We called our grandmother on my mother’s side “Nana.” Nana was a widow for most of my life. Back in 1965, my grandfather died when I was about two-years-old. Nana supported herself after that, and although she worked a full-time job, she was poor. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment overlooking Lake Erie. She enjoyed the simple pleasures: watching the boats float on the water, entertaining her family on the weekends, swimming alone at midnight in the apartment’s tiny swimming pool.
How did we know Nana was poor?
She didn’t have enough money to do her laundry at the laundromat, so she did it in her bathtub. After she washed the clothes, she’d hang them up on the shower curtain bar. She drove a very old car that had a hole in the floorboard. She often remarked that she could see the ground pass as she drove along. To compensate for this, she covered the hole with an antique oriental rug, an artifact from wealthier days. She worked 40 hours a week as a photographer at a department store in a suburb of Cleveland. Nana didn’t make much money at this.
Despite the fact that we knew she was poor, we never really understood how poor she was because she always served us Fritos, chip dip and Ginger ale when we went to visit on Friday nights. This junk food was a luxury for us because our parents didn’t splurge on extras. Nana found enough cash to cook us big spaghetti dinners. She loved to flavor the pasta with big chunks of pork; it was heavenly.
And at Christmas, she always found a way to give us each a $20.00 bill. Every Christmas, we’d open up our cards, and out would fly our 20. Since I had two brothers, a mom and a dad, this meant that she gave our family a total of $100.00 every Christmas.
This doesn’t sound like much today, but back then, it was a lot.
Pretty soon, we grew up and got our own jobs.
I’ll never forget the Christmas my brother Tim decided to pay Nana back for some the 20s she had handed out over the years.
By this time, it was the 1980s. Tim was working as a machinist, and he was bringing in a decent wage. Quietly, without telling anyone, he bought a Christmas card and stuck ten $20 bills inside.
That Christmas, my mother cooked the holiday dinner, as usual — ham, turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, coleslaw and cranberries. Not to mention cookies, bars and pecan pie for dessert. Mom did go all out at Christmas. We gorged ourselves, and then, it came time to open presents.
We took turns opening the gifts, oohing and ahhing over each one. I remember I got a leather bomber jacket, which was in style back then.
And then, it came time for Nana to open her gift from Tim.
Of course, Nana thought that Tim had simply given her a card that year. She was very unassuming.
Before she opened the greeting card, she read the outside.
“You’ve been very nice this year, little girl.” She chuckled. Then, she opened the card. Out flew the 10 $20.00 bills onto her lap.
“Oh, Timmy,” she said. She looked him straight in the eye and said, “You didn’t.”
“All those years, you gave us each $20.00, and it was a sacrifice. I wanted to return the favor.”
Nana started to cry. “You are really something,” she said through her tears.
“Read the inside of the card,” Tim said.
“That’s why I went out and splurged on this beautiful Christmas card. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” Nana read. She beamed at all of us.
Then, Nana opened my present — a humble bottle of Oil of Olay, which, of course, she fussed over.
Nana passed away shortly after this unforgettable Christmas when my brother upstaged us all in the gift giving department. She died of throat cancer, after having endured weeks of radiation treatment that didn’t work.
What I wouldn’t give to sit down with Nana and have a beer and talk about current events, something she loved to do. She could tell me all the people in the news that day, and I could pretend that I hadn’t heard the gossip and the stories of the moment.
Christmas 2017 is nearing. Today, I’m raising my own child. I know a little about sacrifice, but nothing like Nana, who also lived during the Depression, knew.
I can only hope to be as bright of a beacon of light for my family that she was for hers during the holidays and throughout the year.
Merry Christmas, Nana. And thank you for showing us how to give.