Memoir

1. Nana’s Hands

For the first nine years of my life I had only two memories of my father’s mother. One was a sock monkey which she had hand-sewn, wrapped in brown paper and sent through the mail. The other was camping with her when I was four and we got up before everyone else to pick huckleberries. After we got back to camp, Nana turned those berries into a delicious red syrup which we poured over the fluffy white hotcakes she fried over the campfire in an iron frying pan. Those were my two memories of Nana and for years I stretch my mind to see if I could remember anything else, but I had nothing. I sometimes dreamed of seeing her again, but Daddy explained how she lived far away in California while we lived in Northern Washington. This meant the chances of seeing her were slim.

Just before my ninth birthday, Daddy announced we were driving to California to help Nana and Grandpa move up north and my dream was about to come true. I was excited at first, but then I began to worry. I wanted to see Nana, but I wasn’t sure if she would approve of me anymore. After all it had been five years since I had seen her—more than half of my life. I was now twice as big and not as cute as my little brother and sisters, but the main cause of my shame was hidden underneath my long hair.

My hair fell most of the way to my waist. It looked fine on the outside because it’s woolly thickness was a facade, but if someone got close enough to play with my hair, they would soon notice I needed to do a little more self-care. Underneath this smooth, false front was what Mama called my “rat’s nest.” It was a matted mess of snarls so thick it would take hours of brushing to untangle it. I had begged Mama to let me cut my hair, but she and Daddy firmly believed that long hair was given to a woman for a covering. They explained how cutting my hair was to fail at God’s design for me as a girl, so I must suffer with it.

One day not long before this trip, Mama gave me a bottle of something called “No More Tears.” She told me to sit in one place until I brushed all of those snarls out or I would be embarrassed when Nana saw them. The bottle didn’t take away my tears at all–if anything it only facilitated more of them. I sat in the back of our red, Volkswagen camper van with a brush in one hand and the detangler in the other and cried from one end of Washington to the other, then I sobbed on from one end of Oregon to the other. By the time we got to California, I had barely made a dent in this thick mat and I was afraid for Nana to see me. I figured if she knew my shame, she might reject me.

It didn’t help that Mama kept warning me not to let Nana get too close when I hugged her or she might discover my dreaded secret. So as we grew nearer to meeting up with Nana, I began to rock back and forth on the car seat out of anxiety. What if Nana thought I was ugly? Why couldn’t I have straight, smooth hair like the other girls?

If I thought I was going to avoid a hug from Nana, I was mistaken. No child would go unhugged as far as she was concerned. And not only did she hug me, but she soon jumped in the back of the VW bus with us kids as we headed North again. This made it impossible for me to brush out any more of my ugly tangles without her watching me.

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As I was wondering what to do, Nana saw the bottle of detangle solution and it must’ve signaled to her that I had a problem. She traded places with one of my siblings and came to sit beside me on the back seat. She took my hairbrush and the magic solution out of my hands and began to brush out the tangle-free hair first. Then working from the bottom up, she began to very gently comb out those ugly snarls. Her touch was so gentle that my tender head felt no pain. And as I looked into her Irish green eyes, I felt no shame because I found only empathy there.

As our little VW Bus purred through the Redwoods, past Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, past Crescent City where Daddy and Nana used to live and on up coastal highway 101, Nana reversed snarl after snarl one millimeter at a time. Grandpa followed behind us with his pickup and camper, but Nana continued to ride with us and gently combed out my hair.

By the time we got to the Sea Lion Caves, I was relieved to have a much lighter head. I held Nana’s hand while we descended into the stinky earth to view the sea lions. Later, in the gift shop, Grandpa bought each of us an ice cream cone and Nana helped me pick out some polished rocks. Those agates stayed among my prized possessions for years because they represented my joy. I finally had a relationship with Nana and it was good.

One night as we camped next to the ocean. Daddy built a fire and we all gathered around it sitting on logs and rocks. I liked roasting marshmallows with Nana. I’d spent most of my childhood taking care of younger siblings. I’d changed diapers and heated milk in bottles and picked up toys and rocked my baby sister a thousand times. I had loved them as much as a young girl can love her siblings, but sometimes it felt I was the grownup. With Nana, I felt like a kid again. I knew Mama thought she was pushy and while Nana still seemed a little bit like a stranger, I decided to let her to hold me and brush my hair. There was something about Nana’s arms around my shoulders that made me feel safe.

Just when I was beginning to trust Nana, she did the most magical thing of all–she began telling us stories in a very animated voice. The poem I remember the most was, “The Cremation of Sam McGhee” by Robert Service. My heart still soars whenever I hear those gruesome words–

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”

Nana made the cadence of the poetry slide from her tongue like it was music and she knew when to pause and make my heartbeat stop in anticipation of the next verse. Every time she ended a story, we begged for another. I shivered as if my blood really was running cold. I had heard Daddy tell these same stories before, but now I knew where he learned to be such a good storyteller.

A new dream came to me while I sat next to Nana and the rolling ocean and stared into the crackling cedar fire. I realized a woman could tell a story just as good as a man could. Mama never told stories like this and until this day, I had thought only men were good storytellers, but Nana showed me what was possible. I didn’t tell anyone–not even Nana, but I decided that night I would become a storyteller too.

