On Letting Go: A Letter to Nana Joyce

The last time I saw my Nana Joyce in Oregon

So, today has finally come.

The day I’ve been dreading since I first started making memories, and realized just how much you meant to me. The day that I can no longer come for a visit over strong black coffee and talk for hours about nothing much except life.

February 15th, 2017.

I will remember this day until my day comes, the day you passed away.

In a way, I’d already lost bits and pieces of you over the past few years, as is usual with age and its tendency to eat away at a person. When I’d come back from my two years abroad, I realized how much you had changed and how I would never get you fully back as I knew you.

But it never changed how much I loved and respected you. It never changed the memories I already had, and that I’ve tried my best not to lose.

My first visit back, you’d already moved up to Oregon and were situated in your new place. That was the most familiar you I enjoyed. We watched Chris Botti in Concert, your favorite trumpet player, just like old times. I met your new kitty and I introduced you to my boyfriend from New Zealand.

The next time you were in the hospital, after another bout of pneumonia. You didn’t recognize who I was at first. I’m still not sure you were fully aware that I was your granddaughter by the end of my visit, just that I meant something to you.

The following visit was much the same, with little recognition but a love for me that you couldn’t quite explain. I found you laying in bed in a nightgown in the middle of the afternoon and I helped dress you. I think you thought I was the caregiver coming to give you your daily round of pills. We took you out for your favorite Mexican food and laughed together about how much you could still eat.

The last time I saw you, you were the most cogent I’d seen you in over a year. You knew who was, but there was still that part of you missing. Your memories were all but faded glimmers, just a set of them still left looping on repeat.

You commented about how nice the flowers were outside, and the lovely house across the road most of the time. I had a feeling it would be the last time I saw you. I gave you a big hug for as long as I could hold on to you, and told you how much I loved you.

I knew you wouldn’t be with us for much longer, and I was ready for today as much as I could be, but I still feel a big gaping hole that I know I’ll learn to live with.

Do you remember the ducks?

My earliest memory of you was going to the duck pond in Santa Cruz and feeding the ducks. It was when my parents were still together. I was only three or four and I was singing at the top of my lungs to the ducks. You were cracking up and you came to stand by me and sing along.

It is still one of my happiest memories. We were so incredibly happy that day, you made me feel loved and important. That I was making the ducks as happy as we were by singing to them.

Flash forward to the next year or two, and I was crying in the sand at Frederick Street Park. I’d just jumped off the swing and broken my wrist. But you didn’t believe me, you thought I was just making it up to get attention.

And I don’t blame you. I had become a trouble child, making tantrums at the slightest thing that went wrong. This was around the time of my parents’ divorce and the world felt unfair and uncertain. I was acting out all the time, and why should this time be any different?

But it was different. When I got home to my mom, I told her what happened and she took me to the emergency room. The doctor said it was a broken wrist and I got a super cool cast that all of my friends could sign. I forgot about being mad at you, but you didn’t forgive yourself for a long time.

You apologized profusely and said that you would always give me the benefit of the doubt in the future. That incident soon faded away with time and we never spoke about it again.

I started playing sports when I was five and you would be at every home game. Through soccer, basketball, volleyball, and softball you were always there on the sidelines rooting me on. Through elementary school, to junior high, and finally high school.

You hardly ever missed a game. Basketball was always your favorite to watch and it was my favorite to play.

You were there for every holiday and birthday, showing your love for me every step of the way. In junior high, I remember you showing up to my softball practice one day, with a birthday present for me. You had the dates wrong though, and my birthday wasn’t until next week.

You were so embarrassed with how forgetful you were getting, but I don’t think you realized how much I appreciated you thinking of me. My present was a white shirt with a glittery butterfly on it and I wore it all the time until it no longer fit.

Throughout my childhood I would always have a weekly visit with you. No matter how old I was, you treated me like an adult and like my words mattered.

When I was eight, you taught me how to sew on your sewing machine so I could make handmade stuffed animals for the family since I didn’t have any money. You chided me for making too many spots on a stuffed dalmatian, saying it looked perfect the way it was.

You had two cats while I was growing up – Juliet and Missy. They were always anti-social and we would laugh at how they always seemed to disappear when I came in. Sometimes I would find Missy looking haughty in the corner and give her a pat while she scowled at me.

And then it was just Juliet after Missy passed away. And soon she was gone too. You always loved cats and their playful and stubborn nature, I think they reminded you a lot of yourself in some ways.

Sometimes you would show me how to play Rummy on your computer, let me run my fingers through your old jewelry, or on my favorite visits, play piano for me as I sat next to you in awe. I would try on your heels and walk around, tripping over my own feet, and feeling almost as glamorous as you.

Once I started taking piano lessons, I would proudly show you what I learned and ask you to teach me more.

