I’ve been thinking about my Nona a lot lately, and I thought I’d share a little bit about her, because she is on my mind. Sounds boring right? Bear with me.
I received a Christmas Card from her recently, that I treasure. It was uncharacteristically positive, and joyful and at peace with her life and the world that I was both happy and sad at the same time.
The card reads: “Dear Chrissy, I pray for you & yours hoping you get a better paying job, as it must be hard for you to make it budget wise. I hope…God smiles on you & yours. It’s quite a miraculous time to be alive. So many new inventions & computers, and all the football games & hockey & bowl games, also college games. I’m in my glory & enjoy them so much- and it’s expensive to go to the parks their at. The sun is shining here & it’s warm. I miss you all- Love & Hugs, Nona Kay”
A little background: My Nona, who is in her eighties now, has suffered from schizophrenia most of her adult life. She had never received treatment for it, until the last decade. I think when she reached 80, she just got tired.. and couldn’t fight it anymore. She wanted rest. There is such a stigma about schizophrenia.. It is a tragic psychiatric condition. (I prefer the term “psychiatric condition,” over “illness.”) One thing about schizophrenia, is that there are these moments of surprising lucidity, where you can glimpse the person underneath unaffected by the condition. My Nona had a lot of moments like these, and we were really close when I was young. I adored my grandmother.. even though I understood she was unwell most of the time.. I felt protective of her.
A little bit about my Nona: She’s an Irish-Italian Catholic from Boston and has an accent. She would NEVER let me call her grandmother, only Nona. She thought that “grandmother” made her sound too old. She’d go “Honey you’re only as young as you feel..” Her apartments were always immaculate and smelled like bleach. You could eat off her floor. She kept very little possessions and lived lean. Most of her cherished possessions she kept in her purse that must have weighed 50 lbs and was never out of her sight. She was gorgeous for her age. When she was young she looked a little like Sophia Loren. She had great teeth and a great figure and always wore form fighting clothes, usually white slacks and cashmere sweaters. I remember walking down the street with her as a kid, she was in her 60’s then, and men still checked out her rack. She kept herself up. When I stayed at her house, I remember when she woke up she taught me to do a “breath of fire” deep, deep breaths to fill your lungs, then we’d do some chest presses. She’s look over and wink at me and go,”They keep your ta-ta’s firm!” She kept her money in her bra. She had an amazing voice, like a lark. She would sing to me all the time old standards, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra.. She was tough too..
I vividly remember being on an outing with her and her beating up on a man twice her size with that 50lb purse of hers because he looked at her funny on an off day, or maybe he bumped into her and thought he was gonna try something. Anyway, I think she also insulted his mother and the size of his dick. I was 7 or so at the time. It’s not funny, but somehow it was.. She generally swore like a sailor and was funny as hell.. In retrospect, you had to feel bad for the guy, he didn’t do anything wrong and when the cops came they chewed his ear off about harassing an old lady and a kid.. but I remember being really impressed with how brave and fierce she was and thinking, “Woah, my gandmother’s pretty cool..”
I’m sure that day it was bravado, masking for bravery and that she was really afraid..
I won’t go into all the details that led up to her illness. I’ll just suffice it to say she had had a hard life.. Married at 17.. 5 girls, one after the other.. abusive husband.. the pressures of the time led her to have a nervous breakdown as a young woman.. and then the onset of her illness. After that a lifetime of ups and downs..
I also don’t want to go into all the details of when it was bad.. I mostly remember her being paranoid. She was genuinely scared all the time. She would sometimes hallucinate that people were coming in the night to hurt her.. There were some scary moments, hearing her scream and cry out in her bed at night. I’m not sure she ever slept.. and if she did she kept one eye open.
I had very little structure growing up.. very little real, traditions.. There were a few, but one thing stands out to me the most:
She read tea leaves. This was a tradition passed on to her for generations. It was especially big in the 30’s when she was young. She had these white pyrex milk cups with black flowery borders that she’d use. She’d prepare the tea the same each time and everyone would gather around her, they’d usually stand in a circle, and I would strain to see and be a part.. (She’d always hold the cup high.) She would read the patterns the leaves made and tell them their future. I’d always ask her to read mine but she never did.
She finally started to read mine when I turned 9, just before my parents divorced and my dad moved us to Portland. Her predictions were eeirly right. She mentioned that I would be going on a trip, an airplane. I was skeptical, cause I had never been anywhere other than Southern California where I lived. I had no indication that I would be going anywhere anytime soon. (My parent’s story is something else entirely.. they had problems. I was just in denial, I guess.) Shortly after, my father decided to divorce my mother and took us away.. on an airplane. There was no way she could have known.. the way it happened. It was years before I saw my mother, or her family again.. I was a teenager, and then it was just sporadically after that. It was a loss I had to grow accustomed to. Long story..
She read my tea leaves a few times more over the years, and each time she would be eerily right about other things she had no cognizance of.. accurately describing future best friends and betrayals, flings and romances.. mixed in were things that were never right.. There was always “a lady with a bun” that I needed to look out for (I never found out who that was supposed to be), and there was always “a man with dark hair” who would dance with me. I think in my grandmother’s heart of hearts, she envisioned me meeting a kind, Irish fellow who would sweep me off my feet. That was her wish for me. (She loves the Irish.) I think it is sweet… However, my husband has fair hair and doesn’t dance!
Anyway, I’m sitting here now years later, thinking of her, remembering all this.. I suddenly cherish that memory of the tea leaves.. I went looking and found the same type of cups she used to have and bought some. She is too old to teach me now but I am going to try to teach myself how to read them like she used to do. She is getting on now.. she currently lives in a Board and Care in California. It’s a shame that I didn’t get to have much women in my life to teach me things.. I miss her.