Her name was Bertha Mae Coombs, but we called her Nana. Sometimes we used to call her “Westbrook Nana” because we had another great grandmother we referred to as “Norway Nana”, but most of the time we simply called her “Nana”.
Nana lived, for as long as I could remember, in Westbrook, Maine – right next to a church. When I was little, Westbrook was home to a functioning paper mill – and upon entering the city limits, my siblings and I would grimace and plug our noses and say “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeew” in the car with our aunts or our parents due to the rotten egg smell of the mill. We would park in front of Nana’s place, walk up the steps to the apartment hallway on the first floor, and the boards under our feet would creak. Nana would open the door and then she would invite us in, immediately trying to shove food and drink down our throats. Because that’s what Nana did. Nana always tried to make sure we were fed.
Being a young boy, visits to Nana’s house were lacking in fun for the most part. She had a room full of horrific dolls, all smiling with their dead eyes. But no action figures. No video games. Nothing of the sort. So I was forced to resort to other entertainment, such as drawing, reading, watching All In The Family or Unsolved Mysteries as I ate spoonfuls of peanut butter and drank milk from my position on the rug in front of the old television set with the knobs and the antennae. Later on in life, I would come to reflect on those times and see that the lack of toys and other things forced me to interact more with Nana and also do more creative things like draw or write. I may have been bored back then, but my imagination was made better for it.
When I was really little, Nana was with a man named Clayton. He was gruff, and he dressed like someone from the 1950’s – complete with horn-rimmed glasses. He was stern, and sometimes he grew impatient with me or my brothers. On one occasion, I remember he yelled at me for running in the apartment when he was seated in the kitchen. Nana was not having any of that, and gave him an earful about yelling at her great grandchildren. Clayton later died. I never knew the full story, but from what I understand – Clayton had diabetes (something Nana lived with for much of her life) and eventually died from its complications. He’d even had to have one of his legs amputated due to gangrene. (Still not one-hundred percent on that, though, so I could be wrong. If anyone tells me otherwise – I will update this story with the correct information.) Later, she ended up with another man named Milton Coombs, and the two of them eventually married. Milton, to me, seemed a much kinder man and he tolerated us kids more than Clayton ever did – though he dressed pretty much the same as Clayton had done before him.
Nana was a fiery Irish woman, daughter to her parents – Patrick and Annie Laughlin. That fire in her veins manifested itself in our family stubbornness and in a love for drink sometimes when she was a bit younger. I remember that even well into her seventies, she would still enjoy coffee brandy and spiked punch.
The 25th of July, 2015 marks three years since Nana passed on. She went out on her own terms, and though I didn’t agree with it – it was how Nana wanted it. Nana usually got what she wanted. She was the glue that held our squabbling family together for many years and I owe most of what small success I have partly to her and her efforts when my siblings and I were younger. So, when she decided she no longer wished to receive her dialysis treatment – my family flocked to her home to sort of all say our goodbyes to her.
Admittedly, I couldn’t handle it. I’ve never been good with death in general. It’s one of my worst fears. When I was a child, I used to lay awake at night and mourn the deaths of all my loved ones – though they hadn’t passed yet. I used to see their faces and only see rot and decay, the loss of life, the passing of time. When I went to visit Nana during her last days, she was calm and chipper. She didn’t need to complete her treatment, so she was free to eat what she wanted and do what she wanted. She enjoyed a few things, and while it was good to see her perhaps more alive than I’d seen her in some time – I couldn’t help but notice that after a few days time on the calendar – absolutely nothing was scheduled.
I cried for a long time, there at her house. I tried not to let my family see it, tried not to let Nana see it. I was eventually able to rein it in for some family photos, but if you look closely at the photos – you can see I am not composed. And eventually, the tears escaped me anyway. “Joey” she said to me, rocking back and forth in her chair. “Why are you crying?”
That was Nana for you. She didn’t want me to be upset that she was going, but happy. She grilled me, perhaps trying to make me forget about the tears. She asked me about school. I had just come back from a semester of Stonecoast in the summer, and I told her all about that – though she never got to see me graduate. I’m glad she knew I was going back to school. I told her about other things, too, like a girl I had met – my current girlfriend, Dorothy. We caught up a little bit. One of the last times I heard from her was on the phone, when I was at work. I called to check up on her, and we spoke for a couple of minutes. “I love you, Joey,” she told me. It was the last time I ever got to speak to her until I spoke to her body at the wake, through my sobbing tears. “I love you too, Nana.”
I regret a lot of things about my relationship with Nana. When I was married, I let my real life take over. She lived only a town or two away from me, but I was always so busy with the wife, the dogs, and the wife’s family that I scarcely had time for my own, it seemed. I wanted to bring Nana to the Old Country Buffet – one of her favorite places to eat – but we never ended up going. She moved to Oxford, to live closer to my grandmother (Nana’s daughter) – and then before I knew it she was gone.
I miss Nana every day. She was quiet, but thoughtful. She was opinionated. She was strong. So very, very strong. I keep thinking about the many different lives she must’ve led that I never got to hear about. She was my age during the 1950’s – which is hard to wrap my head around. That means she lived through the Depression, as well as a bunch of wars and political turmoil. But she thrived, she helped create our family, and she was the head of the family for a long while – inspiring most of the women figures in my life to follow her lead on lots of different things. My little sister definitely followed her lead and now lives by Nana’s example, and I’m so proud of her.
During Nana’s wake, I couldn’t do anything but cry. I just stared at her little body in disbelief. The woman in the casket was the same woman who used to bake us amazing peanut butter cookies before her hands grew too shaky to do it on her own. The woman in the casket was the same woman who used to walk with me through downtown Westbrook and let me pick out a toy from the rack at the supermarket. The woman in the casket was the same woman who watched me and my siblings when my mother was giving birth to my youngest brother, Alex. People rubbed my shoulders or patted me on the back, but I was in shock – all the way until I helped carry her, as a pallbearer, to her final resting place – on a sunny hillside in Standish – where Nana grew up and where I attended college.
Nana left a great legacy, and I hope that I don’t disappoint her with my life choices. Even though she’s gone, I still hope that at some point, I can make her proud. With that, I will leave you with Nana’s prayer.