None of my friends called their grandmother Nana. Only I did. And mine wanted to be called Nana probably for the same reason years before she insisted that her only child, my mother, even as a baby, call her Lee. To be younger than, better looking than, happier, more alive than-–that was all that mattered, and it mattered more with every stroke (the first at forty-eight) until by fifty, fat, infirm and shuffling she could hardly dress or clean herself, like a child now herself, an incontinent, angry haughty indignant child who once a month all through my childhood and adolescence put on a good dress, jewelry, gloves, and with a black pocketbook dangling from her shoulder toddled bravely from the house, breathless and panting, her make up streaked with sweat, muttering curses at whatever god or force had done this to her body, down to the beauty parlor to get her hair dyed blond and permed, and her nails done. If I were by myself and saw her coming, I’d hide or run, hearing her shout after me what she would swear to god she’d do when I got home; with friends, I’d pretend not to see her hoping they hadn’t, and if they had and laughed at the crazy old fat woman, I’d laugh along as well, as if I didn’t know her, even if she called my name. But of course I did know her, and they knew it, though I told myself they didn’t, told myself daily that she was separate and other, no concern of mine, no connection. It was a little game I invented, imagining I was nothing but my body, that nothing tied me to what was not me, so I could be the opposite of her, immune to her, entirely distinct and disconnected as my body in its arrogant youth and health was from hers in its sick and misshapen arrogant old age. I played the game of no relation until there was no relation left to be related to, so that in dreams now when I am back there on the street she’s baby stepping down, I don’t hide or run but stand there admiring her bravery, wanting to tell her so until I realize I have no voice no tongue to speak with, no body to move, like a ghost she doesn’t see or couldn’t be bothered seeing as she toddles up to and through and past me toward the disappearing child she’s calling to come back if he knows what’s good for him, come back and help his Nana to the beauty parlor.
Alan Shapiro is the author of 13 books of poetry, two memoirs, a novel, a book of critical essays and two translations. His awards include the Kingsley Tufts Award, 2 NEAs, a Guggenheim and a Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Award. His newest book of poems, Life Pig, was published in 2016 along with a book of essays, That Self-Forgetful Perfectly Useless Concentration, both from University of Chicago Press. He is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina.