Tag Archives: Nanna

Tableware and T-Shirts

My grandmother is exceedingly fond of yard sales and other purveyors of secondhand goods, and she is always buying strange things and offloading them on her hapless relatives (see “Be Thinking of Nice Things to Say”). Every now and then, though, she will stumble upon something so bizarre that it is truly a treasure, although maybe not for the reasons she judges it to be so. Such treasures include a T-shirt of unknown origins that she gave to my sister, and these John Deere plates she got for me when I moved into my first apartment (even though she knew perfectly well that I already had a full set of dishes):

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I am now the proud owner of 20 or so plates that remind me with every meal that “nothing runs like a Deere,” and I must say they’ve grown on me.

But on to the shirt. Here’s a picture of my sister modelling it:

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It’s not the best quality picture, so allow me to walk you through it. Underneath the promise of Fine Southern Hospitality is the slogan “Peaches, Peanuts, and Sweet Tea,” along with pictures of these delicacies for the benefit of the illiterate. A pecan tree spreads its branches in the background. And at the bottom, strategically positioned to be roughly aligned with the wearer’s crotch, are the words “Welcome to Georgia.”

I love this shirt; it has such an abundance of delightfully ambiguous double entendres. Are the peaches a Southern staple or a fertility symbol? Is ‘Georgia’ a poetic euphemism? What kind of hospitality are we talking, here?

I’m not sure if Nanna picked up on the fact that she was gifting her granddaughter a shirt that could easily be an advertisement for a Bible-belt brothel. You never quite know, with Nanna. My sister took the shirt with her when she went to college in the Northeast, just to screw with the Yankees’ perceptions of Southerners.

(Update: since posting this, I have been reminded by my sister that the shirt was size XL and still bore a price tag indicating that it cost $1.49 at Wal-Mart. These are typical hallmarks of my grandmother’s gifts.)

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Often Wrong, Never in Doubt

Readers of this blog have probably noticed its flexible treatment of time: recent stories and ancient history have been presented in no particular order with relatively little explanation. Therefore, to orient those of you not personally acquainted with my family, I should explain that my grandmother has been in a nursing home for about a year now.

We had been trying to persuade her to take this step for a long time, as it became increasingly dangerous for her to live alone and increasingly expensive to provide the kind of full-time care she needed, but she was adamant in her desire to stay in her own home. Eventually, though, her dementia progressed to the point that she was no longer reliably sure of where she was (well, technically she was sure; Nanna is never unsure. She was just wrong), and by ‘home’ she meant the house she had grown up in as a child.

We visited her in her house shortly before the move, and suddenly she stopped in mid-conversation and looked speculatively around her living room.

“Where is this place?” she asked us. “Is this the country club?”

“No,” Mom explained, “this is your house.”

Nanna looked doubtful for a moment, so my aunt and I nodded confirmation. Then she pulled herself together and gave us all a look of pure exasperation.

“Oh, Lord,” she sighed impatiently, “don’t y’all start that again.”

This confirmed our suspicions that her physical location was pretty much irrelevant at that point. Once settled in the nursing home she remained in the dark as to where she was or why, but she retained an unshakeable conviction that she knew everyone there and that all acknowledged her superiority. Whenever we visited she would treat the nurses like her personal servants and regally introduce us to the other residents using fictitious identities.

She might gesture to the elderly lady next to us and say, “This is my cousin Suzanne,” at which point the old lady would shake hands genially with us and explain, “We’re not cousins and my name is Rebecca, but I’m used to her calling me Suzanne now.” Then Nanna would order a passing nurse to bring us all soft drinks, which never appeared because those nurses are already underpaid for what they do.

Once a family friend went to visit Nanna and found her in a state of high excitement as she watched a nurse on the other side of the room touching up the paintwork on the wall.

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re here,” Nanna said in greeting. “I need you to go and tell that girl that she is painting the wall the wrong color.”

(She wasn’t.)

Travelling and Telephones

Several years ago my Aunt Sharon was getting into Nanna’s car and she noticed a big black smudge in the middle of the steering wheel. Sharon, who firmly believes that cleanliness is next to godliness and takes both of these virtues very seriously, immediately inquired as to the cause of this unsightly mark.

“Oh, it’s just ink,” explained Nanna. “That’s where I hold my newspaper on yard sale day.”

Apparently this used to be a habit of hers on Saturdays; she would fold the newspaper to the ads section and drive around town in search of the advertised sales, no doubt posing all kinds of hazards to life and limb as she careened around corners with her eyes on the paper. Fortunately, those were the days before texting and therefore everyone else on the road was alert enough to avoid catastrophe.

