If Nana was alive now, in the age of podcasting, we would have a wild time with it.
She would have no idea what the hell a podcast was, even after my attempts to explain it. Nana’s awareness of technology stopped right around the advent of the Blackberry, when we showed her how we could enter her name into Google (“What is this Google? What are you doing?”) and see the search results. This not only did not amuse Nana, but it really freaked her out, and she was Having None of It. She told us to “Stop! Stop!” She did not like being googled. But suspending disbelief, I can easily imagine how a podcast with Nana would go.
The podcast could be called Having None of It. Or any number of one-line gems and private jokes that spoke a thousand words to me every time she said them. They Stick Together… Be Careful!…You Can Eat It Hot or Cold… Has There Been a CAT in my House?… You’ll Crack Your Head!… Come on, Have Something… Ehh, fanabla…. What the Hell is the Matter with Him?… Te Sorella!… Or my personal favorite, My Fucking Chives.
There would be foul language if she momentarily forgot that others could hear us. There would be shrieks of faux-horror and offense as I told her that today, we would be interviewing a great Italian-American, Mr. Stu Gotz. There would be a lot of laughter throughout our fascinating podcast, even after we had settled down and agreed to be serious.
I would ask her to tell the listeners about her wedding day. And she would tell me that she almost didn’t make it to the church on time. On her wedding day, she and everyone in her house almost died. They were due to walk down the block to St. Bartholomew’s Church for the ceremony. There was a gas leak while everyone was asleep, and no one had any idea. Everyone woke up feeling dizzy and nauseated and not quite right. They thought they were coming down with something–but it was later discovered that it was carbon monoxide poisoning. This is why, she would say, as she had said so many times before, I don’t look right in my wedding picture. She looked amazing to me in her photo–a sparkle of mischief in her eye, the train from her wedding dress cascading around behind her. If you didn’t know the story, you would have no idea.
She would tell us about dancing with her father at the reception. He was “so cute,” getting so old. Way before Nana was anyone’s Nana, she was his youngest child, and probably his favorite one. He was in his 70s when she got married. He was a little bit frail, she said. He would die five months later, of the lymphoma that he didn’t know he had, and never meet her children.
I would ask her to tell the listeners again about Uncle Charlie’s racing bike. And she would tell me that Uncle Charlie always liked to have nice things, and he always had an awareness of the larger world, outside our small city. He saved and saved his money, and this was during the Depression, you know. And he bought an Italian racing bike by mail. In this family of fifteen, everyone was expected to share things, and there wasn’t a lot of patience with one person having something that the others didn’t have. But they must have made an exception for Uncle Charlie, because when the bike arrived, he hammered some nails into the wooden beams in the cellar, and hung his bike on the nails. He warned the younger siblings not to touch his bike. Not to even think about it.
But of course they thought about it. It was all they could think about. One of them even acted on it, within days of its arrival. It was not one of his brothers, who he assumed needed the warning–it was Evelyn, his second-from-the-youngest, daredevil sister, who succumbed to the temptation and took the bike down. Just for a little spin! And it was just a little spin alright. Not-yet-Nana watched as her sister jumped on the bike and coasted down the gentle hill of their street, one of her friends riding on the back. Before she could even get used to the bike and start pedaling and really enjoy it, she coasted right into the intersection and into the path of a truck (a milk truck?).
The bike was destroyed and Evelyn broke a few bones. The story I remember is that the friend on the back of the bike was also hit by the truck. And people were so concerned with Evelyn’s injuries and the friend’s bumped-up head that they overlooked the friend’s badly injured leg, and the friend died of gangrene a few days later. If we could podcast, I would ask for clarification on this last part (was the gangrene death from the same bike incident, or was it another accident on their street?). Nana would remember the friend’s name and whether I had the other details correct. She could not tell this story without using the other girl’s name and asking, Isn’t that terrible?
I would ask her to tell us again about her date, before she was dating Papa–the only date who ever stood her up. She would say that she waited and waited, and that her brothers (and Papa, who was just her dear friend Butch at the time) went out after the guy. You know, to whoop his ass. And how they couldn’t find him anywhere. And that they found out the following day, or maybe the day after, that he had died, just hours before he was to pick Nana up for their date. She would remember his name, too, and be able to tell me more about him. I would ask her to remind me how he died, because she did tell me, many times, but I can’t remember.
