When my Nana passed away, 16 years ago now, she left me — or was given to me — two memorabilia.
One is a painting I loved as a child – The Man in the Golden Helmet. On the back, she had written “For Steve, when I’m done.”
But above all, I was given Nana’s little leather notebook containing 50 lined pages, 45 of which are filled.
“Nana” is what we used to call my grandmother on my dad’s side, but she’s become synonymous — especially in the Bay City, Michigan area — with Virginia Lange.
Nana, even when she was over 90, could still be seen pedaling her white basket bike around our neighborhood. Rowing a green canoe on the river that connected his house to ours. Then, on Sunday, dress up—always dress up—and go to church.
Every summer, from when I was 5 to 15, Nana would take me and another grandchild camping in her little teal blue trailer from 1959. Camping with Nana meant coming home with a legendary story. Like that trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, when, on a scorching hot day, Nana mortified us by taking off her shirt and sitting in front of the RV in her pants and bra.
“People will think it’s a swimsuit top,” she assured us. But we knew. We knew.
On summer nights, she would sit on her swing and listen to Detroit Tigers games on the radio. She took our gin rummy subs. Reading cheap romance novels (and insisted that she “skip over the racy parts”).
Her diary entries span 73 years, from “June 10, 1933: Married” to January 25, 2006, just months before her death. I can’t read the last one. She continued to take notes even after her handwriting couldn’t keep up with her.
Between the two, she documented about 800 events – one-line reminders of a dozen memorable moments a year.
No embellishment. No emotion. Each line, if you were to think of it as a handwriting exercise, carries the same weight. Which seems impossible for the woman who regularly laughed until tears filled the inside of her glasses. Who cried on TV shows if animals were in any danger.
The second line marks the birth of my father. “March 22, 1935: Birth of Ken.”
Third line, the birth of his only daughter. “May 27, 1937: born Judy.”
Line four: “December 26, 1938: Judy is dead.”
So it goes through the next eight decades.
“I have a new Springer puppy, Scout” (May 11, 1943). “Bought a new Electrolux vacuum cleaner” (December 6, 1950). “(His) Tom has scarlet fever” (April 15, 1951).
Bought a used boat. Attended a hockey game in Detroit. Scout killed by a school bus.
I have a new Schwinn. I went to Milwaukee, saw the Tigers play. I bought a used Ford Fairlane.
Occasionally she’s included newspaper clippings (like my parents’ wedding announcement which includes a photo of my late mother, then 20 years old and – it seems impossible – the same age as my eldest daughter now).
Plastered ceiling in the living room. Purchased television (Crosley). Art and I took a 25th anniversary trip (Quebec).
Bought a 3 horsepower Evinrude outboard motor. Repaired broken washer. I received two electric blankets as a gift.
Nana didn’t need to embellish. These two- and three-word entries tell you everything you need to know.
Piano bought second hand. Pear tree planted. Birth of Stephen Kenneth (that’s me!).
The line on her husband’s death (“February 10, 1970: Art is dead.”) resembles those around it.
“Jimmy went to the hospital with an ear infection.” “New bike (Huffy).”
When she was 94, Nana fell down her basement stairs – upside down.
There’s an entry, in his most shaky handwriting: “October 11, 2004: Broke neck.”
That, we all thought, might be everything for Nana.
Instead, she chose to go through the long and painful process of rehabilitation. She spent weeks wearing one of those mechanical halos to keep her neck straight, counted the minutes until she could take her next painkiller, went through the simplest exercises.
Even then, the notebook entries relate to neighbors and grandchildren. Kenny and Natalie graduated. John and Ophelia got married in Hawaii.
Nana could no longer ride a bicycle. Or row his boat to our house. Or sit in a campsite in pants and a bra.
But she managed, one more Sunday, to get dressed and go to church.
Shortly after, she was gone. It was one of the monumental losses of life.
If Nana had to write it?
“June 13, 2006: Nana passed away.”
Steve Lange is the editor of Rochester Magazine. His column appears every Tuesday.