because she asked
After posting “Lila,” I received a delicious email request from a young cousin.
What was she really like?…Nana…??
I don’t think Joy was even born before we lost Lila to that tragedy on the Burlington-Bristol Bridge; but I have 17 cousins so it’s hard to keep track.
Though I was 14, I don’t remember Lila’s funeral. I remember Auntie Fran’s funeral at the Catholic Church–which I mistakenly thought was Lila’s funeral. Were they on the same day, their funerals? And what about Auntie Ruth? I don’t remember hers at all. Myra’s must have been in her own hometown.
As horrid as it was, there must be something sweet about dying with your friends, especially your very best friend.
And that’s where I’ll start for Joy~
Friends. I remember how much laughter there was between Nana Lila and Auntie Fran–how much fun they had together. I mostly remember them in the kitchen, prepping up a storm. I think they had a catering business together for awhile.
I remember parties at Auntie Fran’s and across the road on the bay at the Breder’s–catching crabs.
I remember digging for clams at the River Place and I remember lobster.
That would be one word to describe Lila.
I would wake each morning at Nana’s to find her at her kitchen desk, pencil behind the ear, mouth pursed, working on a crossword puzzle, or a grocery list or plans for the day.
Although I was only 7 the first summer I spent with her, she allowed me free range of our island town during the day. I just had to tell her my plans–and eventually show up at the Yacht Club where I’d order a burger from the Galley and catch up with her somewhere inside.
Lila didn’t sail as far as I know. I don’t remember her dancing like the photos I see of Poppop. She cooked. And planned. And tended.
She would put us all in the bath or the outside shower (depending on the season), and then line us up on the bed to powder our bottoms.
After we were dressed, she’d clean our ears with a cu-tip from the ceramic swan on the vanity sink in her bedroom. Then she’d comb our hair–holding each chin firmly (and I mean, FIRMly) so that there would be no wiggling.
Occasionally, she let me lie down on her reclining chair and place the hair dryer over my head–just like I was at a salon!
Once, when I was just coming of age, she let me blow dry her hair–a first. And it looked good. She had just gotten a new haircut (maybe even by your mother) and she didn’t know how to use a blow dryer. (She had always worn a wig or put curlers in her hair.)
I remember her kitchen rules. “No children in the kitchen before or after dinner–until you were old enough to help.” I had just made it into the kitchen when she was taken.
I remember the looks when Uncle Jeffrey’s hip young wife (your mom) couldn’t wash the dishes without rubber gloves due to a soap irritation.
Lila’s “no nonsense” didn’t leave much room for “variables.” And your mother was a big outspoken “variable” while all the older son’s wives just did what they were told.
I remember my mom standing up to Lila just once–and it still makes me proud. Nana Lila had come down to the cellar to find that my younger sister Robin and cousin Sandy had been playing with her doll house from Switzerland–and had wrecked it.
She was so furious that she spanked all three of us–even though I hadn’t been with them. I was the “oldest” and should have stopped them, she said.
I loved that doll house–and loved that my petite, demure mother defended me to the likes of her towering mother-in-law.
Lila was an enigma. Beloved–and blasted–every evening. Typically an excellent cook, I remember many dinners with raw biscuits and other inedible items that I would covertly spit out in the conveniently located toilet off the kitchen.
Stern all day, in the evenings Lila would lavish affection–sometimes embarrassingly so. I remember many evenings at the Yacht Club, pulled onto her lap, while she smothered me with kisses–telling everyone how much she loved me and that I was “her first granddaughter”
I could see that everyone, like me, knew that she was drunk, and I felt complicit.
I remember fights between Nana and Poppop. I remember her trying to send us to bed in the dormitory over the garage way too early. I couldn’t tell time, but I checked the television guide and it wasn’t even 6 yet.
My favorite fight was the epic one at the River Place which was also witnessed by my sister Robin and cousin Sandy. Poppop had gone to bed early (maybe he had been in surgery all day) and Nana was in the kitchen when Frank Sinatra’s, “My Way,” came over the radio.
Lila turned the radio up full blast, explaining just as loudly to her amused (and concerned) granddaughters that THIS was how she lived HER life: MY WAY!
Within a few moments, our typically good-natured Poppop was up and out of the bedroom shouting, “LILA, turn that GODDAMN radio OFF!”
We all still act out that scene now and then–with sweeping arms and great drama. My Poppop’s funeral was the last time. He was in his early seventies. Lila died 20 years earlier.
I thought Lila was beautiful–and was surprised one day when my stepmother said to my father, “You mother wasn’t very photogenic.”
But Lila had that affect on people. Even after she was dead, they were threatened by her lack of approval.
I remember another epic fight–this time between my father and me in London, outside a restaurant. He raised his hand above me–and was stopped in his tracks when a guttural voice rose out of all of my five feet to say, “DON’T YOU TOUCH ME!”
Later I was told that he returned to the restaurant and told my stepmom that he saw both his ex-wife and his mother–Lila–in me. I was so proud.
Lila, and her mother Mildred (Nana Burrows), instilled in me a love for travel–and for education. Mildred went to college back in the days when women didn’t and she taught in a one room school house until she got married. Later she traveled around the world with our great-grandfather who was a Merchant Marine.
Lila attended college too in the 1940s when it was still rare for women to do so. She studied French with the aspiration of working at the U.N. She got pregnant with my father instead. (No wonder that relationship was strained.)
In middle school, I studied French too, and when I began my advance studies in high school, Nana would help me with my translations. We always thought we would travel together. She thought I’d make a great cruise director 🙂
She had begun to inquire about whether I was menstruating too, and I think that I would have appreciated her matter of fact approach to life as I came into adolescence. Maybe, she would have helped me avoid some big mistakes.
Maybe there wouldn’t have been so much infidelity in the family either. She certainly would have called people on it if she knew; though why she never addressed it more directly in her own life must have led to her drinking…
So dearest cousin Joy, who once wrapped me around her finger with her sweet toddler-faced requests to take her into the ocean, I hope this in some way answers your juicy question–
and I look forward to harvesting more at another time.
Until then, know that Lila was
all in one.
Other pieces touching on Lila’s life and mine: