In the case of the large social gatherings I remember as a child — birthdays, backyard barbecues, holidays and homecomings — the term “friends and family” is redundant. My parents’ closest and dearest friends were almost all family. They needed very little excuse to get together, sit back, tip a few beers, cook up a big feed and watch their I offspring, a closely knit clutch of cousins, scramble in and our of whomever’s home the tribe had assembled at that weekend. “In or out, kids, in or out — and close the door, for chrissakes, the neighbors are complaining about the heat” — that was a favorite of Dad’s. Presiding over the festivities, and perhaps enjoying the warmth and camaraderie more than anyone, was the family’s matriarch, Nana.
In those days, Nana split her time amongst the families of the children who lived in British Columbia, with extended tours across Canada to see The others. Always a welcome guest, she’d pitch in and help the adults, and always came bearing gifts for the kids. She’d pull us aside as we were running out to the candy store or local movie theater and discreetly tuck a dollar bill into our pockets.
I felt a very special bond with my grandmother. I’m sure my brother and sisters and cousins would share this sentiment, but mine goes back literally to the day of my birth. When the nurses came into that Edmonton hospital room to deliver me into my mother’s arms for the first time, Nana was at her bedside.
“Do you and Bill have a name yet?”
“Well,” my mom replied, pushing the blue bunting from around my pink and puckered face, “we’ve pretty much settled on Michael.”
Nana was not pleased. “Michael’s a fine name, bur you know everyone will just call him Mike.”
“Nor necessarily,” countered my mother.
“Yes they will,” Nana promised. “But not me, I’m not crazy about the name Mike. Don’t like it. I’ll never call him anything but Michael.”
And she never did.
After Dad’s retirement and our return to British Columbia, we settled into a three-bedroom flat in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. Situated across the street from a sprawling strip mall with an enormous parking lot perfect for endless hours of street hockey, the apartment complex also boasted a large, if indifferently maintained, outdoor swimming pool that was even cooler. The best feature of the neighborhood, though, was a block and a half away: the boxy, blue three-story walk-up where my Nana settled shortly after our arrival.
I’d gladly forsake slapping a hockey ball against the stucco wall of the liquor store or splashing around with my friends in the swimming pool to spend time visiting Nana in her new digs. We were an unlikely duo, a 10-year-old boy and a woman in her mid-70s, but I liked nothing better than hanging out as she went through even the most mundane of her chores. Sitting in the kitchen, she’d tell me stories as she washed and sorted her collection of cups and saucers. Drying her hands on her house-dress. Nana would fish into her gargantuan handbag for a candy bar or box of Chiclets she’d been saving for me.