In Memory of My Grandmother – Nana Johanna “Joan” Benford

In Memory of My Grandmother – Nana Johanna “Joan” Benford

It happened to me again tonight. I made myself a cup of hot chocolate, the cheap powdered kind. After pouring in the hot water, I dipped my spoon into the mug. That’s when I heard it – the almost lyrical sound of metal hitting porcelain. For one beautiful moment, I was ten years old again, standing in my grandmother’s kitchen, watching her mix my blind grandfather his daily cup of tea. In my mind I could clearly see her, shuffling beside him in a pair of tattered slippers, twirling his tea bag around the spoon to drain, and pushing the handle of the mug into my grandpa’s hand so he wouldn’t burn himself. That’s when I cried. Right into my sorry cup of Swiss Miss.

The Loss of A Lifetime

My grandmother died on Saturday. Over the last week, I have felt so many emotions. Sadness mostly. Anger sometimes. It’s hard to let go of someone who left such a remarkable imprint on your life. My nana, Joan, had Alzheimer’s and for the past three years had been living in a nursing home quite far from where I live. She was placed there while I was pregnant with Aoife and I had only gone to see her once. My reasons for not visiting were admittedly selfish – I couldn’t stand the sight (even for someone with my minimal amount of vision) of my grandmother in a nursing home.  She had no idea who I was, spoke to invisible people as a result of her disease and quite frankly, was not very nice to me.

I didn’t take her behavior personally. As a social worker, I knew that Alzheimer’s had ravaged her brain and stolen her memories. Nana was just a shell of her former self. I knew the old woman sitting in that nursing home was not the same grandmother I had so lovingly adored in childhood.

As a mother, I feared how my children, her great granddaughters, would react to seeing her in such a state. I opted never to bring them to the nursing home. It’s a decision I think the grandmother of my youth would have respected, if not wanted, given her declining mental health.

I got the call she had been placed into hospice care a few days before she died. The doctors didn’t know how long she would last, since she has stopped eating. I thought about visiting her before the end. I had done so in 2006 before my beloved grandfather’s passing. The way he looked on his death bed still haunts me. My husband feared I would never get over seeing my nana in hospice conditions. So I had adamantly decided not to go – until mid-day Saturday afternoon.

Calling of Angels

nanaGrandma had been on my mind all day. My cellphone was practically glued to my hip waiting for “the call.” I raised the shades in my living room when a beam of light reflected off my ceiling resembling the outline of an angel.

Nuala, my 3-year-old, immediately pointed to the shadow and screamed, “Mommy, look you made an angel. How did you do that?”

In that moment, I knew nana was calling me. She needed me to come to say goodbye. My husband had worked an overnight and was asleep when I woke him up crying, begging him to take me to the nursing home.  He put on his pants, and with two toddlers in pajamas; we drove.

I left my girls in the car with “Mostly Wonderful” when we arrived.  I had no idea what I would be walking into and I didn’t want them to be frightened. A security guard escorted me to my nana’s room and I was heartbroken by what I saw and heard. She was so frail, mouth open, and breathing heavily. It was a wonder she had made it through the day.

Saying Goodbye

I was able to find the chair next to her bed and scooted up beside her. I stroked her hair and held her soft hands. I told her how much I had loved her and how sorry I was that I could not have handled her disease better over the last few years. I asked her to watch over me and my girls and told her what a beautiful, wonderful, loving grandmother she had been to me.

Everything that is good in me came from her. Everything.

Before I left, I kissed her on the cheek, begging her to go find my grandfather in heaven. Gene Kelley was on the radio, singing “You Were Meant For Me.” I left in tears, crying all the way home.

The call came two hours later. Nana was gone. Thankfully, the girls were already in bed and my husband was also sleeping in preparation for another midnight shift. Uncontrollable sobbing ensued. The kind of crying where you think you might vomit because you’re so upset.

My family is not the type that does long, drawn out funerals. No church. No limo. Just a quick goodbye at a funeral home before we are off to the cemetery. I have debated on whether or not I should even write a post about my grandmother’s passing – but since no one provided a eulogy at her services – maybe you will indulge me by reading this blog-o-sphere version.

Remembering Nana Johanna

Johanna “Joan” Benford was born September 2, 1926 and died November 5th, 2016. She was the most loving and amazingly kind grandmother a girl could ask for. For 18 years, I lived with her, in the same house, with my grandfather, who was also blind.

She was all of 4’10 inches tall. Although she would swear on her life she was an even 5 feet! Nana was a delicate cross between Sofia Petrillo (Golden Girls), Edith Bunker (All in the Family) and Snow White (her all time favorite movie).

She was tiny, feisty and endlessly classy. Her old, leather pocketbook rivaled Mary Poppin’s carpet bag. In it you could always find, butterscotch candies, emery boards, and an extra handkerchief for my grandfather. She never missed the opportunity to give a gift or send a thank you note. Nana didn’t “pee” or “go to the bathroom” – she “tinkled.” (She would kill me for typing that. Sorry, Nana!)

