Nana and Gramps

Slipping behind the wheel of gramps’ old Chrysler to drive to work this afternoon, something felt awry. I am long overdue for a repair on my front brakes and all four tires are balding at the rims. I simply can’t afford the repairs right now but even dad pointed out to me on Monday how badly the car needed tending to. With gas at $3 per gallon and a seventeen mile drive to work one way, all I could think about as I gripped the steering wheel was money, money, money. Sensing my own anxiousness and in light of this morning’s thunderstorm, I vowed to drive slowly across the mountain roads and up to the top of Conley Ridge for my shift at the coffeehouse.

But old habits die hard and these days I seem to have a lead foot. Rounding the bend near Ruby’s gas station, I braked at the 20 mile an hour curve at Pope Road, the squeaking of metal on metal resounding at a humiliating decibel level. Just then I noticed a white slip of paper slip out from a narrow crevice between the sun visor and the strap-on CD slipcase that gramps installed a few years after he purchased the car.

Tugging at the paper, it slowly gave free and in my hands I held a black and white photograph of nana and gramps, circa 1949. In all my hurry and anxiety, there they were watching over me from a safe, secret pocket just above my head. I began to choke up and pulled over at Ruby’s to examine the photograph more closely.

The back of it reads: “What a picture!” and is dated 1949, the year my mother was born. A thick cover of snow blankets surrounding yards and streets in the photograph, and an old car is parked in the background. When I call my mother to ask if she put the photo there, she confirms my suspicions. No, she did not put the photo in gramps’ old car and neither did my dad.

“But what about at the last reunion, when we all shared photos and then we got in the car and left?” I ask, determined to solve the mystery.

“Nope. I know for certain. I’ve never seen a photo of my mother when she was pregnant with me,” mom says.

“And there’s snow everywhere, but it’s not their old home in Virginia. If it’s 1949 and nana’s pregnant, where are they?” I ask.

“It must be Redbank, New Jersey. That’s where they lived before the house on Culpepper Lane. That’s where they lived before Texas and the military base and before I was born,” mom says.

The only other person that could have put this photo in the car was gramps himself, who died spring of 2002. That means the photo was hiding in the slim crevice for four years and the entire time I’ve owned the car. But as if finding it on this day – when I felt a slight threat of death behind the wheel and grey thunderclouds boomed overhead – wasn’t enough, today is the day after my grandmother’s death. Holding the picture in my hands, nana and gramps suddenly felt more alive to me than they have in years and better yet – they were alive together, before the cancer (first brain then lungs then bones then soul) and before the dementia.

In the photo, gramps stands taller than I remember him, 6’4” as usually but in his youth he is completely upright and no doubt proud standing beside the woman who carries his first child. He is in casual dress but still looks very military, collar pressed and buttoned up, military triangle hat slightly crooked on his already balding head. Even then he had to wear glasses, but they are not sliding down his nose in this photo. His teeth are big and his mouth is wide open in a smile of greeting. Whoever took the photograph must have snapped it just as nana and gramps walked up the front steps to the assumed house they were to enter, for gramps already has one glove off and is reaching to take off the other.

Nana stands beside him smiling from ear to ear and filled out in her winter pea coat. She is clearly pregnant and bright-eyed with the anticipation of motherhood, and better yet – family. A white bandana is carefully tied around her hair and she holds a matching hat in her right hand. The collar on her coat is pulled up completely, demonstrating the cold temperature that day and highlighting her full face. It is nice, after so many years of withering death, to see her face full again with the roundness of cheeks and healthy looking skin.

Nana died of cancer when I was in eighth grade, which was the spring of 1993 and gramps bought the Chrysler at the peak of his loneliness in 1995. So many memories string together in rapid fire just from holding this photo in my hands, thirteen years after her death almost to the day: Telling Mr. Slanksy, my social studies teacher, why I would have to miss school for the funeral. Nana’s body laying right out there at the funeral, her makeup so thick that I hardly recognized her because I had only known her pale, emaciated face for the last six years of her life. Attending the service and being separated at communion – being asked not to take it because I wasn’t “one of them” even though I was the first grandchild she ever held. Marking that as the beginning of my disgust with organized religion. Watching her from her in-home care hospital bed in the living room as she stared out the window while the Redskins played on the tube; as she grew more and more sick, she began to think the NFL was playing right there in her front yard. Seeing her hold the chubby-baby hands of my little cousin Evan, whom she would hardly come to know but already had a heart of gold for. Getting to know the newest member of our family, my youngest Uncle Mark’s new wife Susan, by watching her care so knowingly and gently for my nana that I began to understand the true meaning of the word graciousness.

Gramps lived alone for many years after that, burying himself in cigarette smoke and the extreme hobby of family genealogy. In 2000 he remarried happily to a woman who had actually lived down the street from the family home in Virginia. He moved to Lynchburg with her and brought the Chrysler with him. The new couple entered the fullness of grandparent-hood for two extended families and began their senior traveling and master gardening classes as if they’d been living that life all along. We didn’t know that after finding happiness again for the first time in years, his brain would soon be overtaken by dementia. Like all of us, his new bride assumed she’d found companionship for her remaining years and a grandfather for her countless grandchildren.

There is no way gramps could have known that the simple gesture of placing that photograph in his car would strike down so many years later in such a profound way. I care not to speculate whether that photo has been watching over me, or dare I consider that today it even saved me from the impending doom I felt and ignored driving down the highway until the photo nearly fell into my lap. Speculation has no role in these matters. It is pure and simple in my mind – or at least we can call it the gracefulness of coincidence with a twist of heart and bone – that finding this photo today was meant to be.

And once I show it to my mother I know just where I’ll keep it.

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