Eventually Nanna became unsteady on her feet (and ran out of storage space) and fell out of the yard sale habit. Instead she took up a new hobby: worrying. This could be done from the comfort of her La-Z-Boy and meshed perfectly with her other favorite pastime: complicating the lives of her offspring.

Driving to visit Nanna invariably entailed phone calls that would go something like this:

Phone rings.

Us: Hello?

Nanna: Oh, thank goodness you’re alive. Why aren’t you here yet?

Us: It’s five o’clock. We told you we’d be there at six.

Nanna: Well, hurry up. I’ve been worrying about you all day long.

So we’d reassure her and then we would hang up the phone and wonder why she had felt it necessary to devote an entire day to worrying about a two-hour drive. But Nanna was never one to leave things till the last minute.

Sometimes she’d call before we’d even left, demanding to know what the holdup was.

“Nanna, it’s three o’clock,” Mom would say. “The girls aren’t even out of school yet.”

“Well, I’ve been expecting you for half an hour,” Nanna would huff, indignant that she should be expected to conform to such trivialities of time and space. “Y’all should have told me you were coming so late.”

 “We did!” Mom would yell, only not out loud because that is not what proper Southern women do. She managed to save the rant until after she had hung up the phone.

My Aunt Carrie, who often drove up to spend weekends with Nanna, had similar problems. One weekend the phone call might go like this:

Nanna: Carrie? Where are you? I’ve been waiting for hours.

Carrie: It’s Friday, mother. I don’t get off work until five. I’ll see you tonight.

Nanna: Well couldn’t you take the afternoon off to come see your old mother? Your boss would understand.

And then she proceeded to guilt Carrie so thoroughly that the next time she did take the afternoon off, leading to this phone call:

Carrie: I’m just calling to let you know that we’re on our way and we’ll be there around 3 o’clock.

Nanna: 3 o’clock? I wasn’t expecting you till night time! Don’t y’all have work?

Carrie: We left early today so we could come see you.

Nanna: Well why would you do that? Your job isn’t good enough for you? Your boss is going to fire you…

Etc., etc. You can see why we didn’t always answer the phone when we knew Nanna was on the other end.

The Facts of Life According to Nanna

Between 1938 and 1971, a chemical called DES was the go-to women’s fertility drug. The downside, as it later turned out, was that it often caused birth defects and damaged the reproductive systems of the babies it conceived.

My mom found out about this back in the 1980s, and of course she immediately called up my grandmother to ask if she had ever taken this drug. In retrospect, she should have known better.

“Fertility drugs?” asked Nanna. “Hell, no! All four of y’all were accidents.”

Nanna may have begrudged her entry into the world of motherhood, but while she is not especially maternal nor is she a shirker. So she took seriously her responsibility to prevent her daughters from continuing the cycle of unplanned progeny. Nowadays this would have taken the form of sex ed, but this was rural, conservative Alabama in the 1970s, and so it took the form of a series of strange, unhelpful, and vaguely threatening talks held with each of her daughters as they came of age.

“If you ever get pregnant,” Nanna told my teenage aunt Sharon, not bothering to explain how this unfortunate circumstance might come about, “just come tell us and we can handle it. Your father will sell his dental practice and we’ll pack up the family and move to another town where nobody knows us.”

So no pressure.

Aunt Carrie’s experience was similar, although apparently by that point Nanna was no longer willing to move. “If you find yourself in a family way,” Nanna instructed, “you can always come tell me. Don’t worry, I won’t be mad, we’ll just go hold hands and jump off the Pea River Bridge together.”

My mother, poor soul, was the one who got the most technical detail. One day as she was passing through the living room, Nanna glanced up from a magazine article and said, “Did you know there are 10,000 sperm in every drop of semen?”

And then she went back to her magazine and that was that. Mom is still not sure if this was intended as a fun fact or a warning about the pregnancy-inducing potential of that one drop.

Needless to say, I have very few cousins on my mother’s side.

Deathbeds, Doppelgängers, and the Art of Appraising Bosoms

The point of physical therapy, as I understand it, is to recover strength, mobility, or flexibility after an injury. Art theft and sexual harassment should not enter into the equation. However, if that equation includes an old lady then all bets are off, and this is especially true of my grandmother.

