Norma Jean Curtis had 10 grandchildren, and I was lucky enough to be one of them.
We moved to Missouri from Oklahoma just before I turned 8, but my family made the three hour drive back to Muskogee often to spend the weekends or holidays or weeks in the summer with my Nanny and Papaw. Many times, my sisters and I would try to sleep on the long ride, but even with our eyes closed in the backseat, we could just feel it in our bones when the car turned onto Smith Ferry Road. We'd feel the pull of that little gray house on 24th Place and know as soon as we rolled into the gravel driveway that the light on the post in the front yard would go on and that the two people who made us feel the most treasured in all the world would be coming out onto the low front porch to kiss us hello and bring us in. Being at Nanny's house was always a treat, and I think even as a kid I knew and appreciated that. She was so magnetic, and my sisters and I were so drawn to her and prized our time with her so much, that we would often even follow Nanny into the bathroom and sit with her so as to not miss even a minute of basking in her warmth. She never seemed to mind the invasion of privacy.
When her grandkids were coming, Nanny would stock her little kitchen with all sorts of treats, many of them novelties my sisters and I didn't get to have at home, like individually wrapped beef jerkies, Ritz crackers and the E-Z cheese that came in the spray can, Borden ice cream and chocolate Magic Shell, tiny cans of Donald Duck orange juice. I remember there being such bounty in that old kitchen...any craving satisfied by all the snacks stacked on the metal cart next to the fridge, always feeling like I could have my fill, that there was always more where that came from.
How many times in any given day must that wooden screen door from the garage into the kitchen have slammed shut as us sweaty kids burst in to grab the scissors from the drawer under the oven and cut the top off another plastic Flavor-Ice popsicle or pour a tiny paper Dixie cup full of Dr. Pepper? In that same drawer there were all sorts of notepads and pencils and pens and tape, even a little handheld label maker, all at our creative disposal. I never felt like I had to conserve or skimp. This is not to say that Nanny taught us it was okay to waste--quite the contrary. She was just generous in all she did and had and was, and I know there are many people besides her grandkids who could attest to that. Norma Curtis was such a giver.
I guess Nanny and Papaw's house was actually quite small, but that never occurred to me growing up. You can imagine the crowd at holidays when their four daughters would meet there with their families, but we always made do, pulling a hodgepodge of stools and chairs around the kitchen table and around pop-up tables in the living room for big family meals. I remember piles of presents and kids all over that little living room floor at Christmas. At bedtime, the couch bed would be pulled out and pallets spread on the floors in every room. The luckiest of all would get the cot next to Nanny and Papaw's bed. Whether there was a full house or just a small batch of us visiting, the rooms would get quiet as we all settled into bed. Nanny would remind us to jiggle the handle on her "crazy commode" if we got up to use it in the night and after a busy day of tending to us, she'd lay down next to Papaw in their double bed at the back of the house and soon we'd hear them both snoring.
I think of those nights now as having such an intimacy about them, all of us breathing there in that little house, whispers barely muffled by those thin walls, the sounds of a train on the tracks a few streets over lulling us all into a comfortable, familiar, communal sleep. In the mornings, Nanny would wake us with coffee breath greetings and enticing offers of Eggo waffles or hard-boiled eggs or cinnamon rolls, all delivered between succinct kisses on our cheeks from our stuffed animals. We'd brush our teeth with the monogrammed toothbrushes she'd ordered for each of us from Lillian Vernon and then the day would unfold, each one as easy as the last.
I can still picture her side of the bathroom counter, with her Avon products and her jewelry and her little plaques with wise words and phrases to live by. Around the house, she had shadowboxes filled with thimbles she'd gathered on her travels and other shelves full of the myriad frog figurines she'd been given over the years when word spread that she liked the little green creatures. I'm not sure she really did, at least not enough to amass such a collection, but she did all things graciously, and must have accepted them knowing it was hard to buy gifts for a woman who gave everyone else so very much.
If we had the luxury of a long, unscheduled day at her house playing in the backyard or riding horses or running back and forth to Aunt Lorene's house, Nanny might settle into her chair just inside the front door and caddy-cornered to the TV. On the small table next to her, she'd have the Muskogee Phoenix, a word search book and a pen, the Westside bulletin, her address book, her Bible, maybe the remote and an Avon catalog, and a drink, usually tea or Dr. Pepper, always with a napkin wrapped around the outside of the cup. Sometimes she'd ride bikes up and down 24th Street with us. Lots of days she'd be in the kitchen canning green beans and other vegetables from Papaw's garden. We'd snap green beans for her, and I hope we didn't whine too much about it. I'd find the ritual of doing so such a comfort and pleasure if I could do it now. She also used to sew and among many other outfits she produced, I distinctly remember a pair of fruit-print "jams" shorts she made for me. She banned the phrase "I'm bored" at her house, but there was enough to do that she probably didn't have to. She taught us kids to play dominos around the kitchen table, and I still haven't figured out how she was able look at the dominoes already played and quickly calculate which of the remaining tiles each of us must have as she coached us on possible moves. She was so smart and quick-witted and I am grateful that she never just let us win. A few of us even sat at that same table and let Nanny give us perms over the years. The whole house would fill with that familiar chemical smell as one of us sat in curlers with her kitchen timer clicking there before us, confident that Nanny would make us beautiful. She took most of her pictures of us, beautiful or not, with a big, clunky Polaroid camera. The instant pictures were magical and the film was an expensive luxury. She was the only person I knew who had such a thing.
