Green Cat Pancakes and the death of Nana


My maternal grandmother, Nana, died last night at 11:30 Pacific time. I found out this morning from my mom while I was in an altogether different timezone, still hugging the Pacific, but from the Hawaii side. And honestly, because I’m not there, it’s hard for me to wrap my heart around her passing. How can someone so full of life be drained of it?

Nana, you see, leaves a love gap in her wake of a beautiful, spunky, enigmatic life.

She flat out loved me.

The reason I do artwork stems from her ardent admonition that I start a line of cards called Love, Mary cards because I always made a little Hallmark-like insignia on the backs of my homemade cards.

When I fashioned pancakes into bears and cats and doled them out to my children, I was simply emulating Nana’s ritual of love. I remember ALWAYS being excited to spend time with Nana (and my grandfather, whom I’m named Bopo). She would wake me up in the morning, make those green cat pancakes, and we would venture on our days together–things others might find mundane–a trip to Helga the beautician, an adventure to the mall that lived just down the hill from Nana, grocery shopping.

She made me watch Ben Hur, told me I had to, that I would thank her later, which I did. (This hinted at her tenacity and bent toward control.)

For a short period of my little life before kindergarten, she and Bopo provided a home, took pictures of me, and helped me settle into love. That’s when I discovered my life long love of nuts, cracking them, then squirreling them away in the stairway lug nut cavities for later retrieval. (Oh how she told that story over and over).

When I’m stressed, I walk through their daylight rambler in my mind, recalling memories–the red carpeted bar in the basement, the nostalgia room with quilts and dolls and old browning photos, the sewing room, the layout of the living room with that knotty cream couch with artwork displayed perfectly above, the galley kitchen with their big stove complete with a griddle (for crafting those pancakes), the ancient and somewhat scary freezer in the garage full of foods from previous decades, the dining room that Bopo built himself that housed hundreds of family gatherings, the basement with the midcentury modern white divan and the hanging swing chair, the store room full of food just in case the world might end, the guest room, Bopo’s office, the smell of the laundry room, the back yard patio where even more memories were made.

She made sure I smiled on Santa’s lap, and she displayed those pictures of her children, me and my cousins Carrie and Curt on a ledge Bopo fashioned. This was simply tradition.

Nana taught me to love cooking. Always a good cook, she seemed to exist to feed people, and what feasts we had. I am sad that today so few people take seriously the importance of dinner parties, holiday feasts, and the simplicity of tunafish sandwiches served with love. She seemed to glow in the presence of others, cherishing them, asking questions, making them feel at home.

Sometimes when I spent the night with her, she’d make me breakfast in bed, with a painted bamboo tray, those same green cat pancakes, and a smile.

Nana taught me much, but one thing I particularly cherish about her was her ability to love people. In the South we say “love on” others, and that’s what she did. Perhaps it was her Southern upbringing in Oklahoma that pioneered that desire, but the more I learned about some of the more difficult things from her childhood, the more I realized Nana simply wanted to create what she didn’t necessarily have when she was younger. Fiercely determined to gather her family around her, she practically mandated Sunday dinners, and those gatherings have imprinted on me forever.

“So when are you coming to see me?” This question became her mantra the moment our family of five left the pristine beauty of Seattle to settle in Texas, then France, then Texas again. And even as her mind meandered to places none of us understood, that question had a way of making it through her garbled memory to her lips. All she really wanted was her “babies” to be near.

She called me Baby. She called everyone Baby. Maybe because, in her mind, we were all her babies. And now we are her legacy.

Nana was the beautiful matriarch of a fiercely funny, independent, flawed, and deeply dedicated family. The love gap she leaves behind is as wide as the Oklahoma sky. We will miss her loving us. We will simply and profoundly miss her.

And as the sun sets on the Big Island, and I’m sitting here grieving behind a computer screen, I feel a profound sense of gratitude for a life that spent itself in love and the careful crafting of green cat pancakes.