In the photograph, I’m posed before a giant cone of a holly tree that grows in front of Nana’s apartment building. I’m dressed in dark green like the holly, a dress with a lacy white collar and black bow. I’m holding a little purse with both hands. I wear a pixie haircut, blonde bangs cut straight across and impossibly short. I look happy, and I notice that the date stamped on the deckled edge of the snapshot is 1961. I’m eight years old, and spending the night at Nana’s.
The apartments are huge, with landscaped courtyards and paved walkways. It’s distressed brick, built in the 1040s I’d guess. When we walk through the place together, I always skip around a certain flower bed the opposite way from Nana. “You have to say ‘bread and butter’ when you do that or we’ll quarrel,” says Nana. I like the word quarrel; nobody at my houses uses that word.
The buildings are two stories, but number 47 is on the ground floor. It has two entrances; the front door opens to the courtyard, but the door we usually use is in the kitchen. It opens on to N.E. Irving Street behind the Jantzen factory on Sandy Boulevard. There’s a community garden; this is the only place that Nana ever wears pants, when she’s working in her flower patch. To this day, I think of Nana in her pedal pushers whenever I smell a particularly fragrant rose.
I love Nana’s apartment. It smells like her; sort of powdery. She says her old house before her husband died had once been featured in Sunset Magazine. I’ve seen the picture. It was elegant. But now Nana lives in her one-bedroom apartment, which I think is just as elegant. Everything is sort of one color here. Icy green. The walls, the carpet, some of the upholstery. Even the rug in her tiny bathroom is light green. It makes me feel quiet when I’m at Nana’s. All her things have a place where they belong. She has pretty dishes, and we drink 7-up out of little bottles poured into cut glass tumblers. Nana’s furniture looks like nobody sits in it, except for the rocking chair. That’s Nana’s spot.
When I stay with Nana, I sleep in one of the twin beds in her room. They have heavy brocade bedspreads, which she folds back neatly before we go to sleep. I secretly laugh when she gets into her nightgown. Her underpants are sort of funny, and she wears something she calls a “foundation garment” instead of a bra and white underpants like my mom does. Above my bed is a photograph of me when I was little. Above Nana’s bed is my sister’s picture. She’s prettier than I am, with curling dark hair and blue eyes with long eyelashes. When I say that to Nana, she tells me that her friend says she likes my picture better. I know I’m not as pretty, but I like that Nana’s friend sees something special when she looks at me.
When I get tired of listening to Nana’s records, she sometimes lets me neaten her drawers in her bureau. In the top drawer, she keeps her handkerchiefs and scarves. I take everything out and fold it and put it back in. There are little satin pouches trimmed in lace that I learn are called sachets. My mom says she wishes I kept my own drawers neat like I do Nana’s.
Twenty years later, my first newsroom job was just a few blocks from that apartment. Nana had lived there for some 40 years by then, and I didn’t visit her very often anymore. I was working the three to eleven p.m shift; I was too busy. Then, one night, just after I’d gone home, there was a fire in Nana’s apartment. If I’d still been at work, I’d have been sitting on the assignment desk listening to the police scanners. I might have heard the fire and rescue call. As it happened, one of Nana’s heavy coverlets had slipped off her bed and landed on a nightlight plugged into the wall. It smoldered for awhile, creating more smoke than flames. Later we were told she had a heart attack as she tried to escape. They found her lying by the kitchen door.
The final time my brother, sister and I were in Nana’s apartment was later that day after they had removed her body. Through the windows we could see news crews filming — her elegant things lying in soggy, smoking heaps on the carpet that used to be icy green.