My wonderful Nanny

Yesterday I felt inspired to craft the boys a smiling dinner. Literally. It was such a hit that Oliver requested another such plate this evening. I obliged because really, they eat so much of everything this way. Worry not: I don't intend to make diverse countenances out of food for much longer. But I love to see the boys' smiles when they study the features and what comprises them.

Today when I drove up to pick-up, I rounded the back, near one of the playgrounds and saw Oliver scampering happily about. Though both boys were hot messes by 6pm, and I rather wanted to throw myself out the window, at pick-up I was totally in love. I mean, what more could you want than a child so euphoric at school?! And Jack was so engaged with his teacher during carpool that he passed my car. Hah!

Last night, I threw together a random pasta dinner for T and myself: caramelized fennel with caraway and fennel seeds, peperoncino, Meyer lemon zest and chunks, creme fraiche, and loads of pecorino. It was a fading fireball, but I liked it quite a bit.

This afternoon I was in need of comfort food and immediately, my mind jumped to a hearty beef stew with rice & gravy (I like an ampersand in rice & gravy; don't know why; it just works), roasted potatoes and kale and roasted tomato salad on the side. My Nanny, my beloved maternal grandma, who has been fighting and waging war against the many indignities and challenges of growing old was put into hospice yesterday. She was in such pain, and I am infinitely grateful for my aunts, Nanny's aides and the hospice nurses who were able to help her get comfortable.

It may seem a random jump from food for my children and meals with my husband to thoughts of my Nanny in her last days of life. I don't see it as dissonant at all, for she was the one who taught me to cook, who gave me my first cookbook, who taught me to preserve her famous -and our family favorite- cranberry sauce which has bedecked and improved every Thanksgiving and Christmas table since I can recall. And certainly before then.


Mom and I, nestled in the open door of her fridge, talking and laughing, used to eat it from spoons, finishing a sacred jar entirely too quickly. I learned to can because I wanted to know this secret that bound our family so tightly. I wanted to know how I could make holiday tables so special and beautiful and bright, especially after Nanny couldn't cook anymore; I could don that mantle. The afternoon she and I spent in her kitchen, I the patient and admiring student learning from an incredibly loving and patient teacher, is one of my fondest and most treasured memories.

Nanny has lived a long and full life. She has seen almost all of her grandchildren graduate from college; attended their weddings; met, come to know and blessed with her love her four great-grandchildren. I truly believe that she has never been anything but a happy, positive and welcoming presence in the life of every single person she's known. Her husband, my Papa, bought them a home 65 years ago, maybe more, that had some rental properties on the lot. Papa died in 1993 or '94, and Nanny has run the apartments since. Many of the tenants have become surrogate children; they never fail to visit or write to Nanny, to bring their partners and children to meet her, to visit when her time seems near. That she is a shepherdess in such a generous, modest way is a testament to the nonjudgmental love she has spread around so generously.

My parents have been on a much-anticipated trip abroad these past two weeks, and when hospice was called, Mom took the first flight back from Athens. Via Frankfurt, via Houston, to Lake Charles, she arrived today. All I wanted was for her to get to Nanny in time. And she did. And I feel as if I'll be satisfied forever because of it. Mom and Nanny live in the same town, and Mom has been an amazing buttress for the fine quality of life Nanny has had these past few years. As I think, right now, of them lying in bed together, I am grateful; for the peace Nanny is surely feeling, and for the gift of being able to say goodbye that Mom will have.

I was able to say goodbye today too. My dear aunt, Renee, held the phone to Nanny's ear while I told her how terribly much I loved and have appreciated her all these years. How thankful I was for her always loving me just for who I was. For teaching me so many things, for inspiring me. Nanny grew up in the humblest of circumstances, surrounded by love and family but little else. She didn't attend college; it just wasn't in her cards. But she never stopped reading and learning, and she never judged. She kept an open mind about everything: race, sexual orientation, politics. That's not terribly common for Southerners of her vintage! And I was always so inspired by that.

So I made a beef stew because Nanny always made spaghetti and brisket but we just had pasta last night. Beef stew seemed like a second cousin in terms of preparation and comfort. I thought of her as I chopped the onions -she always used such a meager paring knife to do this job- and peeled the carrots -you should see her old peeler; it's utterly vintage and great. As I browned the meat I thought of her linoleum kitchen floor and counter tops, her always-giant microwave to the right of the stove, her ancient tin Saltines box that any collector would want (but for her was just practical), her toaster and KitchenAid with covers to keep the dust out. I thought of the plasticky cabinets throughout her kitchen, and of the one door behind which I'd always find the jewelry cleaner; with that I'd clean her engagement and wedding bands which were eternally crusted with pie dough or something similar.

I recalled the times she'd visit us at Mom and Dad's house, when my sister, Elia, and I still lived there. When Nanny went to the bathroom, Elia would race to the powder room, sling the sliding door open while Nan was on the pot, turn the faucets on at full blast, and scram. Never once did Nanny not wheeze with laughter. She was patient and present as the day is long.

I remember the few times she cussed and how it sent us into fits of laughter and appreciation. I recall the time I painted my toenails blue, and Mom freaked, and Nanny said, "Sharon, it's just nail polish." I remember her farts which could be tremendous, and we would rate them: Dutch Oven was our favorite moniker.

I remember how beautiful she always has been, teenager to now. Her megawatt smile lit up every room. Someone once said that my smile was hers; I couldn't imagine such a compliment.

Nanny worked so hard, and life was not always easy. But she handled everything with grace and generosity and kindess, and I can't conceive of a more inspirational role model. When she goes, I will miss her terribly. She is unconscious now, but peacefully so (thank you, modern meds). She has weathered a broken hip and shoulder, continuous UTIs, mini-strokes and all other form of age-related decline. I have never heard her complain, except when my mom bought the wrong color hair dye, and after the job, Nanny said, "I am really pissed." At 92 years old. I love it!

I will hope that when it is my turn I have touched even a fraction of others the way she has. I will hope to be such a familial legacy. Until then, I will simply miss her.