Granny panties, size XL, beige, used. They’d arrived in a plain brown envelope accompanied by a single tea towel dated to the ’70′s by the brown mushrooms that covered it. This was hardly what a girl dreams of getting for her all-important 12th birthday and yet there it was. But the worst part wasn’t the suspicious stains (30-year-old coffee grounds or something more sinister?), it was that this was the only present my grandmother ever gave me. USED UNDERWEAR. She wasn’t demented, not yet anyhow, and this – this package of garbage with my name misspelled on it, to add insult to injury – was the final straw. From that day on I decided I was done with Nana. (Although I did always win the “worst present ever” game so there is that?)
It wasn’t hard to do really. Due to a rift in the family that no one quite remembered how it started but had grown infinitely wider over the years, I’d only met her on a few occasions. And I didn’t like her. I had my reasons: Her obvious impatience with children. Her yappy dogs that humped everything and yet were loved more than any human in her life. The overwhelming smell of cigarette smoke that permeated everything about her. The fact that I was born one day after her and she never forgave me for usurping some of her glory (the reason I never got any presents, perhaps?). The total absence of visits or cards or phone calls or any other tokens of grandmotherly affection. I told myself that I didn’t miss her – how could I? She was so unknown to me – and yet I deeply missed having a grandmother in my life.
All of my other grandparents died in horribly tragic ways when I was very young. These stories compelled me for years to think my family line was cursed. As uncles and aunts continued to die prematurely – most of them also in horribly tragic ways – I became convinced that no one lived past 60 in my life. (For the record, my father is now 58 and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous.) But not Nana. Despite doing everything “wrong” health-wise, she stubbornly determined to outlive us all through some voodoo combination of mail-order supplements, the Home Shopping Network and listening to Art Bell on CRZY radio every night. Indeed, when she did die, well into her 80′s, it was not from the effects of being a life-long smoker or being overweight or having Alheimer’s Disease but rather from a burst anyeurism in her stomach that took her quickly and painlessly in her sleep, no horrible trauma necessary.
It was her dying that brought her unexpectedly back into my life.
Before Nana’s death my mom and sister, sensing the end was near, went out to visit her one last time. I settled instead for a phone call during which I told her that I loved her and that I hoped she felt better soon, only slightly pained that she didn’t even remember who I was. I’m told that she was quite delightful that last visit. Her Alzheimer’s had made her forget all the reasons she had to be bitter and left her with little else but a warm feeling that made her exclaim euphorically over how beautiful these strange women visiting her were and how much she loved ice cream. My mother and sister were much comforted. I was unaffected. I’d outgrown my childish hatred of her but love hadn’t taken it’s place.
I missed her funeral – a simple graveside service attended by a handful of well-meaning relatives also unsure of their feelings for her. (I wasn’t the only one she alienated.) I meant to go. I bought my plane tickets and arranged babysitting and steeled myself. But then our sewer exploded in our basement inspiring a week’s worth of ”crappy” puns and a singular kind of horror that comes from looking around your children’s bedroom and realizing that all the white flecks stuck to everything are actually toilet paper. Which means all the brown sludgy stuff is… yeah. Life doesn’t get much worse than a literal geyser of sh*t. So I didn’t go. I tried my best to remember her but any feeling was overshadowed by more powerful losses.
My mother, tirelessly compassionate on Nana’s behalf, brought all of the old woman’s jewelry to allow everyone to pick a few pieces to remember her by. I knew she wasn’t rich and had a deep fondness for QVC so when my mom presented me with what was left with a wry smile that seemed to say well, there’s no accounting for taste - I didn’t care. The point for me wasn’t to get rich hawking her cubic zirconia but just to find a memento or two that symbolized her title in my life, if not her actual presence. But as I opened up each little box and bag, I found myself increasingly surprised. It was beautiful! And wacky! And unique! And vintage! And even hilariously hideous! I loved it all.
My sister and mom and I talked and giggled. Who on earth would buy such a tacky thing as a gold bejeweled scary-clown brooch? Did she ever really wear it? She had a whole bag of brooches and scarf pins, in fact – a rare find because hardly anyone bothers with them anymore. Every time I go to a thrift store I keep my eye out for them and I hardly ever find any. And then there were all the hand-made pieces – things like earrings made out of spoon handles and intricately beaded chandelier earrings. I kept all of them too. Layered gold-plated necklaces, a huge fake cocktail ring, earrings made out of opals ringed in rhinestones and glued to dangly chains – all loud and gaudy and broken and cheap. All went into my pile.
Ever since my mom gave them to me, I’ve found many reasons to wear one or the other of them. Not out of a sense of duty or even love but because I really like them. Today I wore her earrings made out of peacock feathers covered in beads and sparkles and I’ll be darned if they didn’t make me grin every time I looked in the mirror. Nana and I have the same love for costume jewelry. Who knew? It makes me wonder what else I didn’t know about her. What other quirks we might share. What else I could have loved about her. I didn’t try hard enough.
Tonight I looked for a picture of Nana and I together – just the two of us – to put with this post. I don’t have one. I don’t think one exists. And this makes me sad. But, miraculously and thankfully, I don’t believe that death is the end. And when I see her in the next life I’m going to greet her wearing that hideous clown brooch, just so I can ask her about it. (I promise not to even mention the panties. Okay maybe once.)
As I look through her jewelry again tonight, I’m struck by how much it represents both her and I: beautiful, broken, well-loved, the shine gleaming through the tarnish. We are not perfect. We are real human beings. And this is what I learned from Nana: Do you have to forgive someone to love them? It turns out you don’t. And that is a merciful gift.
Do you have someone like Nana who you wonder why exactly they were put in your life? How do you answer that question? Do you believe you have to forgive someone to be able to love them? Anyone else love tacky costume jewelry?