I was very close to my grandmother. So close in fact, until I was five I would sleepwalk up a flight of stairs just to fall asleep next to her. She used to snore like a grizzly bear. Next to her is where I needed to be though—It’s where I was safe.
When I was still very young, Nanny moved out of our house. My parents explained to me what was going on, and at the time I felt I understood. Regardless, the idea of her leaving hurt. For as long as I had been alive, she was my best friend. Saturdays were ours. We’d drive “all over creation” in an old, blue Chevy Nova. We never went anywhere special, but I always knew it was very important to her that we went there together. When she moved into Trevecca Towers my life changed.
One afternoon, I stumbled into the house after playing in my neighbors tree-house. Mom was laying on the floor crying hysterically. Immediately, I thought my father had died. The room was chaotic, confusing, and heart-breaking. No one would tell me what was wrong. After a tense moment, my brother offered to “talk to Steve.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I knew something massive was about to collide with my very small life. Every second of the minutes that followed etched themselves forcibly into my mind—Ken’s hand on my back as he guided me upstairs, the look on his face when he told me Nanny was dead, and the way his shoulder felt as I sobbed into it.
That moment was paralyzing. Over the next several days, time passed as if I were watching myself from the outside. Life felt like a cruel hiatus. I wanted desperately for the spinning to stop so I could rock in Nanny’s lap and exhale the emptiness I was carrying.
I remember details, and people from the days surrounding the funeral. I remember staying with uncle Barry, and meeting his kids. I remember sitting in the chair in front of Nanny’s casket. I remember feeling a hollow distant feeling that filled my chest until the moment the funeral began. It wasn’t just that things would never be the same; I hadn’t had enough. I was old enough to know I loved Nanny, but not old enough to remember every detail of her face. I was robbed of what I knew would be a life-long love. I couldn’t have another day at Nanny’s apartment. I’d never sit in her lap. I’d never ride with her to the pharmacy again.
After a few weeks, the agony evened out. For twenty-five years I remembered Nanny. I went through adolescence, dating, college (some), and marriage. All that time passed, and Nanny was a sort of jarred memory. I remembered losing her. I remembered loving her. I just didn’t hurt.
Several years ago my family gathered together to celebrate Mother’s Day. I sat at the table next to Dot, my paternal grandmother, and ate quietly as I did my best to watch over my mother. Despite Linda Fox’s steely resolve to always be grateful; she found this singular day to be an annual test of her strength. Over the years, my mother more than once kissed my cheek and mournfully gazed into my eyes. While Nanny loved her whole family, and her whole family loved her—my mom and I shared a unique understanding of my grandmother.
At that particular Mother’s Day lunch, my mom began to softly and inconspicuously cry. I made my way around the table and hugged her firmly around her shoulders. As I strode back to my seat, mom composed herself. But with each step back to my chair, tiny cracks began to form in whatever coping mechanism my six year old self had built. I slid in my chair a little confused and completely overwhelmed.
“You really loved her, didn’t you?” Dot said, as she softly rubbed my back.
I looked back at her on the verge of crying. “Nanny. You two had something very special.”
It almost seemed as if Dorothy were comforting me and envying Nanny in the same breath. I was swept away in a current. I hurriedly made my way to the restroom, and collapsed against the inside of the closed door. For twenty five years, my memories of Nanny sat neatly on a shelf in my mind. In the span of a few words I was back at Nanny’s graveside. Since then, thinking of Elizabeth Duncan hurts again.
I won’t pretend to understand why my mind chose that moment to reconnect whatever it had unplugged so many years ago. I will say, I’m glad I remember at least the feeling of loss. I don’t enjoy the emptiness that lives in those thoughts, but I missed the sensation of loving my grandmother so intensely. The hole Nanny left behind is a clue to something very dear to me. Rocking chairs, four-post beds, biscuits, milkshakes, wrapped pennies, horn-rim glasses, “blouses”, feisty women, & Dollar General all remind me of my first best friend.
The hardest part of it all is all the treasure I can’t share. I wish Nanny could visit my house, know my wife, play with my daughters. The missed opportunities are just “ifs” though. It’s so easy to live in “if.” So many times I live in an impossible fantasy that seems like daydreaming; really, though it’s a path to bitterness. I know Elizabeth would be thrilled Luci looks just like her. I know she cherished all the years we had together.
I also know as much as she loved me, she wouldn’t want me to keep sleepwalking upstairs.
I miss you, Nanny. I love you too.