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My first Christmas without Nana
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For the first time in my 54 years, a very special woman won’t be at our family Christmas gathering.

My grandmother, my mom’s mother, passed away 11 days ago. She was 96 and lived a long and fruitful life.

She wasn’t just a grandmother. Oneta Dodd was my Nana, a pillar in my life.

She helped teach me to be a better person, much about God, and how to treat others. I watched as she served others. You could say she lived a righteous life, which I suppose sounds too ethereal. Maybe it could be better said that she tried her best to live the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If that sounds too churchy, try “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

Nana didn’t use foul language, didn’t drink and never indulged in extravagant things like cruises or travel out of the U.S. She visited Disneyland only once. She loved to fish. She loved to grow things from the ground. She loved to sing and she loved country and gospel music. She loved to tell others about Jesus. She knew how to laugh and smile. She had this silly foot shuffle that she called a “jig” which I captured once on videotape as she stood at the northern end of the Knights Ferry covered bridge. I have got to find it.

Hers was a hard life. Born in Oklahoma in 1919 to a dirt-poor family, the only way the kids knew it was Christmas was the smell of oranges – their only gift. Imagine any child today being happy with a piece of fruit which they routinely get on a lunch tray. She told me that at times she’d have to eat banana – peelings and all – for sustenance at lunch.

When her mother was committed in October 1936 to a mental institution for a three-years stay, my 17-year-old Nana was forced to drop school as a junior to take care of her year-old baby sister. She raised Alice by default of being the oldest and only female child in the family while her dad worked the fields. One of the saddest things I heard out of her mouth was that her father never said he loved her. But as she said, “I can’t help what’s happened in the past … but I just try to let it go.”

Nana regretted not graduating with her classmates and she longed to go back and earn her diploma. She died without one. 

She died without a lot of things but one that she enjoyed in ample supply was love. She loved people and people loved her.

On Oct. 24 we gathered for a birthday party at her favorite eating place, Hometown Buffet in Turlock, to celebrate her 96th. Nana was strong, a bit hard of hearing, but we had no idea it would be our last gathering with her. She had only 50 more days to live.

The night of Nov. 13, Nana slid off the bed and onto the floor. Too weak to pull herself up, and because she had not taken my advice to carry her cell phone on her, she spent the night on the cold floor after failed attempts to pull her bed spread on top of her. When my uncle Roy came to check on her the next morning, she was calling his name. She went to the hospital later that day, never to come home again.

For a woman who had never been in a hospital in her life, she went very fast. Confusion and dementia rapidly clouded her mind and she couldn’t understand why she was in the hospital. Her heart was failing.

Memories flooded my mind as I held her hand, covered by tissue-thin skin that bore dark blotches. Those very hands searched to find the face of her first grandson in blankets as my parents arrived at Fort Mason in San Francisco aboard a Navy ship after my birth in Japan. Those hands must have changed thousands of diapers in the family. Those hands applied gobs of Vick’s salve to my chest during colds. She buried her face in those hands upon hearing that her granddaughter, my 10-year-old cousin Sandra, died of leukemia in 1975. I saw those hands take fish hooks and cuts from paring knives. Her hands would cruelly slit a rabbit’s throat and ring the necks of chicken for meals but lovingly patted the faces of ones dear to her, especially the children. She loved children but those hands also spanked bottoms when need be. They touched people she prayed over them and cooked thousands of meals.

She never stopped smiling. She never stopped trusting. She never lost hope.

“Jesus loves you” she’d tell those she encountered. “Trust in the Lord” was another phrase.

Nana went home Saturday evening, Dec. 12. Her heart gave out after beating an estimated four trillion times since Woodrow Wilson was president. 

I’m sad but oh so very grateful that I was blessed to be her grandson.

Everyone should have a Nana like I had.