This week marked one year since we lost my beautiful, wonderful, fantastic 102- (and a half!) year-old Nana.
I can’t believe it’s already been a year, and at the same time I feel like it’s been forever since I last saw her. If you know me, or if you’ve followed my blog for a while, you probably know that we were very close and she meant a lot to me.
I feel so very lucky to have had her in my life for as long as I did. She was such an incredible person and taught me — and our entire family — many important life lessons over the years. And she taught these by example, not by preaching to us, just by living her life. I can only hope to be half the woman she was.
These are the biggest lessons she left us with (there are so many and I know I’m leaving some out, but I hope to do her justice!).
15 Be generous.
Nana had a large heart and her generous love knew no bounds. She housed us, not only our family, but our friends, her neighbours, their friends. She would host my friends and I at her house in Toronto for weeks at a time. She opened her home to anyone who needed somewhere to stay and even had boarders for many years, figure skaters who were training on Team Canada and needed somewhere to live in Toronto. She cooked for us, pierogies, cabbage rolls, pizza, lasagne, and so much more, and she baked us elaborate cakes for our birthdays, filled with change that she scrubbed, dried and then wrapped in wax paper.
She gave us all $200 for our birthdays, slipped us cash when we didn’t have money, or just because (or if she felt we should buy ourselves $50 worth of chips and gingerale…treat yo’self!). When I moved out on my own she bought oranges and cookies and cheese and paper towel and whatever else was on sale at the grocery store and made care packages for me. When she moved into a nursing home she saved whatever random assortment of goods she acquired (cookies saved from meals stored in Ziplock bags, socks won at Bingo, pens, stickers, Werthers Originals, etc.) and continued with the care packages, giving me whatever she could manage. She gave and gave and gave and gave, right until the very end. She loved endlessly, and she sacrificed to make sure that her family came first.
14 Don’t sweat the small stuff.
This is cliche, but it’s a big one. People ask me all the time what Nana’s secret was, how she lived so long, looked so great, and was still so spry until the end. It was undoubtedly her positive attitude. My Nana was truly THE most positive person, and this was despite experiencing many hardships throughout her long life. She lived through two world wars (born during the first) and the Great Depression. Her mother died of the Spanish Flu when Nana was very young, leaving her father to care for her and her younger brother and two-month-old sister (she had an older sister who still lived in the Ukraine and she wasn’t reunited with her until years later).
As her father needed to work to support his family, Nana was often left with neighbours, friends, anyone who could watch her, and these people were not always kind to her or took good care of her. She gave birth to my dad three months early in the 50s and he nearly died. She ran a busy restaurant in Toronto on Yonge Street for many years, which you bet was a stressful situation. Her husband died 34 years before her, of lung cancer, and she never took off that wedding ring.
After all of these things, and who knows how many more little things, she was the most positive, uplifting person, and she never dwelled on the past. Maybe her less-than-perfect life allowed her to put things into perspective? I don’t know, but I don’t think I ever saw her without a smile on her face.
As she would always say to me, “Don’t worry, you’re beautiful!” (which of course does not solve anything, but never failed to make me feel better).
13 The biggest power you wield is forgiveness.
Nana forgave. She knew that forgiveness is for our own growth and happiness, and it is forgiveness that allows you to be happy in the present. She understood that when you hold onto anger and resentment, it harms you more than the person who caused it. The only person in the world you have control over is yourself, and you can control how you let situations and people and things affect you. You have the power of forgiveness.
12 It is up to you to make the best of any situation.
At 96 when Nana had to leave her apartment and move into a nursing home, it was not her favourite, BELIEVE ME. She had been living it up independently for years, and she absolutely mourned that loss. But she knew the nursing home was the best place for her. She embraced it, and focused on the good things — meals made for her! Cookies at every meal! Friends! Games! And of course, the care she needed. She kept as much independence as she could while living there, and for a while even did her own laundry to keep a sense of normalcy. She went to all the activities, Bingo, table bowling, mystery word (which is a game I still don’t understand). She made friends. She did whatever she could to make it enjoyable for herself. When Elvis came to the nursing home’s annual family BBQ, she was all over it.
She went to the dining room for every meal and she always looked her best before going. Which brings me to…
11 Always make an effort to look your best.
It’s about feeling good about yourself. Nana took pride in how she presented herself. She woke up early every morning and would get ready, washing up and doing her makeup, including lipstick, to go down for breakfast in the nursing home. Even at 102. Even at 102 she was still getting manicures and having her hair done! She always looked like a million bucks.
