Tea with Nana
“Mom, it’s such a beautiful day and I’m not wasting it on Nana. I want to hang out with Theresa today,” Willow whined.
“Now, Willow, you know she loves visitors and you haven’t been to the retirement home in ages. She’s been asking about you. Just spend an hour with her for me, please, sweetie please?” Alice knew she could usually get an affirmative response with a ‘please.’
“Oh Mom, she is always putting you down, always putting everyone down, how did you ever come from someone so miserable?” Willow lamented. She had made this trip in to see her Nana many times, but always with the protection of her mom, and she dreaded going there without that armour. Now, her mom was asking her to go on her own. Although the deal was sweetened by the use of the family car, which was alluring indeed, Nana was cutting at the best of times. Willow had her license now for almost a year and she felt pretty comfortable behind the wheel, but nothing beat having the car on her own with no adult making comments or critiques. Her Mom was not harsh by any means, but freedom, being on her own, was delicious to say the least.
“How am I going to avoid those crappy conversations with her Mom? It’s a miracle how you manage to talk her out of the downward spirals, she always seems to want to go. I’m not sure I can do it as well as you do. What is your secret and how can I avoid getting angry with her.”
Alice thought about this question, raising her green eyes upward, "Hmmm," she said, "I don’t know, years of practice maybe. I do know that I try to focus on the things that she loves to talk about. Things like the garden outside her window, or I try to go back to a time when she was young, she likes to talk about her youth."
Willow contemplated her last visit with Nana, and it was true, she had talked about Nana’s past, even though Willow had tuned out, she was just relieved that she didn’t have to interject. Now she wished she’d paid more attention.
I’ll make your favourite dinner,” Alice promised, as she took the laundry out into the yard.
Who even hangs their laundry on clotheslines Willow wondered.
With mixed feelings of elation for the use of the Toyota, and dread for trying to make an hour seem like five minutes with ‘Nana Grumpy,’ she headed off to the Oakdale Seniors Residence just a twenty minutes drive from home. She wished it was an hour away, but she soon forgot the looming visit and enjoyed driving past fields and woodlands on the way into town.
Once she parked the car however the feelings of inadequacy returned and she took her time getting out of the car, she stretched and arched her back like a dog getting ready to start his day. She glanced over at the austere façade of the residence that held her sharp-tongued grand mother. The walls of the entrance looked solid and the large fieldstones sparkled in the sunlight while the fat pillars gave the place an impressive feeling. The large veranda offered welcome shade in summers, where residents usually perched at various times of the day, but today it was void of the usual walkers and wheelchairs. She sighed and walked into the main foyer, and there as usual, was Gordon, a long time resident of the home who both greeted and pestered anyone who wanted inside.
“Hey there, he shouted,” in a decibel that you knew, he had a hearing problem, “ Who you here to see?”
“Hi Gordon, “I’m Sylvia’s grand-daughter, Willow. You remember me, right?”
Willow knew it was a crap shoot with Gordon as sometimes he’d remember and the next time he’d forget, which then meant a long drawn out conversation about Sylvia’s room number and how long she’d been a resident, but luckily today Gordon did remember, or at least he said he did. It’s a funny thing with the elderly, thought Willow, they didn’t seem to remember anything that happened that morning but talk about something that happened a decade ago, and they were able to give a detailed analysis of the event.
Once up on the second floor, the dread returned, as Willow knocked on her Nana’s door.
“Who’s there,” came a rather weak and croaking voice, after a moment.
“It’s me Nana, Willow. I thought I’d come to visit with you.”
“Just a minute,” this time it was stronger and louder, more like her Nana’s voice. She was wearing her usual baggy dress pants, and loose fitting floral shirt that Willow thought, looked incredibly loud and purple, not to mention, boring and embarrassing. Her Nana looked smaller than she had in the past, so much so that Willow checked to make sure she wasn’t wearing heals.
“Why the heck didn’t your mother tell me you were coming,” snapped Nana, “I could have prepared a nice little treat for you, some lemon cake, or a cherry pie. Honestly, she is awfully inconsiderate. Hmmf!”
“I’m thinking, maybe she just wanted this be a surprise,” Willow offered weakly.
“Well come on, get in here, damn it all,” she cussed, “don’t stand out in that hall all day,” and with that Willow was pulled inside the small apartment type residence and noticed that the television was on low and a discarded sweater lay on the sofa, Willow began to think she might have interrupted an afternoon nap.
