I hate pumpkin pie. But I love my grandmother. As Turkey Day comes and goes we have not just a day for family gathered, but one to remember gatherings in the past. Invariably, this means remembering those who have celebrated a day of eating and drinking with us and aren’t here anymore. In a very real sense, holidays are days of memory, marks on the calendar that remind us of the unwinding spool of our lives across years, decades. A moment of sentiment, perhaps over a glass of wine, and we recall the ones who have departed.
Everyone has favorite relatives, those that we’ve bonded with especially well for one reason or another. Uncles that taught us a trick or two, cousins that are like siblings that we rarely see but show that blood really is blood and the same. My grandmother was from New York, New York. But unlike what we today may expect of a New Yorker from her generation, hers wasn’t an immigrant’s narrative. Her family was there before the Statue of Liberty was given to us by the French. They had, in fact, lived in New York for centuries and intermarried with Native Americans from Manhattan Island. Before this, they were Puritan pilgrims that came to the Americas on the Mayflower, landed at Plymouth Rock and eventually celebrated the first Thanksgiving. For all that romantic imagery, however, my grandmother was of those who weathered the Great Depression, who endured lives of hardship that we can scarcely imagine today, the stories of which all honest men will admit terrified them in a sense in their boyhood. Life can be hard and you only hope it’s not as bad for you as it once was. My grandmother’s first husband died during those hard years and she was left with a daughter they adopted together. The courts tried to take the little girl from her and she fought to keep the child. She won. That’s my grandmother-tough as nails, committed to her principles. Sometimes you have to do what’s right, not what’s easiest. Sometimes you have to make a stand for what you believe in.
We actually called my grandmother Nana. But when I was a boy, I didn’t understand what Nana meant. I thought people were calling her ‘nanny’ and being disrespectful. In a child’s righteous tirade I declared that she was my grandmother and not my nanny. I don’t remember this event, but take my mother and grandmother’s word for it-clearly it left an impression, they chuckled over my words in the years to come and Nana always signed her cards to me “from your Grandmother” in the sort of elegant cursive script that is a calligraphy and not commonly seen today.
I was fortunate in that, even though Nana was from New York, she moved to Athens, Georgia when I was a boy. And so I got to see her fairly often. I’d spend the night, and she’d have cream soda in the refrigerator. But with lives as busy as they are, the times I got to see her most seemed to be the holidays. My grandmother liked to cook and every year on Thanksgiving she was sure to make pumpkin pie. It may surprise some who know me today that I was once a finicky eater. I just wouldn’t eat something if I didn’t like it-much to my Dad’s consternation. Early on in our burgeoning family holiday tradition, Nana brought over pumpkin pie. My mother served it to me: “Nana made pumpkin pie, Petah.” I tried a bit and, well, for reasons that I don’t understand, let it just be said that I don’t like pumpkin pie. “Well, what do you think? Do you LIKE it?” Ma asked. I inhaled, nodded my head and said: “Yes, um, it’s very good.” This, of course, pleased Nana to no end. I ate the entire piece. And from then on Nana was always sure to bring pumpkin pie when it was Thanksgiving. Ma would happily exclaim: “Guess what, Petah? Nana baked pumpkin pie, your favorite!” And every year I would eat that pie, because, you see, I loved my grandmother very much.
After dinner, I would get Nana to tell us family history-something that fascinated me. Unlike my father’s family-which came over in 1904-her family had been her since the seventeenth century. They were at the first Thanksgiving, they married Natives, they fought in the Revolution, in the Civil War, were active in politics. One ancestor had, in a tale told with the mythic esteem once held for the office of president, “met Abraham Lincoln and shook his hand.” We were related to Pocahontas, Patrick Henry, the Harrison Presidents, it was all so big and different from the mundanities of the lives we are living in-as everyone sees their own time as both of great importance but little interest. Later, I was to take a class as part of the curriculum for my history undergrad that went through Thomas Jefferson to the Civil War. I was astonished as the class progressed, it was like re-living the oral tradition I’d memorized from Nana. Questions I’d had were answered: if we were pilgrims, what were we doing in New York? The answer, as the puritan population expanded-they moved there. My ancestors were Whigs. The Whig party fragmented under the pressure of the Civil War-and in many ways the Republican party filled the void. My grandmother was a bit of an anomaly as a working class New York woman, she was a Republican. Nana was a devout woman. She held the sort of unshakable devotion that is unfathomable to many of us today. Whatever someone believes or doesn’t the firm conviction and maintenance of her principles is something to hold in respect and perhaps awe. As an old woman, she made the pilgrimage to Israel, took a group photo in front of the tomb of Lazarus. She brought home crosses from the Holy Land. The only physical object I own to remember my grandmother by is a large, brown-stained cross on my dresser. But it’s the photo in front of the tomb I think about often-an old woman taking an adventure drawn from her principles.
Nana passed a long time ago-the late nineteen eighties, not too long before I graduated from High School. She left me a couple of dollars as a gift. It was my first passage of a close relative. In her last years, Nana had both cancer and diabetes. My parents were divorced. The grandchildren were teen-agers and I was caught up in the inane melodramas of adolesence. One of our last times together was an ambulance ride together-she called my house after falling down. I rode with her to the hospital-an act she found humorous. “I knew it!” she said when I volunteered to go along for the ride. Her last words to me, in private, in a nursing home and not too long before she died was that I was a good boy. Somehow, some way, no matter what, Nana always saw the good in me. Once, in conversation, my younger sister told my wife that she had a special relationship with Nana. My first instinct was to argue that, to the contrary, I was the one with the special relationship. I stopped myself, of course, and laughed at the child in me defending his territory. But more than that, realized that we’d all had a special place with her.
Thanksgiving just passed. I ate pumpkin pie. And I still don’t like it. But taste can hold a memory as real as the day it was first laid on the tongue. While chomping on the brown and orange stuff, I remember Nana sitting in the chair, matriarch dispensing stories, and the boy still misses you.Read More