The Past in the Present: An Open Letter to My Daughter

Dear Grace,

Last week, you felt nauseated before bed. You went into the bathroom and sat down on the cold tile floor, taking comfort from the chilly porcelain. You smiled faintly when I joined you down there, and we talked about this and that—nothing really, and everything. After a few minutes, I grabbed a bottle of hand lotion and asked if I could rub your feet. You raised your eyebrows a little but nodded. I rubbed your long, narrow feet—the same size as mine—with the lotion. And then, in an almost blinding flash, I remembered the spring of 1997.

That was when my Nana, your Nana’s mother, was at Mass General Hospital being treated for pancreatic cancer. Your Nana and I often visited her, and during those visits, my mother would rub her mother’s feet with cream. I used to marvel at the quiet intimacy of this gesture, and here I was, without a thought about it, doing the same to you. Four generations of women, united in this single small act… In that bathroom, I felt the presence of my mother and grandmother and something sacred pressing on us from above, from below, from all around.

I wish you could have known my grandmothers.

My Nana was a tall, slender whip of a woman who was always dressed properly, with pearls around her neck and her hair perfectly done. In her Rhode Island house, the beds were exquisitely made up with off-white bedspreads, and the Lazy Susan on top of the round kitchen table bore fresh flowers, often cosmos or zinnias from her garden. For a long time, she intimidated me. She devoted her life to her family and to a few causes dear to her heart, among them Middlebury College and Planned Parenthood (which was an even bigger deal back then than it is today). The birthday cards she sent arrived right on our birthdays, written in her small, perfect script. She and Ba loved to sail, and one of my favorite photographs of my grandparents was taken on Fleetwing, their boat. They’re both in profile, smiling out at the sea. They embody the Saint-Exupery quote from The Little Prince: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

My father’s mother, Gaga, was entirely different. She was tiny, with white curled hair and a lot of strong opinions. The steep steps to her attic held dusty boxes filled with old costumes and were lined with walls of books. She could not contain her dry sense of humor and keen intelligence. Had she been born in another era, she would have made an outstanding doctor. Instead, Gaga majored in zoology at Wellesley and spent substantial time volunteering at the local hospital. I remember going with her on some of those visits, trailing her as she talked to patients, read charts, and put in IVs. Gaga loved Miss Piggy, Erma Bombeck, and roses, which she grew in her beautiful gardens along with Black-eyed Susans she planted for my mother, her first daughter-in-law. She mothered four boys and embraced me, her first grandchild and a girl, with particular enthusiasm. Like Nana, she was a devoted Planned Parenthood volunteer and a lover of the sea and sailing. From Gaga, I learned that the pillow with arms, against which she lay on her bed to read every night, was called a “husband.”

Nana and Gaga were entirely different from each other, but I adored them both. They were an important part of my life until my twenties, and I still think of them every day. They provided me examples of strong women with passionate interests and loyal commitments to their families, dedicated quietly but fiercely to the life of the mind. They were principled and strong in nature, as similar in spirit as they were opposite in form: one tall and one short, one smooth and one rumpled, one dark and one fair.

Years ago, when your Nana went into the hospital for some minor surgery, I kept her wedding ring safe by wearing it. For weeks, every few minutes I’d catch a glimpse of my right hand bearing the ring my father put on my mother’s finger and experience a surge of something as powerful as it was inchoate. The way I feel about Nana and Gaga’s influence on me—and your grandmothers’ on you—isn’t far from that feeling. They exist in me in ways less visible than that ring but just as real. When I see you with your Nana or Grandma, I think often of my childhood visits with my Nana and Gaga, and it’s as if the tide’s coming in and going out at once, the past and present overlapping, enriching each other—a maternal line.

Watching you take flight into adulthood, I’m reminded of all the ways that inheritance works. Their blood pulses in your veins, of course, as it does in mine, but their legacy also exists in a tangible way. You, like me and my mother, have Nana’s last name as your middle name. Your passionate love of animals echoes Gaga’s interest in zoology and medicine. Your coloring, which is so different from mine—dark hair, olive skin, dark eyes—is a gesture back to Nana’s. Your sense of humor, sometimes sly, often witty, has reminded me in breathtaking moments of Gaga.

I often sense my Nana and Gaga hovering around both of us, silently but strongly, as I did that night on the bathroom floor, when you felt ill and I comforted you. My love, my thoughts, my very body itself connects me to them and them to you, in a graceful spiral of time.  

I wonder what details you will remember of your Grandma and Nana when you reflect on them many years from now. I can’t wait to hear.