You’re Never Too Old To Want Your Mother
“Ouch,” my daughter complains as I run the brush through her hair. “That hurts,” she tells me each time the bristles run headlong into a knot. Hearing her say this makes me a little again, with my grandmother working through the rat’s nest that often was my waist-long hair.
My Nana was born in Mississippi in 1915. If you asked her to tell you about herself she would have said, “no one wants to hear about an old lady.” But the stories of her life were endlessly fascinating for me. I loved hearing about how she’d moved to Washington, D.C. About how she saved for pieces for her hope chest, buying silver teaspoons on payday. She was a war bride, marrying my handsome grandfather shortly after meeting him, only to have him ship off to Europe. She said that when he came home, he was practically a stranger because she mainly knew him through correspondence, not through time spent together.
An artist, Nana balked some of the day’s conventions. She didn’t have children until she was well into her 30s. When her two daughters were young, she wasn’t home with them; she had a job working for the federal government. My mother remembers seeing her mother off to the train along with Nanny, my grandfather’s mother.
But, like many of the women of her day, Nana was also accomplished in the art of home. She sewed her daughters’ Easter dresses. Her gardens teemed, and when I would visit in the summers, I loved doing laundry at her house because she would hang the clothes out on the line.
I was born into a world much different than my grandmother’s—one that provided me with a college education and modern-day independence. But, Nana was self-sufficient in ways that I will never be—and I don’t mean because some of her stories including wringing a chicken by its neck.
Many years ago, I was having dinner with Nana and some of her friends. All of the women at the table were in their 80s or 90s. All of them had outlived their husbands; many had buried children. “Do you sew?” one woman asked me.
“No, ma’am,” I replied.
“Bake your own bread?” another one inquired.
Trying to find accomplishment where there was none, one asked, “How many children do you have?” At the time, I didn’t have any and said so. The women of my day might have the advantage of technology and education, but I was sitting among a generation of women who knew what it was like to mold the world with their hands.
To know my Nana was to know Depression-era frugality. Why buy Thousand Island dressing when you can make it? She served her own ketchup-mayonnaise-relish concoction in a bowl because it was too thick to pour. She transported homemade pumpkin and oatmeal pies to church suppers in a saved Entenmann’s box, thus eliminating the need for Saran Wrap, aluminum foil, or a Rubbermaid pie carrier. She squirreled away tiny slivers of soap rather than throw them out. Despite the earnest pleas of her daughters to spend money on herself, she preferred to mine for clothes at the Treasure Trove, a local thrift store.
Nana also hid money throughout the house. Nothing large, naturally. Her stash was mainly ones and the odd five and ten. Her hiding spots were erratic in an effort to outfox would-be thieves, the wily kind who break into old ladies’ homes to raid rusty Band-Aid boxes for six quarters and a handful of ones. My Nana moved money around better than a Swiss bank. She didn’t leave a trail, not even for herself. On more than one occasion, we were invited to lunch only to have to help hunt for money before being taken to dine at Morrison’s Cafeteria.
When she reached her 90s, my Nana started to forget. My mother lined my grandmother’s bureau with photographs and helped her review the names. But Nana’s memories became sand castles; no matter how sturdily we built them, they were wiped away by the tide.
I don’t resemble my grandmother, save for my hands. For as long as I could remember, she would tell me that I had gotten my long slender fingers from her. “These are the hands of a pianist,” she’d say unconcerned that I had neither interest in nor capacity for music. Later, when I would visit, I’d slip my hands into hers, waiting for her habitual remark. But where I saw history, she saw absence. She’d see my rings and comment, “I wish I could have come to your wedding,” despite the fact that both she and my grandfather had both been in joyful attendance.
Before too long, Nana didn’t know me, at least not with any kind of certainty. “Hi Nana. It’s me Jecca,” I would greet her, calling myself by the toddler name that she alone had persisted in calling me for a lifetime. We’d chat about pleasant, miscellaneous things. But, before too long, she would ask me where “Mama was.” Her mother had been dead for decades, yet my Nana was asking for her mother in the same way a child calls out for a drink of water. About my grandmother’s request, my own mother said, “You’re never too old to want your mother,” offering her words with equal parts wistfulness and warning.
Before her eventual passing, Nana had numerous deathbed scares. Those of us that could get there assembled at her bedside on a moment’s notice. On one such occasion, which we were sure was to be the end, Nana came round to find my mother beside her, her face pale and drawn. “Susie, you look terrible,” my grandmother told her. “Get in the other bed.” Not only are you never too old to want your mother, but apparently you’re never too old to be a mother.
“Mommy,” my daughter says, breaking my revelry. I look at my hands that have stopped mid-stroke, and I start the brush again, this time making each pass more caress than chore.
“When I was little,” I tell her, “my Nana told me I needed to brush my hair 100 times a day. We need to do the same to your hair, too.” A daughter is never too young to hear the wisdom of a mother for some day all too soon, it will be the thing she passes down to her child
Jessica Graham is a mother who, no matter how hard she tries to write about other things, always ends up writing stories about her family. You can find her at www.inpursuitofloud.com where she writes about the art of everyday living.