I don’t plan to write personal things on this blog, but I’d like to share this story with you.
There’s this story in my family. It’s about my grandmother. We didn’t learn about it until one of Nana’s lucid moments way later in her life, when she wasn’t really herself anymore because what made her Nana was her cakes and her sewing and her crocheting and her long car drives to Presque Isle, Maine. But she still had her stories, and new ones were surfacing in her brain as her short term memory gave way to hours of contemplation in the nursing home.
Nana always made a big deal out of Valentine’s day. She’d make us little things and give us candy, she’d get cards and then even though the card was pretty enough, she’d plaster them with extra stickers all over. It was different than what happens in most families, I’d suppose. It was saccharine, it was the best.
Nana was mostly deaf. She had lost her hearing at an early age, as she was born during the influenza epidemic and fell ill. She survived, but her hearing was very poor. It was the start of a long string of hardships. The kind of hardships where the word “hardship” seems like a gross understatement. Things I can’t recount here because they’re horrible. But this is a story about resilience, so I’ll move on.
Well there was this one year that she got really excited about Valentine’s day, and she was a school girl. Go wild with your imagination, it’s just how you imagine. Kids of various ages, one room school house, all of it right in the middle of Maine’s dusty potato country with its long dark winters. Bright spots were manufactured by the punctuation of holidays, and Nana pulled out all the stops. She handmade Valentines for all her classmates
and received none in return.
Florence was deaf and spoke funny. She learned how to talk by watching other people, and her soft consonants revealed her lack of hearing. She got teased and mocked and was left behind a lot. Stupid Florence, dumb Florence.
Beautiful Florence. Survivor Florence. Strong Florence. Mother Florence. Grandmother Florence.
So when I was thinking of Nana this past summer, knowing we’d go to Presque Isle to bury her remains and knowing that I’d be giving her eulogy, I knew I’d want to tell a story that could really illustrate to people why and how and how much I love her. What could we learn from her? What quality should I carry on from her that would make her most proud? What hardship did she bear for me so I didn’t have to?
Nana, more than anyone, could have been a person marred into lacking trust, love, and affection for strangers. What did she do? She took this holiday and she made it her favorite.
And this carries past Valentine’s Day. It was her Way. When black people moved into her neighborhood in Munjoy Hill and deserved welcoming neighbors, when kids who were considered trouble needed a warm meal and the feeling of home, when poor folks in the neighborhood needed a good friend- there she was.
All the hard stuff, she gathered it up and she held it close.
Unlike some holidays, you can take or leave Valentine’s Day. But for me, I gather it up and hold it close because of Nana’s reminder. Her life was more complex and she was three dimensional in every way, with her foibles and her shortcomings. But I think on this, she was right. It most likely didn’t come to her like some great epiphany that grew triumphantly through the cracks of adversity. Nah, I think she was contrarian and I’m very sure she was a hopeless romantic.
You’re all my Valentines. Thanks for remembering my Nana with me.
Happy Valentine’s Day