Nana was one of the most contented, generous, and positive people I have ever known. She didn’t have much, but if she wanted more, she didn’t talk about it. She didn’t talk about the past. She lived in the present and the near future, keeping her little house in order, buying groceries, visiting relatives, going to church, reading the paper, making quilts.
Bessie Griner Rice, whom we called Nana, was Mama’s mother. She lived on Bonham Street in Nocona, Texas, in a white clapboard house with a built-on bedroom that she had shared with my grandfather, William Marion Rice, until he died. It was an almost-tiny house, and it contained all her worldly goods, which would qualify as “minimal” by any standard.
An alcove off the living room had been turned into a bathroom with a second-hand commode and clawfoot bathtub. A couch facing the front door folded out to make a bed. In a narrow passage that led to the kitchen, a tiny closet held Nana’s wardrobe, three or four flower- or check-print dresses, a hat, a pair of Sunday shoes. A curtained sink in the kitchen doubled as the lavatory. A recessed cabinet on the wall held a few dishes and maybe a box of cereal, some rice, beans, salt, pepper, flour, and not much more. There was a small gas stove, a table and chairs, and a wooden ice-box. The added-on room with windows on all sides had just enough space for a double bed and matching dresser and a foot-pedal sewing machine where Nana worked on patchwork quilts made of our discarded clothes and scraps from Aunt Dorothy’s sewing projects.
Without pattern book or drawing, she arranged the random scraps into symmetrical patterns. For my babies she made beautiful little quilts from old party dresses, velvet, taffeta, satin, and lace. Nana’s quilts had something of herself in the careful arrangement of the patterns and the meticulous stitches, and they bound up memories of how we were and the things we had done when we wore the clothes that the patches had come from.
The house was cheerful and cozy, furnished mostly with used things that Nana’s grown-up children had given her. New things were birthday or Christmas presents: a light-colored cedar chest, bed and matching dresser, and whatnot shelves displaying porcelain dolls, perfume bottles, and pictures of her grandchildren.
In winter a little gas heater warmed the house up in a few minutes. Snuggled deep under the quilts and blankets in the cold room, I could hear Nana up and about early muttering about the cold. She would light the stove with a “Varrrroooom” as the gas, which she turned on long before she lit the match, sucked in the flame. “A wonder she hasn’t blown us all to kingdom come,” my mother would say. Then Nana would go back to bed, and we would all wait under the covers until the house was warm and we could get up and drink boiled coffee.
Behind the house, sunflowers and daisies grew wild; in the front, two big shade trees were just right for climbing. Nana tended her irises and canna lilies carefully, but she didn’t mind when I tried for several years to dig my way to China with a teaspoon in the soft dirt next to the flower beds. In summer, the adults would sit in metal chairs on the front porch to eat cantaloupe or watermelon and catch up on gossip, while the children sat on the steps, made mudpies, or worked on the China Project.
We went to visit Nana often. My mother, attuned to some inner calendar, would announce, “I’ve got to go see Mama.” Nana came to our house too. She would cook and embroider and watch TV with us for a few days. Then, one hand on an ample hip, she would say, “I’ve got to get back.” And we would take her back to her little house in Nocona, my mother wondering out loud what it was that she had to “get back” to.