A song made me think of my grandmother.
The song was Stranger On The Shore by Mister Acker Bilk. Don’t know it? Not to worry I couldn’t name you anything else he’s done. This was a sleepy sounding instrumental done by a guy in a bowler hat who played the clarinet. But. It was the biggest selling song in the UK in 1962 and it was played a bunch here in the US.
I heard it first coming out of the radio in her kitchen. I was seven.
My grandmother’s name was Hazel. Hazel Francis Johnson. In my whole life I’ve never met another Hazel. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess you haven’t either. Names were different back then, less Brittany and Aisha and more Mildred and Ethel.
We called her Nana.
My grandmother was born in Bimini. She was wonderful, magical, and I’ll bet yours was too. She was my mother’s mother and she left a deep imprint on me and my brothers and sisters.
Grandparents spoil their grandkids. They kiss and hug them, give them all the treats that mom and dad don't want you to have and are great babysitters.
The old joke is that they're so great at that because they get to go home and leave the runny noses and full diapers behind.
Nana was always a good cook but she was a great baker. We kids learned that if she was baking something you better get there early.
Hazel Francis lived in New York; Jamaica, Queens to be exact. I went to second grade there when my father, in the Air Force, went to Germany ahead of us. It was while living in her house that I learned to play handball, how to collect glass soda bottles for the two cents you would get when you turned them in.
How to tawk like a New Yorker which I later un-learned.
We got used to the way Nana would say every sentence like it had an exclamation point at the end of it. We’ve been saying, “There were peas and rice!” forever, lovingly mimicking her.
And yes it makes more sense to us than to you.
When she retired she came south to Maryland to live closer to us but she missed New York terribly. She had her own apartment and knowing that she missed home I got her a subscription to the Daily News, her favorite New York newspaper.
One day when I went to pick her up I noticed three or four papers that had been mailed to her on her buffet by the door. “Do you read them, Nana?” I asked. “Every one,” she replied. “ Do you know why?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye. “Because I like to talk and if you like to talk you have to know what you’re talking about.”
Truer words were never spoken.
When she died there was a funeral in New York, it was the first one I ever went to. We were all there; my mother, my father, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, family friends. It's odd what I remember from that day. They had an open casket and I didn't know what to do so I did what everyone else did. I went up, genuflected, and saw my grandmother for the last time.
But here's the odd memory.
When I got back to the pew where my family was I told my mom what I had done and said, "You should go up and see her." She told me, "That's not my mother up there. It's just a body. Her soul is gone." I'd never heard that before.
Mom never went.
Hazel Francis Johnson.
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