The thing I remember most about Nanny was her eyes: huge, pale, worried eyes. She was so tiny that it was difficult to tell that she was my ancient great-grandmother.
She seemed more like a child, but of course no child would dress that way. Nanny wound her long tresses of white hair into a bun and dressed in what my sister, Lucy and I called “old lady dresses.”
On her feet were the old black shoes that seem to be in vogue today. In those years, they were strange and ugly to me.
When Mother took her four children to visit Nanny, she would load us into the old Pontiac along with the Phillips Milk of Magnesia and the can of snuff for Nanny.
There weren’t many occasions that I recall seeing Nanny.
There were some Thanksgivings at Papaw and Mamaw Webster’s but Papaw died when I was very young. Nanny outlived her own son.
She went to Iowa a lot. “I-O-Way” is what she called it. And she lived in “rooming houses.” Almost every time we visited her she lived in a different place. She must have been very poor, but my child’s eyes couldn’t see that.
One early December day Mother said, “Get in the car. We’re going to see Nanny.” I grumbled under my breath, “It smells at those houses.” Mother heard me, giving me a sharp look. We drove to an older section of town. What had once been a grand house was now a shabby old dwelling.
It had Victorian leanings and a beautiful beveled glass door. Nanny was waiting just inside, her eyes bright as birds. She gave my mother a little pat on the shoulder.
Nanny had on her pearl necklace, and her white hair glistened with the light. She seemed unusually cheerful. “Sing me a song, girls,” she said. Lucy, my sister and I were famous in our family for “putting on a show.”
We loved the attention.
“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,” Lucy and I harmonized. We blended well as sisters usually do. At the song’s end I felt warmer than I had at first, because the house was cold. “only a heater in my room,” Nanny explained.
Nanny’s room was very plain. But in her window was a decoration - the prettiest I’d ever seen. It was merely Christmas wrapping paper, but it was the most beautiful shade of blue. It had the manger scene with the Christ child and stars all over. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it.
“I love your Christmas decoration.” I said to Nanny. Mother was trying in vain to talk her into coming to our house for Christmas. Nanny said something about having to tend the birds.”
Then, as we were leaving, Nanny went to her window, took the wrapping paper down and handed it to me! “There honey, now you have a happy Christmas,” she said.
I couldn’t speak. It was such a pretty gift. “Say thank you, Laura Lee.” mother said sternly.
“Thank you Nanny.” I said, hugging her waist. Her eyes twinkled and she said to my mother. “She’s got Guy’s eyes.”
You took Nanny’s only decoration,” Mother fussed at me on the way home. “You’ll just ruin that pretty paper and it will be thrown away.”
“No, I won’t.” I insisted. But I was wondering what I would do with it. Our house was small and cluttered. There was no room on the walls or windows for anything.
I sat on the bed holding the wrapping in my lap. Mary’s face was so pink and the baby Jesus looked the way he ought to look. The paper was crisp and soft to the touch. “Poor Nanny,” I thought. I was beginning to feel a little sorry that I had accepted her only Christmas decoration. Now, she had none.
“I’ll just watch the birds.” Nanny had insisted to my mother. “I like to watch the little things.” That seemed to me a sad way to spend Christmas Day.
“She didn’t want to be a bother,” I overheard mother explaining to Daddy. He always wanted family around and couldn’t understand why our great-grandmother wouldn’t spend Christmas with us.
Christmas began for me when we brought the tree in. We spent many hours admiring it and dreaming of what Santa might bring. I didn’t give Nanny much thought. That is until I was looking for my shoes and found the Christmas wrapping crumpled under my bed.
I tried to smooth it out again, but the color had worn away at the creases. It was dirty and smelled musty. I sat down on my bed, my mother’s words echoing in my head. “You took Nanny’s only decoration. You’ll just ruin that pretty paper and it will be thrown away.” I felt the hot tears welling up and tried to will them to go away. I thought of Nanny so alone, with just the birds at Christmas. I sobbed.
“What’s wrong?” Mother said, standing in the doorway. Then she saw the crumpled paper. “Honey it’s alright. It was just old paper anyhow,” she said.
I sat up, looking out the window.
The snowbirds were pecking at the ground. I got out my watercolors and paper and sat down to paint, watching out the window. Before long I finished painting the snowbirds and signed the painting, “To Nanny from Laura Lee.” I wrapped it in the Christmas wrapping paper and laid it under the tree.
Christmas came and I got my cameo ring that year. We went to visit Nanny. She opened my present to her very carefully, and she seemed pleased. She patted my shoulder and said to my mother, “I just wish Guy could see her.”
I still have a little scrap of that blue paper tucked into the family Bible. I’m just waiting for my own children to ask me about it. Maybe I’ll tell them, some Christmas Day.
I wrote this story about my great-grandmother, Tamsie Leona Nolen Webster in 1988 for the Newport News Daily Press Heart of the Holidays Writing contest and won second place. The story was published on Sunday, December 25,1988
More on Christmas at The Christmas Alliance.
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