Today, December 23rd, is the 8th anniversary of the death of an extraordinary woman.  I and many of my friends and family knew her simply as Nannie. Her full name was Phyllis Mary Arnold and she came to look after me when I was four days old.  Already in her sixties, she threw herself into the job, and became a de facto member of my family.  She helped raise me and my 3 siblings and was a force to be reckoned with.  She had her rules and we knew to toe the line, but that was her way, and if you did it right, you were rewarded. She loved us unconditionally, and gave more of herself to this job than you can imagine.  She lived with us in our family home until ill-health forced her to move into a nursing home.  There followed five of the worst years of her life and mine, a sad way to end a special life.

The truth is, there are no great nursing homes, they are pretty much all miserable places.  Even though we all tried to be there as often as possible, and to make her feel as wanted as she always was, I don’t think she ever got over the fact that she had to leave what she considered her family home.   She died on December 23rd, after having been ill and in hospital for about 4 months.  My sisters and I had gone to visit her earlier that day, and we had taken tinsel and decorations to her cubicle.  She wasn’t aware of us as far as I could tell.  We swallowed our embarrassment and sang Christmas carols to her pretending that the curtain around her bed was soundproof.  As we were singing I noticed her expression change from what it had been for the past several weeks a mask of pain into a mask of peace.  I wasn’t surprised when she died later that evening.

I did feel a void.  For so many years, and especially since she had gone to the nursing home, she was a central part of my life.  No longer having her in it was a massive adjustment.  Even though she wasn’t at her best, she was still an integral part of my daily life.  Watching her get older and more frail, lose her grip on reality and eventually regress into childhood was one of the hardest things I have ever experienced, but I will never regret going through it because I learned something every minute of it.  I was for all intents and purposes her parent at the end.  I remember once asking her if she wanted to do something, and she said to me:

“I don’t know Maria, you decide – you’re the grown up.”  I was so taken aback I didn’t know what to say.

As time goes by, and things start to fade in my mind, I sometimes find it hard to remember specifics.  What did I find to say to her every day?  What did we talk about?  Did we make every moment count?  The answer is no.  We so often got bogged down in inconsequential stuff; what channel she should watch on the telly, and whether or not she should take part in the activities that were planned by the home.  I used to get the TV guide and plan out her evenings for her, writing down what was on and when to press which button on the remote.  She was convinced that only my presence would get good television.

“You turn it on Maria, you always find something good on.”

The truth is, she didn’t want to watch television, or even talk to me, she just wanted the reassurance of my presence, and I couldn’t be there all the time.  Let’s leave aside all the feelings of guilt one experiences when you go through the loss of a loved one.  Did I do enough?  Was I there for her when she needed me? Should I have shouted at her less?  Been more understanding?  Not put her in the care home? And so forth.  Thinking these thoughts is not useful or productive.  My relationship with her was what it was.  I did what I did.  Regretting things isn’t going to change that and I do feel that I couldn’t have done more with Nannie without compromising all my other relationships.   I look back on our time together both while she was healthy and robust (and boy was she) and while she was older and frailer with fondness and gratitude for having had the time to spend at all.  After all, we were technically just her job.  Nannie, although her name to most of us, was actually only her job title.  It shouldn’t have defined her, but she had been doing it for so long that it did.  Everyone called her Nannie.  Us, my parents, our relatives, our friends, the butcher, the grocer, everyone.  She had family – she was one of 13 children.  Slowly she watched her siblings die, and came to rely on us more and more.  She had nieces and nephews aplenty, but we were her day-to-day family.  The familiar faces.  I know she loved her family very much, but I also know that she loved us as much.  I certainly loved her as a family member and I think most of my family would agree.  She was a unique combination of British reserve and familial warmth.

There are things I say because she used to say them, superstitions I inherited from her, and things I can cook because she showed me how to.  We all think of her a lot at this time of year, not only because she died then, but because Christmas was her time.  She believed in the magic of Christmas and she definitely passed that on to me.  She loved to decorate, open presents, and wrap presents.  She would help prepare Christmas lunch, and would keep the paper crown from her cracker on until bedtime.

Her last Christmas was spent in the nursing home.  She wasn’t well enough to come out even for lunch.  I had prepared everything for her, decorated her room, and taken things for her to unwrap in the morning.  For the previous few months she had been calling me Marjorie, and although on some level  I knew she knew me, this upset me greatly.  I arrived in her room that Christmas morning having put the turkey in the oven and having a sneaky half hour to spend with her before the family all arrived and life became a whirl of relatives, kids and food.  I walked into her room and she was on the bed, surrounded by paper and all the gifts we had left for her.  She was fast asleep.  I didn’t want to disturb her.  On her bedside table there was a note.  It said simply: Thanks Maria.  Nothing could have been more precious than this reminder that she knew who I was.  I still carry it on my person.  I know it’s sentimental, but that was a magical Christmas moment for me.

So, I know this isn’t usually how this blog goes, but I wanted to mark this day because Nannie was more than someone who used to look after me.  Knowing Nannie, and going through what we did together profoundly affected the person I have become.  And on this day each year, I like to think about her and remember her and remember some happy times.  Like when we used to play charades.  Nanny had the most hilarious way of playing that game.  We spent more time laughing than guessing, and her mimes so rarely had anything to do with the answer.  Or when we used to play articulate and she would use me as a point of reference for everything.  All of her answers would start with  “Oh, Maria likes this.”  Or “Maria will know this.”  and we would have to guess from there with no other information.  Until she was 87 when she fell and broke her hip, she was amazing with a skipping rope – skills, tricks and everything.  It was incredible.

She was born 100 years ago in 1913 and she saw so many changes in her life, but she kept her belief that if you were a good person, things would be ok.  And I think in the end, despite everything she went through, for her they were.  I hope she knew how much of an impact she made, and how much her efforts were appreciated.

Miss you Nannie. x

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