My Nana. Nana Burke is a giant piece of the puzzle of My Story.
This post is about my Nana Burke, my mother’s mother. She died in 1982 as the age of 81, and I think about her every day. Nana Burke was a tiny little woman with a great big heart. I swear that she was not 5′ tall. She was a little wider than she wanted to be… but she wasn’t about to give up her ice cream or her corned beef. No way.
Nana Burke is a giant piece of the puzzle of My Story.
My Nana Burke was born Mary Agnes Allen, the 4th child and first daughter of Michael and Agnes Allen of Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents would go on to have 3 more sons and then another daughter, Theresa. I was my Nana’s 3rd grandchild, but first granddaughter, and we had a very special bond. She loved to tell me stories about how she grew up in Boston surrounded by 6 brothers… brothers that one time actually beat up an “Italian boy” who dared walk her home from school. She would tell me how much she really liked that boy… but it wasn’t meant to be. She, instead, fell madly in love with a handsome Irish lad with piercing blue eyes and platinum blond hair. That would be all right with those 6 brothers because that lad would be my grandfather, Edward Francis Burke, a nice Irish fellow. I never knew my grandfather, who was a fireman for the city of Boston, because he died of lung cancer at the age of 45. But in happy times, Edward and Mary would have 7 children, 2 boys and 5 girls. My mom was their 2nd child and first daughter. My Nana would live to see 12 grandchildren, 6 boys and 6 girls, with her husband there in spirit.
My Nana loved her children. She adored them. I remember sitting at her big kitchen table with her when I was a young girl and listening to the wonderful stories she told of her babies. She told of how they were named. She told of the tragedy of her 2nd little girl, Dorothea, who died at age 3 months. She told of how her girls were great dancers. She told of suitors and broken hearts. She told of their wedding days. She even told me the “untold” secrets of suitors who got away. Of one thing I was certain… and that is my Nana loved my father. She told me of how she never thought my mom was going to get married, and all of her brothers (my mom’s uncles) had my mom labeled an “old maid.” She said that my mom had so many men in love with her, but by the time my mom was 25 years old… well, it was getting worrisome. Then a handsome sailor danced into my mom’s life, and the rest was history. They met on New Year’s Eve 1950, were married in August 1950, had my older brother 9 months later, me 16 months after that, and my younger brother 2 years later. This made my Nana very happy… I think because my Nana so loved being a mom that she wanted all of her girls to feel that same happiness.
My Nana was a great cook. I swear she wasn’t as tall as her stove, but she could sling a roasting pan like it was a feather. She made all the holiday family meals until the year she died. She had a big old house with a big old kitchen with a narrow little pantry that held all of her magical tools. She made the best cup of tea anyone ever made. And her Saturday night meal of beans and franks with brown bread still has me drooling. I never ate franks for my mom… she just couldn’t do it like Nana. And, in fact, I haven’t eaten many hot dogs since my Nana died. I can’t. No-one could make a hot dog like Nana. You know how people either boil them or grill them? Well, Nana Burke did both. She would boil those little suckers, then cut perfect little slices in them, and then grill ’em ’til they were perfect. Perfect. I have tried it myself, but it is almost blasphemous. Ah… to have one of them now. Nana also had lots of aprons… the kind that you slip your arms into and then tie or snap. They were always green or blue prints, except at Christmas. Christmas aprons were red and white and green and Christmas-y, covered with poinsettias and stars, always removed carefully from the bottom drawer of her big dining room buffet hutch.
My Nana also cursed. That was such a treat for me. My mom just doesn’t. Ever. Never did. My mom is a true, true lady, and I love her for it… but my Nana could hurl a string of obscenities like a pitcher throwing a perfect strike. Now don’t get me wrong. Nana Burke didn’t do this in public. No. She would do this to the Red Sox on television, or from the window of her front parlor if the trash collector missed her stop, or from the back seat of the car if some as#$%& cut you off. Then you’d see this perfect little lady with the white gloves, pearl earrings and pillbox hat cut off someone’s proverbial balls with one clean strike. I wish I had one of her tirades on tape or video, just to keep up her legacy… one that I am all too happy to carry on. Sorry, mom!
And my Nana smoked. She smoked Lucky Strikes… a lotta them. But she was always going to quit. I still remember her sending me and my cousin Debbie “just down the street to Sam’s Market” for a carton of Lucky Strikes. We didn’t need money for the cigarettes. Sam put them on her tab. But Nana always gave my cousin Debbie and me actual cash for the little treats she wanted us to have. As I think back, Nana had probably convinced herself that she didn’t really spend that much cold hard cash on the cigarettes ‘cuz she never took any money out of her pocket. I still remember Nana sitting in her chair, and it was her chair, holding a butt between her fingers as it often burned to a long, solid ash before she flicked it into little glass ashtray that sat next to her chair. I was mesmerized by that 1-inch ash thing for the longest time.
But what I remember most about my Nana is that she was a real nana. She was a huggy, warm, loving, cuddly, laughing, solid, eye-twinkling nana. Nana let us comb and brush her silky gray hair with her special comb and brush sets. She smelled so wonderful of Jean Nate and Dial soap. She let us try on her great big shiny earrings and pins. She sneaked dollar bills into our pockets. I knew that in Nana’s eyes, I could do nothing wrong. She loved me unconditionally. She loved in me, around me, through me. She loved me when I was little, medium or grown. She loved to talk to me. She loved me to listen to her. She loved that I loved her memories and her stories. I know she loved all of her children and her grandchildren… all of us are a bit different, but that never mattered. Nana’s love was the most all-inclusive that I’ve ever seen or experienced, and it is this lesson that has shaped my life. She taught me that love is never divided… it is always multiplied. The spring never runs dry.
When Nana died back in June 1982, I cannot say that a piece of me died with her. Actually, I find that a piece of me got bigger and better and more beautiful. Each time I open my oven, each time I slip on a potholder, each time I sit with my grandchildren at a “tea party” or hand one of my grandchildren a dollar bill, each time I hug or kiss or cuddle one of them… I feel my Nana Burke. She is always smiling. She is always there.
And when the Red Sox make a terrible play or blow a game… oh, yes. I channel my Nana Burke then, too. I’m sure my Nana will be keeping a good eye on the 2016 Red Sox Home Opener against the Cleveland Indians tomorrow at Fenway Park.
My daughter Audrey will be at the Sox Home Opener with my husband Barry and our two sons. Nana just might show up, too!
GO SOX! GO NANA!