This is a letter I wrote to my Nana when I was in high school, so you’ll forgive the slightly childlike prose. We’ve begun to lose her now, not so much to a death of the body, as a death of the mind. Let this serve as a reminder to us all: love those you have while you have them, enjoy each and every moment as it transpires. Right now… is already gone.
My whole life, I have looked on you as a giver, a friend, a hero. In the sixth grade I stopped biting my nails because I wanted to be just like Nana when I grew up. I always thought of you as this celebrity figure, a grande Queen of Pittsburgh who wore huge rubies and emeralds and diamonds and extravagant fur coats. I told anyone who would listen about my Nana and Pappy and their Pittsburgh dynasty. They were King and Queen, with matching Cadillacs and matching jewels. Nana had fiery hair and long red nails, and she always looked young and beautiful. Pappy was a most generous King, and he had a secret closet with locks on the doors. Inside were all sorts of treasures, his giving tree. That closet was like Santa’s bag of toys. Precious gems, stacks of money, important papers, and boxes of cigarettes for all the good little boys and girls.
Pittsburgh, your home, your love, has enriched my life more than I think I could ever make you understand. You have had a key role in shaping me as a person. I have all of these beautiful memories, this childhood rich in love and adventure. Pittsburgh was my playground, and you were my best friend. Together we conquered every mall in town, never leaving empty handed. We walked the length of Carson Street, and I learned what a Gyro tasted like. We watched every ‘80s horror movie imaginable, nestled into your big, comfy couch. If I was scared, I came to bed with you, and had the best sleep of my life burrowed into your extravagant feather bed, enveloped in total darkness.
One day I hope to have a daughter of my own. One thing I wish so much that I could give her is what I had. You. Pappy. Pittsburgh. I want her to enjoy you, as I have. I want her to have all of the gifts you have given me – my life, my mother, my family… I owe them all to you. I want her to know all the beauty of looking out an airplane window, at all of the green hills and Northern houses, and imagining that she sees Nana’s house. To feel how refreshing a shower can be, when taken in a bathroom high above the world, while WDVE plays on the radio, and the sun pours in through the open window. To smell the glorious scent of $20 Nexxus and Paul Mitchell shampoo, to feel the non-slip flowers under her feet as you put your makeup on from the other side of the shower curtain.
To breathe in the familiar smell of Wonder Bread and Chips Ahoy as she slides open the top of Pappy’s bread drawer.
To know the difference between Pittsburgh chipped ham that Pappy bought just for her, and any other ham on Earth. To know that if it isn’t paper thin, shredded, from Giant Iggle, but most importantly, if Pappy didn’t buy it for her, make a special trip to Giant Eagle before she arrived in Pittsburgh, then it just isn’t chipped ham.
To taste a Lenders Onion Bagel, smothered in melted butter, and to know that it always tastes better if Nana made it, but it tastes the best if she steals it off of Nana’s paper plate.
To arrive at Nana’s house straight from the airport, and after sniffing the bread drawer and eating a handful of chipped ham, run up the carpeted stairs, through the bathroom, to lean out of the open window, perched high on top of the world, see Mt. Washington and Kennywood in the distance, and to feel, in that instant, that she is truly home.
I want her to sit in wide eyed amazement as you show her your newest ring, the biggest diamond she has ever laid eyes upon, set in a metal called platinum.
I want her to sit on Nana’s commode (you always used the best words), and feel the summer breeze on her face as it gently flutters the long, lace window curtains across her legs.
To lean out that bathroom window, into a cool summer’s night, and ask what all of those twinkling lights are.
I want her to spend a significant part of her young life thinking that Mt. Washington is a real mountain.
To take The Incline to Station Square.
To cut up hotdogs to feed to the fish at the trailer.
To count the days until she is 15 and can drive the golf cart.
To take $10 from Nana and buy candy and ice cream at the General Store.
To paint ceramics on a Saturday, and do the Electric Slide at the Teen Dance that night.
