“I can’t believe how old I am.”-Nana, most days
When my grandmother Wanda was thirteen, she watched the Germans invade Poland from the balcony of her family’s Warsaw apartment. She spent years in the Warsaw Ghetto. And one day, she and her mother Jane were lined up to board a train.
Wanda and Jane had heard only rumors of what awaited them beyond that train. They were waiting to disappear.
But before they boarded the train, Wanda and Jane were able to bribe two Nazi guards with jewelry that Jane had sewn into her coat. They escaped the ghetto. Jane and Wanda were falsely declared Catholics and sent to a German work camp, where they were forced to help build artillery for the enemy. But they did not disappear.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my Nana this week, and not just because she’s currently on lock down in her Massachusetts group residential home. (Which, even before the outbreak, she referred to as her “elegant jail.”) Nana has survived some shit. This, we have always known. It explains her morbidly optimistic outlook, her incredible ability to move forward in the face of adversity, and much of our family’s collective neuroses. But how did she do it?
My sister and I have asked each other this question for as long as I can remember. How did our grandparents survive with such gusto? How did Nana and Pumpa remain so grounded, so forward-thinking? How does Nana now watch WWII movies by choice?
I am by no means comparing our current situation to the Holocaust. (Although I think my mom would want it pointed out here – her entire childhood was compared to the Holocaust. Bad grade on your spelling test? Well, they’re not rounding you up in the ghetto. Nobody’s shooting at you. You’ll be fine.) But there’s no denying that this global megavirus is some shit.
We are living through the largest pandemic in modern human history, and my ninety-three-year-old grandmother is the calmest person I’ve spoken to all week. “Hi monkeyface – oh, I’m doing fine, just fine,” she said. (She and Pumpa have always called us monkeyface or booba; we’re not totally sure why, but it feels like home.)
“I’ve got my books, they do such a wonderful job taking care of us here,” she said. “And, you know – if this is the way I go, then that’s that.” Then she gave a little hum and asked me how my job is going.
Nana has been casually talking about “kicking the bucket” for the past decade or so. She’s ready whenever duty calls, but for now, she’s going to get on that goddamn exercise bike and collect as many reparation checks from Germany as she can. She sincerely enjoys trips to Market Basket. She recently admitted to loving My 600lb Life and Say Yes to the Dress on TLC. She goes to the bank once a week to pick up her money from Germany. (I swear she pockets it with a sly smile.) When my Pumpa was still alive, she gave him the middle finger whenever he interrupted her over dinner. (He always deserved it.)
Humor, routine, honesty, well-placed middle fingers: this has always been her way. I’m trying to make it my way, too.
Don’t look away from the unpleasant things. Look at them so you can remember. Turn them into stories. Turn them into jokes. Move your goddamn body. The family you have and the family you choose will be the fabric of everything you build.
I’m grateful for Nana’s strength, but even more grateful to her for passing it on to me. Courage is a choice. Let’s keep making it together.
Author’s Note(s): Courage is a choice, but many people need more than courage in order to survive right now. If you’re feeling brave and looking for ways to support others in need, consider donating to a local or national food bank, running essential errands for a vulnerable neighbor, buying a gift card to your favorite local hang, and tipping your service peeps a little extra. I keep reminding myself that even a little goes a long way.