“Through an eye with teary edges,
My brain swears this can’t be real.
But my heart’s another story. Yes my heart’s another story.” – Another Story. Song and lyrics Gabe Marshall and Bryon White
If there is an upside to writing it’s in the therapeutic value.
I was originally intending to write a post about my maternal Italian grandmother, Nonna Maria. Sometimes circumstances lead you to a fork in the road and you find yourself compelled to veer from your intended route.
Maybe it was fate, or as Cora puts it the good Lord had a plan; or maybe it was just dumb luck. I guess I’ve told this story a hundred times if I’ve told it once. I was working in a retail hardware store at Fourth and Mission in Downtown San Francisco. Across Jessie Street, which was less street and more alley the company kept an office building/warehouse. The retail workers often went to the basement warehouse in that building but rarely to the third floor office. It was late 1979 and I’d had some sort of business in that third floor because I remember bounding down the stairs, throwing open the door and then slamming on the brakes to avoid knocking over the new hire. There was the awkward pause followed by that awkward little get past each other dance. You know the one where you try to get past each other and then end up sliding right back in front of each other? I remember exactly what she was wearing. Tight designer jeans, a purple sweater and impeccable makeup that complimented her clothes. I turned and watched briefly as she started up the stairs and promised myself that I would take her out. Cora was a head turner. Even after we were married and she was working as a bookkeeper for a dental office in the Mission District she would tell me about the men who turned to look at her, sometimes calling out to her. She was a head turner.
Before Cora there was Nana. She was my original and only other head turner. Any other women I dated, I did so after being acquainted for a while. Nana was originally from Pusan (now called Busan), South Korea. Busan is a port city in South Korea’s southeast corner.
I didn’t know any of this when she seated me in the little Japanese Restaurant located in San Francisco’s Richmond District where she worked as a server. What I did know was she was a head turner and she wasn’t sporting a ring, not even the strategic cheap one to keep creeps like me at bay. So that night I started conjuring up this grandiose plan to ask her out. I didn’t know how I was going to go about it but I was certain of one thing, any plan that could leak out of my little mind was hopelessly doomed because my own logic dictated that there was no chance and no reason for a girl that beautiful to consider giving me anything beyond what her job required; friendly service, my food and the check.
And so brimming with pessimism I did what guys do. I set sail anyway on my own little ship of fools that I was certain would run aground. The first thing to do was to become a regular customer, something that a retail paycheck didn’t really support. But that’s what guys do right? They pour money that they don’t have on impossible snipe hunts. And they do so particularly when there’s a woman involved.
What good is a credit card if you can’t fill it to bursting by becoming a regular customer at a restaurant so that you can schmooze with the server who’s caught your eye. Yes I know, in 2019 it’s creepy and it smacks of stalking. Not so much in the 1970’s even if it was creepy and smacked of stalking. After a few visits to the restaurant we were on a conversational basis but every visit ended in shameful cowardice and no request for a date. And then there was the matter of that credit card bill telling me in no uncertain terms that it was time to fish or cut bait.
One evening I mustered the courage to ask her if I could take her out to dinner. On the face of it that seems a little absurd doesn’t it; asking a server if I could take her to a restaurant. That’s sort of like asking a teamster if he’d like to take a drive. As I expected she politely declined and that should have been the end of it.
Should’ve but wasn’t. I went back and made another run at it asking if I could see her sometime. Yes I know, at this point I’d clearly crossed into creepy. I guess that Nana didn’t see it that way and she said yes and we agreed to meet for a walk in Golden Gate Park.
It was better than dinner out. It was open ended, no money spent, no expectations; just a walk and conversation. She told me all about Korea and I told her all about….I don’t know. I was probably just overwhelmed that this beautiful girl was giving me the time of day, a really great time of day. I could have listened to her all day. I was absolutely enchanted. I was just starting out with my photography hobby and so we arranged to meet at the park again and I would shoot some pictures. Yes I know that’s probably creepy.
She brought a change of clothes and we shot photos at The Japanese Tea Garden and the Rose Garden and when we left she gave me her phone number so that I could call her when I had the photos back.
When the photos were ready I picked her up from work and we went to a now defunct 24 hour coffee shop, Zim’s, just around the corner from my flat on 17th Avenue. She was delighted with the pictures and I remember her exact words when she looked through them, “I didn’t know I was pretty. The camera makes me look pretty.” If I said anything in response it was probably to tell her that we didn’t need a camera to make her look beautiful.
Nana lived on 26th or 27th Avenue, I can’t recall exactly but it was only about five minutes from my flat. After Zim’s I drove her home and she said that if I waited for a minute she would get some things and come stay the night at my place; if that was okay. Well of course it was. The offer didn’t come without “fine print.” Absolutely no touching. Fine with me. I threw on a pair of sweats and we held hands and talked in bed until we fell asleep. Over the course of the next few weeks we continued dating and after a while she removed the “fine print.” I was without question in love and enjoying life more than I could ever have imagined.
There was one small detail. At some point I would be bringing her home. I was always a little nervous about bringing someone to meet my family, be it just a friend, one of the guys, or a girlfriend. Dad was usually ambivalent but it was mom who wasn’t afraid to pass judgement. If my maternal grandmother, Nonna Maria had an opinion I imagine that she shared it as an aside with her daughter.
Mom, a war bride from Italy, claimed innocence from any prejudice but she had strong opinions that leaned heavily towards prejudice and she freely believed some of the stereotypes about Asians. While she never said as much I had the feeling that she fully expected her son to marry a good Italian girl, or a white one at least. I was certain that she was already disappointed in her son, the college graduate working as a retail clerk. Bringing home a Korean girl was probably going to be the proverbial icing on the cake.
I knew that if mom had something negative to offer it wouldn’t be said in front of Nana. She would convene our own private “come to Jesus” meeting, just me and her, and if that happened I was ready to push back – hard. Screw it. I loved Nana and I’d already had thoughts of marrying her.
Nonna had come to America in 1951. By the time I was seeing Nana, Nonna was well into her eighties and mom and dad were no longer up to the task of caring for her, even though Nonna was physically sound and as mentally alert as any healthy twenty year old. Still, mom and dad liked to travel and they felt that they couldn’t take Nonna on trips and certainly couldn’t leave her alone. And so it was arranged that Nonna would go back home to Italy, sooner rather than later. I wanted Nonna and Nana to meet and so one weekend I brought Nana home.
I don’t even recall how mom and dad reacted. What I will never, ever forget was the meeting between Nonna and Nana. While the family usually stayed in the kitchen or family room Nonna’s place of choice was by herself in a corner of the living room seated in a big easy chair, feet on a hassock watching TV shows that, with her limited English she could barely, if at all, understand.
With the formalities of hello and nice to meet you out of the way, Nana went into the living room by herself and sat on the hassock in front of Nonna and took the old woman’s hands in hers and spent most of the visit there. It was as if nobody else existed. Watching my 26 year old Korean girlfriend holding my elderly Italian grandmother’s hands while the two smiled at each other and tried to make some conversation; I didn’t care what mom or dad said. This was a scene that has stayed with me to this day. It has always been the affirmation that in other cultures the elderly are held in an esteem that is absent in America.
A short time later Nonna was back in Italy and mom and dad had gone to Italy themselves. I was charged with housesitting and whenever she could Nana would stay with me in San Mateo. For a short time we played at being a suburban couple.
It was indeed a short time. Soon after my parents returned I managed to blow the whole thing up. I committed a stupid act not even worthy of a teenager that ended my relationship with Nana. No I didn’t cheat on her or abuse her but what I did created a rift between Nana and I that she wouldn’t allow to be mended. There was going to be no reconciliation. She was adamant that we were done. I loved her so much. I was crushed.
Of course I would eventually come bounding down the stairs and almost run into the cute Filipina in the purple sweater who I would eventually marry. We are of course still together. Yesterday circumstances dictated that I tell Cora all about Nana. Cora had seen the pictures and knew that Nana was at one time my girlfriend, but that was as far as it went. There was no need for details.
I was originally intending to write a post about my maternal Italian grandmother, Nonna Maria. Sometimes circumstances lead you to a fork in the road and you find yourself compelled to veer from your intended route. The post would of course mention briefly the meeting between Nonna and Nana.
