January 3, 2003.
I was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. I was lying in bed, just waking up and about to start getting ready for school. I can see my mom walking into my room and sitting on the edge of my bed, which wasn’t a typical occurrence; I was never one of those teenagers you had to force out of bed in the morning. I don’t remember exactly what she said at first, but I can vividly picture what happened next like it was yesterday. She leaned down to my ear and said in a half-whisper, “Nanny died last night.”
This memory has been on my mind for most of the day because today, December 23, is Nanny’s birthday; she had just turned 79 before she died. Today, she would be 94. My family obviously knows who I’m talking about, but for everyone else, Nanny is my grandma. She is my dad’s mom, Bernice Ruby Vining Jeffers. I’m not totally sure where the name “Nanny” originated for her, but my siblings and I always knew her as Nanny growing up.
While processing her death over the next week or so, in addition to being sad and mourning her passing, I remember feeling a sense of relief, to a certain extent. For the last several years of her life, she lived in various nursing homes as her mind deteriorated due to dementia. When we would visit her on Sundays, she was usually lying in bed or just sitting in her room when we arrived. I would often picture her life during the week when we weren’t there; it usually consisted of her just lying in her bed 24/7, unable to live a full, active life like she once did. I really don’t know how true that was, but this picture always made me somewhat angry at the nursing home employees for not doing more with her. Again, this was just my own imagination of the situation. They may have tried to keep her active when she first arrived, I really don’t know. Looking back at it now as an adult, there’s not really much you can do as someone becomes more bedridden other than making sure they have their basic needs met and are as comfortable as possible.
Even though those memories of Nanny are my most recent, they aren’t my strongest. I have much stronger memories of visiting her in her house with the red roof on Bradbury Road; memories that I can still see as clear as day in my mind. During the summer, we’d make trips every week, or maybe every other week, to mow her grass. My dad would mow the majority of the yard with the riding lawn mower while my sister and I would use the push mower directly behind her house. My brother would use the weed-eater. I think we’d sometimes fight over who got to use the weed-eater because it was battery operated, which was much cooler than our electric weed-eater at home.
Aside from our pay of $5 for mowing her grass, there were many things we’d look forward to at Nanny’s house. She would always make us ice cream cones with vanilla ice cream from a gallon-sized tub whenever we asked. She always had a glass pitcher with a yellow lid in her refrigerator full of water that always tasted really good after mowing or running around outside, even though I think it was boiled well water. My siblings and I would play marbles on her floor and I would always think about a younger Nanny playing marbles “because she didn’t have any video games or anything like that when she was a little girl… all they had were marbles.” I remember staying at her house and watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; I always made a mental connection between her and Snow White because they both had black hair. I always had to buy her something red for her birthday or Christmas because her favorite color was red. I would periodically dump out her big container of buttons that she kept near her sewing machine and sort through them. We’d also pass by some evenings just sitting on her front porch, waiting for certain colored cars to drive by, keeping score of who had the most (which is another reason why Russell’s story of watching cars with his dad usually tugs at my heartstrings during the movie Up.)
For a majority of my childhood memories of Nanny, dementia had probably already started to affect her. Although as young child, I never really saw her as someone who was sick as they were growing older. The things she did were just goofy, silly things that were typical of the grandmother that I knew. There was a time where I walked up the hill behind her house with her and threw some eggs up against a tree; she wanted to get rid of them because they were going bad. I’m pretty sure she paid me after this task too, but I don’t remember if it was the standard $5. I can also picture her clear as day falling down the steps of her back porch, subsequently breaking her wrist. I believe my sister, brother, and I were there alone with her and we were working outside on something. She got up off of the porch and continued working. I don’t remember what the work was, but I remember it involved a hammer because I can clearly picture her using a hammer after she had fallen down the steps.
There was also an incident at the Pomeroy Baseball Fields at, I believe, my sister’s softball game. A gust of wind came by, blowing some trash out into the outfield. Nanny proceeded to get up out of her lawn chair and run out into the outfield during the game to chase down the trash while my dad yelled at her to come back. I can see her running up behind my sister while she was preparing to step up to the plate (not at Pomeroy, though). She was no doubt going to give my sister some words of encouragement, but she also risked getting hit by a practice swing because my sister had her back to her.
Perhaps the most vivid memory I have of Nanny is a memory of smell and taste… That memory is the smell and taste of Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum. Nanny always had Doublemint Gum in her purse wherever she went. Every once in a while, I’ll grab a pack of Doublemint Gum at the store and the familiar scent and flavor immediately transports me to the days of asking Nanny for stick of gum.
It’s hard to believe that it will be 15 years in January that she’s been gone. I can still feel her around me sometimes, and have felt her presence several times today. I mentioned in my last post that while I may not be a very religious person anymore, I’m a very spiritual person. Part of that spirituality is the belief that those who have passed on still visit us and communicate with us in various ways. I think I may have come to believe this through watching episodes of Long Island Medium. During many of her readings, Theresa Caputo mentions specific moments to her clients where they felt the presence of their loved ones. She continues, saying to her clients that those moments are real and they are signs of their loved ones visiting them and communicating with them. I have moments like this all the time where I think I see something out of the corner of my eye and as I look to follow whatever I saw, I’ll immediately think of either Nanny or my mom’s dad, whom I usually refer to as Papa.
Call me crazy if you want, but I do believe I continuously have visitations from both Nanny and Papa. There are obvious moments of communication, like if they show up in a dream that I’ve had. But I also feel connections to them in the most random of moments that have no contextual connection to either one of them… I’ll randomly think of something that suddenly brings their memory to my mind, but it’s never both of them at the same time. It’s always one or the other. Now that I think of it, I’ve also had some of these moments with my dog, Copper, whom we had put to sleep a little over five years ago on August 27, 2012, when he was 17 years old.
I sincerely believe that these brief moments of connection are real and not just in my mind. The most vivid connection I’ve had, and I don’t believe I’ve ever told anyone about, happened within the last year. I woke up in the middle of the night, which I rarely do, and I thought I saw the figure of someone sitting in my desk chair next to my bed. Since it was in the middle of the night, my room was dark, so I really couldn’t see anything with any detail… but I do know that after I saw what appeared to be a figure in my chair, I immediately thought of Papa… and I wasn’t scared, which would be a natural reaction to seeing something strange right next to your bed. I was calm and I felt comfort that he was here with me.
Some of you may know this already, but several years ago I wrote a play called Shoelaces. I wanted for the longest time to write something, separately, about Nanny and Papa. It was when I got the idea for this play that it allowed me to combine the two ideas. In the play, the character of Ruby, the grandmother, carries around the grandfather’s urn and still interacts with it as if it the grandfather is still alive. Ruby’s faith that she can still talk to her husband never waivers and she strongly believes that those who have passed on still communicate with us. I don’t know if I fully understood that point of view when I originally wrote it, but my experiences over the last couple of years and my connection with Nanny today on her 94th birthday have really solidified that belief for me… and to quote Ruby in one of my favorite lines from the play, “Death is not the end of life.”