The Best Old Hens
Lately I miss my Nana and Lala. The missing stabs me by surprise: I'm considering some little detail when I hear Nana cashing in her two cents on the matter, and I forget for a fraction of a second that she's dead.
Nana, my dad's mom and the only grandmother I ever knew, was the scratchier of the two; Lala, her sister, was round and fluffy, a white-haired, soft-armed lady. Oh, those arms, those hands. When she touched you, you knew you were something special, lovable in the extreme. She smelled like talcum powder and coffee.
When I was really little Nana lived in Duluth in her house on the hill. But by the time my family relocated out West when I was six, Nana had moved into Gateway Towers in downtown Duluth. Lala lived in Midtown Manor a few miles away.
"I miss Lala, too," says three-year-old Lillie, brown eyes contracted with sorrow.
"Lillie, you can't miss Lala," says Max. "You never met her. She died before you were born."
"No she didn't!" Lillie hurls back at him. "Mama, did Lala died before I was born?"
Afternoon light brings out the pink in the freshly painted walls; the skin of Lillie's face is almost translucent, too beautiful to be real. I cup my hand around the satiny round of her cheek. She's a bit small for her age,
but despite her slightness, her flesh feels soft and plump. Her arms, especially, remind me of Lala; I noticed this when she was a newborn baby. When I close my eyes and squeeze her just below the shoulders, it feels like a memory.
Nana and Lala were my equivalent of other kids' grandmas and grandpas. While they didn't live together, they may as well have from my perspective, since I never saw one without the other. They were constant companions: walking downtown, playing bingo and having luncheons with "the old hens" in the senior highrises, and occasionally, taking senior excursions to places as far off as Hawaii and Florida. They'd bring back goodies for my sister, Laurie, and me: tiny china cats lying on their backs with legs splayed, tummies vulnerable and exposed for holding chewed gum; miniature plastic coin purses doubling as key chains and shaped like slippers with Florida inscribed on the sides; plastic alligator heads with jaws that opened and shut via a squeeze-gadget on the end of a wooden stick. I kept the gum holder until I was in high school, having glued it painstakingly together again after various shatterings until I finally lost it for good.
"I met Nana, right, Mom?" asks Sophie.
"Lots of times. Nana loved you. You used to turn her apartment upside down."
"Did I?" asks Max.
"You did," I say. All three children are gathered around me, vying for their place in a mysterious history they sense is important.
"And I was there, wasn't I?" demands Lillie.
"You--you were there in spirit, " I say, holding her around the waist with one hand, smoothing her fuzzy hair with the other.
"No! Not in spirit!" she cries. "I was there with you. I was. I remember that."
A day with Nana and Lala always meant overindulgence: necklaces and bracelets and glass bottles sticky with pungent amber cologne and coffee cans full of pennies gleefully assembled on flowery metal TV trays for playing "store" in the close, hot living room of Nana's eleventh-floor apartment overlooking the Aerial Bridge on the Lake Superior harbor. When my sister and I grew tired and bored, we'd fall into fighting: "You always get the pink one!" "Don't be a baby!" "She pinched me!" Until finally Nana would say to our father, "My don't they ever fight something awful! Don't they, though?" And Lala, "Oh, now, they're just little." We two girls would fall silent with shame, still glowering at each other, sweaty from the battle, half-moon fingernail gouges glaring red and angry from the smooth flesh of our forearms.
Then Nana would make her hot fudge--Karo syrup and Baker's chocolate melted with butter and milk until it formed a soft ball when dripped from a spoon into a glass of cold water. She'd drizzle spoon after spoon of it over soggy vanilla ice cream from her tiny freezer. Less often, Lala would make a butterscotch pie, a recipe I've never again tasted until my family's visit to Quebec last summer. In a surprise celebration of my French Canadian heritage, I sampled a regional specialty, sugar pie--a soft, heavenly creation that tasted exactly like Lala's.
"But none of us met Lala, did we?" Max asks.
"No, she died when I was only ten," I say. "But I wish you could have known her. She would have loved you so much."
Lala never had any children, though she was married twice, outliving both her husbands before cancer ended her own life. No one told my sister and me that Lala was sick. She would have hated us knowing; she didn't tell anyone, not even Nana, until my stepmother, a nursing student at the time, happened unexpectedly upon Lala's medicine and recognized it as a cancer drug. The summer before Lala died, my mother made a very special effort to get us girls from Wyoming to Duluth for what everyone assumed would be a final visit. Lala had saved many special things for us for "when we were older." On that last summer visit, Lala brought out all the treasures she had held back and unwrapped them for us one by one. China figurines, little necklaces, various souvenirs and toys and trinkets, and two handmade Raggedy Ann dolls, each entirely distinct from the other.
The visit was awkward. I thought then it was because my sister and I were getting so old--she was twelve; I was ten--and maybe we just weren't as special as we had been when we were small. For the first time, I was self-conscious with Nana and Lala, unsure of my reactions. Though we had hardly outgrown the habit, my sister and I did not fight. The visit was shorter than those childhood afternoons of playing store and dress-up, and there was no ice cream or butterscotch pie. When our mother came to pick us up, Nana and Lala each hugged us good-bye.
A few months later, one evening after the cold had come and the days had grown short and dark, my father called to tell us Lala had died. My chest snapped in on itself, and boulder after boulder crushed the air out of me until finally the tears came: crying in, out, in, out. Lala's dying was a staggering loss. Not only was she gone, but gone with her was the small child I no longer was, that version of myself she had found so lovable.
On a recent winter's day, clean white snow covered the ground as the children traipsed out the back door with my sister, Laurie, and me. Lillie was wearing her long, red corduroy coat with the hood trimmed in white "fur." She was breathtaking against the snow. "Look at her," Laurie said to me simply, knowing I saw what she saw, and then to Lillie: "You are the cutest little girl in the whole world. Do you know that?" The cold air felt good on my face; it inflated my lungs powerfully. I felt I might float away with joy from the snowy backyard, and I thought again of Lala, and Nana, and the way they loved us.
With Lala's death, I grieved the loss of my innocence--that era of early childhood when the boundaries between reality, fantasy, and memory are still fluid, and the self is still safe and buoyant in the mix. Nana, fortunately, lived till the ripe age of eighty-nine. I was fully grounded by the time she died, a mother with two children of my own, an adult with a life full of the sorts of complexities that helped me to understand and appreciate Nana more each year. With her passing, I lost my last intimate, living connection to Duluth, my birthplace--a beginning that still compels me to live near steep hills and winding streets.
Our house is nestled at the base of a small city valley; out Lillie's bedroom window, the crisscrossed canopy of bare, mature oaks spans seamlessly up the hill. Inside, Lillie's fish tank gurgles reassuringly as she nestles against me, patting my cheek. I whisper that I'm so glad she came--"Thank you for being born," I say, and squeeze my hands around the familiarity of her arms. "I saw you when I came," she says. "You were there . . . and I was there. Everyone was there. I remember that."
From her shelf high on the wall across from her bed, my old Raggedy Ann doll looks down at us, her legs dangling and her head askew, pitch black eyes silent and knowing.
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