And so yesterday I was going through photos and referring to Ancestry.com to get some details about Nonna’s life. And then I thought, “I wonder if there’s anything about Nana in here.” And so I did a just for the hell of it search.
Nana died on July 19th, 2013. She was 59. She was gone.
My first reaction was to utter a single word, “What?”
I rechecked and looked for more records but there was only that one record; Nana died on July 19th, 2013.
There is pain. And then there is pain. It was all coming back; that same feeling that I had over forty years ago when Nana ended our relationship. It’s the pain that cleaves your heart and makes you feel as if you’re tumbling into a chasm with no end. Falling and falling and falling. It’s the pain that you want to stop but you can’t. It’s an exhausting pain that wears you out until you fall asleep, only to wake up in the middle of the night hoping it was all a nightmare and then realizing in that awful winking that it wasn’t.
It’s the pain that makes you realize that there’s bullshit in the world that really doesn’t matter. It’s that searing pain that fills you with anguish pushing out the crap because all you can do while you’re in that pain is to feel. If there’s anything that’s positive about that pain it’s that for a short time it cleanses the pettiness out of you. But of course the bullshit always returns.
I kept looking for the error that I must have made in my search but the error wasn’t there; would never be there. Well I was on Ancestry. What did I expect? Did I expect a photo album of the 26 year old girl whose beauty both intimidated and captivated me way back when? People die, right. I’d moved on from that first hurt. For years I could just go through photos, run across Nana and smile at the good times. Now it was all back and here I am moving on again because I couldn’t let well enough alone with a stupid website and I came to find out that Nana was gone. Nothing else; no how, no why, no where; just gone.
The sobs came in waves and they wouldn’t stop. Cora wasn’t home and my first thought was to get myself together and just not say anything. But I could not stop crying. There was no way to hide this. My eyes were red and swollen shut. And then she came home.
“I need to talk to you, but I need you to also understand that nothing I’m going to say reflects on you or our marriage. Before I say anything you have to know that I love you.”
I showed her one of the pictures of Nana that she’d seen a few times before, “Her name is Nana. She died six years ago. And it hurts. And I’m so sorry that I’m hurting like this but I can’t stop. I can’t help it.”
“It’s okay. I understand. You loved her. It’s only natural.”
I cried all evening and into the night and I kept apologizing to my wonderful wife who on that one day in 1979 wore the purple sweater and made me pause and turn my head and vow to myself that I would somehow get a date with her. And now she just kept telling me. “It’s okay, I understand.”
It’s ironic that just a couple of weeks ago Cora and I talked over breakfast and I asked her, “Do you ever think back on your old boyfriends?”
Her answer was a simple, “No.”
“How can you not?” I answered.
The conversation petered out but I came away thinking that she wasn’t being completely forthcoming. How, I asked myself, can you give someone your heart even if only for a short time and then somehow discard it all?
Before publishing I asked for Cora’s approval which she gave.
I still have photos of Nana. Most from the day of the photoshoot and two others, the last two shown below taken in the backyard at my parents’ home. Shortly after that photo session in the park I gave her the originals and the negatives and asked her if I could keep a few copies that I showed her. Even in those pre-internet days I didn’t want her to think that I would be doing something creepy.
32 thoughts on “Nana”
Nice post, Paulie. Sorry for your pain. You have a big heart and that’s a great thing. Bet Cora knows that, too.
Cora knows it. I kept pleading with her that hurting was better than coldly blowing it off.
This is a touching story. It made my eyes go moist.
Thank you. Your comment is most appreciated.
Beautiful post. Ironically, my charge nurse’s name is Nana and today is her birthday. And I just happened to be up late reading your blog about another beautiful and caring woman named Nana. Maybe there is some sort of significance in that, even if it’s a stretch. RIP Nana 🌹
Thank you Florence. Maybe there is some significance. I hope that she lived well and I hope that she’s looking down on me with forgiveness.
She was indeed beautiful, I’m sorry you’re hurting but that only proves there was a deep emotional connection. Your wife’s also amazing to be as understanding as she is, one of a kind if I do say so myself.