You were always such a performer. The shows you put on at the Senior Center were always some of my favorites, but only when you were singing. You would allow me to tag along to practice sometimes, and let me hear you perform when I was the only one there.

And boy, did you love to sing and play piano.

It broke my heart when you decided to give away your piano and stop singing. You were embarrassed to play because of your arthritis, and you no longer thought your voice was pretty. But I know how much you loved it and how hard it was to give it up, even though you acted like it wasn’t a big deal.

I remember the time you taught me how to make meatloaf and how funny it felt between my fingers. I couldn’t help but think, “who would want to eat this!” I looked forward to my visits with you for the guava juice you would give me every time. The sole attention you would spend on me when I sat on your couch, and you sat in your armchair asking me about my life.

It was almost always about me. You hardly ever wanted to talk about your own life. Gradually, I got to know more about you though. I would pester you to show me old black and white photos and talk about our family history.

By the time I reached junior high, you would pick me up in your car, and I would fall asleep from the hot sun streaming through the windows on our way back to your apartment. We would go get pie every visit on our way home.

Lemon Meringue was your favorite.

You loved the filling and I was partial to the crust.

Once I hit high school, our talks went on much longer. We would talk for hours about my teenage problems, a boy or two I had a crush on, and what I was learning in school. I started drinking black coffee with you too instead of guava juice.

I would ask you about the new books you were reading. It was always a different one with each visit. You loved mysteries and reading them until you fell asleep late at night. We would trade book recommendations and discuss the ones we had both read and loved.

When I went off to college in San Diego our visits became less frequent, but I always would come for a visit whenever I was in town. It was a must. There was so much more to catch up on with these visits, and I wanted to know more about your life and your past.

I remember how moved you were when Obama became the first black president, and how much change you had witnessed in this country since the 1920s. You thought he was quite the looker too, even more than Sisqó with the silver hair that you loved so much.

When I started my travel blog, you were my biggest supporter and main reader. You would comment on my posts and tell me how proud you were of me and my writing. You loved reading my personal ones, because it felt like we were back in your apartment talking about life over a strong cup of black coffee.

Joyce McFadden.

You were born in 1922 and grew up on a farm in Nebraska, ending up in Los Angeles by the time you had four kids, including my dad. You said how you always liked the idea of sports, but girls weren’t usually allowed to play. Sometimes you did it anyway though.

I imagined you to be a fierce teenage woman in a time when women weren’t meant to have a voice. You were a rebel and spoke your mind. You would always talk about the times you stood up for yourself, and the sexism you constantly faced at home, in the community, and in the workplace later on in life. You always had an opinion.

You were a flight attendant and a secretary, a vocal liberal who saw the good that social welfare can do. You raised four kids on your own when your husband, my grandfather, left for good, choosing his alcohol addiction over his family.

I always saw you as so glamorous. There was a swagger in the way you walked, you never left home without make-up on, and you had a 1920s air about you that never left, even during the last visit I saw you, when you were 94.

You started writing your memoir when I was in high school and you said I could read it only after you passed away. When I asked you about it last year, you had no idea what I was talking about.

“Me? Write a memoir? That would’ve been nice.”

You had no recollection of it, but I remember for a year straight coming in to your apartment to see you tapping away passionately at your computer. As if you were trying to get it all down while you were still able to.

It made me sad when I realized I would probably never see that memoir after all. There’s still so much I feel I didn’t know about your life, it was such a full one.

My dearest Nana Joyce, I wrote this to try and make peace with today. To pay homage to the impact and good you had on my life. You are one of the strongest women I’ve known, and I am who I am today because of you.

My words, no matter how eloquent or well thought out I try to make them, will never be able to encompass the amount of love I had for you.

I’m not sure what happens to us when we die or where you might be right now. Are you here beside me, looking down on me, or is there just a nothingness at the end of our time? I used to ask you for advice on so many things in life, but I know that this is one piece of knowledge you can’t help me with.

I’m currently looking out at a crystal blue ocean in Thailand and trying not to cry over a cup of coffee while writing this. The palm trees sway in tune with each other and there’s a heaviness in the air from the humidity. Besides the odd scooter rumbling by, everything is at peace, like you must be right now.

I know you would’ve loved to see this place. To travel and not be constrained by the limits of your time and society. You weren’t given the same opportunities I was for travel and independence, but I know that you would’ve loved it too.

I can almost feel you here now, sitting across the table from me, saying we should order some more pie and coffee. We can dig in and talk about life in Thailand and the possibilities that still lay in front of us.

I’ll eat the crust and you can eat the filling.

Love you forever and always,

Mimi

My glamorous Nana Joyce from the 1930s.
My glamorous and kind Nana Joyce.

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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