I promised I’d tell about Nana’s altar. Well, here goes.
Our house on Keap Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn was a four-story brownstone. Nana, Uncle Steve, Mother, Daddy, Jeffrey and I lived on the first two floors. Aunt Liz, Uncle Johnny, cousins Valarie, Steve and Jodi lived on the top two floors. Aunt Liz is my mother’s sister-Nana’s second daughter. Uncle Steve is Nana’s youngest son.
Growing up with my cousins was the best of times. We were together every day. We walked to and from school together, played together after school, and when our parents would go out, we stayed upstairs while Nana and Uncle Steve watched us. It was always the five of us. They were more like siblings than cousins. I still feel that way.
Nana and I shared a bed going back as far as I can remember; which is four years old. The bedrooms were on the second floor. Jeffrey had the middle room and Uncle Stevie had the front bedroom. Nana’s bedroom was huge! There were two closets, two windows that went from the ceiling down to about three-feet off the floor. She had big, dark-stained mahogeny furniture. I remember the tall chest of drawers and the vanity with the big mirror. Her clothes line was hooked to the frame outside of the left window. And then there was the fireplace, which she didn’t use. I think Papa Joe, my grandfather may have closed it up years ago. So, Nana made that her altar for her religious statues.
Nana was a devout Catholic. She went to church for mass every day, never missing a service. Back then the masses were said in Latin. She walked everywhere and in all kinds of weather. Through the years, she accumulated a collection of religious statues, some small and some more than two-feet tall and made out of plaster. Jesus, Mary (the Blessed Mother), St. Theresa, St. Anthony, St. Lucy; she had quite a collection!
Every morning Nana woke up before everyone and knelt before her altar and said her prayers. Any Catholic would know what I mean when I say she said the rosary every day. Rosary beads are beads to say prayers on. They are broken up into a series of prayers; the “Lord’s Prayer”, followed by the “Hail Mary”. Nana performed this devotional every morning when she woke up, and then repeated it every night just before she went to bed.
Every night Nana would come upstairs to our bedroom and light her candles, then she would kneel before her altar and pray. The light from the candles cast strange and big shadows on the walls. At four years old, they were unnerving. I was afraid of the shadows, and I wouldn’t go to sleep until she came in the bed. I remember telling her that I was afraid of them. She told me not to be afraid, because Jesus, Mary and all of the saints were watching over me at night to make sure I was safe. I have to admit, it did comfort me to know that I had all of this protection at night!
I remember when Nana would get into the bed, I’d snuggle up next to her and she say, “Your feet are cold”! Then she’d rub her feet against mine to warm them up, and I’d fall asleep knowing that Nana was next to me and all of the saints were watching over us.
I slept in the same bed with Nana until I was about 13 years old. When we left Brooklyn in 1969, and moved to Brentwood, Long Island we shared the same room again; but this time we had twin-beds. Mother wouldn’t let her take all of her statues, so she brought only the ones that weren’t plaster and less than two-feet tall. I think she may have donated her bigger ones to the church.
I slept in the same room with my grandmother. Jeffrey had the small room at the back of the house. Mother and Daddy had the front bedroom to the right of the stairs and Uncle Steve had the front bedroom above the garage. I slept in Nana’s room until I was 15 years old when Uncle Steve moved out in 1971 and then I took his room.
By the beginning of 1972, Mother and Daddy were back in St. Thomas. Jeffrey had just graduated from high school and moved to St. Thomas as well. Uncle Steve was living in Queens and it was just me and Nana in the house. Every day I’d come home from school and tell Nana about my day. We’d eat dinner together, watch TV together; sometimes I’d rest my head on her lap while we were watching TV and she’d stroke my hair.
Suddenly, and without warning, I started to change. I turned 16 year old, and all I wanted by that time was to be an adult. I wanted to graduate and move on to the next phase of my life. I have to admit, I wasn’t the model grand-daughter then. I was trying her patience. Nana tried so hard to make me stop, but I wouldn’t listen. I pushed myself so hard, I graduated as a junior. I was so anxious to grow up and be on my own, I didn’t realize then how wonderfully secure it was.
I lived with my grandmother until I was 19, then I got my own apartment. I was working full-time during the day and going to college at night. I went back to the house every Monday and Wednesday before my night classes at the college to have dinner with Nana. Every Saturday I took her food shopping and sometimes to see her brother; my great-uncle John and his wife, my great-aunt Fanny.
Although I was out on my own, Nana remained the most important person in my life and we still looked forward to spending time with each other.
How I wish I could go back in time and relive those years. If I could, I wouldn’t be so anxious to grow up and move out. I’d stay and maybe even move back in Nana’s room. I’d watch the shadows of the saints on the wall and listen to her saying her rosary and feel safe again. Oh, how I wish.