I feel badly telling other peoples’ stories for them. It feels like a theft.
But Nana is gone now, and she cannot tell her own story. I realize, now, that maybe her story isn’t just hers, anyway; that somewhere along the line, her story grew into our story: hers, mine, all of ours. And so if I tell a story, that’s what it is. It’s ours. It’s mine that has taken hold of hers, that carries it into the future in the same way that, someday, my grandchildren will puzzle over my life, attempt to make sense of it, forgive it, bless it, and God willing, tell it.
The pieces of her life, though, only belong to me in fragments.
There is a memorial service on a crisp fall day in Boston. It is beautiful.
I pull into the cemetery and linger next to my car. We are waiting for the distant relatives to arrive from New Hampshire: two brothers, a sister, a sister-in-law, some nieces and nephews. As I stand next to my brother, his wife, my parents, my aunts, I realize that “distant” is only a matter of perspective. The people we await are strangers to me, but they have known her forever. They knew her when she was young, they saw her grow and knew her friends, her boyfriends, her husband. They tracked my mother as she and her three sisters came of age. They knew Nana in a way I did not.
Distant is perhaps a more appropriate term for me.
That afternoon, at the luncheon hosted by her aging brother, I learn that although there is distance, there are common anchors, too. She was the same person, though we knew her differently.
It is puzzling to think of Nana as a child. But her brother gets up, the spitting image of Nana in his mannerisms and features, and though his voice shakes and his body hunches, he talks of a girl I wish I had known. I sit next to my brother and we listen, we learn. We think that maybe this is the ghost of Nana, standing before us and filling in some important details for us. The sketch of our grandma gets some clearer lines that day.
We learn that there was an amusement park, and that one of Nana’s most precious childhood memories was going to the park with her father and brother. I heard, that afternoon, about the carousel that Nana and her brother loved to ride. Nana loved riding the horses. And I learned that day, from her brother who recalled these things about his sister 80 years later, about her sweet tooth and the ice cream that she would always eat: butter pecan.
At that point, I looked up and caught my brother’s eye, and we just nodded. Of course.
Because if you were to ask me the two most solid things I know about Nana, they would be these: She loves horses and she can’t live without butter pecan ice cream.
That evening, I look in the mirror as I brush my hair. I am in my hotel room. Downstairs, two groups of people circulate the lobby on this busy New England fall day. There are tiny girls dressed in cocktail dresses and done up in makeup prancing from conference room to conference room. And there are undergraduates and their parents going in and out, in constant motion, attending the events of Boston College’s Parents’ Weekend.
I stare at myself in the mirror and realize that it has been 10 years exactly since I graduated from that place. 14 years since the first weekend when my parents came up, stayed in a hotel, attended football games and convocations and breakfasts with me. People were still wearing the same shirt. It was all the same.
I’d believed, all those years ago, that I was striking out on my own, exploring new territory, asserting my independence from my family so far away in Ohio. What I didn’t realize was how close the distance can be. What I didn’t really comprehend was that Nana grew up down the block from my University. She lived on Commonwealth Avenue, about a quarter mile from the apartment where I lived my last year of college. We lived on the same street, 75 years or so apart. I used to walk by her house every day on my way to work. The places where I slept, and ate, and went the weekend of her memorial service were all places I knew well. But I didn’t know them because of Nana. I knew them because that had been my life.
And here I was again.
When I looked at myself, I could see her. I have her eyes. They are light, unobtrusive, gentle, hard to penetrate, just like hers.
The stories. They don’t keep their distance. They begin to merge in a way where I can’t tell whose is whose.
That night, I sit quietly and watch my aunts go through a box of pictures and cards that belonged to Nana. We are all in that box.
Sometimes, my mom or one of her sisters would pull out a picture and stare at it, trying to make sense of who it was or what the occasion could have been. I hear bits and pieces of stories, long forgotten. I fill in more pieces to the puzzle of Nana’s life, realizing again and again how little I knew her.
The memories I have of Nana are mostly very shallow. I remember things like sitting in her giant bed watching cable television on days when I was home sick from school. I remember how special it felt to hold the cable box in my hand and change the channels—oh, so many channels—without getting up. I remember that her house is where I first learned of Nickelodeon. I remember that she made me toast with butter and raspberry jam. I remember that she served it on a little white plate, and that I got to use a tv tray that she placed across my lap.
I remember going to the barn with her as a kid and watching her ride her horse, Magnum. I remember spending Christmases with her, and celebrating her birthday. I remember her taking me to see Home Alone when I was 9, and how she’d picked the movie out because she’d heard how cute it was and thought that I would enjoy it. I remember exactly which theater we went to. I remember that she loved it, and so did I.
As we both got older, the memories change to times when I helped her. I’d take her shopping. I’d drive her to see her horse. I’d take her out to eat, or drive her to one of my brother’s choir concerts. I remember the feeling of sadness when I started to understand what was happening: that Nana was getting old. That it was no longer safe for her to do these things by herself. That her memory was dwindling. That, soon, she might even forget me.
Midway through the evening, someone pulled out a newspaper clipping. It was old and yellowed, in the center there was a prominent picture of a woman riding a horse, confident and happy. I snapped a picture and saved it on my phone.
This was how I wanted to remember her.
A year has passed, now.
I know because fall is here, and I long to make my way to Boston.
A deep homesickness resides within me for a place that is only marginally my home. I wonder, now, if that is Nana’s legacy; if that is a place where our lives come close, where our stories merge.