She was indulgent and would leave us kids to our own devices much of the time, but I think we were all aware of her expectations of decent behavior and she'd set us straight if need be. More challenging grandkids like my sister Lindsay and maybe even my cousin Jeremy could recall Nanny's discipline tactics better than I can, but it's my cousin Landon who met the most legendary corrective action. It was so long ago I can't remember the exact offense, but several of us sat sheepishly and silently on the couch as Nanny had a more heated one-on-one with Landon at the back of the house. When he joined us back in the living room, he dramatically warned, "Nanny spanks hard! She spanks like this!" and swatted a wooden bookshelf, rattling the clock and trinkets on it and causing Nanny to swoop back into the room and grab Landon up for round two as the rest of us sat wide-eyed in fear until much later when we felt it was safe to giggle at the irony of the situation. These times were rare, but I just know that while we were about as spoiled as any kids could be in many ways, Norma Curtis had a strong sense of what was right and expected the same of us when we were under her roof.
If we weren't busy at the house, we were out on the town in Muskogee. Nanny would fit as many of us as she could into her Ford Crown Victoria and have us countdown to see who could buckle up the fastest. She'd lean in for a kiss and say "my corner" at most turns. She'd take us to the mall or to Hobby Lobby or to T G & Y, maybe Honor Heights or the USS Batfish outside of town. At the mall, she'd sit on a bench outside the stores and let us browse for things she could treat us to. When we'd come back to her, she'd always say, "Well, did you find anything you couldn't live without?" When we'd get home, she'd have us pull our new clothes and shoes and treasures out to show Pop at his seat on the end of the couch. We'd carry a big stack of refillable plastic drink cups into Big Cheese Pizza, and I remember Nanny loving the breadsticks dipped in their cream sauce. She signed several of us up for swimming lessons at the Red Cross building in the summers, and generously invested the money and many hours sitting in the hot, steamy air on those concrete bleachers it took for us to become confident swimmers.
We still laugh about how she would introduce us to just about anyone we encountered around town, so proud of us that she thought even strangers would want to know where we all lived, how many hours we drove to get there, how old we were, what we were up to for the day. When I became a teenager, I would often bring a friend on my visits to Nanny's house, and she always made them feel not only welcome as guests, but like they were one of her own. One of her many "adopted grandkids."
Even when I wasn't at her house, I still felt close to her because we exchanged letters, probably from the time I could string sentences together until well after my college years. The letters thinned as she got older and thought that her penmanship wasn't easy to read anymore. Today we have email and cell phones, but nothing really compares to how I felt at any age when I would see her handwriting on an envelope addressed just to me, or when I'd hear her voice over the phone long-distance launching into "Happy Birthday" as soon as I answered on my special day. I can still see her there at the white, rotary dial phone on the wall in her kitchen, with phone numbers scrawled in pencil directly onto the drywall beside it, some of them in my Papaw's handwriting also if I remember right. There was a calendar there, too, with everyone's birthdays and anniversaries labeled. She always remembered.
I might have first learned to write as I sat beside her in church and doodled on stationary she'd brought from her job at Oklahoma School Supply, and I know exchanging letters with her regularly only strengthened my love for and mastery of the written word. Nanny and Papaw were so good to take us trips across the United States, and I smile when I think of how Nanny would keep written travel logs in little spiral notebooks during each one. Even if she just recorded where we stopped for gas and how many hours we were in the car, she was a writer and I now see that she is much of the reason I am one, too.
Nanny would commemorate the days leading up to every Christmas of my childhood, maybe even up into my college years, with a construction paper tree she had cut out and festooned with 25 pieces of Dentyne gum to pull off day by day in anticipation. All the grandkids got one, and other kids at church probably did as well. When we were older, Nanny and Papaw put together a complete set of the commemorative quarters released for each of the 50 states over a five year period. She made a duplicate set for my husband Ryan and I think even made sets for my sisters to give the men they'd eventually marry, men they hadn't even met yet. She was always thinking of us.
There are countless people, many of them here today, that knew my grandmother and experienced her love and generosity and warmth in their own ways, and I am aware that her legacy here in Muskogee may be one of always helping anyone in need, of being a dedicated churchgoer and a woman of good works. She had so many friends, and I'm certain even strangers she met at Braum's or in the grocery store could feel the bright, friendly goodness that shone from her.
But take that light and magnify it by a million, and you might get close to knowing how it felt to be her granddaughter. When I was growing up, she'd always end her notes to me and sometimes our conversations with a line from an old song: "You light up my life." She always made me feel like I really did make her life something special, like I was the most important thing to her, like she delighted in everything I did and said and became. She always expressed her feelings, she never withheld her affection, and she always remembered and acknowledged the things that mattered to me.
I've certainly missed that affirmation and adoration and connection in these recent years as she lost her memories of me due to her illness, and that may be selfish, but if you've been loved by Norma Curtis you know what a gift we've been missing out on. I so wish my own little boy could have really known her and felt the goodness and love that she radiated. What I've struggled with the most, however, is not that my Nanny might have forgotten me. It's the thought that, because she was sick, she might have no recollection of how loved she was, of how much she meant to me, of how much she mattered to and shaped me, of how so much of what I cherish about where I come from is all wrapped up in her. To keep my heart from breaking at that possibility, the only thing I can think of to do is grab on to as many of these everyday memories of my time with her as I can for the both of us. I'm going to do my best to live as graciously and generously as she did, to be a giver, to radiate light and warmth and love, to capture life in pictures and writing and trips to places near and far. I'll fall short of being all she was, I know, but she would expect nothing less of me than to be good and do good.
A world without Norma Curtis breathing and laughing and giving and loving in it is going to take some getting used to. I'm not sure just how I'll come to terms with this idea that she's gone, but my memories of my Nanny will always, always light up my life.