My grandmother, “Nana”, is in hospice care suffering from congestive heart failure.
She is my last living grandparent. Growing up I knew all of my grandparents, a great-grandmother “Grandma Nana” on my Mom’s side and a great-grandmother “Grandma Daisy” and great-grandfather “Grandpa Coke” on my Dad’s side. I think I was really blessed to be able to know so many people who came from a much different age.
My Dad’s family were coal miners and ranchers. Grandpa Coke died of black lung disease after spending his life working in mines like the one you see in October Sky. I don’t know what my great grandmothers died of but all I really remember is that they were very old. When we used to visit Craig, Colorado we always would pay a visit to my great-grandparents who lived just a few blocks from my grandparents’ home and right across the street from the city park. Their yard backed up on a creek full of huge old trees that was called Sherwood Forest by my dad who used to spend plenty of time playing there.
My great-grandparents had a small house that was always perfectly kept both inside and out. I always remember getting a glass of water while I was there in one of those thick orange Tupperware glasses that you don’t see anymore. They also had a red crystal candy dish set that they kept on the coffee table. I don’t know why I remember that but I remember that it had a matching cigarette lighter that never worked because it was always out of fluid. I always tried anyway.
My other great grandmother lived in Tucson in a tiny house that I think had dust for a yard. I don’t remember much about Grandma Nana except her thick glasses and that she was tiny. I’m told she used to be lightning fast and could grab a mouse by the tail and snap its neck. No need for traps. As a little boy, this definitely moved her up in my respect. Maybe that’s not the most endearing thing to remember about a relative but it’s part of the oral tradition of our family and like most stories is always worth hearing.
My grandfathers “Tata” and “Grandpa” both died of undiagnosed cancer. It’s not that they didn’t try to get it diagnosed. They both went several times for tests and somehow it got overlooked. My other grandmother “Grandma” died of Alzheimer’s.
Looking back it’s hard to believe that one generation ago my Dad was growing up in a mining town owned by “the company” that paid out in scrip to the company store. It was also where my dad would jump off the bridge into the Yampa river. That’s probably not allowed anymore. Two generations ago Grandpa was working in coal mines in north western Colorado before moving his family and taking a job as an accountant for a Ford Dealer. I still remember this huge machine he had for doing accounting. I guess it was kind of like a precursor to a computer. Tata was driving cattle from Mexico to Tucson. Yep, he was a young cowboy before joining the National Park Service and serving in various places including assistant superintendent of Yellowstone during the earthquake that made Old Faithful not-so-faithful. He also was sent on an expedition to Antarctica. The pictures from his visit there still hang in their home.
Nana’s job as the wife of the assistant superintendent was to be the hostess for VIPs who would come visit the park. Many important people found a warm welcome and a wonderful meal at that stone house in the Park.
Nana was the daughter of pioneers in Arizona. The University of Arizona produced a book several years ago that interviewed some of the few remaining Arizona pioneers and Nana is in the book. It’s amazing listening to stories from back then. I had a great (or great, great) aunt who during an Indian raid hid her baby under a wash tub and ran away from the house to distract the raiders. She was partially scalped but survived. One of my relatives owned a large area of land south of Tucson that is now a major retirement location for rich people. He was shot to death by someone from Texas over water rights and the land was somehow lost to the other family through a series of shady maneuvers.
Tata was friends with Stuart Udall, probably the best Secretary of the Interior this country has ever had. He believed that preservation of the environment was something to do so that people could go see what had been preserved. The current view seems to be that the environment should be preserved and people should stay as far away from the protected areas as possible. Mr. Udall, a Mormon, wrote one of the best books I have seen on the history of the Spanish exploration of the Americas. The book, To the Inland Empire, takes a fair look at the exploration and shows that far from being a bunch of murderers, the Spanish had a much more noble purpose in their exploration than the English and Dutch who came later.
