In May I always think of my grandmother, Lorena May Standish Baskett. She was born in May of 1915, and although we did not become friends until 1964 or so, when I was in second grade, she was a major force in my life during our brief time together.
I had named her “Nana” when I was a toddler, and the name stuck. She was always Nana to me and I remember being somewhat shocked when I learned she actually had another name.
When I was in second grade, my mother left her second husband and we drove across country from Kansas to Washington State. I still remember flashes from that journey. The red Mustang 2+2 that I thought was the most beautiful car ever, the multi-colored patchwork quilt that my half-sister and I laid on and used for warmth when it got cool, and the way the countryside whirred past.
I don’t really remember my mother very much on that trip and I don’t know why. I guess I was too busy spinning fantasies about meeting my grandmother for the first time (that I knew of, anyway) and what she would be like.
In my fantasy, we drove up to a beautiful white house; not too big, but icy clean with dark green shutters and sparkling windows. We would park and all of us would pile out and run to the door which would open wide, just like arms, to let us in and enfold us in love and safety. It would of course, smell like cookies baking.
And the grandma…well, she would be tall and elegant in a purple dress with a white, frilly apron on top. She would have beautiful silver hair and dark glowing eyes and a lovely smile that lit up her face. Somehow I knew she would look like my mother and me, and that she would smell like a garden in the rain, with a sweet floral fragrance that would come and go. I pictured her saying, “Kali’, look at you! You have gotten so big and beautiful!” Then she would take me in her arms and hug me so tight I would barely be able to breathe and I would be enveloped in love.
This did not happen; no, none of it.
Instead, we pulled up to a nondescript, clapboard house in an unremarkable neighborhood of Bellingham, where all of the houses looked the same. The air was filled with a thick and organic smell which I later learned came from the local paper pulp factories. We parked, hauled our tired little carcasses up the broken concrete walk, and still I had hope for the fantasy Grandmother.
My mother knocked on the door, and it opened to a dark interior and a gust of cigarette smoke that wafted out to us. My grandmother stepped into the doorway, and the big shocks began.
She was tiny, maybe 5’2” tall, wearing a ratty old chenille robe wrapped around her indistinguishable figure, a white turban on her head and the most wrinkles I had ever seen on a human face. I think we may have awakened her, because she squinted at us and I could not even make out the color of her eyes, but it was obvious to me even at that young age, that makeup was not a part of her regimen.
Greetings were exchanged and I got a perfunctory hug, accompanied by a wave of old cigarettes with a small undertone of beer. I retreated, making all of the mental adjustments I would need to make again and again over this time of my life, and I don’t remember anything more.
Nana moved in with us a while later, into a very small two bedroom house that was on an alley near downtown Blaine. That was when I really started to get to know her.
To my surprise, she had really beautiful eyes. They were chameleon-like, and would change colors with her moods. I was endlessly fascinated with them and with her stories.
She had married late in life to a much older man, and had been a bit overshadowed by him and his dominating personality. She told a story about the night she had endured enough of his excessive discipline of their two daughters, and she finally snapped. She took the strap out of his hands, put her hands around his waist and lifted him straight up in the air high enough to set him on their bedroom dresser and then she read him the riot act. I did not understand until later just how much upper body strength it took to do that! She was amazing.
Lorena’s mother Nellie was a very proper and feminine woman who married three times and it was my impression that she never really understood her daughter. Lorena was what they would call “a handsome woman,” with large features for her small frame, and I suspect that her mother was disappointed in her lack of interest in femininity and its trappings.
When Lorena married, the certificate listed her as “spinster,” although she was only 21! Her husband had been married before (an entire soap opera in itself, and I will tell it elsewhere) and was 50. Her marriage to him brought her a life of hard work in the forests during the winters and hard work in the orchards in the summers and all of that showed in her weathered face.
Logging the Washington forests with her husband, she lost half of a finger, and when we kids asked her about it she told us, “A donkey took it.” We were both appalled that a donkey could bite off your finger and fascinated by the smooth, knobby appendage it had left. I later discovered that a “Donkey” is a piece of heavy logging equipment, which took the magic right out of it!
Nana gestured with her hands when she got excited, and when she said, “I’m only going to tell you TWO things…” she held up her normal finger and her partially amputated digit for emphasis.
“No Nana,” all of the kids would chorus, “That’s only one and a half!”
If we could make her laugh, we were out of trouble.
As I got older, Nana and I had long philosophical talks about everything and nothing at all and she was such a blessing to me. Oddly, over time she became more and more beautiful to me as well, and I found myself grateful for this grandma rather than the fantasy one I had wished for. She answered my questions, played hour upon hour of gin rummy with me, and let me have some of her cherished Pepsi more often than she should have. She had smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes all of her adult life, and cherished her evening beer, her little trailer and her half-blind, partly crippled little poodle, Jacksie.
She was the source of my distinctive, low singing voice and although she had given up the mandolin she used to play by the time I went into music, sometimes she would sing with me if she was in the mood and her rich contralto was beautiful.
She was a total character, and though she always claimed that she was descended from Myles Standish of the Mayflower, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I found out she was totally correct.
Nana died at 57. It happened just before I was due to leave home to pursue my singing career in Oklahoma. She was driving my manager to the airport the night before, when a massive stroke took away her motor control and was quietly killing her. In spite of what must have been horrible pain as the right side of her body curled up; she managed to pull the car off the highway and on to the side of the road safely before unconsciousness overtook her.
She passed away the next morning. It was New Year’s Day, 1973.
May is for Nana. Our own Lorena May Baskett, (she loved to make fun of that play on words in her name) who came and then went too soon.
“You gotta walk that lonesome valley. You gotta walk it by yourself. Ain’t nobody else, gonna walk it for you. You gotta walk (you gotta walk) it by yourself.” ~from Nana’s favorite song