My Grandma Nancy was as staunch an Irish Catholic as they come. This is one of very few things that I know about her, Gentle Reader. Today would have been her 59th wedding anniversary.
I didn’t meet Nancy until I was seven; Maman, who was adopted, had been looking for some answers, for her roots, for years. Ma still remembers Nancy’s first words to her, over the phone – “I drink and I smoke and I eat real butter.” Unapologetic, and challenging – then, more gently – “What do you want to know?”
Nancy told her about the family medical history, mixed in with family stories – the story of how, at a very young age, she’d been rushed out to the West coast to have a baby; it was 1955. The doctor promised that the child would go to a nice Irish home*. Maman learned that her birth father had been dead many years – Nancy thought she might have the address of an aunt of his somewhere†.
My folks went to meet Nancy and the man she’d married, who would become my Grandpa Bob. When they locked eyes in the foyer of the restaurant, Ma and Nancy clung together, weeping. They didn’t entirely separate or stop through the entire meal; Bob and my Dad made awkward small-talk for the next several hours.
But I didn’t know any of that at the time; when I met Nancy, her first grandchild had just been born – suddenly she had two. I had just turned seven, and I was shy of the woman who I’d just been told was my third grandmother. Over the years, I came to know her with a child’s understanding: she loved licorice – she loved butterflies – she was vastly proud of being a full-blooded Irishwoman. She was very loving – but I was very young, and very shy.
Nancy and Bob moved, briefly, to Wisconsin.
When they moved back, I was a teenager, or at least on the cusp, with all the usual tumult that entails. My family, during those years, was wrestling with addiction, illness, early disability retirement, recovery – and I was struggling with my sexuality, and my identity. We were all stretched thin; we didn’t see much of Nancy and Bob during these years, and when we did, I was – like all teenagers – sullen. I didn’t know how to relate to them – to anyone, really – so I’d sit in silence around the dinner-table and brood.
As a young adult, I’d see them when I could, which wasn’t often. I helped them move, a few times, in my little red truck. Broad-shouldered and cocky, I’d lug boxes or bolt together bed frames, the frail woman tethered to her oxygen tank showing me what went where. Those are actually some of my best memories of Nancy – she was feisty, even then. We’d walk down the hall, and she’d tell me about the residents of each apartment as we walked past them.
Then she was bed-ridden, and then she was gone – and so was my chance of getting to know her as an adult – not just a vague grandmother-figure, but as a real person.
Her name was Nancy. She smoked and she drank and she ate real butter – her anniversary was St. Patrick’s Day. She loved licorice, she loved butterflies, she loved Ireland – but most of all, she loved her family.
*Dr. Seever promised Nancy that her child would go to a good Irish, Catholic home. Dr. Seever promised my Nanny that her child came from a good Norweigian Lutheran family. Dr. Seever got shit done, and found homes for children in 1955. Bless you, sir.
†Grandma Nancy found the address. The aunt was alive; Maman wrote her, using a lot of what she’d written in the letter for the agent who found Nancy – questions about history of family health, and so on. The aunt never deigned to respond. I’m sure she had her reasons.
‡Photos are courtesy of my Aunt Elaine’s Facebook. If you’re reading this, Auntie – this was a hard post to write. My readers expect humor, but this is such a serious story – I had a hard time writing it. It got emotional, often; I had to put it aside to cry a few times. I know I didn’t do her justice, here. Someday, I want to write something worthy of her. ❤