At Christmas we always traveled to Nana’s and Tata’s for a week or two and met up with most of that side of the family. It was always so much fun even though there were frequently a few… disagreements about politics between the relatives. We always had a real Mexican dinner with red chile tamales, homemade tortillas, refried beans and calabasitas on Christmas Eve. Then we would go to the back room which was detached from the house, light the fireplace and Tata would read the Night Before Christmas. One of my uncles was always conveniently absent and we were always sad that whichever one it was always missed Santa when he came and stomped on the roof and shouted down the chimney at the appropriate time, leaving stockings full of goodies behind. Sometimes you could catch a glimpse of him running by the window and out across the golf course after delivering his treats. We have a video from the last Christmas Tata was alive. He tried to read the story but his throat was bothering him so much that my mom and aunts had to finish.
On Christmas morning we would go visit Uncle Manuel and Aunt Armida for menudo, beer and football. I couldn’t drink the beer and never was really interested in football but for some reason always enjoyed eating tripe soup. I’m weird that way. I also like haggis and have eaten a whole roasted sheep’s head in Greece. After the visit we would go back and have a more traditional Christmas dinner with ham or turkey.
Tata would always take us to the Desert Museum to see the wildlife which was always a treat. They had a mountain lion, various snakes and spiders as well as a prairie dog colony and an aviary. My favorite part was the geological exhibit which featured a “real” cave with mineral displays, a huge screen showing an erupting volcano and a live earthquake monitor.
Nana was always a wonderful cook and I looked forward to her meals every year. Especially the Mexican food.
Our family has always been big on traditions. Our yearly visits to Tucson were something we looked forward to all year. Every summer we would go to Craig, Colorado to visit with my other grandparents and we would go camping, fishing, chokecherry picking, and swimming at the city pool. When Tata died our Christmas tradition started to fall apart. We still went and someone still read the Night Before Christmas but it wasn’t the same and everyone had a hard time adjusting since Tata had been the mover behind a lot of things.
We went to Craig for Grandpa’s funeral when he died. He was buried next to my grandmother who had died of Alzheimer’s several years before. He had taken care of her until the end. As we were leaving town we took a drive by all the familiar places – the city park, my Aunt and Uncle’s old home where we used to climb up the huge sand cliffs behind the house and swim in their pool, the daycare center my aunt ran, St. Michael’s Church, Grandpa Coke’s house and great Aunt Louise’s house. We passed my cousin Todd and his wife doing the same thing. We realized that this may be one of the last times, if not the last time we ever would be in Craig. If we go back it will probably be for another funeral.
As we left Craig we stopped a few miles down the road at a turnoff with one of those “Historic Marker” signs. Looking out from the turnoff there is a large valley full of trees and grass that backs into a large hill with the residue from coal mining decades ago. Across the road is the foundation of an old school house. If you walk down into the valley, which you aren’t supposed to do anymore because the land is privately owned, you can see the foundations of houses disappearing into the grass.
This is Mt. Harris. It’s where my Dad spent part of his childhood. When the mine went under, the town was sold and everyone moved away. Grandpa bought three houses and took them apart board by board. My Dad was responsible for straightening the nails removed from the boards. Back in Craig they built a new home out of that lumber and my grandparents lived in it all their lives.
The turnoff has a large sign at the edge of the overlook telling about the history of the town. It’s a history of a time that is quickly fading away. A time when things were tougher but people were better. A time when kids played with each other outside instead of alone or across the internet with video games. A time when things weren’t “safe”. Somehow they survived.
Nana is my last connection to that older time. I know we will still go to Tucson at Christmas as we have other relatives there. But Christmas always meant Nana and Tata. They lived in the same house for as long as I can remember and quite possibly all my life. One of my aunts lives there with Nana now and I hope, because I’m selfish, that the house doesn’t get sold. Like our old home in town and old van that finally died, this home is full of great memories – and a Princess Leia stun gun that I dropped in the bush by the front door and still haven’t found twenty years later.
We told our kids that Nana is very sick and that we should all pray that she has a holy death when it is time for her to go. We aren’t praying that she will get better. I think it would be selfish of us to do that. She is 93 and has said she isn’t going to go back to a hospital. So we pray that she dies well and that we will always remember the example of love, hospitality and family that she always exemplified.