Thursday, May 01, 2008

One door closing...

This afternoon, my parents sat across the table from an exuberant young couple and signed over the deed to Nanny's house. I'm not gonna lie; I'm so sad. I know my parents' are, too. It was time, though.

Nanny- my paternal grandmother, one of my biggest fans- is still with us, still very much alive. She's in a nursing home now. She has been for almost three years. She doesn't love it... Who would? As nursing homes go, it's pleasant. Nanny had a vibrant social life, for as long as anyone can remember. She started working in her family's beauty shop when she was 15. She's always been surrounded by chatter and life: four sisters and a brother, the ladies at the beauty parlor, a long happy marriage, my dad and eight nieces and nephews, the church ladies, her diner buddies, me and Amanda and our friends.*

*Gwen recently wrote a beautiful post about the scenes she hopes pass before her eyes when she dies. Watching Christmas specials on Nanny's bed made the Greatest Hits list. Me, too, Gwennie. Me, too.

Actually, Nanny has a social life at the nursing home, too. My dad visits every day during the week, and he's become somewhat of a celebrity in the dining hall. Nanny has her pinochle opponent who is 101 or something, and her chocolate dealer. The nutrition staff instituted some kind of "Healthy Eating!" campaign, which the elderly residents hate. Who's it going to hurt if they get extra dessert? They're 90! One of the old guys who lives in his own condo in the assisted living village has a deal with one of the teenagers who delivers from a nearby pizza place. He orders a pizza, and for an extra large tip, asks the pizza guy to stop at a convenience store on his way and bring him candy. The other residents place their orders ahead of time. Did you think I was kidding when I called him the chocolate dealer? I so wasn't kidding.

Anyway, I saw Nanny four days ago. She's fine, excited about the wedding, thrilled to see photos of The Dress for the first time, hanging onto details about flowers and fabrics. She's always been a good sport about looking at my photography. I always take my laptop and share my latest wedding, biggest news stories, nature trips, and artistic experiments. She watched all the videos from my Phantom project and told me all about seeing the movie version in the theatre in the 1940s. She remembered who played the lead role, how scared she was when they showed the Phantom without his mask. She's all there, all the memories and personality and love.

But her house is gone now, sold to a young married couple who looked my parents in the eyes at settlement today and swore they would fill it with more happy memories. I knew this was coming. It was time.

When it first became apparent that Nanny would have to have fulltime care, that in-home health aides weren't working out, that the passing of time was taking its toll, I went through the house and photographed everything, unchanged. I preserved each room in pictures.

I made three memory boxes: one for me, my sister, and my parents. I recorded interviews with members of the family talking about the place, about Move-In Day in 1953, holidays and celebrations. I recorded the metal-on-cement sound of the rolling cushions on the finished basement floor (It's all fun and games until somebody cracks their head on the coffee table!), the sounds of my own footsteps climbing the stairs, the creak of the front door, my sister and me singing Christmas carols. I burned it all onto a CD and added a copy to every memory box.

I filled them with trinkets that Meant Something: matchbooks from my parents' wedding and Nanny and Pop-Pop's 25th anniversary party, poker chips and playing cards bent from years of shuffling with the words "Make checks out to [Pop-Pop's First and Last Name]" on the back. I bought tiny glass vials and decanted a small amount of Nanny's signature perfume and Pop-Pop's cologne. I added Andes mints chocolates and a small container of uncooked pasta to each.

I carefully cut small swatches of fabric from an unseeable part of the upholstered chair in the lliving room where we always posed for pictures growing up. I tucked in hand towels that had long since absorbed the otherwise indescribable soupy, homey smell of the place. I took the black ceramic swan statue whose neck Pop-Pop had to SupergIue back on after one of my plastic jellies flew off and decapitated it from its place on the mantel when I was 5. (Hey, it wasn't my idea to pretend to be Rockettes and form a kick line, AMANDA). Heh. ;) I took the metal Mickey Mouse bank, and the holy water container shaped like the Virgin Mary. (Her blue plastic crown is actually a cap that twists off when you need to bless things.)

This is the house where my dad took my mom when they were first dating. She met her future in-laws for the first time after tripping down some steps and skinning her knees. They were close to the house, so my dad took her there for Bactine and Band-Aids. This is the house whose address I learned to recite in kindergarten right after my own, the second phone number I ever memorized.

