On the date of her death, her name was, I believe, Frances Anderson Lang. At one point she was known as Frances Christine Anderson. But Christine was not on her birth certificate, nor on any legal documents. I once asked her about it, and she stated that she was teased for not having a middle name, so she gave herself the moniker. She was forever trying to fit in. She was my grandmother, my Nanny, because that’s the name my eldest sister called her. She was, up until the last years of her life, hell on high water. She was a rebel. She was difficult. She was kind. She was insane.
And, she was born on this day, 102 years ago. She lived until a couple of months past her 97th birthday. My grandmother was a paradox. She wasn’t good. And she wasn’t inherently evil. She had a tough life in a lot of ways. And I don’t think she ever completely understood how to deal with it. She took her pain out on those around her. She blamed me for my mother’s suicide, and she once threw a toaster oven at my grandfather because it wasn’t a Sunbeam for pity’s sake. She could spew venom and hate. She could also nurture and love and show amazing kindness. To the day of her death, I never really understood her.
But I am trying to.
She was born in 1908, the youngest of 4 girls. She was a late addition to the family, born in Coffeeville, Kansas. I was always told that there was a huge age difference between her and the eldest, Alta. Actually, they were but ten years apart and there were two other girls between them. There is also some vague memory of an older brother (though I am quite unsure) who died young. But that could have been an uncle or a cousin I heard about.
Why do we never pay enough attention to our elders’ stories until they are no longer able to share them with us?
She almost died when she was an infant. I can’t remember the name of the illness. But I do remember that my Aunt Alta told me that because she almost died they all treated her with kid gloves, and did way too much for her. Aunt Alta said it was their fault Nanny was so….difficult. I know that she was given elocution lessons from the time she was a school girl, so that she never had a southern drawl. She was sent away to boarding school when she was a teenager. I remember being told the reason was because her mother was too frail to care for her. But that doesn’t sound like it was the real reason, as her mother lived until she was in her late 90’s.
I know that she met my grandfather at this boarding school, while in the middle of a prank. Actually, she was in the process of stealing molasses from the cafeteria, and climbing out the window when he approached. He helped her down. They shared a cigarette later on their first date. She wanted to show how worldly she was and swore she always smoked. She had never taken a puff before in her life. She coughed and choked uncontrollably after the first puff, and my grandfather, in between fits of laughter, called her “Tuffy” because she was obviously so dang tough. He called her this until the day he died, fifty years later. He loved her. He honestly loved her. I know this because he put up with her for over 50 years. No easy task.
After they married when she was just 17, they tried to have children. They tried, and tried. She became pregnant rather easily. It was the carrying a child to term that seemed to elude her. Sixteen years after they were married, in 1941, my mother was born. She was the joy of my grandmother’s life. She was my grandmother’s heart. My grandmother had suffered through three miscarriages and would suffer through at least one more that I know of. When my mother was ten years old my grandmother gave birth to a beautiful baby boy…who died hours after his premature birth. To say this broke my grandmother would be an understatement. It forever changed her relationship with her surviving child.
But Nanny rarely talked about her “lost” children. She instead gave as much as she could to my mother–dance lessons, girl scouts, shopping trips, the love of music and art and fine dining. On top of this, she and my grandfather gave my mother something she loved–a violin. And my grandmother was never more proud of my mom than when she was playing her violin. The sad fact of the matter is once my mom put down that violin, when she dropped out of St. Mary’s College of Notre Dame, she never picked it up again. But I heard countless times how beautiful my mother played, how special she was for her musical talent.
But with her leaving school, she also left my grandparents, and more importantly, my Nanny. She had been born and raised in Boise, Idaho. After dropping out of college, she ran. Away from my grandparents. She wanted freedom. She was tired of being the center of my grandmother’s universe. She ran to California and met my father. And I don’t think my grandmother ever truly forgave her.
My grandmother and my mother had a crazy dysfunctional relationship. They loved each other very much. They were both alcoholics, so they drank, laughed and cried together. And they drove each other mad. My mother, while being the center of my grandmother’s universe, was never quite perfect enough for her. And my grandmother smothered my mother incessantly. I remember countless times the phone ringing and my mother crying out, “If that’s Nanny, I am NOT here.” All of us grew used to lying to Nanny.
What did Nanny teach me? She taught me how to play Solitaire, Gin Rummy, and that there was more to life than trying to find a man(surprising, since she couldn’t seem to be long without one.)
Who was she, truly? She was a proud catholic. She was intelligent. Republican. She taught Yoga until well into her 70’s. She lost her one true love, my Papa Glen, to lung cancer when they were approaching their 50th anniversary. She lost my mother to suicide 15 years later. I sometimes wonder how she even went on living after my mother died.
When she was about 93, and wearing a skirt, a man approached her in a bar and asked if anyone ever told her she had nice legs. Her response? “Only all my life.” That was Nanny. Once, she and my mother were walking down the main drag in Boise, Idaho when my mom was 16, and a car full of teenage boys drove by, whooping and whistling. My grandmother remarked, “Why, I am old enough to be their mother!” My mom said, “They weren’t whistling at you mother.” She was always pretty vain. And insecure. For years, she swore that she was 40 years old and my mother was 30. Once we could do the math and knew a bit about biology, she let that lie go.
She helped me through my parent’s divorce. She was a shoulder to cry on. She was fiercely protective of my mom, and never let me bad mouth her…and that was how it should have been. I miss her. On this day, 102 years after her birth, I miss her.
She was complicated. She was Nanny…and I love and miss her still.