I would ask her to tell us again about the time she and yet another date (was it Vinnie F, who she dated for quite awhile and might have married, if he hadn’t been so possessive and bossy? Or was it someone else?) damaged a bit of history. His car lost its brakes, went careening down College Hill, and crashed directly into the back of the First Baptist
Church (really–THE first one). She told me that story every time we drove down that hill, and I sometimes laughed about it, sometimes just tolerated it. I would give a great deal to have her tell me the story again. I would ask her questions and get details that I hadn’t gotten before.
I would ask her to tell us again about how she lost the fourth knuckle on her right hand, (it was caved in, just a flat spot between her two normal knuckles). And how it wasn’t child abuse back then–I deserved a lot worse for making my poor mother worry like that! My great-grandmother was quietly waiting at the back door when Not-yet-Nana, not-yet-Mom, nor anyone other than just Virginia, Gigi, arrived home later than authorized. She thought she was home free when she crept in through the back door and started right up the back stairs.
She caught sight of her mother, standing in the back entry, going in for a good strike with the broom. She covered the intended target (my behind!) with her hand and high-tailed it up the stairs, but not quickly enough, and SWAT!. Instead of getting it in the ass with a broom, she got it in the back of the hand with part of the handle. It was an accident, and her mother felt horrible about it for a long time. It wasn’t a violent household, the occasional broom-wielding notwithstanding. Nana forgave her immediately and never let on that she was actually injured, and so the knuckle healed badly and she had an indentation in that space for the rest of her life. Every time Nana told me this story, she would refer to her mother as, my mother, the poor thing.
I would ask her to tell us again about the third time that the men in uniform came to her door with a telegram. The first two times, they brought news that Papa had been shot and wounded, but was expected to recover. This time, this was it. He was dead. How many times can they come to the door with a telegram and have it be just an injury?
She stood in the doorway to the upstairs apartment, her oldest son racing around the kitchen in his baby walker–the kind with wheels, that current generations of kids have never experienced. This was it, she was sure of it. She felt the blood drain out of her face as she mumbled some words of acknowledgement to the uniformed men. They turned and walked down the stairs. She stood in the open doorway, paralyzed with shock and fear, and held the telegram without opening it. And she didn’t see her son fly by in his baby-zoomer on wheels until he was out the door and halfway down the stairs. His rolling start and subsequent flight shook her out of her fog–but by then, there was no catching him. He tumble-sped down to the first floor, around the corner, shot down the short back entryway and down the next flight of steps, landing in the basement. Or so the story went. I’ve spent a lot of time in that house, and I don’t see how his making it past the first floor entryway was physically possible–but what do I know, and who am I to doubt my Nana’s story, when she was kind enough to do this podcast.
He could have been killed! She was sick–sick!!–with worry. She raced down the stairs and found him on the basement floor, still in the seat of the tipped-over walker. She examined him all over. He had probably hit his head, but no broken bones, no real harm done.
The telegram was still in her hands, unopened. She sat next to her wailing son on the basement floor and opened the envelope. By now, the calamity had attracted the attention of her mother, on the first floor, and she appeared in the basement doorway and looked on as not-yet-Nana/just-recently-Mom opened the envelope. The telegram said that her husband had been shot and wounded, but that he was expected to recover.
She would then remind me, unsolicited, of how when the grass seems greener, there is almost always more to the story. She would cite, as an example, a free-spirited cousin, who made art and explored Buddhism (before everyone and their sister was doing so) and lived a life that kids like me thought was so cool and limitless. And she’d remind me that that free-flowing, organic life was quietly, heavily subsidized by the cousin’s elderly parents, for the rest of their lives.
She would remind me that there is always someone who has more than you do, and always someone who has less. I would tell her that I now know that to be true, and I tell my children this all the time.
She would try to make me take things home with me, while I’m still alive to make sure, and we would have an on-air battle about my not wanting to take the dishes, the jewelry, the furniture. When she was here, I would never take them–it felt weird to me, so I would tell her she was being morbid. But today I would take them, because I now know exactly what she was doing and why.
I would hug her tight and wish her a Happy 99th, on this Special Birthday Episode. I would thank her for repeating so many stories, so that even though I never did write them down when she was here to really bring them to life, I have at least some secondhand memories.I would ask her a thousand more questions and make her promise to answer them on our next episode.