstakes and mail order companies. Her generous and thoughtful heart must have made her the best Omaha Steaks customer of all time because they even began calling her to remind her of all of our birthdays and Christmas. She always thought they were so kind to remind her of all the important dates.
For years Nanny has been disseminating things of hers that were valuable, some in actual value, but most by way of family heirlooms and things passed down from generation to generation. It is important to us all to hold various pieces of our family’s history, and for more than a decade, Nanny has been spreading out the things she accumulated over a lifetime to make sure that each of us held pieces of the lifetimes before us. In the past few years though, it seems that she had mostly exhausted her trove of heirlooms and began sending us all bits and pieces of other things she had accumulated… a stuffed animal so old that it completely disintegrated in the box in transit, a “tablecloth” that actually turned out to be a queen sized dust ruffle, and my personal favorite, a yarn Santa toilet seat cover that was made by a mystery person no one knows. Some heirlooms are passed because of actual value, but some will certainly continue because of the hilarity of stories they recall. I have a feeling that alongside her mother’s silver tea service, yarn Santa will also remain for many years to come.
I know that Nanny was proud of me, she was proud of all of us. And the older I get the more I understand what she saw when she looked out across the sand every summer at the beach and saw us all toddling along, and building sand castles, and body surfing in the gulf, and carrying our own babies on our hips. She saw her legacy…her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the evidence of years of love poured out, years of the selfless sacrifice and hard work that she sowed into the lives of others. Stretched across sunset after sunset, she saw the things she had learned and was still learning. Nanny had her own collection of memories, and to the rest of us her life’s anthology speaks to the wisdom of her presence and love for others.
Proverbs 3:13 -18 says,
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding,
for the gain from her is better than gain from silver
and her profit better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called blessed.
Those who held Nanny fast are blessed indeed. Because the wisdom she carried was that the people around you are important, that the moments you live are worthwhile, and that the faithfulness of a life spent loving and serving will impact generations to come.