On the morning of my 25th birthday, I woke up to an entirely empty bedroom. It was moving day. A September 1st birthday always conveniently marked new beginnings—new months, seasons, school years, and apartments. I stared at the ceiling, waiting for Nanny to call. Her call was always the first and usually a few hours before I’d normally wake up. When I answered the phone, she immediately burst into singing Happy Birthday, carefully staying in tune and always 2 or 3 octaves higher than her actual voice. It’s her birthday song that led me from one year to the next, but this year's would be our last. She called at 6 am, as anticipated, and made it all the way to the last "Happy Birthday" before she began to cry. “I’ll always sing to you on your birthday,” she told me, “even when I’m not here.” It was one of the very few times she acknowledged the severity of her illness. We hung up the phone, accepting that this would be the last Happy Birthday. The last gift of its kind.
If there’s one thing you should know about my Nanny, Jackie White, it’s that she loved gifts—specifically, buying gifts for people she cared about. No, seriously, she was addicted. My parents had a rule when my brother and I were young: she was not allowed to buy us a toy every time she babysat us, which was frequent. One of her favorite stories was of us shopping together when I was 2 years old. Upon spotting a plush Barney stuffed animal, I began to sang the Barney theme song out loud for the entire store to hear. “A woman came up to me and said, ‘You know, you’re going to have to buy that for her, right?,’’ Nanny would retell for what may have been the 200th time. “But you were my only grand-daughter, so I just had to.”
She loved buying us things so much that as I grew older it became somewhat of a problem. Living in tiny Boston dorm rooms and New York City apartments didn't really allow for things like two popcorn machines, a hot dog cooker, and a candy-apple decorating kit (and that’s just the kitchen). I never expressed my concern, however, because it was the act of giving that made her so happy. When she became too sick to visit New York, I sent her photos of my new apartment. Her favorite part was the yellow, 70’s style kitchen. She loved the authenticity of the style; I told her this was because it hadn’t been updated in about 50 years. Still, I loved the kitchen, too. A week later, I received a package containing a small yellow teapot from one of our favorite second-hand vintage shops in my home state of Maine. “I found it on their online site—they have one of those now!” she proudly told me over the phone. “It matches your kitchen, so I knew you had to have it.” It now sits above my stove, so cheerfully yellow, tricking me into smiling whenever I see it.
This Thanksgiving, five days after Nanny passed away from cancer, I spread across her couch, falling in and out of troubled sleep next to my grandfather. He nudged me and pointed to a box next to the dining room table. “That’s for you,” he told me. “She ordered it for you a week ago. It’s a Keurig machine.”
“A Keurig machine?,” I asked, sitting up. I posed it like a question, but it didn’t surprise me. Nanny often bought me gifts out of the blue and didn't tell me. She loved the surprise of me finding it and calling her immediately after. She would always answer the phone with extra pep in her voice, preparing for endless thank-yous and I-love-yous. Our reactions were her favorite gift.
“Yup, a Keurig machine. You mentioned to her that you didn’t like the coffee at your office, so she wanted you to be able to make your own.” I smiled. Nanny didn’t only buy gifts to make you happy, but to show you that she was listening.
Shortly after I returned back to New York, my mother called from my grandparents house. "Honey, I was going through her closets, and I found a box of knitted baby clothes. I think she started knitting them when she got sick again. They're for your children."
I felt my throat swell up. "Oh, Mom."
"I know," she answered. "I think she just wanted to make sure your kids had something from her that was especially meant for them." I smiled. That was Nanny, planning gifts for the great-grandchildren she wouldn't meet.
The gifts Nanny left me are everywhere—I keep finding them, even though they were always there. Gifts like knowing that “While You Were Sleeping” is the best Christmas movie and adding an extra 25 seconds for the perfect microwaved popcorn. Gifts like stacks upon stacks of cards I’ll never be able to throw away, the Johnny Flynn CD, and the picture of her at 19 on her wedding day. Gifts like inheriting her bossiness, the gold watch on my wrist, the exact shade of blue-colored eyes, or like the Keurig machine that will need to be shipped from Maine.
It’s her saying, “Happy Birthday”, year after year. No longer a beginning, but a constant, a reminder of us and all the moments we shared. The greatest gift.
Photo by: Bridget Collins