One day near the end of the school year, I picked Austin up and he insisted that we call his Nana. “Today at school,” he told me, “we had a cake made out of ice cream for a birthday party. I want to call Nana and see if they have those kind of cakes in Texas!”
I smiled, and felt a bit guilty too. Had I really never introduced ice cream cake to my 7-year-old?
We called Nana, and she picked up on the first ring. “Hi Nana,” Austin started.
“Austin!” Nana shouted. I could picture her face – smiling and full of life.
“Guess what?” Austin asked her. “We had this cake at school today and it was made out of ice cream. I was thinking that since Texas is really hot, maybe they have ice cream cake in Texas and maybe we can get one when we come and visit?”
She laughed. Nana has this big-hearted Texas laugh that fills a room with joy. “Oh honey, that sounds like a wonderful idea!” she said. “We’ll definitely do it.”
When we arrived in Texas a few weeks later, Nana had ordered not one ice cream cake, but two. That’s just the kind of person Nana is.
Nana is actually my aunt Nancy, but to all the kids in the extended family, she’s just “Nana.” Nancy married my dad’s brother Fred many decades ago, and although she’s not blood-related to me, she’s always been a constant in my life. When my sister was a baby and I was only about three years old, my mother was hospitalized for her depression. My father was working full-time, and after a while realized that he couldn’t handle it all. Without any explanation needed, Nancy flew up to Oregon and got my sister and I and brought us back to Texas for an extended stay. She already had three boys of her own, but as she has always said, “there’s always room for one more at the Clark household.”
Maybe that’s why every single day at Nana’s house feels like a party. Sometimes, I turn around and random kids I’ve never seen are swimming in the pool or watching a movie while sitting on her bed. When a neighbor shows up asking to borrow something, he gets invited in for a plate of food. I’ve even seen her offer a glass of wine to the mailman (he declined, but I think appreciated the offer.) Some days, I honestly can’t believe that she can tolerate such a high level of chaos and messiness. But she always says that she feels blessed that she has so many great family and friends around her.
Maybe it was years and years of watching Nancy invite everyone happily into her home that made me call her that cold December day last year. All I knew was that Christmas was rapidly approaching and I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle everything with Shawn in the hospital. I remember picking up the phone to call her, not sure if I was going to ask her to come and help or just see if she could talk to my dad about him coming early. But when I heard her voice say, “Hi, honey,” I just started crying. I could barely get out a few sentences before she said, “I’m coming.”
She came, and she stayed. She walked the kids to school and wrapped Christmas presents and answered all the neighbors’ questions. She left her own five grandchildren in Texas and Maryland and instead spent Christmas morning with my children, laughing at their joy and making Christmas feel like Christmas. When we all thought maybe Shawn would recover, she went home, only to return just a few days later for his funeral.
And then she stayed some more. She stayed for the weeks following the funeral and talked to the many people who came to the door. She played video games with the kids and made sure we always had clean counters and floors. She sat calmly at my kitchen counter every evening, watching my face to gage my emotions. I remember, years earlier, how she had done the same with her husband Fred, who eventually also died from cancer. In many ways, she understood my pain in a way few others did.
She stayed until February came and I knew it was time to let her return home. The kids cried the day she left. I think they wondered how we would make it without her.
And so, the kids counted down the days until our summer vacation in Texas, until they could see their cousins, their Grandpa Tom, their Aunt Terry, and their Nana. They were not disappointed. Nana’s house means unlimited swimming, mountains of ice cream and constant movies shown throughout the day. It also means following only two house rules:
- If you want something, get it yourself
- There’s no crying unless there’s blood
Basically, it is kid paradise.
But I think what makes Nana’s house so fun isn’t just the carnival-like atmosphere. Lots of sweets and movies gets old after a while. What makes Nana’s house so fun is Nana.
On the fourth of July, for example, she said she had a surprise for all of the kids. She brought them to her back porch, and I went out to help. “Go back inside,” she said, only to me.
I did, and I watched her let all the kids crowd around her. She was telling them all something that made their eyes go wide. Just then, I saw her run across the porch and jump into the pool fully clothed. All of the kids screamed with joy. “Well what are you waiting for?” she asked them, laughing. “Come on!”
Soon, over a dozen kids were jumping in the pool, all of them also fully clothed. They got their Aunt Terry to come in as well, and then some of the adult cousins. Their faces were priceless, and this cover photo is my attempt to try and capture the joy.
I don’t know what makes Nancy more awesome – her calm and loving presence when it’s most desperately needed, or her ability to embrace every moment and get the entire Clark family swimming in a pool with all of their damn clothes on. Maybe it’s that she does both with a full heart.
Today is her 70th birthday. I forgot to get her a card, but I know I am so lucky to have had her in my life all these years.