Ever wish you’d stood up and said something at a funeral?
I’m Tara. I’m the first grandchild. Beryl June Freeman Keene was my “Nana.” Nana was 41 when I was born, just one year older than I am today. From the time I was born until my college years, I spent nearly every Sunday with Nana at the Keene family house – where my dad, 2 uncles, aunts and young cousins gathered to watch football, play pool and enjoy a family dinner. My warmest and strongest childhood memories revolve around that house… and the woman who was the next closest person to me besides my mother (and dad, of course).
We shared Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners there every year – our large family gathered around the big kitchen table – my uncles “hiking” dinner rolls across the table after someone said Grace, my aunt unbuttoning her pants halfway through the meal, the year Nana dropped the turkey and it skidded across the linoleum floor. Where we’d retire downstairs to watch the Wizard of Oz and the grownups would enjoy a drink at Lady Windsor’s bar.
Certain traditions Nana had became events in her house: chicken pot pie dinners began with her homemade noodles, rolled out and cut and spread out on her counters to dry… apple dumplings fresh from the oven with milk and sugar… and my favorite – Christmas cookies. Nana made everything from peanutbutter to chocolate chip to cut-out cookies, the latter spread out on half a dozen baking sheets set on the table where we’d gather to decorate stars and bells and Santas and angels (some a little more than anatomically correct.) The cookie tradition I planned to carry on with my children and, sadly, only this year begun because of the diabetes and figuring carbs on butter cookies coated in sugar and sprinkles.
One of the last memories I have of that house was the night of Candy’s wedding, when so many of us gathered back in the rec room downstairs, watching the first footage on tv and giving drunken commentary on the whole affair. It may not have been a Hallmark moment, but that night was just another reflection of the warmth and love and joy our family shared – the home and family created by Nana.
She was so gentle and kind – she had a beautiful, ready smile and a sunny disposition – never one to complain, if her greatest flaws were worry and a don’t-rock-the-boat attitude she would be destined for sainthood. She had a great sense of humor and a fantastic laugh weathered by a lifetime of smoking – her laugh still rings in my ears today, when I imagine telling her about my first attempt at her pot pie or some funny story about the kids. I can still hear her gasp, if only she knew how colorful my daughter’s language was.
She was a true romantic at heart, she was my confidante and the one I turned to most often to share secrets and dreams and tales of loves won and loves lost. She was always eager to hear and always had the best advice. She was honest without condescension – when once she told me the importance of making my husband first in my family, or that my hair really did look better short.
During my years at NYU we wrote letters back and forth – shared anecdotes and the day-to-day news like my registering for classes and her new sewer going in. Her reminiscences of her teenage trips to New York to visit her parents – who lived and worked there – meeting soldiers in Central Park, New Year’s Eve in Times Square.
She was modest and sensible – she wasn’t much for fancy clothes or a life of grandeur. She married the love of her life in her early twenties and enjoyed many years together, until his untimely passing in 1982 at the age of 56. She would spend the next twenty-seven years missing him, honoring him and just wishing she could hug him.
In all my life I only saw her grieve twice, when Pop-pop died and I saw her red-eyed and stoic, surrounded by the women in the family. And again – when she watched her second son finally succomb to cancer. She was devastated but handled his memorial service with far more grace than her blubbering granddaughter.
I remember the joy she expressed at the news of my first child: she was to be a great-grandmother. She was thrilled. And the first time I placed him in her arms gave me as much joy as I know it did her. Family was always so important to her, and we never had to wonder where we stood with her.
Two years ago today Nana went home to the Lord, to her room in His house with “Danny” and her son Barry. I wish I had the chance to sit with her one more time, to see her beautiful sparkling blue eyes and share with her what’s going on in my life and ask her what she thinks. Because it matters. I want to tell her how important our bond has always been to me – how much I loved and valued her. In all my life, she was an anchor – as much as mom and dad were. All I have left now are her pictures, a handful of letters, an afgan she made me 12 years ago that I often wrap myself in and a lifetime of memories. I hope I’ve made her proud.
On Life: “Each year you grow up a little more and realize, life is not your oyster, you have to make it what it is.”
On Love: “Take it a day at a time and it is always best to be friends first and really like a person. Love and like are very close but you must first like a person to truly love them. You can love but not like and that never works.”
On material wealth: “Love, friends and family are much more important, and I’m sure you will find that out as the years go by.”