Several years ago Nanna was in a rehabilitation hospital with a broken shoulder. This happened a lot, back in those innocent days when we trustingly did whatever the doctors told us. It was always the same – some physician would recommend days or weeks of physical therapy or observation, and we would warn him that Nanna’s likelihood of going insane went up exponentially every additional night she spent in the hospital (see earlier post about Doctors and Dementia), and he would wave his hand airily and assure us that things would be fine. So, against our better judgment, we would sign Nanna up for the extra week, and it would inevitably end up being seven days of hell for everyone involved.

Anyway, Nanna was supposed to stay at this rehab center for two weeks. The very first night she panicked and started calling up all of her loved ones (with the exception of her daughters, who had flocked from all over the South to support her in her time of need and were subsequently quite annoyed at being omitted) to tell them that she was on her deathbed and she wanted to say her last good-byes. By the second night, the nurses were putting up guards around her bed because Nanna was convinced it was a coffin and she kept trying to escape. By the third night, when my uncle came to sit up with her, he was mobbed at the door by a host of doctors and nurses crying, “Thank God you’re here!”

Eventually Nanna settled down and recovered her usual assertive personality. She was still in a state of hospital-induced disorientation (doctors kept coming in to ask her if she knew where she was or what year it was or who was currently in the Oval Office, and her answers were always years off the mark) but this did not prevent her from trying to dominate the people around her. Going to have a family lunch with her, for example, might go like this:

A nurse would come in bearing unappetizing hospital food, make pleasant conversation for a few minutes, and depart. Mom would say, “She seems nice.”

“Oh, she is,” Nanna would say, reaching past her wilted vegetables to get to the pudding. “She has the cutest little mole on one of her breasts but she always keeps it covered up. So whenever she comes by I just reach up and pull her shirt down so people can see.”

And Mom would look aghast and say, “You can’t do that, Mother! They’ll think you’re crazy and they’ll never let you out of here.”

And then I would suggest that perhaps sexually harassing the nurses would inspire them to let her out sooner, and then Nanna would give me her don’t sass me look and then tell my sister that she, too, could stand to show a little more cleavage.

(Side note: The first time Nanna met my cousin’s new wife, Amy, she pulled her aside for a private chat. Afterwards my Aunt Sharon noticed her new daughter-in-law wearing the bemused expression of someone who has just realized what it means to acquire eccentric in-laws, and demanded to know what Nanna had done to her. “Oh,” said Amy, blushing, “she just wanted to tell me that she thought I had beautiful breasts.” I don’t know when my grandmother became an expert on appraising bosoms, but it’s a responsibility she takes very seriously.)

The only other thing that was notable about that particular hospital stay was that in one of the hallways they had a painting of a little girl sitting outside holding a teddy bear. The girl’s head is angled away so you can’t see her face, but Nanna was convinced it was a picture of me that had been painted by a neighbor many years ago, and that the hospital had stolen it or at the very least purchased it on the black market.

I am pretty sure that no such painting ever existed, and that although I did spend a lot of my childhood outdoors, I would never have done so with a polka dotted dress or a teddy bear. We tried to explain to her that this painting had nothing to do with our family, but Nanna refused to let her faith in her own judgment be shaken, despite the fact that at this point she had been unable to pinpoint exactly which decade she was in several days in a row.

Every time one of the nurses pushed her wheelchair past the painting, she would tell them that it was of her granddaughter and suggest that it really ought to be returned to its rightful owners. She was so persistent that when they finally discharged her the hospital gave her the painting as a parting gift (or possibly a good-riddance gift).

We considered the painting to be ill-gotten gains and tried to persuade her to give it back, but Nanna was triumphant. She insisted that Mom take the painting home with her, overruling her protestations that she didn’t like the painting and it wasn’t of me anyway.

Mom stuck it in a closet, but the next time Nanna came to visit she was highly offended that it wasn’t up on the walls. “Fine,” Mom said, exasperated. “See that collage over there? My daughter made it herself and it won a prize in the school art show. I’ll just take it down and replace it with a painting of some random girl.”

Nanna is impervious to passive aggression. “Good,” she said smugly. “That’s the perfect spot for it.”

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                    My hair has never been that straight in my life.

Doctors and Dementia

Nanna used to go to the hospital on a fairly regular basis, as she frequently broke bones after stumbling over dogs or yard sale bargains or whatever it was she kept all over her floor. Everyone agreed that she would be much safer in a nursing home, but she refused to consider it. She liked living in her big fancy house, even if it meant occasional trips to the hospital after falls and beauty-parlor car crashes.

