(written with love and in honor of my Nana upon the event of her passing in Sept 2011)
The cigarette flared red then dimmed as Nana took a drag. She and tapped its ashes into my motherâ€™s pansy box. In the summer twilight, I could barely make out the silhouette of her shoulders as she leaned against the deck railing and exhaled. They were slumped shoulders, burgeoning out of the curvature of her spine and rump. The lines of her legs were thin and smooth inside her pants, feet and knees close together in perfect line with the deck slats.
This visit was the first I could ever remember seeing Nana in personâ€”there had been a rift in the family that took years to bridge, so many years that no one could even tell you why it started. Even though I had called her and interviewed her for all sorts of school projects (my grade school reports on New Mexico, Billy the Kid, the Depression, and even Orson Wellsâ€™ War of the Worlds were all based on Nanaâ€™s colorful retellings) we never connected. She was distant, a voice over the telephone line, a picture filed in a cabinet.
Until today, August 20th 1998, five days before my older sisterâ€™s wedding.
When she arrived earlier today in full color and complete with her retinue of fat, randy poodles, Chico and Chipper, I was surprised. I knew she was comingâ€”I was ousted from my bedroom and my bathroom for her and her dogs. But meeting Nana in person was uncanny.Â She was loud and relentlessly dressed in patterned neons and jewel tones. At dinner she had eaten more Mexican food than the rest of the family combined and was constantly laughing, crowing, â€œho, ho, ho!â€ By turns delightful and flirtatious then sarcastic and cunning, Nana was mesmerizing and frightening. She left me speechless.
â€œYou know, I still got it,â€ she had greeted me. â€œI might be old, but I still got it. I used to be a real looker. Hooo, wee. Bet you didnâ€™t know that about your old Nana.â€Â She gave her hips a shake as she sauntered toward the house, whistling at the dogs.
She was seventy-one years old. I was seventeen.
Tonight on the deck, I let the screen door slam closed to alert her to my presence. â€œWhere are the dogs?â€ I asked as I leaned awkwardly against the porch railing, my elbows parallel to hers.
â€œDown there. Poopinâ€™.â€ She gestured at the darkened yard. An almost infantile smile flitted across her lips where her cigarette hovered, daintily settled between two fingers.
â€œDid they like their dinner?â€ I had watched her carefully open a can of cooked chicken and shred it lovingly over freshly made rice. The concoction was then meticulously stirred as she called the dogs over to her and fed them bit by bit straight from her hand, their dull pink tongues wrapping stickily around her fingers.
â€œEt evâ€™r bite,â€ she said, lapsing into her country Texas accent. â€œThey love my cookinâ€™.â€ She stretched out the word love, making the â€œuuvâ€ rise smoothly for emphasis.
â€œYou evâ€™r decide to come down tâ€™ New Mexico and see me, Iâ€™ll make you chile rellenos. Mm-hmm. I love â€˜em. Then Iâ€™ll show you how to make necklaces and lace. Iâ€™m pretty good at those things too.â€
She lit another cigarette and I tried to play cool, even though I imagined her lungs turning blacker every second and could feel my own throat tighten at the acrid smell. Growing up in Utah the only people Iâ€™d ever seen smoking were disgruntled teenagers, who didnâ€™t make it look near as good.
â€œItâ€™s a nice night,â€ I said to distract myself.Â â€œLots of stars. In the summer I usually sleep out here. Itâ€™s so peaceful.â€
â€œI know about the stars too.â€ She smirked a little as she said this. â€œAnd all them, you know, whatâ€™re they called . . .â€ She struggled for the word, sounding her age for a moment.
â€œConstellations?â€ I guessed.
â€œYep. Thatâ€™s them. Constellations.â€
â€œI never learned much about those.â€
â€œTheyâ€™re each a story. See that one up there with that line of three stars and the kind of square above it and below it. That one is a story.Â Itâ€™s a. . . aÂ . . .â€ She trailed off, smoking and thinking. â€œOron. The Twisted Butterfly. Thatâ€™s what it is. I canâ€™t remember the story, but thatâ€™s what it is.â€Â She looked unsatisfied, her face grimacing from mental indigestion.
I followed her gaze into the sky and the constellation popped out at me. It was actually Orion, complete with his lovely three-starred belt. But then I tilted my body a little towards Nanaâ€™s, lining my shoulders up with hers, and tried to see the sky the way she saw it. And there in the night sky was a twisted butterfly, trying to turn its flight around, trying to fly up into the sky.
Laura Hilton Craner is a mommy and sometimes-writer. She lives in Colorado with her husband and four children.Â She blogs at www.butnotunhappy.blogspot.com and is a contributor at the Mormon Arts and Culture website, A Motley Vision (www.motleyvision.org). Â When she isnâ€™t reading, writing, or cleaning up after someone, Laura spends her time hiking, canning, scrapbooking, and dabbling in the expressive arts.