For sixty-one years my grandmother was Mrs. Harry C. Hank. She ate what her husband ate, voted how her husband voted, and ultimately learned to want out of life what my grandfather wanted. In that respect, Nanny was very much a woman of her generation.
My grandfather wasn’t always an easy guy to get along with. A Lutheran minister and a pillar of the community, his guidance and leadership were often called upon by friends and strangers. To the public eye, he was gregarious and reliable. But privately, Pop was unyielding in his convictions, ironclad in his routines, stubborn in his negotiations, and generous and dependable on his own terms. He was, as the saying goes, a good provider. So good that my grandmother was afforded little opportunity to exercise her own agency, pursue her own interests, or provide for her own needs. Like so many women of her generation, Nanny spent her life in service to her family.
When Pop Hank died in 1994, I think we all assumed that without his needs to absorb Nanny’s energies, and his demands to fill her time, she would be lost, bereft of occupation and purpose. What would she do with her days? How would she fill them? Who would she talk to?
My mom and my grandma had a complex relationship, probably because they were so much alike. It was often as if they were out of patience with each other before they’d ever begun. It didn’t seem to matter how firmly they resolved themselves to diplomacy or civil obligation—after the briefest of exchanges, they often devolved into a prickly state of nervous exhaustion.
Following Pop’s funeral, my mom stayed in Palm Springs to help get her mother’s affairs in order. Mostly, I imagined, to rumble through her house like a tornado, emptying drawers, gutting closets, and encouraging my grandmother to dispose of truckloads of junk that had been accumulating since the Truman administration. Patent leather wallets from Turkey, dusty encyclopedia sets from 1953, marmalade jelly packets filched from Knott’s Berry Farm in 1967, along with a lifetime of photographs, keepsakes, and letters.
Knowing that my mom could be a little bullish and unsentimental in her approach to cleaning house, especially on the heels of a tragedy (something my family is accustomed to), I, at that time a thrice-unpublished novelist, drove down from Los Angeles to make sure my mom and my grandma weren’t at each other’s throats. I expected that after two weeks holed up together, they would welcome me as a sort of arbiter, a mediating party to help settle what was sure to be a series of disputes and a litany of disagreements. I figured when I wasn’t ironing out discord, diverting squabbles, and generally saving the day with my male presence, I could score a few free meals and maybe a Turkish wallet. Heck, maybe even a little cash to put in it.