My maternal nanna, four days before her 95th birthday, had succumbed to the ravages of pneumonia… I pushed “end” on my phone and stared at it. Mom had just informed me, and it had come quickly on the heels of the news of her simply going to the hospital. This woman-elegant, full of faith, impeccable as a hostess and not shy of adventure… She had schooled me in etiquette and hospitality, shared secrets of housekeeping and presentation and most of all-reminded me that God was in charge and fear couldn’t stand up to Him unless I embraced it myself.
I ambled slowly downstairs and retrieved the ornate black and white box with a ribbon on it. Nanna and I’d written letters to each other for years and I saved most of them. I knew she would love the box, which was why it held her letters.
I opened it up and started sorting cards and envelopes. I would never forget when we realized that we were of the same heart. I had been married for only a few years and we had a family reunion. Nanna and I sat down to chat as adults which was something we had never done as she lived so far away. We started finishing each other’s sentences. We did the same sorts of things for the same reasons. We were kindred spirits!
We began exchanging letters and after a little bit, I saved them. I let my fingers slide through the beige linen envelopes. I must have been saving them for today and every day that would follow. The words blurred a bit but I blinked furiously for a moment so I could read past messages that she had written. I plucked folded stationary out of an old envelope.
The letter delineated different ways to present desserts. I loved entertaining and Nanna was my teacher in that. She even sent me her china right before my husband was commissioned in the military. She said I would need it for entertaining officers and their families and she didn’t really use it anymore. It was purchased as a gift to her from my Grandfather soon after they had become newlyweds. Using it was an honor and a privilege. Many of her letters shared secrets on cooking, how to make the best chocolate cake (it needs a little coffee) or how to make the perfect Easter dessert, a special lemon cake. She made it look like a tulip, filled with lemon goodness and then surrounded the cake with tulips on a cake pedestal.
In my role as Officer’s wife and hostess, Nanna was always the silent, yet honored guest. People would comment on the antique china and I would smile and tell them of Nanna. I would take pictures of the finished menu items and how the table was arranged and decorated and send them all to her.
From my ornate letter box, I pulled out a tin type photo. I had requested it from her after the reunion when I heard the story behind it. She was 18 and chosen as the Apple blossom festival Queen in May of 1936 in Waterville, Ohio. The city hired a photographer by the name of Robert for the occasion and her official court photo has her leaning against a rock wall in a lovely, yet borrowed dress. The man who took the photo declared directly afterward to his friends that he had met the woman he was going to marry. Good to his word, Robert became my Grandfather. Even though the image was only of Nanna, both of my Grandparents are in the photo. He took her on many adventures during their 54 years of marriage before going to Heaven and leaving her a widow.
I opened another letter from my box and went back in time some years to when we were in the middle of a military move. One of many through our marriage but on this move our things were vandalized. Nanna’s china, the most expensive and most precious thing we owned had been smashed. I hadn’t even known how to react to the news. My first thought was that maybe it was a mistake and something else smashed instead…it wasn’t though and the feeling of loss was almost paralyzing.
I mourned the tragedy for my entire family and penned a letter that I prayed would not hurt Nanna too very much. Her reply? “Oh honey, if I could just reach across the miles and take you in my arms!” Along with her comforting response, she sent me a huge packet of photos with a note: “Perhaps this will help you cut through all the insurance red tape.” What a God send! Apparently she had never thrown any of the photos away that I sent to her. There were so many it was like being back in our old house and just turning slowly in the rooms! We muddled through the paperwork and submitted our claim.
I opened yet another letter and this one brought a smile. A few months after the vandalism I happened upon a set of china that looked very much like my Nanna’s set. It was on sale for an impossibly small price and my husband agreed that we should by it. I wrote Nanna a letter and sent pictures of the new set. She was ecstatic! She said it looked identical. Her stamp of approval along with God having it available for such an amazing amount truly began the healing in my heart over that incident. She had had faith that God would work this out and He had.
My hands full of envelopes I saw the history of all our residences; Idaho, California, North Dakota, Colorado, New York, Washington, Arizona, Wyoming and now we had finally settled in Helena, Montana. Some had been rentals, some had been purchases, but each residence settled in the same way. We would arrive, our stuff would arrive and then I would wait for a letter from Grandma to my new address. Even when my husband had been in the east with the military and I had needed to take our infant and the dogs to a hotel to live for a couple of months, I got a letter from Nanna and it became home for a brief time.
I pulled another letter out of an old envelope and this one brought a laugh. I had written of our trip to Disney World and shared about the 2 hours that we spent looking for our car in the airport parking garage when we returned home. Nanna loved the story and shared a similar one where she and Grandpa had been in the same situation in a parking garage in California about 40 years previous when they went shopping. At least I wasn’t the only one!
I opened another and another. Each letter was a gem. Wisdom and prayers when I was afraid, coupled with stories of how God brought her through WWII, as well as two years of missions in Africa. She would always circle around to how God does things for a reason and living in that belief is faith.
She laughed over silly things my daughter did. Her joy in noticing that my little girl seemed to be an artist when she was not quite two, something our family hadn’t seen since my Grandfather. A congratulations letter for my first story published in a magazine. My Nanna was really the gem and I didn’t want to let go of her.
I stacked the letters and put them back in the box. I set it on the shelf and went upstairs. Our house was almost totally unpacked, and we hoped, for the last time. We had plans for the yard and plans for the basement… I looked around. The wall color, the fireplace rock, the flooring. I sent samples of it all to Nanna and then pictures.
I tried to console myself that she had gotten to see the finished photos, which was something she had wanted. I had letters to read and she recently sent me some additional family heirlooms. I should feel happy and blessed to have had such a strong connection with her for so long. I felt adrift though, like I really didn’t know what I would do without the ability to tell her about everything and read her responses.
I looked at the clock, it was time to get mail. The thought depressed me. Woodenly I took the key off the hook, slipped on my boots and coat and walked to the mailbox. Mail would be forever changed. I crunched through the snow and opened my box, taking out the small stack inside. Out of habit I immediately started to go through it. As I slipped a bill from the top to the bottom I saw a corner of a beige, linen envelope.
No, that wasn’t possible. But…I pulled out the envelope and saw her cursive handwriting addressing the letter to me, at my new address. I opened it immediately and read while I walked back to the house. She talked of how much she loved how the house turned out. She adored the Christmas photos and spoke of how glad she was that our daughter loved the rocking chair that my Grandpa had made so many years previous for Nanna. She was glad that we were settled and could really put down roots. She spoke briefly of a cold she didn’t seem to be able to shake and sent her love, asking me to hug and kiss everyone for her.
I stopped walking, wiped the tears from my eyes and looked up. I stood in front of our new final, permanent home, and I held Nanna’s letter addressed to me in my hand. I was officially home. Home for good and Nanna had been able to see me through all the years of deployment, moves across the country, two moves where we were on the road less than a week after we were notified, 3 times of living in a hotel, the birth and infanthood of our daughter, unemployment after the service and finally to a civilian career and to being settled.
God knew how much that last letter would mean for both of us and He made it possible for me to have it. Just like Nanna always said, God did things for a reason. I was much sadder for myself than I was for Nanna. She would be with our Lord and Grandpa. Oh but I would miss her so!
I would pass on all that she had shared with me. I would remind my daughter that her Great Grandmother referred to her as an; “expressive sweet jewel”. I would make the lemon cake for Easter every year, remind myself when I was afraid how God faithfully took Nanna through almost 95 years on this troubled earth. I would keep the photo that my Grandpa took, and remember to take photos through the eyes of love-and most of all-I would treasure her priceless, written legacy.