“Am I interrupting you Nana,” Willow began, “because if you’d rather I come back later, I could go, you know,” shit, she sounded so lame.
“No, no, no, cheese and rice, is it too much to ask for a little notice?” No, I’m glad you’re here, damn it, now just go on in and just sit down, and I’ll get a kettle on for tea.”
She padded off to the kitchen mumbling or cursing, Willow wasn’t sure. Yikes, she wondered how she was going to stand her for an entire hour? Nana had been hard on anyone in her world but she was always toughest on her Mom. Willow could never quite understand why. Willow often found herself defending her Mom when she was around Nana.
Nana returned from the kitchen a few minutes later, face slightly flushed and perhaps a little uncomfortable thought Willow. She needed to warm her up and get her talking about her favourite topics. What did her mom say? Oh yes, the garden and her youth. Willow got up from her chair and walked over to the patio door and gazed out into the garden in the courtyard. The garden looked average, was her only thought, but she continued, “Nice garden,” she said, regretting her words almost immediately.
“Hmmm, you think so? It’s a shambles I think.” Honestly, there is not one good thing to be said about that garden, if you can even call it that,” shrugged Nana. “Pathetic! The man who comes to hoe and clean does not know a weed from a plant, and most of what’s left is weeds, she sneered with disgust.”
“Well, it looks organized at least,” said Willow knowing that a garden conversation was over and she noted that she had started to perspire. Beads of sweat formed on her upper lip and forehead, not to mention her pits. Had she remembered deodorant?
So to prevent a groundskeeper from further scathing critiques, she decided to change the subject, she glanced around Nana’s room to find a new source of conversation. Her gaze fell on an old photograph Nana had of her family when she was a young mother. Willow had seen it before of course, but had never questioned her grandmother about it.
“When was this photo taken,” asked Willow as she casually picked up the photo with one hand, and was now inspecting it, hopeful to find a clue for her next question.
“Careful with that Willow,” Nana almost barked, so much so, that Willow began to shake ever so slightly, but not to the point where Nana would have noticed.
“That was taken in 1952, your mom was only four years old, and back then I had to work two jobs because your grand dad had passed away and I was on my own,” began Nana. “Back then your mom was a sweet child.”
“Wow, you look so young,” Willow said, admiring the pretty woman who was holding her daughter in her arms. “It must have been tough to survive, did you have some help from your parents?” asked Willow.
“Hah,” exclaimed Nana, “fat chance of that, my parents did not accept my marriage to Henry because he was protestant. My parents disowned me when I married and I had not seen them until I went to their funerals.”
Just then the kettle began to whistle, and Nana took the photo from Willow with a jerk and returned it to the desk. “That was a long time ago,” said Nana as she turned to attend to the noisy kettle.
Nana carried a tray with the steeping teapot, two cups and a plate holding a few sugar cookies.
“Here let me help you with that,” Willow offered, reaching over to take the tray from Nana, before she could refuse.
“Well you are certainly more useful than your mother,” scowled Nana.
“You know Nana, I have to ask you a question,” began Willow, “why is it that you are always so hard on my mother?” She is a wonderful mother,” Willow started but was immediately cut off by her Nana.
“She might be an okay mother to you, but she was a terrible daughter spat Nana, she left home when she was sixteen and went off and got herself pregnant and she never married the fellow, even though he offered to. How can I hold my head up, be respected in my church and community when she refused to do what is right. Yes, she raised you but not with your father. She should have thought of you Willow, you deserve both parents. She was a selfish woman.”
“But Nana, that was sixteen years ago, how can you hold on to this anger for so long. She didn’t give me up, but instead she worked hard to make a life for me and for us.” Willow protested. “I know she wants you to believe that it was the best thing for us. Besides, I still see my Dad and I know why she never married him, she didn’t love him.”
“So what!” “Do you think everyone marries for love? Do you think that life is a fairytale? Well I have news for you Willow, life can be very hard and cruel sometimes. I hope you never have to find that out, but life will ask you to think of others instead of yourself. I think your Mom was selfish to ignore your needs and I’ve told her so many times.”
Willow was dumbstruck as she watched her Nana, release her anger. Spit flew from her mouth as she spoke, deep furrows on her forehead made her look a bit insane, but she saw that tears were forming in her eyes and an odd feeling overtook Willow. Sympathy.
