|Lessons learned from Nan
by Craig Stevens
Until her death when I was 16, I spent a lot of time with my widowed grandmother. For countless reasons I'm glad I did. I don't know what others thought of her but I expect she was well liked. But no matter what others thought, she was a saint to me.
When I was very little I understood why my Dad called her Mom, but I couldn't understand why some people called her Clara. Her name was Nan or Nanny. In fact she was Nan to just about everybody who knew her very well.
Nan was born in a small town in western New York in1884 and when she first went to school she was taught in both German and English. She never conversed in German in her later years, maybe a war-related thing, but she did pray in German. In my earliest years I could say with her The Lord's Prayer and a few others. To my dismay I now can't recall the German for any of them. Every so often she would say to me something like Eekleebydeek or Istabastaboo. I guess I knew this was German but I only "felt" what she was saying. I didn't know she was saying, "I love you” in the first case or "You're a bad boy" in the second. In fact, I didn't know that an expression she was prone to use, Layingalljokingaside, was neither German nor one word.
Even when I heard Istabastaboo there was no real sense of disapproval. At most she would follow it with an admonition: "Stand up straight and put your shoulders back. You are going to be a tall man someday and you won't want to be slumped over."
Nan loved playing cards and she taught me many games. We'd play crazy eights, hearts, euchre and gin rummy by the hours. By the time I was nine I was a terrific canasta player, and could beat just about anyone but Nan, except when she let me win. I know she was really good because she would go to card parties at all sorts of churches and always come home with prizes like lamps and dishware.
Many weekends I would walk to Nan's after school on Friday. She'd have fresh-baked cookies for me and she'd send me across the street and through the yards to the "milkhouse" on the next block over. I would have a quarter to get a quart of milk with cream on the top. She'd scoop out the cream for her coffee and give me a cup of milk to dunk my cookies in. Nan was a great dunker. My mentor.
After dinner we would take a slow leisurely walk the five or six blocks to "downtown." (If you lived on the other side of Main Street, which I did for a time, you'd go uptown. I don't know who made the decision as to who was up and who was down.) The walk had to be leisurely because we would stop so often. Everybody along the way knew Nan, and therefore me, and would want to exchange a few pleasantries. "Going to the show?" they'd ask, and Nan would respond that there was a new double feature with Randolph Scott in one and Abbott and Costello in the other. If few people were out, the walk would still be slow because Nan would be pointing out squirrels, flowers, crabs in the creek and whatever else we would encounter. At chestnut time we would make a pact to pick up a few on the way back, using a streetlight to guide us.
Sometimes on Saturday morning we'd go kitty-corner, as Nan would say, across the street and up a bit to Aunt Anna's, my grandmother's sister-in-law. Aunt Anna wasn't all that warm personally but she made the best warm apple, peach and berry kuchens ever and Nan would trade a bag of cookies for a big scrumptious apple kuchen. I've spent years trying to find that same taste only to encounter disappointment after disappointment.
On Saturday afternoons we would walk a few blocks to play cards with Auntie Barbara. Auntie Barbara was quite blind from diabetes, but she could still see enough to give us a contest. And she was one whale of a cook; there was always something good on the table. Today the secret of her cooking would bring gasps from the health conscious. Auntie Barbara made her own lard (and add lye to make soap if you could call it that) and used it in just about everything.
My visit would often come to an end when my Dad would come to pick me up at the end of his workday. My Dad was a bit like his Mom so sometimes our short trip home would take awhile. We'd stop by to see his uncles, Tombstone or Fuzzy, or his brother, my Uncle Clarence (who should have a neat nickname, too) or someone else along the way.
Not long after I got home my Mom would inevitably say: "I don't know why I let you go there. She spoils you so much that after you've been there I can't do a thing with you!" Well, Mom, Clara was your mother-in-law, but Nan was my grandmother and therein is all the difference. During those card games and long walks, over those meals and in the dark hours of the night when we would talk on and on, Nan taught me more about nature and life, about values and respect and about anything and everything that is really important. Eekleebydeek, Nanny, Eekleebydeek.