As our tiny caravan turned inland from the Coast and headed toward Portland, Daddy and Nana talked about how Daddy was born in a house where the clover intersection now sat next to the Gladstone Camp Meeting Grounds. They told me about Johnson Creek where my Danish great Grandfather and Grandpa had built some houses. I still have memories of Portland—it had only been three years since we moved away. I wondered if we would ever move back, but not this time. We continued on up north on I-5. Past Vancouver, past Chehalis, past the Olympic Brewery waterfall, past Mount Rainier and up the interstate to Mount Vernon where we finally turned west toward our new Island home. All the way north, whether Nana rode with us or Grandpa, I felt safe around her and no longer worried about hiding my messy hair.

Nana seemed as excited as I was when we stopped to walk across the Deception Pass Bridge on our way to Whidbey Island. Staring down into the green water 180 feet below us, I could feel the wind whipping my hair up and off of my back, but it was okay. I no longer had anything to hide under it. I ran back to grab Nana’s hand and pull her along with me because by this time, my tangles and all the shame that came with them had vanished because of her loving hands.

1. Nana’s Hands

2. Nana and the Heritage Singers

3. Nana’s Garden

6 thoughts on “1. Nana’s Hands”

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I had a loving nana whom I saw seldom (because she lived across the country), and then not at all after the age of 7. Now that I’m a nana myself I take great joy in spending time with my grandkids and doing little things (like your nana brushing out the tangles) that I know are building good memories.

    I’ve begun my memoir too and haven’t yet decided what to do about names. I figured I’d get it all down in first draft and then figure that out! On the one hand, it bugs me to have to use fake names because it feels like that would be a disloyalty to myself and what I went through. But at the same time, I understand that it wouldn’t be fair to some of the people I’ll be writing about. Will your memoir be in your own name?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Beautiful Dreamer,

    Thank you for sharing about your memories of your Nana and being one yourself today.

    Yes, I am writing in my own name. I don’t think we should have to hide who we are to write a memoir. I am not writing a spiteful memoir either, but I am weaving my own memories. The idea of a memoir is that it’s one person’s perspective and we are free to rearrange the way we tell it as long as we are telling truth.

    If my siblings want to tell their stories they can write their own memoirs and it would be a completely different story because like witnesses at different corners of a traffic accident, we all see from our own perspective. I won’t speak for them, nor would they be speaking for me.

    Good luck and enjoy writing those memories down. It is a very healing process!

    Peace and freedom to you!

    Cherilyn

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  3. I forgot part of what I meant to say before. Several years ago my son got custody of his two little girls. I moved in to help run the household, and to watch the youngest during the day who wasn’t yet in school.

    Her older sister has thick hair (like me) and it was always such a tangled mess in the mornings. She would cry if anyone came near her hair. Eventually she began to realize that I was very gentle with her hair, and she began allowing me to brush it. Later I purchased a special brush that is especially good at detangling, and now it’s not even an issue.

    When you wrote the touching scenes about your nana brushing your hair so lovingly, it took me back to those days with my granddaughters. Now that they had no mother in the home (she’d suddenly left), I felt the importance of my role in their lives. I love that you have such good memories of your nana. I especially like that she intuitively knew that you felt shame about your hair, and she handled the whole issue so delicately. I’m glad you had that; even if you didn’t have your nana all the time at least you had that!

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  4. Oh Cherilyn! I love this beautiful story of your Nana kindly helping you through your curls! My mother also insisted on making me cry while she roughly ravaged through my hair trying to smooth it, when it was curly and could have simply been combed, then left to sit dry in gorgeous spirals! Now I’m extra tender while combing through my own daughter’s long thick curls, and I honor her by letting her choose her hairstyle each day! She feels secure in how she looks and knows what style she wants for each occasion. I get to try some new styles, but in the end, she gets to choose!

    My mother would always force me to wear my hair a certain way when my Grandma came to visit, saying my grandma “liked it that way best.” But whenever my Grandma saw my hair all wild and unruly, she always told me she loved my curls, and told me I was just like her, and that we both had a “curly lick” instead of a cowlick; identical swirls up near the top of our bangs on the same side! My Grandma also gave me a sweet taste of unconditional love! I’m so glad yours did too! It’s so funny I was just thinking tonight to write more about my Grandma, and you’ve inspired me to do so! I was falling asleep; and when I saw your post, I completely woke up, all ready to enjoy your great story! My Grandma was also the one who encouraged me to write my stories. I sent them to her in the mail along with my poetry! She was my cheerleader, and she framed my poem from a contest where I win honorable mention in 6th grade. It hung on the wall in the girls’ bedroom when I visited her, all the way up until we packed up her precious things for her when she was living in a nursing home.

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. I’m going use some words from this very comment, to to write another post about my Grandma too. Thank you for the inspiration! I’m also so happy that both of us could experience some unconditional love through our grandparents to get a little taste of what it was like. You’ve made my night! I love you and can’t wait to read your book. It’s going to be sooo good! ❤️

    Oh! And I also do not mention names In my blog but when I write my memoir, I guess I will have to consider that, if it’s not a fictional work. I actually think your idea is a very good one; and it has given me something to think about for writing my own memoir. I vote for the subtly substitute names. Love you! ❤️X7😊

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Angela, I am so glad you enjoyed it. I look forward to reading about your Grandma. I do think Grandmas give unconditional love. I think it is easier for them than it is for the parent because the parents feels more responsibilities to make sure the child comes out right.

    Blessings on your writing!

    Cherilyn

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