Monday, March 3, 2014

Nana Daly

My grandmother was a profoundly kindhearted person whose only demands from life were great-grand-children, and time to paint. The last time we saw each other I was introducing my boyfriend to her at a family gathering, and she greeted us with an excited “When are you going to give me great-grandbabies??!” I had been worried about the very elderly, Irish-Catholic members of my family reacting badly to my very black boyfriend (and the realization that we were living in sin), but Nana Daly didn't seem fussed. She simply wanted great-grandbabies.

We (my many younger cousins, and I) called her “Nana” because it was the sound my older sister, struggling as a toddler to enunciate “Grandma,” had been able to muster. Somehow it stuck. Her famous vegetable soup (whose recipe is guarded as a family secret) became “Nana’s Soup.” Once a year, she would take my sister and me out separately and lavish us with attention. We ate Belgian waffles and went to see Santa Clause at the mall. She bought me a picture book, and took me to the craft store. That was called “Nana and Me Day.”

I usually think of myself as a thoroughly self-determined person, but my grandmother is the reason I’m working toward a PhD in art history. She’s the reason I love art. When I was four years old, she gave me my very first paint set and a heap of wonderfully thick, pulpy watercolor paper. She had handed oil pastels out to my sister, my cousin, and me some days prior, setting us up at the picnic table with a bowl of fruit to draw. My cousin did not want to draw and could not be persuaded to. My sister worked dutifully, and produced something very nearly resembling fruit. But I was the only one who drew the fruit and then begged for more paper, so that I might draw something else. She was happy to oblige and I felt, from then on, that I was just a little bit special to her.My grandmother was an amateur artist with a modicum of talent but an abundance of passion. As an adult, she took college art classes and, after my grandfather passed away, spent every spare cent on canvases and paint. She subscribed to Watercolor magazine and The Artist, and bought dozens of hardcover books on portrait painting and children’s book illustration. She had high hopes that I would go to art school, and (when I was old enough to read them) passed all of those books and magazines along to me. If she was disappointed when I went off to Vassar to major in art history instead of studio art, she surely never showed it.

When my family was evicted from our home in 2001, Nana Daly took us into hers. It was a tiny house (the one she had moved into when her six children were grown and her husband was gone), but she found room for us. For over a year she drove us to school and fed us at her table and offered us something very close to normalcy. She and I watched Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting together on PBS and, to this day, that show is my cure-all, soothing raw nerves and relieving insomnia.

My grandmother was a fixture in my life, and I suppose I sort of assumed she’d always be around. I can’t imagine that she’s not painting fruit or making soup or doting on her two great-grandchildren somewhere. I owe her a great deal, and I only hope that she knew how special she was to me.

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