We called her Gramma, somehow slurring the “n” and “d” into an “m.”
And we did the same with Grampa.
Her six sisters and two brothers called her Nan, though her given name was Ann.
Ann Beatrice Sistrunk.
She was my mother’s mother.
She was born almost in the middle with Blanton, Mary T., O.D., Everly, and Ruby before her.
After her came Jimmie, Jonny, and Frankie.
Story goes that my great-grandfather was disappointed in having more daughters than sons, and after Ann turned out to be a girl, he insisted on giving boys’ names to any girls that came after her.
And, as fate would have it, the last three to be born were girls.
One of us six grand kids grappled with her name mumbling “Nano” and it stuck.
Gramma Nano loved Halloween and Christmas and preferred the boys over us girls.
Maybe she got that from her father.
She made dozens of caramel apples for the trick-or-treaters.
And had them proudly displayed on cookie sheets lined with shiny tin foil.
Christmas meant time to make fudge and divinity (which I could only pronounce as “nativity”).
My brother and I stayed overnight with her quite often because Grampa worked swing shift so my mother would loan us out to keep Gramma company.
When I got older I realized my mother seized every opportunity to unload us for a night or two and dumping us at our grandparents’ was a great relief.
Gramma let me curl her hair and then brush and style it as though she were a life-sized doll.
She also let me iron Grandpa’s handkerchiefs and other small items like cloth napkins and pillowcases.
And then there was the organ.
About the size of a small desk, it belonged to me but Gramma had more room for it at her house.
So whenever I was there, I would play it. I didn’t know how to play an organ but it was made for a child and had buttons that included all sorts of sounds. I would push here and there, playing mournful dirges.
I think Gramma knew how to play a real organ but she never let on to us.
Gramma adored my brother, and he soaked it up like a sponge.
She tolerated me.
She was never unkind but never showed one ounce of affection to me.
Or my mother.
Or even Grampa.
Which probably explains why my mother showed no affection to us kids either.
One gets used to it growing up.
And thinks it’s normal.
I never saw Gramma and Grampa touch each other.
They had separate bedrooms which fascinated me.
Gramma kept dolls on her pillow.
Grampa kept a loaded pistol under his.
Gramma’s closet was full of muumuus on hangers.
Clean, ironed formless dresses with short petal sleeves and gathered yokes in an array of colorful Hawaiian prints.
It’s all she ever wore.
Muumuus covered her lumpy body that she never exposed to anyone.
Probably not even Grampa (my mother’s stepfather) since they never had children of their own and they slept separately.
Visually she was a short, round-headed, formless mass with two tiny feet.
Dozens of shoes filled her closet floor.
Tiny little shoes with untouched soles for her tiny little feet that she never wore but loved to buy.
Nan was the shortest of the girls, and plump.
None of the others looked like her nor did she look like either parent.
Jimmie, Jonny, and Frankie were all talented painters.
Gramma’s creativity (I came to understand this much later) manifested in her rose garden.
More like a rose forest. Or rose orchard.
Huge flowers of every color heralded from every bush and the Southern California sun would hit those petals until they secreted their perfume that intoxicated me as I dawdled in the midst of them in awe.
She had planted rose bushes the full length of the long driveway between the edge of the driveway and the chain link fence that divided them from the neighbor.
On the other side of the driveway was the back door which she went in and out of regularly to tend to her roses.
The front yard had no bush or tree or plant of any kind. My grandfather kept it in dichondra and meticulously maintained it. Because a chain link fence went all around their yard, no dog or person could trespass and tear it up or soil it. We kids weren’t allowed to play on it either. And no one was allowed to walk on it.
Dichondra was a big word that fascinated me.
Gramma (and her siblings except for Frankie, the youngest, who was born in California) migrated from Texas to Southern California when Gramma was a young teenager.
The world must have looked hopeful to her.
Uneducated and from a rural background, she met William (Bill) Clock, a young man who not only was educated but from a small, well-to-do family. Bill came home with one of her brothers one day and that was that.
They married much to the consternation of Bill’s sister, Thelma, who snidely referred to Gramma’s large family as “the tribe.”
Three years later Nan Clock was a young widow with two small children.
The youngest was my mother.
Bill Clock fell to his death while inspecting a wooden oil derrick in Long Beach that had burned. He stepped back and plunged 120 feet to the ground.
It was 1926.
Gramma was only 19.
And she never got over it.
Oh sure, she remarried. Women had to in those days to survive. Especially ones with children.
And Grampa raised the two as though they were his own.
But adopting them wasn’t an option.
To Nan, they were Bill’s kids and the Clock name remained in place.
And so for the next 50 years or so, Gramma functioned as a dutiful housewife who never worked outside the home, who never learned to drive so Grampa took her to the grocery store on his day off, and Mom would take her shopping for shoes or clothes or other items but other than that, she never left the house. She never attended anything that involved her children, didn’t go to a school play or a Little League game, didn’t belong to the PTA, didn’t mingle with other mothers. And she and Grampa never came to our house even though we lived in the same town. We always went to theirs.
Nan Sistrunk Clock Wolcott, resigned to her fate, cooked three meals a day with one usually including Velveeta cheese (a box was a staple kept in the refrigerator and a dangerous steel wire cheese slicer was used on it). She did all the dishes (there were no dishwashers then), washed all the clothes and ironed them, same with sheets and towels, cleaned the house, made a hot meal for Grampa every day to take in his metal lunch pail along with a thermos of hot coffee, and raised two children.
And grew roses.
She was part of my life from the time I was born until I was out on my own, married, and living hundreds of miles away.
Once or twice she wrote—scrawled is more like it—a newsy letter about the other grandkids (my cousins) and their spouses and children and my uncle (Gramma’s son and favorite child) and my great-aunts and Mom and various other relatives.
I found it fascinating to read, navigating among her run-on sentences and random words capitalized.
Gramma Nano died in her own home of heart failure at age 80.
She had refused to drink water. She never did like to drink water.
I was 30 and hadn’t seen her in years.
Long after she died I came across a formal photograph of her taken by a professional photographer. There she sat, poised and finely dressed, so fresh and smart with a wide sailor collar, V-line neck, and cap sleeves, and Mary Jane high heels. Her short hair fashionably coiffed in a marcel. Her face content with her beloved baby boy sitting cheerfully on her lap.
Nan Clock, a happy young mother with her firstborn, documented in black-and-white as though nothing would ever change. Nothing bad would ever happen.
Looking at that photo, I realized I never really knew her.
By Renee Walker
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