This might have been an acceptable choice if Nanna were better at handling hospitals, but she is not. She is prone to what I believe is technically called “institutional dementia.” A more accurate term would be “raving lunacy,” complete with hallucinations and accusations that the nurses are trying to kill her. The longer she stays in the hospital, the worse it gets. We learned that it was best to get her out of there ASAP, no matter how serious the injury or how many doctors wanted her to stay for another two weeks.

Last time I went to visit her there, she was so wild to get out of the room that we loaded her into a wheelchair and I rolled her through the halls and out into an attached courtyard. It was very pleasant, full of sunshine and flower beds and wind chimes, so I asked her if she’d like to sit out there for a while.

“Oh, no,” she said at once. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Why?”

She looked at me like I was the crazy one, and explained matter-of-factly, “If we stay here, someone’s going to kill us.”

I scanned the bushes for assassins, perhaps leaping from the shrubbery with daggers poised to strike, but none were forthcoming. “I don’t think anyone’s going to kill us out here, Nanna. Looks pretty safe to me.”

“Honey,” she said patiently, “you are an intelligent girl but you just don’t understand. Someone is going to kill us out here!

Never argue with a crazy person. You just can’t win. So we left the sheltered courtyard and went out on the street, where it was windy and freezing, but Nanna didn’t want to go back to her room. Eventually, though, she got cold enough that she agreed we could go inside the next building we saw, which happened to be the exact same building we had just left, although I judged it best not to enlighten her on that point.

Before I left Nanna saw me talking to one of the doctors and was ever after convinced that he was my boyfriend, no matter how many times I denied it. She told all her visitors that she had met my boyfriend, and as soon as they left they would call me to ask if I was out of my mind. I explained to them that Nanna was insane and of course I had kept my boyfriend at a safe distance.

Nanna refused to let it go, though, and later confided to my aunt that she was pretty sure my boyfriend was cheating on me because she saw him talking to other women all the time. My aunt tried to explain to her that it was just a doctor talking to some nurses, but she would have none of it.

When she actually did meet my boyfriend a few months later, her first question was, “What happened to the other one?”

She sounded disappointed. I think she had hoped I was going to marry the cheating doctor and enjoy the fruits of a loveless but lucrative marriage (alimony, maybe?). I should mention that the only relationship advice she has ever given me is for enough money, you can fall in love with anyone.

Antifreeze is the answer

In my last post I established that my Aunt Carrie is a dog lover, so now I feel justified in telling the story about the time she conspired to commit pet murder. If you read my post about my grandmother’s dogs, you will understand her motivations; if you missed it then suffice it to say that Nanna has a habit of bringing home the dregs of the canine world and deliberately encouraging their worst traits until they become truly insufferable. We are all dog lovers, but there are limits.

Nanna’s dogs have caused a significant amount of family tension over the years, and it culminated in Carrie hatching her master plan the time my grandmother fell and broke her foot.

Mom had rushed out to the hospital because it is never a good idea to leave Nanna alone in such a situation: At best she will shamelessly lie to the nurses about her diet and exercise habits, and at worst she will panic and start raving about how she won’t live through the night. So Mom showed up and started trying to figure out exactly what had happened and make sure the doctors had all the information they needed and convince Nanna that a broken foot was not a fatal injury, and in the middle of all this she got a phone call from Carrie.

“Hello?”

“I’ve got it all figured out,” Carrie announced.

“Well I’m glad somebody does,” Mom said, watching Nanna harass the nurses.

“This is our chance to finally get rid of those dogs.”

“What?”

“I’ve thought it all out and I know exactly what to do,” Carrie said calmly. “You just get some antifreeze and leave it out in bowls around the house, and they drink it and it poisons them. It’ll be easy.”

“What?”

“Is that Carrie?” Nanna called from the bed. “What does she want?”

“She wants to know how you’re feeling,” Mom said, lying with the ease of a practiced diplomat. “Carrie, I’m going to have to get back to you about this.”

“It’ll work,” Carrie promised her. “I’ve researched it online. All we have to do is drive up there.”

“Good-bye, Carrie!”

When Mom told me this story she said Carrie had gone temporarily crazy, but I bet she was a little bit tempted by the elegant simplicity of Carrie’s solution. We missed our opportunity, though; Carrie had relented by the next day and the hospital staff was quick to realize that their lives would be easier if they got Nanna back home as soon as possible.

I guess we did the right thing by abstaining from pet murder, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t think wistfully about antifreeze whenever we visit Nanna and have to step over her little darlings’ attempts to mark their territory.