Some people don’t believe in aging. My grandmother was one of them. I realized this as I stood in the Hyannis Bus Station one afternoon in June of 1974. I was seventeen, had just graduated high school, and grateful my parents had agreed to let me stay with Nana for the summer. Five minutes passed, ten, but there was no sign of my grandmother.
I had started to think she had mixed up the dates when across the station I heard “Law!” Only one person called me by that nickname.
Heads turned as Nana tottered toward me in her signature silver stilettos. She hugged me, pulled back, and gave her standard greeting. “How do I look?” I gave my standard reply. “You look great Nana.”
And she did. Her bleached blond hair was pulled into the usual up-do. She wore white pants and pink top and even in her early sixties, Nana radiated youth and energy.
That afternoon she took me to lunch. We entered the restaurant where I heard the usual chorus of greetings from the maitre d, bartender, waiters, owner, and some of the diners. Everyone on the Cape knew my grandmother.
“How’s business?” was her reply. Nana owned a beachfront motel in South Yarmouth and was always trying to gauge the upcoming season.
Over lunch I learned I was to be a chambermaid at a nearby hotel. I had no problem with work, but scrubbing toilets and making beds wasn’t what I had in mind. “I thought I’d waitress,” I offered. Nana looked me in the eye. “You do this job till you get another.” I knew better than to argue.
She was small but tough. In the forties, Nana had been one of Boston’s first female steel buyers. After her divorce from my grandfather in the fifties, she’d taken her two teenage daughters and bought a parcel of deserted Cape Cod beach. Over the years that parcel grew into a twelve-unit motel surrounded by luxury resorts.
After lunch we stopped at Nana’s beach cottage where we’d live that summer, about a mile from the motel. I was surprised to find two teenage boys in her living room. One was ironing her blouse, the other was setting the table. “This is Mike and Joe,” she said. “They needed jobs and had nowhere to stay. They sleep under the back porch.”
The boys gave a shy wave. I gave a perplexed hello.
“One more thing,” Nana said, as she led me into the kitchen. “I know how hungry you teenagers get, so I made sure to have plenty of food.” She proudly pointed to two cardboard boxes on the floor, each containing cans. One held tuna fish, the other sliced pineapple. In her own way, Nana had procured lunch for the next eight weeks.
Mike and Joe turned out to be nice guys and yes, they slept under the back porch. They left a few days later, but a colorful line-up of friends, motel guests, and boyfriends (mine and Nana’s) took their place. Many afternoons after work I’d head for her beach, enjoying the gentle lapping of the blue-green water and scent of Coppertone in the air.
The sand was always dotted with motel guests – families, older couples, and honeymooners. Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s “Where is the Love?” wafted from transistor radios. Sometimes Nana would call to me to mind the motel while she ran out. “Law!” I’d hear her call across the sand.
Each morning she rose early to greet guests, run the office, and oversee housekeeping. Each night she went out with countless friends.
She had bionic energy and loved dry martinis, dirty jokes, and was known to leave her bed at midnight for a MacDonald’s hamburger. If I felt too tired to join her for Johnny Carson or go out the fifth night in a row, she’d shake her head. “What a fuddy-duddy.”
Nana loved pink, wore it every day, and even had her motel painted a bright bubble-gum.
Every Friday she hosted a cocktail party for motel guests, many of whom returned each year. I can still hear the laughter and tinkle of ice in the gin and tonics as everyone gathered around the piano. “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” was the favorite. Of course Nana provided the musical accompaniment. She played piano as she did everything in life, by ear, but with spunk and gusto.
To my delight, for the first time in my life, I was free to do whatever I wanted – go out with friends, meet boys, take long walks, sometimes sit on the jetty and daydream. I sensed this summer was a turning point, a stepping stone from childhood to the adult world. The weeks and months flew by.
My last night on the Cape, Nana and I went out for dinner, just the two of us. She seemed subdued and I wondered if she’d miss me. I knew I’d miss her. We were about to leave when she touched my hand. “You have a lot of life ahead of you, Law,” she said, sounding wistful. I smiled. “You too, Nana.” She chuckled. “You better believe it, kid.”
My parents picked me up the next day, the three of us happy to be reunited after so many months. Nana stood in front of her pink motel, waving goodbye as our car pulled away. I turned and watched as she grew smaller in the distance.
Years and decades passed. Nana and I were never as close as that summer, although sometimes we’d laugh at a memory. I still can’t see a can of tuna fish or pineapple without thinking of the boys under the porch.
The last time I saw Nana was in 2007. She sat in a Florida nursing home wheelchair, thin and frail, her blond up-do long ago given way to a gray pixie. Her silver stilettos had been replaced by blue slippers.
At 95, she kept whispering as she gazed at her fellow residents, “Who are all these old people?”
At one point she looked at me, bewildered, not sure who I was. Nana’s vitality had ebbed away like the Cape Cod tide. Since I lived in Connecticut, I kissed her goodbye knowing it might be the last. Age had finally caught up to my invincible grandmother. She died a few weeks later.
Over the years I’ve taken my husband and sons to see her motel, long ago sold to a major resort chain and painted a sensible gray. The water is still blue-green. The beach is still dotted with motel guests. The scent of Coppertone still mingles with the salty air.
Sometimes if I listen carefully, I hear strains of “We’ll sing in the sunshine” and Nana calling to me across the sand.
Were you close to your grandparents? Comments are always welcome and if you like please share. Thank you for reading.