Nana ~ my paternal grandmother, “Na-naw” to my brother and me when we were children and then “Nan” by the time we were adults, is my model for nana-hood, and the reason I have always looked forward to that role. We were exceptionally close, pushed together by physical proximity, life circumstances, interests, and attitudes and, while she was no more perfect than I am, she was an extraordinary woman in her brilliance, her inner strength, and her graciousness.
Nan’s life was structured by privilege. The only child of a successful businessman in a small city in southern Ohio and of his troubled wife Robin, she attended a private girls’ high school and then a Seven Sisters college, leaving a stream of academic honors in her wake. She exemplified the tensions between family and career experienced by women long before the 1960s; her decision was to marry my grandfather on the same day on which she became a college graduate, and to return to Ohio and a life as wife of a small town grain dealer and mother to three boys. In the second half of her life of 100 years, she often sighed over her college alumna journal, taking note of the many of her classmates who had become scientists and physicians. Her own life was filled with three generations of children, women’s clubs, gardening, volunteering in classrooms and with Girl Scouts, “raising” monarch butterflies, maintaining a few essential friendships, and keeping up with the study of nature, art, and literature. She made use of the latter by taking all of her grandchildren on a series of elaborate and extravagant trips ~ first within the United States, and then to Europe, Africa, and Australia ~ on which the other travelers she encountered often thought that she was a college professor.
Widowed at about eighty, she had a hip replaced and managed one more international birding trip before retiring to a quiet life, first in her home and then in an assisted living apartment. As deafness and near blindness descended upon her, she became isolated and profoundly lonely. Her mind never failed her, but her inability to communicate was devastating. Like so many older people, she had to endure the gradual constriction of her life to a small circle of people she could barely understand ~ a heartbreaking end to a life always lived with others in mind and consumed by a variety of interests.