Friday was May Day, otherwise known as the first day of May. What a quaint tradition May Day is: an older-than-old rite of Spring I don’t think anyone in the States really considers any more, although I think it’s still observed in Europe. May poles and all that. Maybe it would have been bigger, had it gone the way of Saturnalia and just been renamed Christmas. Clearly someone had the wrong marketing agency.
May Day also happens to be the birthday of my grandmother, who would have been 106 this year. She passed away in 2004, sixteen years ago.
The first of May is an easy birth date to remember, so when I woke up that morning, I actually did say “Happy birthday” to myself, but then the thought passed away in the crushing flow of what needed to get done that day and the underlying COVID-inspired sanctuary malaise that seems to hover over everything these days.
My brother Tommy, who is much more thoughtful about these things, posted a lovely photo of Nana as a teenager on our “personal Facebook” family page: it’s actually a text message string Dad created a year ago that includes all the kids and mom and dad, where he posts daily photos. Dad and Mom are not into social media and this is the closest they come and I kind of love it. The photo of Nana Tommy posted hangs on our wall of memories outside the front door of Green Victoria.
The minute I saw it, I stopped what I was doing and walked over to give the Nana photo a quick kiss and tell her I loved her.
The thought of Nana passing also came to mind later that day as I was “talking” (or what passes for talking these days…really, texting) to my friend Melissa, who lost her grandmother about a week ago to COVID-related complications. I wish I had thought to bring up the birthday or my grandmother, rather than simply say the words that everyone says when you are discussing a recent bereavement. So sorry…let me know if I can help in any way. You know the words. Maybe stressing a common connection might have meant more.
Let me try now.
For years growing up, from when I was about six or seven, I’d have a nightly ritual with Nana, who lived in an in-law apartment on the ground floor of my parents’ home growing up. Around seven in the evening, I would go downstairs and she’d make me some peanut butter toast with tea and we’d watch TV. Usually I’d be sitting down there, writing or clumsily drawing a comic book, while she’d crochet a pair of slippers or work on an afghan. She was pretty well known for her crochet work…to this day, all of us have friends who have held on to their slippers from her.
As I grew older, this tradition began to falter, as I came out of my shell and found friends and activities and eventually Josie. But really, that toast and tea ritual lasted for at least fifteen years, which is a good long time.
I’ll never forget one of the last evenings having toast and tea with Nana. It was the night before I moved out of my parents’ house. I was 23 and Josie and I were moving in together, after a few years of dating. Most of the bags packed, I went down for one final evening with Nana and…well, over-nostalgic lump that I was, burst into tears. I mean, totally lost it. PS: I am an ugly crier. Just ask Josie or Corb.
Nana set down her needles and looked over with concern. “Teddy, what’s the matter?”
“I don’t want this to end,” I managed to blubber.
“Oh.” Her eyes crinkled together as she considered what I had said. “Moving out of your parents’ house is hard, but—“
“No. This! Coming down here every night. Spending this…time together…with…”
“Well, Teddy.” She sighed. “It has to end sometime, right?”
I didn’t want to hear this. But she continued.
“You’re getting older now and grown up and it’s only natural you’re going to find a woman to love [EDITORS NOTE: Little did she know…] and then get married [EDITORS NOTE: Little did she know…] and have kids [EDITORS NOTE: Okay, that one she knew about…]. You’re never going to do all that and still come down and see me at seven every night, right? And I wouldn’t want you to.”
“I’m just…” A pause. I tried to pull myself together. “I’m just going to miss this so much.”
She patted my hand. “You will. At first. But things change when you get older. You’ll see.”
I grabbed her hand. “No! I won’t ever forget—“
“I didn’t say forget. But you’ll SEE.”
I didn’t see. But things change.
So I moved out, got married, had kids (not quite in that order). And although we attempted toast and tea time, it didn’t work, but after a while, Nana and I managed to find a substitute for our nightly get-togethers. Once a week, usually on a Wednesday, I would come over and she would make me supper in her tiny little kitchen. Then she’d pack me a lunch for the next day at work. You’d better believe those were some of my favorite lunches at work. I was probably one of the few supervisors who would regularly bring in a paper bag lunch from his grandmother every Thursday.
And then, things changed again. When Nana passed, I was 38, so this year is exactly the midpoint between when I moved out of my folks’ house and now. At 38, I was going through stuff. Time had passed and I had moved out of another house—Josie’s—and had just begun a third life, with Corb.
That’s wasn’t something Nana was aware of. Due to failing health, Nana had moved out of her house, too, of over 30 years. Into a nursing home.
Josie and I hid the divorce from Nana. It would only have made her sad and upset, and Nana loved Josie and wasn’t doing great, so the two of us would simply visit her at the nursing home and pretend to still be married.
I know, I know, in these times, that sounds horrible, but you have to remember, Nana was of another time and place. Would she have accepted things had we had more time? I honestly don’t know. But perhaps this is why I loved Corb’s grandmother so…she was of the same time and place and I know she accepted and loved us.
Nana’s wake was actually the first time many members of my family actually met Corb, including my parents. (And they have loved him ever since!)
I kind of regret all this, because there’s no doubt it separated me from her. There was so much I couldn’t talk about at that point—certainly this wasn’t material to nosh over if we had managed to have toast and tea in the nursing home. And I wish we had. But no, not once. I had the kids every other night and theater on the other nights and…well, no excuses. Things changed. I wish they hadn’t. But she had been right, all along.
Is there a point to this? I think so. I think it’s, when tea and toast was no longer viable, we found a way to adopt and change and still achieve some form of regular connection. It didn’t involve toast. It didn’t involve tea, although some nights, it did, I imagine. But it did involve the two of us.
I’ve said this before, the traditions we create among friends and family create the deepest connections in our souls. They’re what we remember when we consider a life well spent. That’s why I so cherish mine: Christmas eve parties at my parents, Scrabble with my brother. Watching Buffy with Kayla and TJ and Krista. Santa Ghost stories. Skanky Swap on New Year’s eve. Father’s day and lobster at the beach house. Ted and Corb’s Halloween costume party. Theater traditions with my friends, whether it’s singing Paddy Murphy late at night or the move into Wheaton or the old stories we tell, over and over again, of adventures past. And from almost the very start, toast and tea with Nana.
This year, this season, keeping up these traditions has been made more difficult, but in some ways, are even more important as a result. The fact is, life will always change, always evolve. The important thing is not to let it devolve into a series of random socially isolated disconnected memories. Find the meaning. Build on the memories. Find ways to make connections with the ones you love.
I wish I had gotten out of my head enough to maintain a few more toast and tea moments with Nana in her last few years.
But for as long as I can, I want to try to find a way to create more of those moments with the people in my life, and help them live on for as long as possible. Peanut butter sticks, remember. And this sort of toast is the bread living on in our memories for years to come, sustaining us when separated by time.
Time. Way way way too short. We need every trick we can get to fool ourselves into making it feel longer.