As a young woman, Nanny was the epitome of glam. Willowy but not thin- you know what I mean? She looked tall and long but healthy and curved, in such an effortless way. Her hair was always coiffed, her beautiful smile painted right in the lines. She worked at Mullers (the department store on the corner of Ryan and Division) until she married Papa and had my uncle Joe. I imagine her every customer fell in love with her, with her gentle, friendly demeanor and that megawatt smile.
She grew up poor and never went to college, but always she proved that real class and deep beauty and true grace aren’t things you can pay for anyway. She made everyone feel good. Loved, heard, spotlighted, cared for. She made me feel that way always.
Her meals were legendary. When I think of her as a young mother with four little ones (including the twins who came last and as a surprise; two instead of one?), I conjure a vision of a woman still glam, a cigarette between her slender fingers, pots bubbling on the stove, pantyhose a pretty nuisance. She made all of her children’s clothes and all the cheesecakes for Papa’s restaurant too. I can't see how she did it.
When I came to know Nanny, she was rounder, perhaps a bit less glam, saggier. She’d stopped smoking, thank goodness. Her hair was always colored just the right shade of Nanny-brown, and her skin still smelled of the Oil of Olay she massaged into each night, and her smile still shone as painted and bright as ever. She still seemed so fabulous and glam.
I used to call her “Foxy” or “You Fox!” and tease her about going out for nights on the town. She’d laugh so hard, happy tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. I loved how her short-sleeve button down shirt was always tucked neatly into her elastic-waisted pants with a wadded up tissue stowed between two fastened button holes. You could never be too sure about needing a Kleenex at some point during the day.
We’d sit at her ancient kitchen table, black Formica with gold and black legs, and I’d wriggle her engagement and wedding bands from her increasingly gnarled finger and plunge them into that toxic jewelry cleaner you can buy at the drug store. That stuff made the included brush fall apart, for pete’s sakes! Papa’s name was Pete. I like that coincidence.
Anyway, I’d shimmy out from the white gold prongs the accumulated pie crust and bacon drippings and green bean strings and whatever else had gotten stuck, and once again, her yellow diamond would shine, and she’d tell me about Papa or Mullers or the restaurant days. The veins in her hands were ever more pronounced, and her fingernails became more and more ridged over the years. Sometimes, she’d let me file and shape her nails, the ones painted red in so many old pictures.
I thought her hands were beautiful, the veins and ridges like memory paths to the past. Her skin was so silky soft smooth, like the thinnest, most fine cloth a silkworm could weave. No party of my body has ever felt like that.
Sometimes I’d check the back of her hair for “holes,” the ones that come after naps. Cathy colored Nanny’s hair for years and always did just the right shade. She did it for Nanny’s funeral I think? I hope. It seems right that she would have. But maybe not. I don't remember.
Nanny was an old-fashioned lady to the end. I have never in my life worn a camisole, but she wore one every day. Over her bra and under her shirt. I detest undergarments like camisoles and slips, but I think to her they were a sort of feminine uniform. And she was always so lovely.
Towards the end, when she couldn’t go to the beauty parlor, and her arm didn’t work, and her eyes and hearing were failing too; when her hands were curled in and she spent most of every day in her trusty recliner, I remember thinking she was still so beautiful. And how I missed her before she was even gone.
That body couldn’t last forever, and at the end, I didn’t want it to. It wasn’t a good life, but selfishly, I want her back. I want to file her nails and watch her lips curl into a smile, want to sit in her kitchen and feel that everything will be good and OK.
People tell me I have her smile, and I couldn’t wish for more.