November 1 is Dia de los Muertos. It also would have been the 90th birthday of my paternal grandmother, Jessie Mary McLaren Kuffner, who passed away in 1986. In honor of her and in observance of the holiday, this is my ofrenda.
My grandmother lived most of her life in a two-family house on Oakland Avenue on Staten Island. She and my grandfather and their six kids lived in the upstairs part of the house, with the living area on the second floor and all of the bedrooms in the attic.
Nana and I were close from the day I was born. My parents lived in the downstairs residence when I made my debut in the world - according to my dad, he rushed upstairs to wake them up and let them know he had a son. (I was born at 6:45 AM. I've always been a morning person.)
My grandfather was in the last stages of the leukemia that was to kill him in another three months when I was born. After he died, Nana spent a lot of time with me - to grieve, to keep herself company, to get to know this new person that carried her late husband's name. She told me once that when she was feeling lonely, she'd come downstairs and ask if she could have me for awhile, and we'd sit upstairs together for hours on end.
It was Nana who taught me the alphabet and got me started reading. She had a little metal clipboard and a set of magnetic letters that she kept with her other toys in a box under one of her couches. That was my alltime favorite toy when I was little, and I'd make a beeline for it whenever I came to visit.
We moved into a house about a half mile away when I was three, but my siblings and I would get to sleep over at Nana's on a regular basis. She had an old-fashioned claw-footed tub that was way more fun for taking baths in than the plain old tub at home. The bedrooms up in the attic still had the wall decorations that my dad and his sibs put up, which was a neverending source of entertainment for us as well.
From 1960 to 1974, Nana taught second grade at Sacred Heart Elementary School, the same school that her kids had attended. She was my second grade teacher. I called her "Mrs. Kuffner" in class, though legend has it that I slipped up once and called her Nana when trying to explain why I was missing a homework assignment. I don't recall the incident, but it was one of her favorite stories from the classroom.
Nana learned to drive late in life. She owned two cars, a blue Nova that got stolen in 1973, and a green Nova that she got as its replacement. She called that car Twosie. It was a 1969 model and had about 20,000 miles on it in 1973. Thirteen years later, when I inherited it after her death, it had 54,000 miles. She was the proverbial little old lady who only drove to church on Sunday, except that she walked to church as often as not.
I learned to drive on that Nova, since it was an automatic and my parents only had stick shifts. I did learn how to drive a stick as well, but Staten Island is hilly, and I was prone to stalling. Nana's Nova was always available for me to borrow, and by the time I was driving, we'd moved to another house just two blocks away from her. This gave my sisters, who shamelessly took advantage of my eagerness to drive, a dilemma: Make me drive the stick and risk being the cause of a traffic incident, or accept the Nova and risk being seen by someone they knew.
Nana knew no strangers. She knew almost everyone in our neighborhood anyway, but everyone got a smile and a hello anyway. If you were a grandchild, you also usually got an invitation to reach into a coat pocket and collect whatever currency happened to be in there as well.
Nana was not an accomplished cook like my other grandmother, but she made a mean apple pie. I was a very appreciative audience for her pies, and even though no one quite makes them the way she did, apple pie is still my first choice for dessert.
Nana also had a world-class sweet tooth. There was always an open bag of candy hidden somewhere in her house. Butter mints, Mary Janes, Life Savers, all kinds of candies, she could never pass them by in the supermarket.
Nana was a model of consistency. Once, she considered replacing the wallpaper in her living room, which had been put up by Charles Senior years before and which was fading and peeling in places. What she wanted was the same pattern as before. When it was determined that it was no longer made, she decided against the project. She liked the walls as they were and didn't want a different look in the room.
Nana's favorite charity was a little secondhand shop that was run by the church. She volunteered there, and often picked up geegaws and clothes there, for us and for herself. This drove my mother slightly crazy, since the merchandise wasn't exactly high-end.
Nana loved singing songs to us kids. Mister Frog Went A-Courting was a favorite, though the lyrics she knew were different from these. When she got to the verse "And what do you think they had for supper?" she would sing the answer "A fried mosquito and bread and butter" in a voice of horrified delight. It cracked us up every time.
After she retired, Nana travelled around the country as often as she could visiting her children and grandchildren. Back then, Delta Air Lines had a Senior Citizen Annual Pass, where for a single fee you could fly wherever they went for the year. She had one main suitcase, a piece of green hardcover Samsonite on which she'd affixed the letter K in yellow tape. You could spot her luggage from across the airport.
She was visiting my Uncle Bill and his family when she died, on October 26, 1986. She had been to San Antonio to visit me and my cousins Ed, Matt, and Mike, the three sons of my Aunt Judy who were all attending UT-San Antonio, just two weeks before that. She missed by three months the first of her grandchildren to get married.
I could keep writing for hours about Nana. I think about her often and I miss her terribly. I know she would have loved Tiffany, and I know she would have loved visiting us here. Mostly, I know she would have loved the many great-grandchildren that have come on the scene since 1990. How I wish they all could have gotten to know her.
It's appropriate that Dia de los Muertos falls on Nana's birthday. It's a holiday that she would have liked, with its spirituality, its connection to family, and with its often offbeat and deeply personal touches. I will never get to celebrate it with her, but on this day I celebrate it for her.
Happy birthday, Nana. I love you, I miss you, and I will always remember you.Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 02, 2003 to See, I do have a life! | TrackBack