I was often her “guardian” when we went shopping together. I use the term guardian because the woman could get lost almost anywhere. God love her, she had absolutely no sense of direction! Because she was so short, you couldn’t even see her head above any of the store’s racks. Let her get too far ahead of you and somebody was going to the customer service desk to have “Joan” paged to lost and found.

Nana was the original Martha Stewart. She could make clothes, Halloween costumes, and sewed her own curtains. She wall-papered our entire house long before people like Chip & Joanna Gaines were ship-lapping anything. The lady was hard-core when it came to country, shabby chic decorating. She loved her silk flowers (geraniums and violets) and homemade wreaths for doors and windows.

Grandpa always said he married grandma because she was beautiful and happened to be one hell of a cook. Boy, was he right. Kielbasa, goulash, lasagna, meatloaf, and even homemade French fries – nobody could hold a candle to her culinary skills. NOBODY!

But baking, baking was her true talent. I spent hours in her kitchen when I was little learning how to make pies, cream puffs and Irish soda bread. Thanksgiving was our special time together as we would prep for dinner by making at least 4 homemade pies, crust included.

Dare to say the words “store bought” in that woman’s kitchen and she would knock the hell out of you with her rolling-pin – all 4’10 of her. Blueberry, cherry, apple and lemon meringue (peaks piled high) were always on the menu. Nana even had a special miniature rolling-pin just for me, and she let me pretend to make my own pies with her leftover dough. I had to have been annoying to her, especially when she was so busy baking, but she never made me feel anything less than wanted. I loved her for that.

When I fell upon some dark times as a teenager, nana tried to help. She tried to tell me I was actually worth something – she expected more from me. When I met “Mostly Wonderful”, she knew instantly that I would marry him. He was the only guy I ever brought home that both my grandparents actually liked. The night I got engaged, she was the first person I called, even before my mother. I had promised my husband (then fiancé) I wouldn’t tell anyone we were engaged until we went to my house to make an official announcement. Of course as soon as we walked through the door, she nearly tackled him with congratulations. So much for secrets, nana.

Like me, she loved Christmas and would go all out with her decorating. She had taken many ceramics classes over the years and crafted her own nativity set (which I put out every year) and many of her own ornaments. She used glitter covered popcorn garland on her tree and refused to place anything but an angel on top. She baked German cookies on Christmas Eve and pretended to watch for Santa with me outside her kitchen window.

When I got diagnosed with cancer, she sent me a bouquet of flowers. Odd I know, but she said she didn’t know what else to do.  None of her Emily Post upbringing had prepared her for something so tragic. The card simply read, “I love you.”

After suffering a painful miscarriage, I cried in her arms.  She told me not to worry because one day she would take care of all the ones I had lost in heaven. The thought of losing her even then was painful, but her ability to make me feel better in the most abysmal of circumstances was comforting. Tonight, I know she’s holding all of my rainbow babies.

And when I lost my eyesight in 2012, she encouraged me to be better than my grandfather had been. As his caregiver, she knew how challenging and difficult it is to accept vision loss. Even though her mind was beginning to fade, she knew enough to tell me to get help and find resources.

Six months after going blind, I found out I was pregnant and she was absolutely elated. Oddly enough, she was the only person in my entire family not to question anything about my ability to parent. What are people so worried about?” she said “You’re going to be fine. You’re not stupid.”  If I could have gotten her sentiments embroidered on a t-shirt to wear the duration of my pregnancy; I would have.

The first thing I ever had professionally published was a poem entitled “Friends” when I was 12 years old. It was dedicated to my grandparents because they were (are) my two “best” friends. My grandmother was absolutely convinced I was destined to become some great literary author like Laura Ingalls Wilder or Louisa May Alcott. When I chose a path towards the helping profession, she still encouraged me to write. Nana would never be able to turn on a computer, let alone find this blog, but I am sure she would have enjoyed my twisted sense of humor.

I Promise Nana

Dearest Nana, I would be remiss if I did not tell the world how much you meant to me. I will remember you every time the girls and I bake your Irish Soda Bread. I will cry for you at Christmas as I unwrap your nativity scene. I promise I will continue to write, create and imagine – talents you always encouraged me to pursue. I will do my best to combat ignorance with kindness and in the event that does not work – I will keep your rolling-pin handy.

As the consummate homemaker, you taught me to keep my children first – because there is no greater job than being a mother. As the caretaker for your blind husband, the patience and kindness you demonstrated did not go unnoticed. Remembering how you took care of grandpa, and how difficult his health was for him, was part of the reason I created Blind Motherhood.

I will make sure Nuala & Aoife know who you and grandpa are because without “you” there would be no “me”. And without “me” there would be no “them”.

I am convinced God crafted you so short because he had to make up for the extraordinary weight of your oversized heart. If you really had been 5 feet tall, you surely would have toppled over!

You hung the moon for me nana. You and grandpa both. I’d give anything to hear you call me “darlin’” one more time.  So until we meet again, I will say it for you, “I love you, darlin.” Come visit me in my dreams.

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1 Comment

  1. This is one beautiful homage to your Nana I’ve ever read Holly. She sounds like a wonderful person and your love for her and your grandpa is palpable.

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