Thank you. Cora is indeed amazing. I had no doubt that she would react the way she did. Her full name is Corazon, which means heart. She was aptly named.
Wow, Paul! What a wonderful story ! Thank you for sharing! Nana is indeed so beautiful! I can imagine your feelings!
I have been to Pusan, Korea, in my Navy days and I immediately became biased in favor of “my Korea.” I taught English there when a private school lady asked me to spend time in her class. I’ll tell you more later, perhaps this coming Mother’s Day.
This is so beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. You are a wonderful man. And I’m not surprised at Cora’s response. True love.
Thank you so much for the kind words. I don’t know how wonderful I am. The two wonderful people in this story are Nana who touched me all to briefly and my wife who has touched me for almost 40 years.
I’m so sorry, but what a beautiful tribute to her <3 Thanks for sharing this with us, as hard as it must have been.
Thank you for the kind words. I guess this is supposed to be therapeutic and in some ways it is. To be honest its going to take some time for the wound to scab over again. I’m so fortunate that I have a wife with a good heart and a gentle soul. She’s helped me get through it. Thank you again.
Paulie, you have an immense and extraordinary heart. This story filled my own heart with goodness and then broke it apart, as it should have. I am so sorry for your pain, yet also glad that you have had the chance to experience such deep love with two amazing women. You feel your life so strongly and that is a beautiful and courageous thing. I feel lucky to know you.
A few years ago, my husband Joe found out that a woman he loved deeply and almost married, had died. He was heartbroken. I remember feeling and saying to him, as Cora said to you…It’s ok, I understand. And I did. Love is something that lives inside of us and loss isn’t dictated by time.
Love is indeed something that lives inside of us. I guess it never went away. I suppose once that special person has left your life you are forced to put that love away in a special place. Most times I guess you never really know it’s there until something opens that place.
The first four photos were the ones taken in Golden Gate Park as an early stab at portrait photography. They’re in an album with some other random photos. Every now and then I flip through the album and through the album run across the pictures of Nana and usually say something to myself like, “God you were beautiful.”
Ironically while going through bins of photos about 2 weeks ago i found the last of the photos, the one in which she’s winking and so I just happened to set it aside. It was taken at my parents’ house when we were housesitting. I guess it was taken in the morning before going out to do something or maybe we were just hanging out for the day because she isn’t wearing any makeup. Must have been just playing around with the camera. I think that of all the photos Nana, wherever she is cursing at me for posting that one. But of all the photos that one is my favorite and when I see it it hurts my heart.
Cora and I spoke at length about discovering Nana’ death. Cora is very spiritual; I guess that happens when you’ve battled cancer 4 times. So yesterday she told me to pray to her. Well, nothing ventured nothing gained right? And so I did that and sometime in the middle of the night I woke up and the first thing that came to mind was “let me go.” It was a notion that I laid awake fighting until it won over. I’m in the process of letting her go…again. I’m getting there but it isn’t easy.
I am sorry for your pain, Paulie, but glad that you are getting this chance to remember and feel all the feelings and that you are on the path to finding a sense of peace about this loss.
The picture of her winking is my favorite too. It really shows her spirit and heart. I understand how seeing it could be so incredibly painful; the essence of her is so strong in that image. You were both so lucky to have known and loved each other, just as you and Cora are so lucky to have found each other and to have loved each other all these years. You have an immense and beautiful heart Paulie, and that is something to be treasured and admired!
That is written so well that about the only comments on it I can make are to quote John Greenleaf Whittier: “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been'”. Emotional pain caused by memories is often so much more painful than emotional pain caused by present day events or circumstances. I remember two or three of those photos, don’t recall having seen the others. You did a good job taking those. Hopefully this blog entry will have caused some of the pain to dissipate.
Thank you Scott. It might have been indeed.
I wonder lately what might have been might have been like.
What a heartfelt story! You are indeed lucky to have Cora.
Yes Winnie I am very lucky to have her. She’s been an angel for giving me space this past week. Thank you so much for reading and following.
You’re welcome, Paulie! Give my regards to her. Please tell her I’m a Filipina too.
