Life Story – Nana, graceful in life and death

When my friend’s mom died I prayed for her comfort and peace. Over the years of our friendship I heard many stories about her mom and know my friend treasured the memories. I hope those precious stories are saved in writing as all the stories we tell verbally can be lost forever. While I still enjoy my mother’s friendship, I wrote a story about the day my grandmother died and interspersed memories of growing up with Nana with the story of her death. She died with grace and dignity and I hope the stories I saved about her in our family history book portray her generous soul. If you haven’t saved your stories yet I can help you create your own family history book as a legacy to your children.

Nana, Gentle Soul

The sweetness of my grandmother’s smile was marred by the loss of twinkle in her eyes, now just a trifle vacant. Nana’s hand gripped mine as if hanging on to the shred of reality she had left before she slipped away. Nana was not always sure who I was, but she knew I was family and that I loved her. As her life of 93 years was nearing an end I thought of all the ways she had shaped our family, the values she embraced, and the generous ways she gave of herself.

Holiday meal
Thanksgiving dinner with Nana and Granddad.

She loved to cook for her family and we all looked forward to her holiday meals. My granddad, their two kids and their families all gathered around her antique table with the blue checkered cloth that was laden with casseroles, turkey, ham, fresh baked rolls and pies that she had been preparing for days. A row of antique plates circled the walls above the chair rail; I can still picture the blue willow pattern that she loved.

Nana had the soft, round, sweetness that was the stereotype for grandmothers everywhere with her silver hairdo that she had done every Saturday. Her soft spoken personality belied an iron backbone and strong will. She graduated from Simpson College in 1932 and became a teacher, no small feat for a woman in those days. Her father was an educated man and wanted his daughters as well as his son to have college degrees. She taught school, took a break when her children were young, but spent years substitute teaching when her children were school age and beyond.

Nana loved to take her grandchildren fishing at Lake Okoboji in northern Iowa. “Just spit on the worm and you’ll catch more,” she said. So we would all dutifully spit on our worms just like she did. It worked for her; she always caught the most fish, even more than Granddad. Now I wonder if all that spitting was just a funny thing contrived to amuse her grandkids. “Nana, I caught a fish, take it off the hook for me, the fins are cutting me!”  She took them off for us, even though granddad said, “You catch ‘em, you take ‘em off!”boy fishing

During our reunions when everyone started to talk at once and the noise level grew, Nana would raise her hand in the air and say, “It’s my turn! I have a story to tell!” The talking would finally die down and we gave her a chance to talk and she always had a good story to tell. One we heard often was the time when she was a little girl and she fell down a well at her grandfather’s farm and got her little white fur muff dirty. She must’ve loved that muff, she was more worried about that than her fall, and did not understand why her parents made such a fuss over her.

UHaul OkobojiShe grew old gracefully and the time came for us to go help her and Granddad move their stuff out of their summer home at the lake. My family helped load all their furniture into a U-Haul truck. She was worked so hard at age 83 and insisted on keeping a card table and a few folding chairs and a frying pan out of the truck so she could cook us one last meal at the lake. We ate Reuben sandwiches on the patio. I hope I have her loving energy when I’m 83.

By the time she moved into a nursing home with Granddad in Quincy, Illinois where my parents live, she was 85 years old. For awhile she was still able to make pies for holiday dinners, but her body and mind started to slow down. “Where are you from, dearie?” she would say as she tried to place all of her 4 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren. She would cling to us, knowing that she loved us, but was not always able to figure out who we were.

On a Friday in February my sister Leslie and I got calls from our Uncle John, that Nana was fading fast. He was frustrated to be far away in California and wanted someone to be with her when she died. Leslie and I dropped everything and within hours were on our way. Leslie drove two hours north from St. Louis and I drove 3 hours south from Cedar Rapids to say good-bye to Nana.

Holding Nana's handShe was in bed at the nursing home and either asleep or in a coma when we got there. We stroked her hands and talked softly to her. I braced my knees on the edge of the bed, knelt over and propped myself on my hands to lower my face to hers. The water proof pad crackled and the nubs of the old-fashioned white chenille spread poked pock marks into my skin. “Nana, can you hear me? We’re here with you now, you know how much we love you?” I gently ran my fingers across her creased cheeks, smile lines and crows feet witness to her good humor. I smoothed her white hair, soft and wavy even on this, her last day.

Tears welled up as I gathered strength to say good-bye. “Nana, I love you, it’s okay to let go now.” I hoped that somewhere in her heart or mind she heard me. It’s possible, she might have heard me, please say it’s possible. The nurses checked her vitals and told us that when we touched her and talked to her, her pulse became steadier and her breathing more regular. That gave me hope that in some small way she was aware of our presence.

Nana died later that night and we rejoice in the belief that she is in better place and we will one day see her again. She lived a simple life, a good life surrounded by family and friends and filled with loving deeds. Her legacy is our stake to the past, a reminder and inspiration to carry on her zest for life and generous spirit.