At her stove. Almost giddy. She was in her 50s here.
Today would have been my maternal grandmother’s 92nd birthday. There are two anniversaries when a loved one has passed—their birthday and the anniversary of their death. It’s always easy to figure out how old she would have been because I remember the year she was born. It was her password on a lot of things. But I struggle with how many years she’s been gone because it seems like far too long. I’m also struggling to write this. Not because I don’t know what to say, but because there is so much to say that it’s impossible to capture everything. I’d have to write a book. So for now, I’m just going to let my memory and heart take over and apologize if it doesn’t flow perfectly.
If I’m being totally honest, I’m crying a lot, 11 years after her death, as I type this. I miss Nannie Redden terribly. I was thinking today about something that has stuck with me since I attended a parenting conference called, “How to talk so your kids will listen.” The one critical factor to getting your children to listen is having a genuine connection with them. And when I think about the many days I spent with my grandparents, Nannie and Gran, I remember being fairly well-behaved. I felt a real connection with both of them but especially with her. And I attribute that to feeling tremendously loved and adored, like the center of their world, respected as a smart and competent individual from a very young age, and someone who brought them boat loads of happiness by filling their world with the simple joys of a child. She didn’t usually call me “Jennifer.” Instead, she called me “Love.”
My parents both worked while I was growing up. I stayed with my grandparents before and after school from the time I was in Pre-K until middle school. My earliest memories of cooking and baking are in her kitchen. Other than being with her family, that’s where she seemed happiest, and probably because her efforts brought joy to everyone around her. She made fudge, homemade candies, any kind of cake, cookie, or pie you could imagine, and the best chicken ‘n dumplins on the planet. She canned, making jams, jellies, perfect green beans, and my very favorite bread-n-butter pickles. Some Christmases, I’d receive a jar of my very own. There were always at least two desserts in her house. We had many Sunday family dinners around her table.
My sister and I in her kitchen. Michelle may have been making “congo squares.” Nannie always wore rubber gloves when doing dishes. I guess I thought, "When in Rome..."
Everything she canned and much of what she prepared on a daily basis came from her and my grandfather’s gardens. They had four in total, in addition to a berry patch and vines of Concord grapes. Each time I walk by a farmers’ market and get a whiff of Concord grapes, it takes me back to the days when I’d pluck a grape from the vine, squeeze and pop the green center out of the top, and toss it right into my mouth. The gardens were filled with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, beans, pumpkins, potatoes, and the list goes on. She also had several flower beds, with bird baths, but I remember the hyacinths the most. They always remind me of her.
Winter mornings and afternoons were spent lying next to their wood-burning stove. Occasionally I’d be lying next to bread dough that was rising. Above the fireplace was the mantle. It was a running joke that whichever grandchild had the most photos on the mantle was the most loved. I may have had more because I was around the most, but truth be told, she loved all four of her grandchildren equally. It was very important to her that we all understood that.
She was extremely crafty, and that began at a very young age. She grew up in a very poor family. She spent days picking blueberries and selling them to earn enough money to purchase her first bra. From that one bra, she created a pattern and made the rest herself. She quilted. My mother and aunt have cathedral window quilts that she made by hand…I mean every last cut and stitch…from clothing she’d saved from their childhood. She made countless quilts and “afghans” for anyone and everyone over the years. There were doilies, pillows with candle-wicking, and she crocheted knit scarves and hats (she called them “caps”) with a pom-pom on top. Of course I never wanted to wear them back then for fear it would mess up my hair before school. She and my grandfather spent months constructing this dollhouse for me. It was made from a kit, but they glued every last shingle and made the tiniest fabric comforters for the tiniest beds inside. When Cabbage Patch Kids were all the rage and my parents didn’t score one before Christmas Day, she made me one. Curled yarn for her hair, eyes painted on her face, and a beautiful outfit, cut and sewn by hand.
Her version of a Cabbage Patch Kid
Because she grew up poor, she loved the finer things in her adult life. She had loads of shoes. So many that they didn’t all fit in the bottom of her large closet, so twice a year, I moved her shoes (still pristine and in the boxes) from a spare room closet into her bedroom closet so they’d be accessible for the season. She loved jewelry and always tried to purchase meaningful pieces for us.
She was a skincare, cosmetic, and fragrance junkie. She didn’t love that I looked like a clown or prostitute (depending on the day) once I began wearing makeup. So she took me to Merle Norman when I was about 13 years old for a makeover and purchased more age-appropriate cosmetics for me.
Although she wanted to believe all of her grandchildren were angels, she knew better, and I suppose the older three gave her a dose of reality of what might be in store for me. Take a look at this note that was written in 1987 (I was 13 years old), and it was enclosed with an old coin collection she had for me. It reads:
“7-29-87 This collection of Indian Head pennies & old money & silver coins are Jennifer’s for her education if she doesn’t become an alcoholic. Jeannie [my mom], I know you’ll laugh. Mother/Nannie Redden.” Hysterical! I found this after she had passed.
My grandmother was a strong and resilient woman. She suffered the unimaginable loss that no one should ever have to know. Her youngest daughter, Linda, was killed in a car accident at the age of 17. I’m not sure she ever recovered. She did the best she could, but I think that’s something that changes you forever. Now that I’m a mother, I’m amazed even more that she had the strength and courage to go on as well as she did. While I never met my Aunt Linda, she talked about her a lot. Always with tears, no matter how many years had passed. My grandmother had lots of quirks, but in my opinion, she should have gotten a free pass for all of them.
She worried like crazy when I moved to Connecticut, six hours from home. So she bought me a bag phone (that’s what we had in 1996) for my car in case it broke down or I had any kind of emergency. She even paid the bill. She always worried. For as long as I can remember, she put the fear of God in me about the chance of being kidnapped. I grew up in the days of Adam Walsh—his father started the show America’s Most Wanted. I used to think she was overreacting, but now I know her fear was likely due to knowing how it felt to lose a child and live through such an unthinkable loss.
She was determined. She had a mind of her own. She didn’t have a great filter or much of a poker face. But her heart was always in the right place. Justice and fairness were important to her. She loved very deeply, and she had strong emotions about things that might seem insignificant to many. I am, indeed, her granddaughter.
Most of all, I just remember her always being there, and I think that’s why losing her still feels so raw after all these years. She took my photo on the first day of school every year. Every. Single. Year. No matter where I was or how early school started. And that was long before digital cameras existed. She was at every orchestra concert, dance recital, school awards night, and every event that meant everything and almost nothing to me. She saved every newspaper clipping and awards night brochure. Completing everyone else’s life made her life complete.
I know she would love my boys. She crocheted blankets for them...some pink and some blue…in case she went “to live with Jesus” before my kids were born. Unfortunately, that happened. But my precious Kenzi sleeps, wrapped in her warmth and love, every night. If I know her, she had a serious talk with God, and together they worked to save my sweet Kenzi. Kenzi’s middle name is Adler. Her name was Della Redden, so rearranging the letters in her first name and last initial created Adler.
Well, it’s late, and I need to go to bed. I assure you that I haven’t even scratched the surface of who she was and what she meant, and still means, to me. Today is a special day to remember the most special woman. Happy birthday, Nannie…with so much love, from your Love.
My grandfather and I after he'd been hunting. Had to include this just because.