Part of the collection. How a big, fat mistake can live sixty-five years.
| NANNY'S LOVE|
Sometimes it’s not love, or even lust, that fuses two people together. Sometimes it only takes one big, fat mistake. And, when that one mistake grates enough on parents’ nerves, the result can last sixty-five years.
My Nanny was our original story keeper. I would sit at her knees for hours, like a starfish sunning in shallow water, soaking up every story she told. Nanny was my mother’s mother and I never tired of spending time with her. To this day when I pull her into my memory, I am reminded of her big, flappy arms wrapping around me, holding me close. I remember the fun times we had, her as big a kid as us. And I remember bold, bright colors.
By the time I was eleven I thought I had heard every story that woman knew. Each a seed, planted in my fertile mind, accompanied by the vivid pictures I watched race before me as she spoke. I committed every image to memory, each painted in pigments as dazzling as Nanny, herself. As Nanny aged, she told the same stories over and over. I didn’t mind. I’d fetch those pages, making sure no white space remained.
One of her favorites was about how she and Pappaw met. She’d always set the stage, her smile as bright as her twinkling eyes. When I saw those eyes glaze over, I knew she was standing in her front yard, in rural Arkansas, circa 1925.
“Back then we were all poor,” Nanny would say. “But we didn’t know it. We lived in the country, and everyone had to work to make sure we all ate. That’s how it was for all country folks back then. We worked hard so when we had a chance to play, we took it. From time to time someone would host a social and neighbors for miles around would come for an evening of fun.
“As sunlight dimmed, someone brought out a jug and mothers banished kids. Whoever was hosting would move all their furniture out of the living room, roll up the rug, and that’s where they’d dance. I loved it when Mama and Daddy hosted because we kids could hide and watch. We’d sneak outside and spy through windows. They always had so much fun!”
I knew from other stories that Gramma and Grampa Apple grabbed hold of good times with both hands, every chance they got. Being the eldest of their seven children, Nanny held the position of head babysitter. It wasn’t long before everyone else dumped their kids on her, too. I wanted to envision her as a nineteen twenty’s Cinderella, except she seemed to enjoy her lot.
“And those who played instruments would bring them along,” she’d continue. “Your Pappaw and his wife, Jessie, would play. She played the guitar and he played the fiddle. I always kept their little boy, your Uncle Frank.”
“Wait, wait, wait . . .” I stammered the first time I heard it. “Pappaw married? And you’re not Uncle Frank’s mama? What?” I must have been eight or nine years old and my eight or nine-year-old brain was stumbling all over her words.
“Yes, Stephie,” she explained. “Your Pappaw had another wife before he married me, and Frank, Jr. was their little boy. Jessie died when he was only three and a while later Pappaw and I got married, then I became Uncle Frank’s mama. He was so little, and he’s always been as much mine as your mama or any of the other kids.” Nanny paused a few minutes before going any further. She watched my face, waiting to see that I had sorted out the message before she went on.
“Pappaw and Jessie moved away when I was almost sixteen,” Nanny said. “When we heard somewhere that Jessie had died, I felt so sorry for Frank. He loved her so much. Then, when I was seventeen, he came back for a visit.
“I was a nurse’s aide, working at a little hospital. It had this huge front porch where patients could go out for fresh air and sit with visitors for a while. Well, Gramma Appleman came in one afternoon at the end of my shift. She said, ‘I have the greatest surprise for you, Sister! You’ll never believe who’s outside.’ I was so excited I ran right out onto that porch and threw my arms around him. I gave him the biggest bear hug you ever saw!”
Gramma and Grampa Apple were happy to see Frank at first. But the excitement faded after they found out he had only come back to see Nanny. They didn’t like the idea of their young daughter spending time with a widowed father eight years her senior, and they told her so. Undeterred, Nanny, snuck out to meet him in town.
“We went to the picture show the first night,” Nanny recalled. “I never can remember what was playing but it was nice, being with him.”
Pappaw was a quiet guy, always quite practical. It only took a couple of nights before Pappaw was certain Nanny would make a good mother for young Frank. Nanny was confident Pappaw would take good care of them. They married two weeks later.
Frank and Mary Louise Appleman Smith’s marriage lasted sixty-five years, until he died. Nanny often remarked that Pappaw had given her a wonderful life, and she would not have changed a thing about it.
But I was grown, with a grandchild of my own, before she confessed the rest of the story.
I was forty-five years old and she eighty-nine when I spent one of the last weekends I would ever spend with my Nanny. Her, me and nobody else. “Did I ever tell you about how Pappaw and I started dating?” she asked as we moved through memories I had heard all my life.
“You sure did, Nanny. I can tell you the story if you want,” I responded, giving her a wink.
Nanny went on, ignoring me. “Well, I was seventeen years old, and I was working in a hospital,” she started. “It was time for me to get off work one Saturday evening when Gramma Appleman came in and said she had a great surprise for me. ‘You’ll never believe who’s outside,’ she said. I was so excited I ran out onto that porch and threw my arms around him. I gave him the biggest bear hug you ever saw!
“The only thing was,” she continued, “it wasn’t until I let go that I saw it was Pappaw. I thought it was someone else, a boy who moved off. I had been in love with him for years.” Head lowered, inspecting her floorboards, she raised her twinkling eyes to meet mine.
I couldn’t speak. Dumbfounded, I sat there staring at her, not one muscle twitching.
“Guess I never told you that part of the story, did I?” she asked.
“No, Nanny, you never did.”
“Well, I think you’re old enough to know now,” she said, smiling.
My heart swelled as I painted another image. I pictured a young, impetuous Nanny, dressed in white, nurse’s hat perched on top of her head. She’s running onto the wooden porch, heart pumping so fast she didn’t think to look at the man whose back faced her. Seventeen-year-old Nanny, who had just made the best mistake of her life.