October is right around the corner and thoughts of Nan are on my mind. For those of you who don’t know, Nan is my grandmother, Domenica Esposito, whom we called Nana Mickey. She passed away in October of 2000 and life hasn’t been quite the same without her. You may think you have a wonderful grandmother, but you don’t have mine. Only one was made before they broke that mold.
Nan babysat for us every, and I mean every, Saturday night. She claimed it was to give my parents some quality time together, but my siblings and I knew better. There was nothing she loved more in life than spending time with her grandchildren. And the feeling was mutual.
Saturday nights started off with Mom getting us fed. Then, we’d go sit on the front stoop and wait for Nan to round the corner. She loved to take buses and walk and would often refuse my mom’s offer of a ride. As soon as we saw her walking down the block, we would start screaming and jumping up and down.
My childhood was lived in a modest home where everything had its place. One toy was played with and put away before another one was taken out. Cushions remained on the couch and there was NO jumping on furniture. You ate three square meals before you got dessert. You didn’t disturb the neighbors with excessive noise. You went to bed early. Hell, in the winter darkness, my mom would have us in bed by 6:30 PM. You get the picture.
When Nan showed up and Mom and Dad had pulled away in the car, ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE. First, there was a visit to the candy store—actually, a numbers running joint fronting as a candy store, as I now understand it—where we could buy whatever our little hearts desired. When the ice cream man made his rounds later, we’d get that too. And maybe a knish or hot pretzel to go with it. Strung out on lots of sugar and Nan’s enthusiasm, the cushions on the 1970′s, crushed-velvet, orange sofa would be ripped off and thrown around on the floor, and we would pretend we were floating on rafts in the middle of the sea. Beds were jumped on with great exhilaration, pigtails flying in the air.
The Saturday night line up on TV back then was All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore, and, our favorite, Carol Burnett. But TV viewing required more snacks. So, the Jiffy Pop popcorn came out and we’d shake it over the stove top and watch that silver foil turban grow and shoot out wisps of steam. Along with the salty, we needed a little sweet. Out came the marshmallows and a long fork. They got toasted over the flame on the stove and many of them caught fire and melted all over the metal grates. Any idea how hard it is to get melted marshmallow off of those? I’m actually surprised that Nan wasn’t banned from babysitting after a few such adventures.
To get us up to our beds, she’d form a conga line with us and we’d one-two-three-kick up the stairs. Then we’d beg for a story. She rarely read to us from a book; she made up her own stories and told them in installments week after week. They were mystery stories about pickpockets, smugglers, and kidnappers down at the South Street Seaport. I can imagine how she’d gaze out her work window and dream up tales for our Saturdays together. We would whine and beg when she’d leave us with a cliff-hanger.
She was a lover of new experiences, exotic foods, world travel, and foreign accents. Guess I got that gene too.
After the jumping and snacking and TV viewing, we’d settle down in bed. By now, Nan was snoring away, but I was always still awake. At that time of night, Chiller Theater would come on, and that horrible hand with the six fingers would rise out of the ground, and that voice would say “Chiiiiiiiiiiiiiilllllllllllllllllllleeeeeeeeeerrrrrr.” Eeek. It used to freak the hell out of me, and I’d put my hands over my eyes and watch through my fingers.
At some point, we’d hear the sound of a car door slamming shut, and Nan would jump up and run downstairs. Cushions would be tossed back on the couch, dishes gathered and placed in the sink. My mom always had a kitchen to tidy up after a date with dad. Meanwhile, I’d pretend to be asleep when my parents came up to my room so Nan wouldn’t get in trouble. But when Nan sneaked up to say goodnight, I’d open one eye and she’d wink at me.
People often debate whether certain traits are the result of nature or nurture. I’m not sure which transmission method is responsible for my sense of awe and wonder, but I do know that in some major way, my grandmother was responsible.
Children have no problem appreciating the miraculous, but as we mature, we begin to take life for granted—the sunset goes unnoticed or is cursed as we’re heading west in rush-hour traffic. The chirping of the birds is a nuisance to our Saturday morning sleep. A drenching spring rain makes us feel gloomy rather than foreshadowing new life.
Nan had as strong a sense of awe as any child I know. To see her out in nature was to see a 75-year-old child—eyes bright, wide smile, face turned up to the sun, and occasionally a foot missing the curb as a result.
She taught me to listen for the sea in a seashell, to jump waves, to crush herbs between my fingers and inhale their sweet and spicy scent, to identify birds, and appreciate flowers and trees. I watched ants for hours at a time when I was a child, amazed at the cooperation of insects—something so often absent in our own species. I remember pulling kitchen chairs in front of the back door to watch a summer thunder shower and then watching the sunlight return in a reddish-orange wash across the late afternoon sky. Rain was never to be dreaded; you could always walk between the rain drops or just have faith that you’d dry soon enough. And in late summer, I loved sniffing the cool, night air to catch a scent of the ripe grapes from the arbor next door.
All of these things are a part of me, handed down from a woman who had no equal. What a blessing to have been mentored in the art of living life with abandon. And when I do my final one two three kick out of this world, I hope my love of life will remain with those I leave behind. I love you, Nan.