To go on wild adventures into the woods, holding her cousin’s hand.
To tell ghost stories in the attic.
To hear your ghost stories from when you were young, some that happened in this very house.
I want her to go shopping at Kaufmans, and walk out with you on one arm, and a huge bag full of clothes that were NOT on sale on the other. Then go with you and Pappy to The Ground Round at Century III, and taste her first rack of baby back ribs.
I want her to be dazzled and awe struck by all of your jewelry, and then almost faint with excitement when you let her try on all of your rings at the same time.
To use your rubber door stop in the bathroom, only to learn that a door stop isn’t going to stop Nana, that she is coming in no matter what you are doing in there.
To play dress up with all of your stiletto heels, and feel sad when the day comes that her feet will no longer slip easily into your size 5.5 shoes.
To hear words and phrases only Nana could say, in a way that only Nana could say them, like “Oh Fiddle Sticks” , “Hells Bells”, and “Old Battle Axe.”
I want her to taste a pizza that Bobby got from Italian Village.
To go for a ride in Pappy’s Caddy.
To learn to drive under the watchful eyes of Aunt Cathy and Aunt Susie.
To roll down the hill at Equal Bank with Nicky, Leah, Michael and Jessica.
To marvel at the graveyards in Pittsburgh.
To sneak into the graveyard behind Jessica’s house at night.
To be thrilled by the presence of hills.
I want her to catch lightening bugs in a jar, and refuse to kill them and pull their lights off, rather, watch them in all of their living beauty.
I want her to fill hundreds of water balloons with your hose, and have water balloon wars with her cousins in your front yard.
To wonder why any house needs a basement below the basement as she tip toes down there to retrieve Freeze Pops from the ice chest.
To taste grape Hi-C out of a box from your fridge.
To take the $5 Nana gave her, and walk up the street to CoGos to get a Blueberry or Cherry Slush Puppy.
To know the only lady in the world who smokes Pall Mall cigarettes in the burgundy box.
To be sound asleep in the trailer, tucked into the bed with way too many cousins to possibly move a limb, when she hears the sound of Nana’s voice, “Wake up little rosebuds… Wake up…. WAKE UP LITTLE ROSEBUDS!!!”
To taste Hutchinson Inn fresh baked cookies, and get a lesson in being assertive as you and Mom give everyone an hour to retrieve their cookies, then tip toe from door to door and sneak all the cookies out of the other guests’ baskets.
I want her to sit in front of you on your couch as you brush her hair, then set it in curlers even though you both know that her hair will never hold a curl.
To eat blackberries that she picked from the bush growing below your deck.
To hear the sound of each creaking step as she climbs up to the attic.
To always take inventory of where things are, so that she might catch the attic ghosts moving them around the room.
To wonder what on Earth that tiny door in your house is for, and to imagine all sorts of scenarios that only a child’s imagination could bring to life.
To dissolve in fits of giggles in her sailor dress as she and Leah lean out the bathroom window and toss random odds and ends down to the deck below, where the grown ups are celebrating Aunt Erin’s baby shower with a parasol and a watermelon basket full of impossibly round balls of fruit.
To spend a summer day in South Park, surrounded by a huge crowd of aunts, uncles and cousins who love her, and to have you to thank for that family.
To watch Pet Semetary in your living room, with all the lights turned off, then come to bed with you and never once feel afraid.
To sit by the pool on Sanibel Island, playing in the water as you and Pappy take pictures and video.
To hear your infectious laugh, and know that no other sound in this world can brighten a room quite like that.
To see all of the incarnations of your house over the years: the new bathroom, all of the new kitchens, and living rooms, and never once stop feeling like this house is home, no matter what color the carpet, or texture the wallpaper.
I want her to think of all of that beauty every time she smells Estee Lauder Pleasures perfume, on a lady in an elevator, as she passes by a co-worker, or reaches in to hug someone who somehow smells just like Nana. She will find herself smiling for the rest of the day, as the scent of a perfect childhood follows her home.