My grandmother, Nanny, was born today--103 years ago. She was the 3rd child of Manuel and Ellen Balthazar. She was named Ellen Kathryn, but everyone called her "Nellie." My brother named her Nanny and my grandfather, Poppy. (My uncle, called "Tex" because his last name was Texiera, hated that name; he said his mother was neither a goat nor a nursemaid.) Respecting him, and begin teens, my brother Joe and I shortened my grandmother's name to "Nan"—when we weren't calling her "Smelly Nelly”, “Stinky Dupes" or "Stinky Meeks," (all names referring to female parts) All names she threw back her head and laughed at. When I remember Nanny, I remember her laughing. My mother went to the hospital 3 times to have me. On the last trip, the doctor sent her out to walk until the contractions were closer together. Nanny and her younger sister, Aunt Evelyn, were with her. Nanny and Aunt Evelyn got "tickled" at mom waddling along, mad and miserable which made her madder, which made them laugh harder. They laughed so hard they couldn't stand up anymore, so they sat down on the curb—with mom glaring--and wet their pants laughing. When the nurse came out to check on Mom, they were embarrassed to stand up and let her see the wet spot, so Mom had to go in alone.
Nanny's kitchen was our family's favorite gathering spot. There was always a pot of coffee waiting, cookies in the cookie jar (usually peanut butter or oatmeal) and cards at hand. Many evenings passed with all of us, including the cousins, packed around the table playing Liverpool rummy for a quarter game-5 cents a hand and low score takes the pot. Nanny was a ruthless card player, and sometimes she won. She'd gloat when she was about to go out. "Oh my," or "would you look at this?" she'd say. Then one by one she'd lay down her cards. It would be our turn to laugh when the hand she gleefully laid down was the wrong one.
The only left-hander in the family, Nanny taught herself to knit, crochet, tat, and embroider by watching yarn sales people. In those days, yarn companies would send employees out to stores to give handicraft lessons and demonstrations to increase sales. Nanny would watch the reflection of the demonstrations in the store window and learn in reverse. My mother and I are also left-handed, and Nanny was always happy to teach us what she knew, and fix our mistakes, and finish our projects. Her motto: "make the back as pretty as the front."
Joe and I spent summers in Watsonville at my grandparent's 2-bedroom house. He'd sleep in the front bedroom with Poppy, who went to sleep early and snored. Nanny and I slept in the back room were we'd whisper sleep meditations—"toes relax, feet relax, shins relax. knees relax"—which never worked. Bored and lonely in the front room, Joe would creepy crawl down the hall and try to sneak under our bed without us catching him. Then suddenly, he'd lunge up and POUNCE! I'd scream and Nanny would laugh.
My son Max was a beautiful baby with blond curls, big eyes, and a really big, round Charlie Brown head. One day Nanny and Mom decided to see just how big his head was so they took him to the store and tried hats on him. None of the boy hats fit, so they decided to try the ruffled girlie hats on him, the fussier the better and laughed until they cried.
A meticulous housekeeper, Nanny dust mopped her kitchen daily, sometimes more often. When my daughter Lexi was about 2, she'd race to the dust mop, stand on top and wrap her arms around the handle. Nanny would shake the handle and holler at her to "get off, Lexi...get off right this instant." Lexi just looked up at her scolding and giggled—it was all part of the dust mop ride.
We laughed at Nanny's funeral. I was sitting in the front pew with Mom, Max and Alexis, Aunt Evelyn and her husband, Uncle Joe. Alexis, just old enough to pay attention to the happenings at her first Catholic mass, got the giggles when she noticed "the old people sticking their tongues out" at the priests giving communion. Lexi has a laugh that rolls up from her belly, the contagious kind, and before long we were all laughing. Mom kept trying to shush us, which made us all, especially Aunt Evelyn, laugh louder. "Nellie would have loved this," she said. And we all knew it was true.
Pour a "hot" cup of coffee—"milk and 2 sugars, please"—pass around the cookie jar and break out the cards for one more game of Liverpool. Deal Nanny in!