Instead of defending her mother, which was her first instinct, she bit her tongue and waited. Instead she poured the tea and complimented on the lovely earl grey and the delicious cookies, biting into one, hoping her Nana would relax.
“I would have made you a cherry pie if I’d known you were coming,” sulked Nana, sounding a bit sad.
“I’m loving this cookie,” lied Willow, trying to smooth things over. “Were these your favourite cookies when you were a child?” she asked, knowing she was reaching for another change of topic.
“We never had cookies when I was a child,” began Nana, her eyes scanned the patio door and the unfortunate garden, “we had no luxuries, of any kind. It was a tough existence. My father believed in kids being seen but not heard and he ruled with a heavy hand. My mother couldn’t do anything to calm him down and she lived in fear most of the time. I left home as soon as I could. I was sixteen years old when I met up with Henry, and he was a decent man too, so I convinced him to marry me and we managed to survive, without my family helping us.”
“Were you in love with Henry,” asked Willow, innocently.
“There you go again child, talking about love as if it’s the only thing to think about,” Nana’s focus returned to the present and the tea and cookies, “Life is not always about butterflies, or total bliss and glorious love,” she’d exaggerated the ‘love’ drawing it out as if it was something distasteful.
Willow could see anger begin to rise up again and so she tried to ward off this avenue “Okay Nana, but when I get married it will be for love,” this cleverly took the topic off her Nana and her mother and onto herself.
This seemed to soften her Nana, “I must sound like an awful mother to you Willow, but your mother was gifted, intellectually, and I wanted her to succeed. I wanted her to have a happy, full life, with a good man and with you of course. Instead every time I see her I feel like I let her down, she was university bound, and she could have been a lawyer, or a doctor, she was so bright. Somehow I managed to get enough money together for her education, but she got pregnant instead and repeated history,” she suddenly had a far away look in her eyes.
“Repeated history?” Willow frowned, ”You mean you were pregnant too before you got married as well?”
Nana realized that Willow had not known, and she blinked, not knowing what to say next. “Well, yes, I was pregnant. But that was at a time when we didn’t have the birth control pill,” she blurted out, “I barely knew anything at all about sex, I didn’t even like it, and it hurt,” she confessed as she lowered her eyes to her tea cup.
Woah! This was too much information thought Willow, never in her life had she had any kind of interesting conversation with her Nana, this was new territory for them both.
They sat and looked at each other for what seemed like long minutes, and finally Nana sipped her tea and sighed heavily. “I thought you knew, I thought your mother would have told you what a terrible example I was for her.”
Willow waited a few moments letting her index finger trace the rim of her teacup, “No, my mother did not tell me. She tells me that you always try your best and sometimes things don’t always go the way you’d like. She really adores you, Nana, even though you are always putting her down. I don’t understand why you do that.”
“I sometimes think you blame me, continued Willow. I kind of put a wrench into her furthering her studies and she decided to become a waitress instead. She did end up owning that restaurant though, and now she has five employees, so, not bad for a grade eleven education, huh?”
Nana’s eyes bulged, and the tears sprung into them and spilled over the lids wetting her rosy frail cheeks, “Oh dear Jesus, no, I don’t blame you for anything, why you are the one bright thing in Alice’s life. You are the one thing that has kept us together, I could never blame you, I’m only thankful for you. Please don’t think I blame you. I only blame myself.” She quietly got up off her chair and hugged Willow from behind her chair, awkwardly. This was also new to them both, the perfunctory hugs at family gatherings with the tapping on the back, meant nothing, but this felt tender, awkward, but tender.
The afternoon passed with an additional two pots of tea and more conversation when Willow’s phone pinged. Her Mom sent a text, wondering when she would be home. Willow looked at her device and saw it was almost five pm.
“Oh, fiddle sticks, look at the time,” said Nana, “we’ve been talking for three hours,” she was grinning now. It was good to see Nana smiling, thought Willow it happened so rarely, she looked kinder, happier.
As she got to the door, Willow felt a twinge of regret, for all the years she hadn’t reached out to get to know her grand mother. The good-bye hug was still awkward Willow thought, but it would get even better in time.
Nana stood and looked at the old photo on her desk and almost as an after thought said, “tell your Mom, she did a great job raising you.”
“No, Nana, I think you need to tell her that yourself.” Before today she would have been too afraid to say that to Nana but she looked her in the eye, and winked.
“ Yes, I think you are right said Nana softly.
But, I think you promised me a cherry pie, Willow smiled, how about next week? Same time?