Sometimes people become friends simply by chance. She was in her 60s and we were 10 or 11 when we first met her. Even though she wasn’t related to us, we called her Nanny; just like everyone else did. By the time we met her, Nanny’s life was almost over. Fifteen or so years is not long enough to spend with a friend, but that was all we got.
Through the years, we spent many days at her house; we in our cool new school clothes, she slouched on her couch, in her “flouncer” and slippers. We would watch tv, smoke, eat, tell her about our crushes, laugh at her stories; always deep in conversation. Late into the night, we would climb the staircase and fall asleep in her pink ruffled bedrooms, wake very late the next day and repeat the cycle. She called us her stooges.
As a young woman, she was stunned when she sent her husband out one evening to buy chicken for dinner, but instead, he vanished. Her “one true love” just disappeared into the night; never to return, never to come home. He left her alone and devastated with three young daughters in tow. After that, much of her life was a struggle, yet she raised her three daughters and a granddaughter with something like sheer determination.
She was a tidy housekeeper. She was a good cook. She loved her weekly trips to Kmart. She only shaved her legs for the doctor — hilarious to us, all those years ago. She would only take her pills with buttermilk; to which we would pantomime vomiting. Her sense of humor was scathing and we loved it. Her favorite thing was bingo; once a week — never, ever missing it. B-11 was always calling her name.
Nanny’s philosophy was “life is a party” — a big bingo game. Have fun while you’re here and get out when you’re done. Follow the rules. Don’t get too greedy. Play your favorites. Sometimes they never call your number. Sometimes you’re “on” all night. Mostly you lose, but sometimes you win. It’s still fun to play either way. Go home when you’re out of money. You can play again next week.
Her second husband wasn’t the best man, but he was bearable. She waited on him while swallowing her pride; truly grateful for the security he provided. They fought angrily as they grew older together, but she somehow kept her sense of humor. Her husband regularly called her a “feisty old bitch.” During one heated argument he flung the nickname “Bingo Bitch” at her. It stuck. She laughed out loud at that one.
Even though Nanny was old fashioned and had her own set of morals, she was not naive to the sometimes tragic decisions of teenagers. She had “street smarts” and common sense. She paid for her granddaughter’s abortion. She knew we were wasting our lives with sex, alcohol, shoplifting, ditching school, and drugs. She disapproved; sometimes quietly and sometimes very vocally. But we were her stooges and she loved us anyway.
When her second husband died, she moved away, and we didn’t see her much after that. We would sometimes drive up to her new duplex to visit. She sat hunched over on her old couch like always, but her choice of clothing was not her flouncer: she had dressed for our visits. I guess by then she considered us company.
Eventually pneumonia left her in the hospital, and it played havoc with her. We were afraid for her, and for us. She had IVs and monitors attached to her, and tubes down her nose and throat. Those tubes left her without a voice, which was a rare and painful situation for Nanny. She relied mostly on hand signals, and occasionally wrote things down on paper. When she choked from the fluid in her lungs, she did so without making a sound: her body wracked, but silent. We stood by helpless as the nurses bent over her. She kept making a curious pinching motion with her fingers. This meant she wanted her lungs suctioned out, because she couldn’t breathe; that frantic, futile pinching; over and over she pinched and pinched, helpless and frightened. The nurses blocked our view of her face, but we could clearly see those frenzied, trembling fingers pinching in vain.
When they told us her body was shutting down and it wouldn’t be long, we didn’t realize they meant within the week. When we saw her lying in her bronze casket with eyes closed, we remembered her sitting on her couch, in her flouncer, with eyes open. She looked the same.
What must it feel like when you can’t take a breath?
Dianah Hughley has been a bookseller for Powell’s Books since 2008. She mainly writes staff pick reviews, so this essay is a big stretch for her. She works in the blue room and specializes in literary and Pacific Northwest fiction. She lives in Portland with her husband and many, many — too many — books.