In honor of my mom, Dorothy (aka Nana), on Mother’s Day.
(This piece is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy—a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
“Shit.” “Goddammit.” “Fuck it.” These generally aren’t the types of expressions one hears coming from the mouths of mothers and grandmothers — unless your mom happens to be named Dorothy (or Nana, as she was known to you grandkids). But this is exactly what we heard coming out of Nana’s mouth that wintry December day in 1999 when I got the harebrained idea to make homemade Christmas ornaments using glitter-covered Styrofoam balls, straight pins, beads, and sequins. I had found the instructions in one of those home decorating magazines and thought it would make a fun family activity while Nana was visiting us from Florida for the holidays.
You guys were nine and six years old at the time, home from school on Christmas vacation. I remember the five of us sitting around the dining room table in Grayslake (Dad, me, Nana, and you two), the craft supplies spread before us. The concept was simple: Thread a bead and a sequin onto the straight pin, insert the pin into the Styrofoam ball, and repeat until the ball was covered in beads and sequins. You could choose to wing it, making a random design using multi-colored beads and sequins, or you could plan ahead, making a pattern or image using specific uniform colors in a pre-imagined shape. Easy-peasy, right?
Of course, we all had our own ideas with specific designs in mind, and we happily set to work threading our pins with beads and sequins and pushing them into our glitter balls. As I recall, I was spelling out the year “2000” with my pins using black beads and sequins on a silver ball (because Millennium), Dad was making an artsy-fartsy vintage design with green and gold sequins on a red ball, Coleman was making an extremely neat and precise spiral pattern in reds, greens, and blues on a silver ball, Ben was creating an abstract Santa smiley face using silver and black sequins on a green ball, and Nana was attempting something flashy using multi-colored beads and sequins on a gold ball.
It didn’t take long, however, for Nana to be the first to accidentally stab herself with the pin. “Shit,” she’d mutter under breath. I’d glance sideways at Dad, then at you two, and the four of us would share a secret smile. It’s not as if you guys had never heard Nana swear before. Hell’s Bells — it’s not like you’d never heard me swear before either. I’ve had a penchant for salty language since my teen years, and although I tried (unsuccessfully) to rein in my swearing when you kids were little, it didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out where I’d picked up the habit.
“Goddammit,” Nana would say, a little more loudly this time. Now she was getting frustrated because her design wasn’t turning out quite the way she’d had in mind. “What’s wrong, Mom?” I’d ask. “These stupid pins aren’t going in the way I want them to,” she’d say, pursing her lips in concentration. And then, as if for punctuation, she’d let fly another “Shit” or “Goddammit.” A large part of the humor of the situation was that it wasn’t the nine-year old or the six-year old throwing the hissy fit over the craft project — it was the 66-year old. And the wonderful thing about Nana? She fully recognized and embraced her childish lack of patience.
“This project is dumb,” she’d finally declare to the four of us sitting at the table. She was trying to look pissed off but she was clearly enjoying herself. “Whose idea was this anyway?” she’d say, looking conspiratorially at her two grandsons, then, once she had your attention, glancing pointedly in my direction, her green eyes glimmering with mischief.
“Yeah Mom,” you two would gleefully chime in. “Nana’s right — this project is dumb!”
“Thanks Mom,” I’d say to Nana, more amused than exasperated by her hijinx. “You really know how to liven up a family craft project.” Somehow, I convinced everyone to keep working on their ornaments a while longer. In spite of (or because of?) Nana’s mock anger, we remained in good spirits, persevering with our individual ornaments as we listened to Nana’s continued recitation of swear words until finally, having stuck herself with a straight pin one too many times, she’d push her chair away from the table and announce, “Fuck it. Is it time for a martini yet?”
Nana’s Very Dry Martini on the Rocks, with Two Olives
Open the cupboard and pull out the largest tumbler you can find. (No need to bother with an actual martini glass — size of the vessel is more important than style when it’s quantity you’re after.) A tall, oversized, plastic mug usually reserved for making root beer floats works perfectly fine. Fill the mug with ice, but not too much ice because you want to save room for a large quantity of alcohol. In olden days, gin, plus a small amount of vermouth, would be necessary for a proper dry martini (along with a proper martini glass) but when the situation is dire, simply pour a large amount of vodka over the ice until the mug is close to overflowing. (If you add two large pimiento-stuffed olives for garnish you can legitimately call it a martini.) Once the drink has been prepared, take the Big Gulp Martini/Vodka Slurpee out onto the back porch (the porch being the only location at Nan & Pat’s house where smoking isn’t prohibited). Plop down into the wicker chair, place feet (wearing pink slippers) on stool, fire up a Marlboro Light, and commence drinking Martini Slurpee. If the grandkids come out to the porch to sit on your lap, make an effort not to blow smoke in their faces while teaching them some new swear words.
In case it hasn’t already occurred to you, Nana certainly wasn’t the traditional type of grandma to you kids. She didn’t knit or sew or bake very well (her chocolate chip cookies were notoriously rock-like). She wasn’t much for physical activity but she did love playing hide and seek with you guys and taking you to Disneyworld and Sun Splash. I would say she wasn’t exactly a traditional type of mom to me either, although she was a meticulous housekeeper (Mondays were for doing the wash and ironing, Wednesdays for grocery shopping, Fridays for cleaning), and she was an excellent cook (in spite of her lack of baking skills). She smoked cigarettes and drank martinis when she was pregnant with both Aunt Gerarda and me, and her two favorite food groups were salt and butter.
She never went to college but in the ’70s she earned her broker’s license and worked in a real estate office after Papa died, a 37-year old single mom supporting two girls ages 13 and 9. Her frosted blonde hair was invariably perfectly coiffed (even while washing the kitchen floor on her hands and knees). She was tall and thin and her fashionable clothes always looked good on her. She had a temper, she swore like a sailor (see above), she had a lot of friends who loved her, she was funny, and she could find the humor in even the darkest moments of her life — and there were plenty of those. Nana was tough and blunt and not very diplomatic (to put it mildly). But she loved us with a passion and was fiercely protective in a way that could be embarrassing at times. (Just ask Aunt Gerarda about the time Nana called Ray Kroc to complain that her 16-year old daughter wasn’t being treated fairly as an employee of McDonald’s Corp.)
As Mother’s Day approaches and we think about Nana, it’s tempting to focus on our feelings of sadness and how much we miss her. As for me, Nana was my number-one cheerleader, my best friend, and the first person to hold my feet to the fire when I screwed up. Though she’s been gone since 2002, not a day goes by I don’t wish I could pick up the phone and have a nice long chat with her. But instead of feeling depressed on Mother’s Day, I feel happy and grateful, because both of my sons had a chance to know her. Although you were young when she died, you were able to witness her strength, feel her love, experience her humor, and hear her say “Fuck it” when she’d had enough and it was time for a martini.