Wednesday, February 10, 2010

For Nanny: Life, Death, Glen Miller, and a Red Kaftan

I sat at my grandmother's bedside while she died last week. Lutrelle "Weetie" Tift Rankin had been weak, tired, and in pain for about a week since she had broken her hip and contracted pneumonia, and in the end she asked her family to remove the oxygen mask that had been keeping her alive.

Her eight children and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who could be summoned gathered at her beside, put on the Glen Miller music she loved, and took turns kissing her goodbye.

Her funeral was high mass at the Episcopal church she and my grandfather supported throughout their lives, where their children were christened, confirmed, and married.

I did not speak at the funeral and have stayed away from blogging for several days. After an exhausting week cat napping next to Nanny's bed while I listened to her jagged breathing, staying close just in case she needed something or wanted to talk to someone other than her nurse, I was too emotionally wrung out to think clearly about what I wanted to say. I spent Monday's 13-hour drive from Tifton, GA to Columbia, MD thinking about it, and now I'm ready.

Nanny was a complicated personality. I don't want to disrespect her by portraying her as a docile little old lady, which she certainly was not, or even as an aged socialite, which she was. Nanny wasn't like anyone else's grandmother, and I loved her and was proud of her for it.

She did not bake, sew, or coddle her children and grandchildren. She was, however, a veteran of the Navy, newspaper editor, master flower arranger, impeccable hostess, master storyteller, and a terrifyingly good bridge player. She had a sharp mind and a sharp tongue, which she used frequently. She was generous to a fault and took up for anyone she perceived to be an underdog, even if the consensus was that the underdog didn't deserve it.

Pat Buckley, socialite and wife of conservative writer and activist William F. Buckley, Jr., used to say of herself, “I am just a simple country girl from the backwoods of British Columbia.” At her funeral Henry Kissinger quipped, "All I can say is that, if Pat was a typical product of the backwoods of British Columbia, I would tremble to meet a sophisticated country girl from British Columbia." If Weetie Rankin was simple country girl from Tifton, GA, I too would tremble to meet a sophisticated one.

As a young woman Nanny was a great beauty; her marriage to my Pop was a love story that most of us have been unable to replicate. After a brief childhood encounter, they met years later in Manhattan, where he served in the FBI and she was in the W.A.V.E.S. He called her "Monk;" for months after he died, Nanny found little love notes all over the house.

As a grandmother, Nanny was delighted by the babies (18 of them, by the time she died), though less enanamoured by our noisy and messy antics as we got older. She could be suddenly and startlingly kind when she thought one of us needed her. When my uncle died leaving his four-year-old daughter Niki without a father, she spent days dressing Niki up in a silk kimono, brushing her hair and letting her play with her lipstick.

In her last days, Nanny was intent upon making peace with her family. She told my mother, her daughter-in-law, how proud she was that my mother had worked her way up from the composing desk at our local newspaper to serve as its editor, and that she was proud of the mother my mom had become. She was worried that we should all be working or at home engaged in our own lives instead gathered around her bed. She told her daughters and granddaughters that we looked beautiful; she complimented her sons on their hard work or good looks.

The day she decided to remove the mask, Nanny chose the dress she would wear when she was cremated. (After we brought every red outfit from here closet for her inspection, she chose a beautiful, long, red, Asian-inspired kaftan). She told us that the service should be at 4 p.m., that she wanted Bowen-Donaldson funeral home to make the arrangements, that we should play "When the Saints Come Marching In" at the funeral, and that we should have a party the night of the funeral.

Nanny got most of the things she had ever wanted because the alternative was unacceptable to her. In death, as in life, she chose what she wanted. My uncle removed her mask, and we wept soundlessly at first and then noisily. Weetie just asked how long it would take, closed her eyes, and squeezed her childrens' hands.