Mama Madison: Visiting Nana Annie

Cherishing the multi-generation family

It probably isn't the most glamorous first stop for a kid on summer vacation. But this year, going to see my 98-year-old grandmother -- their great grandmother -- in her assisted living facility will kick off our weeklong trip to Washington, D.C.

My kids have the drill down. First, we'll make a stop for carryout bagels and cream cheese to bring; it wouldn't be a visit with Nana without lox. Then, while hanging out in her small but meticulously decorated room, we will dutifully ask questions about her early life growing up on the pre-hip Lower East Side of New York City. She'll regale them with stories of the first time she owned a television and when going to the movies cost a dime. She will remind them that she was considered quite the looker in her days and could have had her pick of husbands. But she fell in love with my long-since-deceased grandfather because he played the violin. From the sounds of things, she was a pretty much a groupie in the 1930s.

And as we listen to her tales, I will experience a cocktail of emotions. Of course, I feel incredibly grateful that my children are among the select few that get the chance to enjoy a great grandmother well into their childhoods. They will actually remember her, not just remember that they knew her.

But another part of me is always sad that they (and I) don't get to see Nana, or my parents, or my husband's parents when they were alive, more often. My children are missing out on the sage advice, rootedness and the sense of continuity that comes with close physical proximity to grandparents--great or otherwise.

I grew up seeing my maternal grandmother just about every day. She taught me how to crochet (I'm pretty sure I can still make a pretty mean granny square), and who Jonas Salk and Robert Oppenheimer were. If Nana Annie had a thing for musicians, Nannie Ida surely had one for scientists. She never raised her voice or lectured. She was always steadying and calm. Nannie seemed to have an endless supply of the one-thing regular-old parents' so-often have a shortage of -- time.

In my teenage years, as the early signs of Alzheimer's began to set in, staying close to Nannie Ida meant driving over to her place to bring groceries or help organize the attic. This wasn't quite as fun. She was starting to get forgetful, and even harder, paranoid. She'd speak in a weird cadence, iambic pentameter, I think, and make references to people and places and I never knew. She was frustrated I didn't "remember" them. I was sometimes frustrated this was how I was spending my summer mornings.

But I think I knew then, and definitely know now, that helping my mom to take care of her mom, who died when my oldest was an infant, was far more of a privilege than a burden. While my siblings and I would fight endlessly about whose turn it was to change over the laundry at our own house, we rarely gave my mom too much grief about needing to run an errand for Nannie. It was expected of us. And we are probably a better for it.

I don't think Nana Annie, who is a bit frailer each time we see her, will be making the trip to visit us any time soon. But I can still hold out hope that my mother might move to Madison some day. She's entertaining the idea; two of her four children live here now. But she's concerned about leaving her social work practice and starting a new one. She knows making new friends at 74 isn't the easiest thing to do. And I think mostly the thought of harsh Wisconsin winters is holding her back.

But I remind her, that's she has five grandchildren here -- all who know how to wield a snow shovel.

And they need a few more expectations -- and whole lot more Nannie---in their lives.

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