She called me Sugar. She was an old, Southern woman, so she said ‘Sugar’, but we heard ‘Sugah’. I would call her on the phone and she would say, ‘Heeeeeeey Sugah!’ She called me ‘Stinkpot’ when I was being cheeky, and I still, to this day, do not know what a stinkpot is. It was just one of her words. Like, ‘sack’. It was never a bag, always a ‘sack’. And it wasn’t Shrimp, it was ‘Srimp’. She called me Sugar and I call her Nama, the name I gave her when I was a baby. Nama is my grandmother. And Nama is dying. Her body is being overtaken by cancer and it is happening at a rapid pace. I took my children to see her two weeks ago and she didn’t know who any of us were. It broke my heart. I remember thinking, angry almost, how can she not know who I am? I have all these memories of us together and she has none of them. How can that be? Half of those moments spent together are now gone because she can’t remember any of them. Ever since then, her mind and her body have been deteriorating.
She is very weak, asleep most of the time and mostly confused as to where she is and what is going on around her. She asked my mother today what is happening to her. My mother told her she was very sick. Then she said again, but what is happening to me? And my mother simply told her she is about to go on a journey. She said, You are about to go on a journey to a place where there is no pain, where everyone is happy, a place where you will get to be with people who love you very much. My mother told this to her mother, as her eyes remained closed and she remained quiet. She asked her if she understood what she was saying, and Nama took my mothers hands and brought them close to her heart and nodded her head, yes. Yesterday I saw her and I believe she knew it was me because she held my hand as tight as the disease would allow. When she opened her eyes and saw my face in front of her, she reached out her frail arms and held me close. I brought pictures to show her, and stories to tell her. I don’t know how much she could hear, but I felt that she knew it was me. I had to believe she knew it was me.
Nama has always been a superb grandmother. She was a far greater grandmother than she was a mother. I don’t think she is to blame for that. She and her husband got divorced when my mother was very young and she had to work full time to support her three children on her own. So my mother was raised by a woman named Lizzy, who did everything a mother should do. Lizzy cooked, she cleaned, she scolded, she comforted, she loved, she healed. Nama worked. My mother and my grandmother never had a great relationship. But Nama, the grandmother was amazing. She would take my brother and me to restaurants, to movies, she would buy us things. We felt her love every day of our life. I always felt sad that my mother wasn’t able to feel the love that I felt from the same woman.
My brother and I spent many Fourth of July’s with Nama. She would take us to watch the fireworks at a park in Charlotte and I remember laying on the hood of her gold, Dodge Intrepid, mesmerized at the sky, while my little brother’s sleeping head lay limp on my shoulder. She took us to the mall and we would eat lunch at the food court. Our lunch was always the same: Mexican Pizzas from Taco Bell. I spent many childhood birthdays at her condo on Sugar Mountain and many summers with her on Hilton Head Island. She would play her favorite musical soundtrack for me on the way to the beach. The Phantom of the Opera seemed to be the exact length of the trip and I now know she did it just to keep me occupied for the long drive as my brother slept in the back seat. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas was spent with Nama and on every Christmas day we would eat her famous Roasted Pecans and drink her Boiled Custard. It’s been years since I’ve tasted either one of those things but I can still remember.
I loved going to Nama’s house. It felt like a vacation. I can still smell it, I can still see it, every corner of that house is still in my mind. I remember playing with her Hummels and music boxes in the room with the bright green couch. I remember her hallway closet where she kept her vacuum cleaner and her bottles of Coca Cola. I remember wiping my nose with the peach colored tissues in the bronze box. I remember sitting at her dining room table that is now my dining room table. I remember her big basket of match boxes that she kept in her living room. I remember playing with her perfumes and her jewelry on her bedroom dresser. I remember it all.
Nama always kept the same things for us to eat at her house. Things that I can’t look at now without thinking of her. My brother and I would snack on sour cream and onion Pringles from the tall, green can near her microwave in the corner of her kitchen. We would sneak handfuls of peanut M&M’s from the crystal candy jar in the study. We would shove green grapes, ice cold from the fridge, into our mouths and laugh at the chipmunks we became. Cool Whip would be eaten straight from the container, even though she had it there for strawberry shortcake. We would eat fruit cocktail from the green glass bowls and fight over who got the red cherry until Nama would simply take it away and eat it herself, just to get us to stop fighting. Our dinner was always poached chicken breasts, buttered white rice and lima beans. And she made the best scrambled eggs on the planet.
My brother and I would watch Ziegfeld’s Follies or Dirty Dancing on VHS, over and over again. Those were the only two movies she owned. And we listened to the Phantom of the Opera so many times I can recite the words in my head still to this day. She had the chance to see the show on Broadway and wanted me to feel as though I was in the audience as we listened to it. She would narrate as the tape played, describing the characters and explained the difference between Christine and Carlotta. She said she wanted me to be a Christine. She was sure to heighten her storytelling as it came to the point in the play when the chandelier swung into the audience. She did it so well that I became so excited and almost scared whenever it happened. It never got old. When I saw that play many years later, I felt like I had seen it a thousand times. Those songs still make me think of her.
When I was with her yesterday, she never let go of my hand. My mom and I stayed there for awhile, three generations of women together for possibly the final time. My mother will go back to be with her many more times, but I don’t know if I can do it again. We stroked her hair, shared our favorite stories, and I tried to think of how to say goodbye to the woman who started it all. So when I had a moment with her alone, I held her hand in mine and sang her our favorite song from her favorite play.
*Nama’s Boiled Custard
-4 cups milk
-4 eggs, separated
-2 TB flour
-1 cup sugar
-1 tsp vanilla
–(You can use a double boiler, which is the traditional way to make this, or use this shortcut that my mother created below)
–Scald the milk in the microwave for 8-10 minutes in a large mixing bowl. Meanwhile, separate your eggs into two bowls and set aside. Mix the flour and sugar in another mixing bowl and add some hot milk, but not all of it, until you get a thick liquid. Beat your egg yolks and add them to the mix. Stir well and add more milk as you’re stirring until your mixture has thinned. Microwave this for 6-10 minutes, checking and stirring occasionally, until you get a medium-thick consistency, like a milkshake. Allow this to cool. Beat your egg whites to soft peaks and fold them into the cooled mixture and add your vanilla. Refrigerate until you’re ready to serve. Serve cold.
–(you can make this thicker if you’d like to eat it with a spoon by cooking it longer and adding a bit more flour. You can add bourbon to it to make a great after dinner drink, or it would also make a killer ice cream base. This is also the base for Nama’s banana pudding.)