My maternal grandmother died on the last day of 2019 — 16 months after my sister.
I'm incredibly grateful that my grandmother died when she did. Not only because she lived a long and mostly healthy life, but also because my 90+ year old grandmother never would have survived the pandemic...even if she never contracted COVID-19. She would have panicked herself into a frenzy.
The week of her funeral, my husband had a terrible case of the flu (or maybe very early COVID??), and he stayed home with our three-year-old while I ventured through the bleak landscape from Boston to NY to pay tribute to my last surviving grandparent. My mother asked me to speak at the funeral and this is what I shared.
The Duchess of Dunwoodie
It’s hard to accurately describe my grandmother, Carmella "Millie" Spagnolo, who from now on I’ll refer to by her real name to me, which is Nanny.
As a child, after hearing one of my stories about Nanny, a friend asked, “Oh, is that your mean grandma?” Mean is not the right word, not even close. Nanny was brutally honest so her manners and word choice could be a little harsh if you didn’t know her well.
But any flair of her temper was quick to subside. It’s true that whenever she babysat my siblings and me for the weekend she threatened to leave us stranded (“That’s it! I’m going home!” she’d say). We always knew it was a bluff, partly because she couldn’t drive and there were no taxis near us in the far-reaching suburbs of NYC, but more importantly, because she forgave quickly. Before long all would be forgotten and we’d be playing a game of rummy or enjoying an episode of Family Ties.
Nanny with me (center) and my sister, Alison (left). Thanksgiving, 2012
Nanny had a good and solid heart. One great example of her compassion for others was evident when I sat with her while she watched some TLC reality show that showcased someone's misfortune for the TV-viewing population's entertainment.
When my husband walked into the room, Nanny put up her hand as he cleared the doorway, “Stop, Nate!” she shouted, “You shouldn’t have to see this.” She wanted to protect Nate, perhaps maintain his innocence from a life much more complicated than his own. Nanny was always looking out for your best interest.
If I had to guess, I’d say Nanny’s favorite place in the world was the garage under her apartment. We called it ‘The View’. She set up shop, put out chairs for the passersby, and sat while watching folks stroll down Midland Avenue. Sometimes her guests would arrive before her and wait patiently for her to make her entrance. Everyone was welcome, but if they started to get annoying, she was quick to stand, go upstairs and leave them there by themselves.
Nanny seated on her throne in The View. My dog, Abe, also enjoys the view.
Upon telling my father-in-law about The View, he decided that I must be exaggerating and he had to see it for himself. One summer day about 7–8 years ago, he dropped by, unannounced, on his way to NYC from Massachusetts. Just as I promised, Nanny welcomed him, and after some time enjoying the view from The View, she invited him upstairs and made him a ham sandwich. She was so delighted that he was interested in her life on Midland Avenue.
Nanny is hard to describe because while she was a woman who lived her entire 92 years within a one-block radius, she was complex and a rich character. I have a never-ending trove of Nanny stories.
Nanny (right). takes a spin with my maternal cousin's paternal grandmother at the same cousin's wedding. This was after she approached the DJ and told him to keep it down.
Secrets to a Long Life
To begin with, she had her own life philosophies that were perplexing. She insisted that we wear socks indoors. Just seeing our bare feet running across the floors would make her shudder.
She kept her cash in a band-aid box in the medicine cabinet. Perhaps a good decoy when she first thought of it, but after several decades, the tin band-aid box belonged to another era and certainly would have stuck out to any prowler who happened to make their way up her narrow staircase and then into one of her two side-by-side bathrooms (an odd construction choice by my grandfather).
Speaking of security, she kept her apartment key on a red-flowered keychain, on the windowsill right next to her front door. As a child, I thought this was genius (no lost keys!), but now realize that in a 3 ft x 3 ft entryway, it would likely be the first place someone would look.
Nanny miraculously lived almost her whole life in great health, despite the fact that up until recently she believed there wasn’t much of a need for doctors because there wasn’t an ailment that Tylenol couldn’t cure.
Nanny enjoys a smooch from her son-in-law, Tim. Her daughter, Marianne, is seated on the right.
Social Expectations be Damned
Nanny was someone who did what she wanted to do, regardless of what other people thought. She had a great relationship with my dad which was 100% banter and poking fun but was also rooted in love. We have a home video from a Christmas almost 30 years ago where my dad pans the camera around the dining room, everyone lined up to serve themselves at the buffet with the expectation that they find seats elsewhere.
Nanny must have been first in line because she had decided to pull up a chair and seat herself right at the buffet table. The other guests just reached around her, spooning the holiday meal onto their plates. Dad made fun of her, yelling something like, “Sure, Millie — take a seat right there, no problem!” and she laughed between forkfuls. Nanny was going to sit where she wanted to sit, social expectations were not her concern.
Our family eagerly looks over to my sister as she opens her gift, but Nanny isn't going to wait to see what's in her big gift!
Nanny, like most grandmothers, was prone to worry. When I first moved to Boston, she advised me never to walk anywhere at night. A difficult promise to make since the sun sets before 4:30 in December and my office didn’t close until 5. She never thought twice about leaving a friend’s house at 9 or 10 at night, walking herself home alone. I did what I could to appease her…which means I lied and assured her that I would only venture out in the daylight.
While fretful for me and my safety in all situations, she was fierce when protecting her castle. When unruly teens would smoke and smash bottles in the parking lot next to her apartment, she wouldn’t hesitate to yell at them from her living room window while I cowered on the floor. When I asked her if she was scared she said, “Noooo! I used to babysit them when they were little.”
When I was a child I spent many weekends sleeping at Nanny’s. I thought she was famous because no trip to the drugstore, walk to the park, or one of the many (many!) visits to her friends’ houses would happen without someone waving from a car or stopping her on the street. She called herself the Mayoress of Midland Avenue, but we also took a liking to the Duchess of Dunwoodie. Whenever I asked her about how the neighborhood has changed over the past 90 years, she always said, “Oh, it’s the same!”
The view of Dunwoodie from The View. According to Nanny, that view hadn’t changed much since 1927. Picture from July, 2012
It’s fair to say that I was Nanny’s most annoying grandchild. I constantly peppering her with questions that she never wanted to answer. My interest in finding out what it was like for her family during the Great Depression was met with “Oh, it wasn’t that bad.” When I asked if it was scary when her three older brothers went to war she said “Yes,” followed up by “Why are you always asking so many questions?!”
Nanny has taught me many important lessons over the 36 years I shared with her: that corn brooms work best for cleaning dirty city sidewalks, that it’s acceptable to hit your grandson on the head with a purse if he’s being too annoying, that steak knives from a certain chain restaurant (Sizzler) are fair game to bring home and gift to your children, that marching around the kitchen table to band music is a perfectly acceptable way to stay in shape, that the combination of Gulden’s mustard and Swiss cheese make for an excellent sandwich, that it’s appropriate to take out your false teeth as a sure-fire way to make your grandkids laugh, and that one should always keep a back scratcher next to their recliner.
Nanny with Moofloo (Unfortunately I never asked her how one spells Moofloo), her Cabbage Patch doll that she kept on her dresser for more than 30 years. Before she died she gifted this doll, still with its original lace gloves, to my daughter. Photo from March, 2018
Nanny is unforgettable. Her life wasn’t easy and while she never boarded a plane, or ventured much further than the New York state line, her life was long, rich and full of many people who love her. I suppose there’s not much more anyone can ask for.