Thanksgiving always makes me think of my Nana. I used to spend every weekend with Grandma and Grandpa. When we lived across town she would pull up in her big blue Impala and pick me up after work on Friday.
We would head home and pass by Vegas Vic on Fremont Street on the way home. She would roll down the windows and yell in a deep voice “Howdy Pard’ner!” and Vic would answer back in kind. If we went out to dinner or to the grocery store we passed by Vic. Vic was on the way to the Upholstery Shop. Vic was the center of my universe and I got to see him nearly every time I got into Grandma’s car with her.
When we moved to the house down the street from her she still drove the Impala the thirty yards to our house to pick me up on Friday after work and we still took a drive past Vic. In my 20s I was driving downtown when it occurred to me that Vic was not on the way to anything. Grandma had a way of making the big things seem little and the little things seem like a big deal. The miles we went out of our way, the time spent dodging tourist traffic – all to humor a child. We were never too rushed, never too far away, never too busy to pass by Vic.
Grandma loved to play games. Crazy Eights and Sorry were her favorites. When she played, she didn’t just try to win, she tried to stop you from winning. She relished the chance to make you draw more cards or start your man over by knocking him out. “Sorrrrrry!” She would sing as she sent your man back to the start. If she had a choice between improving her own position or putting you back to the start – she alway chose the latter. She played the game to play, not to win. It’s one of the things I loved about her, her style might cost her the game, but she always played all out. My brothers and I played for hours at her table and never felt either bullied or cajoled. She challenged us. She made us players.
The encyclopedias were kept at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. If homework required me to look something up, I would do my homework in her kitchen on her chrome and formica table. When I was in the first grade we had to draw a map of the United States, so I went to her house and got the atlas out and laid it on the table. Grandma gave me some typing paper and a pencil. I think she assumed that I would just trace the map onto the thin paper.
I called her into the kitchen to ask for more paper – I needed five more sheets and some tape. She looked down at my paper and saw that I was free-handing the Pacific Northwest and was running out of paper at about San Francisco. She asked, “Did you do that all by yourself?” I looked around to see who else she thought I could have done it with and shot her a puzzled look. She said, “Draw some more, I wanna watch.”
She helped me tape the six pieces of paper into one huge sheet and I went back to drawing the coastline and the borders. Next I divided up the states. She watched like she was seeing something amazing. For the next month every time one of her friends would stop by she would call me into the kitchen, pull out some paper and tell me to, “Draw America Honey!” I would draw away and her friends would assure her I was the most talented little girl anyone had ever seen. From that time on she never let me forget that I was born to be an artist.
If I made her something out of marbles and pipe cleaners it was set out on a place of honor in the living room. If I made her something out of construction paper in school it was pinned to the lampshade on the table in the entryway. Forget the fridge, she framed my drawings and hung them on the living room walls. She was my biggest fan – she believed in me.
The thing is that she always had confidence in her own abilities. She never looked at a task and thought it was too difficult. When her mother brought home dozens of people for Sunday dinner after a camp meeting she could figure out how to feed them. When her first marriage failed she picked herself up and headed west confident in the new life that she would find in California. When she was told she wasn’t qualified for a man’s job, she learned how to do it as well as any of the guys. When she and Grandpa were stranded in the wilds of northern Nevada with a truck that wouldn’t start she didn’t panic, she started walking the 17 miles to the nearest phone. Her unshakeable belief was a powerful force in my life.
In my early teens she was in failing health, but I still looked to her. I told her that I mentioned to my Pop that I wanted to go to study art at the University after high school. He told me, “What’s the point? Girls don’t need to go to college.” While he was telling me to take typing so I could get a job until I could find a husband, Grandma was buying my first camera, pushing art supplies on me, filling my head with the dream that I could be whatever I wanted to be.
She wasn’t well enough to attend either of my graduations, but she relived them vicariously as I regaled her with the stories of those days. It broke my heart to leave her and Grandpa when I made the decisions to break away from Vegas and make a life of my own. She urged me to go with tears in her eyes. She knew about that freedom that comes from a clean slate – a fresh start. As much as she wanted me close, she preferred me to be free. By my late 20’s she was in full-time care and before I was 35 she had forgotten I had ever existed. I still enjoyed my talks with her for a year or so after that, I spent time with her whenever I came back to town. I would take a curling iron, hairspray, and nail polish and fix her up while I was there. I’m sure she thought I was her beautician. She would tell me stories of studying to be a hairdresser during the depression. Funny how she had never shared that with me while she still knew me.
I remember thinking that she had been there for me when I was in diapers and had no understanding of who she was, the least I could do was to spend time with her when I was in town when she was basically in the same condition.
My Nana lost her long fight the week of Thanksgiving in 1998. Her shadow looms large over me even today. I literally wear her shoes on some days – they make me think of the place she had in my life. She made my childhood magical, she loved me fiercely, she made me strong. I’m so very thankful for my her.