This is where I spent countless sick days in elementary school, eating pastina soup and watching The Price is Right and the Munsters if Nanny was preoccupied. She thought it was too scary, but Pop-Pop let me get away with it. This is the setting for the most magical Christmas Eves and countless summer BBQs. There's a steep embankment in the backyard that's perfect for rolling, though my dad always hated mowing the 45-degree angle in spiky golf shoes.

If Nanny weren't still with us, selling her home would have been emotionally treacherous. Her presence is infused in every room. If I couldn't literally pick up the phone and call her right now (It's 2:00 a.m., so I won't but I could), losing that sanctuary and connection to her would be downright heartbreaking.

But the truth is...

We still have Nanny. We have each other. The soul of our family isn't in there. Right now, I could stand up, walk to my memory box and smell the house again. I could play the CD. I can feel the texture of the chair, listen to the sounds of Christmas Eve. I can literally breathe it all in again.

Just as when we die, and our body becomes a mere shell of what once held us, the physical structure of 1747 Billview Drive is only a husk. It's just something that held us all for a while, albeit a long while: seven months shy of 55 years, to be precise.

A window to the past is closing for us, but for one young couple, the front door is opening... I wonder how long it will take them to figure out that humidity makes it stick, and sometimes on summer days you really have to put some oomph into it or go through the garage.


Jillian said...

This is beautifully written. Thanks so much for sharing.

Kelly said...

I'm sad, too. It was a wonderful tribute to a wonderful home and all of its memories. Hugging you via the web....

Julia said...

We just recently had to move my Dramma into an assisted living facility which has been traumatic enough (she keeps asking when she gets to leave...) and haven't even begun to think about the eventual future of her house, but this entry had some truly brilliant ideas which I'll pass along to her daughter so we can plan ahead so well like you did. Thanks!

Michelle said...

That was so moving.

Chunky Photojournalist Barbie said...

Aw, thanks, guys.

Julia, since you mentioned your family is going through this... a few nursing home tips, if it helps... Nanny moved in there after back surgery. She was in chronic post-surgery pain, and she was cranky. I didn't want them to think of her as the grouchy new lady.

I made sure we displayed beautiful photos of her dressed up at Amanda's then very recent wedding.
I wanted the staff to see her as who she really is: treasured, good-natured, a girly girl who wore wakeup and a skirt every day of her life from the age of 15 to 85. She got her first pair of pants when she was about 86 and needed the wheelchair full time.

We also made sure she always had a little dish of candy on display to share with the nursing staff. They were more likely to pop in for a peanut butter cup or two. She got checked on more often, and their slightly more frequent visits felt more social than clinical.

On a deeper level, one of the concrete things that I could do to make Nanny's transition easier was be the one person who said to her, "You know what? You're right. This really, really sucks."

My parents were really good at being upbeat, helping her focus on the positive, choosing a really nice place, easing her transition, etc. I didn't dwell on the negative with her, but I think she liked having someone acknowledge that giving up her freedom, her privacy, her autonomy, her own space is really, really hard. And kind of awful.

The other thing that I could do to help her transition was bring stuff she liked- Emeril DVDs, a manicure kit, Bella- so we weren't doing the "Nursing Home Shuffle" where you show up, shuffle your feet and try not to show on your face that you'd rather unzip your skin and let your skeleton run around than stay at the nursing home yourself. One time Joel and I went to visit her, and we were so laden down with stuff- photo books, Fred in a carrier- that someone thought we were volunteers putting on a program.

I'm not saying going there and seeing her get weaker is easy. There are times when I'm home, and I really have to psych myself up to go there and not hate the nursing home setting. But the little things- visits from pets, beautiful family pictures, candy to share- I think they made a difference.

gwen said...

Oh, this was so sweet and sad. It's awesome that that house has so many memories for your family -- and for us, too. I remember having my first-ever Christmas Eve dinner there, at a table set up in the living room, eating my first crispelle (is that how you spell that?) and my first Nanny-made sauce, etc. And opening a present of a set of four mini Victoria's Secret perfumes that your parents got me. Aw. Your family is great -- and you said it best, that doesn't change no matter where they are.