I watched in horror as Nanny poured Crisco oil into the ground beef and Ragu red sauce in the large black iron skillet owned by all card-carrying grandmothers. She looped the bottle above the pan a few times, covering the simmering meat and cheap soupy sauce. She was not known for fine cuisine, but excelled in comfort food.
“Wow, Nanny, that‘s a lot of oil,” I commented. In my head I was thinking, Holy crap, that’s a lot of fat right there. I had succeeded in losing all of my college weight and then some, and I was determined not to gain it back while living with her. Every morning before I caught my train she tried to feed me greasy things like bacon and eggs, and my reply was always the same: “Thank you so much, Nanny. I’ll just grab a bagel at Grand Central.”
Nanny was always trying to feed people, and when I was a young girl, one of her favorite past times was hosting family picnics. She quite calmly whipped up a cookout, as we called them, for the Pennoyer crew, and this was not a small undertaking. Five children of her own plus her seventeen grandchildren (or whomever was able to come) would somehow fit among a few picnic tables the uncles and cousins carried into the living room when weather prevented us from being outside. It was a tight fit in the modest home on Heritage Hill Road near the intersection with Forest and Parade Hill, but anyone who couldn’t find a seat in the living room would spill over into the dining room.
The menu boasted little variation: hamburgers, hot dogs, corn on the cob (most memorable because it stayed in Grandpa’s teeth for hours), iced tea, soda, pink lemonade, Nanny’s famous potato salad, deviled eggs, fruit salad, a homemade pie and chocolate cake from a box. I imagine there must have been a green salad, but I was not one for vegetables back then, and they also tried to avoid having beer after a while since one of the uncles liked the drink a bit too much. The only two occasions calling for other items were Thanksgiving (when the typical New Englander menu prevailed) and summertime when Uncle Billy would bring fresh caught steamers from the sound, their rubbery black necks looking like worms to me. All the melted butter in the world did not mask the weird squishy texture and at that tender age, I just didn’t appreciate how fresh they were.
The two foods that stuck with me as essential to all family gatherings were her potato salad, which I can now make in my sleep without a recipe, and deviled eggs. It wasn’t until we had been married a few years that my husband finally questioned the deviled eggs.
“What’s up with your family and deviled eggs? Why are they at every family meal?”
I just shrugged my shoulders. “Nanny always had them.”
Her go-to condiment was mayonnaise, and it stretched eggs and potatoes a long way. When feeding a family of five kids and a husband on a blue-collar income, she had to do what she could to stretch a dollar.
Nanny always had one of her grandchildren living with her at some point after Grandpa died. There was a basement apartment of sorts as well as the spare room. My sister Dana, several cousins, and I took turns living with her for various reasons.
When I lived with Nanny after I graduated from college, I was working six days a week and saving money to move out West, naively thinking that a change of scenery would be the answer to happiness. I also thought I would apply to grad school, and studying for the GREs at her house, neighbors with my own parents, would be a quieter place, or so I thought. For years she denied her hearing problem, and it took me a while to tune out the volume of her evening TV programs as I attempted to brush up on the finer points of calculus.
Nanny’s door was always open. She loved having her grandchildren live with her, and she never expected or accepted rent of any kind, so I would buy groceries for us whenever she would let me. Whenever I thanked her, her response was always the same: “It’s what you do for family; you don’t have to thank me.” Her heart was always in the right place, even when she shrunk my wool sweaters in the laundry, which I convinced her I could do myself.
Despite having so many other grandchildren, Nanny always managed to make each of us feel special. She was always on time with a birthday card, complete with a little cash, because she “never knew what the kids were into these days.” She remembered who loved vanilla, who loved chocolate, and who shared her own favorite, strawberry. Her strawberry rhubarb pie was second to none, and in her later years she still participated in The Grange and pie-baking contests.
The consummate hostess in welcoming everyone to her tiny kitchen table squeezed between the stove, countertop, fridge and cupboard, she greeted everyone with “What can I getcha? Cuppa coffee? Cuppa tea? Boht-ul of soda?”
Nanny was born in Brooklyn but raised at the top of Richmond Hill in New Canaan, right next to the intersection with Weed Street where her own parents were in a fatal car accident. Small in stature with hair as white and curly as George Washington’s after the natural red was long gone, Nanny liked things old school. When she first got an answering machine, my cousin Timmy was living with her at the time, and he was in the next room when she was trying to set up the greeting message. I guess he never ended up helping out, or didn’t hear her, so she inadvertently recorded her greeting as “Timmy? Timmy?! Oh, I don’t know how this silly thing works.” And then the machine would beep so the caller could leave a message.
Since Nanny was an immediate neighbor, it was easy to visit with her. Every May 1st I would make a small paper cone of violets and dandelions from our yard and hang it on her doorknob, ring the bell and run to her back door. Then I’d ask if she had any visitors recently, and of course she would act surprised when I would lead her to her front door and find the wilting weeds only a grandmother could love.
Nanny’s sense of humor was one of my favorite things about her, and she loved Halloween. She was a great Dracula one year, and somehow got the fake plastic teeth to fit just right over her dentures.
When I was a teen, I planted a pink flamingo or two in her yard overnight, and she got such a kick out of trying to figure out who had done it. Once she learned that I was the culprit, we shared a good laugh over it, and she ended up flamingoing my neighboring aunt the next night. I can just imagine her sneaking past the garden and tiptoeing to their yard, planting flamingoes firmly in the ground, and giggling as she scuttled in a grandmotherly way back to her own home, waiting to be found out.
I think of her often and not just because her maiden name of Stiles became my middle name. On every May Day I think of Nanny and violets, and every time I use a teakettle, her sweet voice echoes in my head, “Cuppa tea?”