10 Thoughtful gifts are the best gifts.
Nana didn’t care about receiving gifts from us, but she sure cared about cards! She saved every card anyone had ever gotten her in a photo album. And she loved reading the messages on them. For holidays all she ever asked for from me was photos of me.
Giving cards was also just as important to her, and she prided herself on finding that perfect card. And she would always add the same message: May all your dreams come true. With love, Nana.” And stickers. She always added her own stickers.
Later in the nursing home if she couldn’t get out to get a card, no problem, she just regifted a card that some random child had made for her.
She just whited out the name to make it her own.
When I was younger I was big into Babysitter’s Little Sister and then the Babysitter’s Club books. Nana kept an updated list of all the book numbers that I currently owned and for every holiday she would buy me a few of the books I still needed to add to my collection. Unwrapping a fresh Babysitter’s Club Super Special that I hadn’t yet read on Christmas morning was THE BEST.
9 Sometimes you’re just going to have to take care of things yourself.
She didn’t like the fan on in the hallway outside of her room in the nursing home because it would make her room cold, and when the nurses left it on she took matters into her own hands. She dragged a chair out of her room, stood on it, and turned it off herself. At 100 years old. One time we were walking through her nursing room hallway and there was a resident in a wheelchair blocking the way. They weren’t moving, so rather than wait it out, Nana picked up her walker to chest height, carried it past the person blocking the way, put it back down and continued walking with it. It was incredible.
8 When the odds seem against you, don’t give up.
When Nana was 99 she fell and broke her hip. We worried it was the beginning of the end. The doctors warned us that she would probably never walk again and to prepare ourselves for the worst. But she just couldn’t have that. She said that she told herself that she WOULD walk again, she WILLED herself to walk, and she was walking again in the hospital the day after her hip surgery! No one could believe it.
She had another fall on her bum just before her 100th birthday party and was not feeling the best the day before her party, but when my aunt told her that she needed to perk up because a lot of people were coming to celebrate her big milestone, she somehow just snapped back to normal!
Again, I think she just willed herself.
7 It’s okay to get dirty, in the kitchen or the garden.
You need to get your hands dirty to insert love into everything!
6 It’s important to be able to laugh at yourself.
My friend Emily went to see Nana in the nursing home when she was about 8 months pregnant and Nana had a moment of confusion, thinking Emily was me and I was the one who was pregnant! It was quite a surprise. When she realized it was Emily and not me she laughed and laughed. When I saw her next she was still laughing at her mistake. Nana had no problem making fun of herself, and that is a quality I admire.
5 Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Nana was incredibly food-oriented and was always making food for us. Banana splits before bed whenever I slept over at her house is one of my favourite memories. One of my first blog posts was about Nana’s love of food! One time I asked what she had for breakfast in the nursing home and she responded: porridge, toast, eggs, yogurt, coffee, and orange juice. Yes, this is for sure where I inherited my love of food. Also there are five ingredients that make everything taste better: butter, salt, garlic, sugar, and of course, love.
Also, there is room for wine in any diet. Or a mimosa on your 100th birthday.
4 Enjoy the little things. They can bring you so much joy.
Cards, cookies, books, the Y&R (she watched it faithfully for years and years), horoscopes, Turtles, afternoon tea, dessert, the love of your family. Well, that last one is a big thing but Nana lived for all the little things and again I think this is why she lived for so long. She always had something to look forward to!
3 Moisturize moisturize moisturize!!!!
She was ALL about moisturizing and credited her amazing skin at 102 to her moisturizer (she used Olay if anyone is wondering, their cheapest most basic one!). I’m crossing my fingers it’s genes but you better believe I’m still moisturizing.
2 Love as long as you live.
Nana lived for the love of her family and she told us and showed us how much she loved us every chance she got. When I think of Nana, love is the first word that comes to my mind.
1 Carry on.
When something seemed insurmountable, when Nana was in pain (she was frequently in pain during her last year or so) she would always say “Well, I’ll just carry on.” It almost became her motto, carry on.
When things seem overwhelming to me, I ask myself what Nana would say, and it would be to carry on. Life is going to be real shitty sometimes. It’s all I can do, it’s all any of us can do, just carry on.
I am no expert at putting any of these lessons into practice, but I hope I have a long life ahead of me to get better at it. I’m so thankful to my Nana for being such a great example and for giving me a solid foundation. It is her legacy to all of us.
(if you enjoyed reaching about Nana, this post about all the reasons she is the best ever is my favourite!)