I will indeed tell her
My wife would say that all of our relationships build on previous ones. That our early loves teach us about loving so that future loves get the benefit of that experience. I think Cora would agree with this and has an intrinsic understanding that she is one of those beneficiaries.
Additionally from an ancient poet:Alfred Lord Tennyson Quotes. ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. You are fortunate on two levels to be lover and to be loved.
Be thankful Paulie, you are blessed.
First of all I apologize for the late response. Thank you for your comment. Your wife is very insightful. I think that the one who benefited the most has been me. Cora’s capacity for patience, understanding and sympathy have never ceased to amaze me. She gave me time and space and then later sat down to try to help me work through it all. I was deeply touched when she told me one day that she was praying for Nana’s soul.
And yes Tennyson had it right.
Thank you for sharing this very personal story. Like many others, I feel privileged to read it.
All best wishes to you and your wife.
Thank you so much for the kind words.
You were/are blessed with beautiful women in your life.
I admire your wife for her understanding and Nana for her kindness, you for your honesty.
Thank you for visiting Imelda. You are right I was blessed with both Nana and with Cora and I continue to be blessed with Cora.
What an incredible gift you have, Paul, to be able to share such an intimate, yet painful part of your life. I’m deeply honoured to read this.
That Nana carved out a place in your heart and remained there all these years says everything I need to know about who she was to you. If you believe in souls, then hers surely touched yours.
Your pain is palpable and understandable. You grieved once when the relationship ended, but now you grieve again—with finality. Death firmly closes the door on any future possibilities, imagined or otherwise.
I suspect that Nana possessed an ethereal quality that connected with you, and with you only. Few of us ever get an opportunity to bond so deeply with one person. You’ve experienced this with two different women, and that makes you an incredibly fortunate man.
From what you say, Cora knows that grieving something from the past can never diminish anything in the present. Her gesture of compassion and understanding makes her a woman to be revered. I absolutely adore her the more I learn about her. She reminds me of a dear friend who passed away some years back who was also Filipina. Her name was Carlotta.
Just as you wish that Nana lived well, I hope you will continue to do so as well,
Thank you for reading and commenting Eden.
Cora. I can’t say enough about her and I know I don’t say enough. She has been the rock of the family. I admire her tremendously. Her grace and courage through four bouts of cancer still amazes me. I have this vision of her that never leaves me. Just before going into surgery we were sitting in this little waiting room where you get the final consult with the surgeon and anesthesiologist. We were just sitting there by ourselves. She was sitting in this oversized, gigantic chair that seemed to swallow her up. She wore an expression that while resigned was also resolute. If there’s a heaven and she doesn’t get in then the system’s rigged.
Cora’s understanding and helping me through my own crisis after learning of Nana – well there is no word to describe what an angel she was through that. She’s been an angel through 40 years of marriage.
Nana. Two statements come to mind. My closest friend, a running buddy, said to me there is a difference between loving someone and being IN love. It’s something that I’d never thought about but it immediately registered.
The other? You wrote “Few of us ever get an opportunity to bond so deeply with one person.” Many others have made a similar comment. It took awhile for me to really understand that and it struck me full on when I had lunch with a friend a few months later.
This friend has had a rough go with life – some bad luck and some of his own making. Our lunch conversation covered the full spectrum. At some point he asked how I was handling Nana’s passing and I told him I was still having trouble but I needed to get past it – at least outwardly. He seemed to be having trouble understanding the hurt that I’d gone through.
I told him what my friend had said about the difference between loving and being in love.
I asked him, “Have you ever been IN love?”
Understand that I’ve known him for over 40 years and I’ve known a couple of his significant others, including his ex-wife and his two children.
He thought about my question for a few moments and said emphatically that no, he has never been IN love. It came out matter of fact with no sense of loss or sorrow.
I remember being stunned at his answer. How could that be? How sad, I thought.
It really drove home the notion of the “opportunity to bond with someone.” And to have found Cora? There is no greater gift I could’ve been given.
I still think about Nana. Especially those times when I see her picture and I get a little stab.
You say beautiful things about your wife. Not many men do so publicly, but they should.
Four bouts of cancer. What an amazing and strong woman.
Respect to Cora – from one survivor to another.