The sights and sounds of my grandmother's house started at the top of the rickety stairs on her back porch. There was always a wooden crate full of multi-colored, locally produced sodas that tickled your taste buds with fun names like coconut raspberry creme, blueberry lime delight, and chocolate chiffon. Then my nose pulled me into her kitchen with the smell of the freshly baked strawberry rhubarb pie swirling in the air.
"Have you eaten yet?" That was her frequent question to me after receiving one of those warm loving hugs that only grandmothers can give. It was hard to admit you had already eaten with the smell of pie and the sight of amazingly decorated cookies in full view. You wouldn't find anything made out of a box in her house. She was that kind of grandma. Well, actually, she was "Nana" to me.
Nana lived through some tough times. She was a child during the Great Depression and lost her husband, my grandfather, early in their marriage. With three daughters to care for, she eventually created her own small business as a child daycare provider. She would rise at 4AM and care, cook, and clean until 11PM.
It's the simple things
I was her only grandson. My two week vacations with her every summer were blissful. We didn't do anything fancy compared to today's standards. We would go to the parks, the movies, and just shop for fresh produce at the nearby farmers' markets and her favorite grocery store, Charlie's. She made me feel like I was the most important person in the world. And she made me appreciate the simple things in life.
Her out-stretched hands and sweet smile are etched into my memory from the first time she handed me a crisp twenty dollar bill and asked me if I wanted to go to the corner pizzeria and pick up our favorite Hawaiian pizza. No one had every trusted me to do that before. When I arrived back at her modest house with the hot pizza and her change, she stuck the eight dollars in my hand, closed it tight into my fist, and whispered, "Keep it for yourself, Todd." Eating our favorite pizza together was magical.
Years later, when I was traveling the world as an Army officer and sometimes feeling lonely, her four to five page hand written letters always arrived at just the right time. She wrote me weekly. A simple feeling of being loved washed over me each time I saw a letter from her with the familiar smudged erasable ink pen she loved to use. Even the looseleaf paper she wrote on smelled liked the freshly made snickerdoodle cookies and peach cobbler she often made.
Love while you can
Then, one day, the call came. She was sick and in the hospital. I was living in Ohio for my first post military career. It was a long way from her Connecticut hospital bed. I hopped the next plane to see her.
I don't remember her ever being sick. I guess I assumed she would always be there, smiling, humming to her favorite Mantovani vinyl record, reading stories to the children she cared for, and reveling in the constant creativity of her kitchen confections. The word "septic" was foreign to me...until the doctor explained.
When I rounded the corner of her hospital room and her eyes connected with my eyes, I was paralyzed. Tears ran down her sunken cheeks adjacent to the large tube that entered her mouth and prevented her from talking. I knew why she was crying. I could see it on her face. She didn't want me to see her that way. I didn't want to see her that way either.
Anger and sadness enveloped me. I was confused. I didn't know what to do. I fix things. I'm an action taker. I was powerless. She laid there trying desperately to talk with the remaining energy she had. I held her hand with the same loving firm grip she gave me when she told me to keep the change from the pizza money.
Work reluctantly pulled me back to Ohio. But, I also couldn't stomach seeing her that way any more. She passed away a few days later. Work was busy so I hastily made flight reservations for her funeral.
Then, the unthinkable happened. I missed her funeral! I couldn't believe it. I didn't factor in a weather delay. I cut it too close. This was the woman who showered me with unconditional love, spent summers with me, wrote me faithfully for over 10 years each week, shared her love of food, remembered my birthday every year, and taught me about classical music. How could I have let that happen?
Live life without regrets
One of my biggest regrets is that I let an earthly job and the trappings of life prevent me from attending her funeral. I didn't honor the person who honored and loved me unconditionally.
My hope for you is this.
- Try to prioritize spending time with the people who most enrich your life.
- Do everything you can to honor and respect those who spent their time caring and nurturing you.
I would like to think that my Nana's last gift to me was to remember these things with my family.
I strive to do so everyday, without regrets.