For some reason I’ve been thinking about Nanny Gin (my paternal grandmother) lately.
Maybe it’s because a photo taken of me this summer showed some strong resemblance to her…the clearly French features (her maiden name was Villers…which originated from des Villiers) and heart-shaped lips pursed just so, creating many fine lines around the edges.
Maybe it’s because it’s been chilly and I’m in the mood for cinnamon rolls.
Nanny was abandoned by her husband, who cleared out their bank account just before he left her and her two children. She grew up in a tent in Virginia with at least six other family members. She was a capable business owner, running a restaurant and a “beauty shop.” She died a few years ago and at the time I wrote the following tribute to share with my family. When she passed away she had been afflicted with Alzheimers for some time, so we had in many ways lost her long before her death.
I have the recipe for these cinnamon rolls in a book my nanny hand wrote for me when I got married. But I have never attempted to make them. I am intimidated by their perfection, and while she was still with us, I always harbored the hope that Nanny would get to make them for us one more time.
I wonder how hard it was for her to realize, on one day, at one certain moment, that she could no longer bake cinnamon rolls for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren? That she couldn’t remember how hot the oven needed to be, or how much butter and sugar she needed to slather on to the dough just before putting them into the oven?
Did she feel impotent to show her love? Or did she realize, as we do, that there was so much more to her person? Did she write more letters to us, scrawling down the sides of the page and around and around in circles, using every available blank space? Did she send more stuffed animals with little song boxes cross country? Did she glue more pictures and letters into phone books, making elaborate scrapbooks to look at, marveling at the generations of children that flowed from her life?
I think she faced this challenge like every other. With acceptance and pragmatism. She found an opportunity to laugh about it. She said, “so what?” She was practical through and through. She trusted her Saviour. She didn’t ask questions or rely on others to make decisions for her. She set her course and stuck to it. She did what she knew she needed to do, to keep moving forward. Just like when she announced in a letter shortly after our marriage that she had decided to call “Jeremy,” “Jerry” from now on, just because “it went better with Rach.” No questions asked, decision made.
Hey, if she was hot, she just might as well drive down those dusty roads in her bra. “Nobody should be looking anyway. That’s their problem. Who cares?” She loved life and beautiful things. She was very French in this way. She hadn’t seen hardly anything so everything new or different was magical. She stared at a clock on a mall tower in Victoria British Columbia one day and talked about it with awe as if it was the Eiffel Tower. She was easy to thrill and excite. The sound of her shrill cries echoed all the way across Lake Huron as she saw a salmon caught and pulled into my father-in-law’s boat.
She was kind of crazy and impulsive. She was feisty and dramatic. She glued the bowl I brought her all the way from France to the ranch house wall with great excitement. It came crashing down in the night, but she couldn’t hear it because she had her hearing aid turned off. The rest of us came running to see what had happened and I was sad, thinking of all of the time and care I had taken bringing it back for her. She slept through it all. She krazy glued it back together the next day and enjoyed it just as much as she had when it was in its pristine state.
She loved to be silly and try something new. She made Barbie doll wedding shower cakes and tied scarves around our heads and bellies and told us to dance. She taught Jesse how to do the Charleston. She did our hair in big sticky rollers. She showed up to the farm in Canada every year with a big white ceramic bowl full of American candy. She organized plays and performances of poetry. She took her teeth out and put them in the glass beside her bed and made silly and scary faces for us.
She was smart. In an intuitive, almost prophetic way. She cut through the crap. She got to the heart of an issue, even if you didn’t want her to go there. Sometimes she was wrong, but she wasn’t afraid to make mistakes.
And she loved. She loved everyone just as they came to her. She was the open arms of Jesus for the many sad and lost people who went to see her, seeking comfort or candor in her beauty parlor or restaurant. She wasn’t perfect, but she knew her gifts, and she used them, and she made a difference.
How do I see her today, in heaven? For one thing, she is having as much honey as she wants to on her homemade biscuits. She is serving people chicken and noodles and organizing prayer meetings and sunday schools. Or, she is sitting back and observing her new home with those watchful, sharp eyes of hers. She is putting her pancake makeup on just right, choosing her costume jewelry, and spraying a lot of aquanet onto that beautiful white head of hair.
Oh, and she’s talking. A lot. Animatedly. She’s sharing her recipe for chocolate dipped ritz crackers with peanut butter in the middle. She might even be driving some of the other souls up there a little nuts. Jesus would be frustrated too…if he wasn’t so delighted with her uniqueness. It will be so much fun to see her again.
One more thing about Nanny Gin. She was a phenomenal southern cook and her wedding gift to Jeremy and me was a handwritten spiral note/cookbook filled with her recipes. To follow are two entries from that cookbook. The first is the introduction she wrote for us (she called it “the good things”); the second is her coveted cinnamon roll recipe. You’ll see my interpretation of her script and at times it won’t be easy to understand hers or mine. But her spirit should come through loud and clear.
I’ve never had the courage to try making her cinnamon rolls, but I think I might be ready now.
The Good Things
A quick grab meal in stores were made for lazy people or people who have no talent or imagination. My mother – your grandmother lived in a tent – carried water from a creek – where my dad’s bird dogs sometimes beat her there – and then she had to settle the water before boiling it for us to drink – or use – ever bite we ate was raised by her and prepared by her – she washed on board + carried that water to wash. Me? I felt some of these things were very hard to do – wash on board and cook without pans enough – in depression times we managed – I learned to do things and do without things to do with – Life is made of wonderful things. Make the most of things God gives to you. I did, your mom did and you can!
Grandpa did without an arm. Grandma great was deaf. I’m deaf. So we manage with God’s help in things. You don’t need things to be happy!
I love you both.
Nanny’s Cinnamon Rolls
Frozen Hot Rolls from Bread Dough and buy frozen bread loafs – Thaw and cut in 8 pieces – or 6 bigger ones. Butter square layer cake pan (heavy) lay bread slices on on hand and stretch warm the butter and spread plenty on bun slice. Fold over 4 on each side makes 8 – Now set in warm place let raise till big big big. Put in hot 400 degree oven. Bake on lower shelf or 1 rack up so top won’t brown before the bottom cooks – 15 min may be too much – I would say watch then keep time with your oven and color on bread and cakes the color is very important. Top too dark – bottom too light lower pan racks in oven some – the top heat burn items when the oven pops on to keep proper temp. Remember me burning the carmel corn on fire at Merrickville – That’s why – too close to top burner – Rachel – each time you bake bread if when the bread comes out of pan is light on bottom and top dark – Put bread back in pan and drop oven shelf and bake longer Rachel always dump bread and rolls and cinn rolls out at one on foil. Bread things sweat on bottoms – aren’t crisp.
Bread – for loaf of bread raise longer. Thaw overnight for next day noon (in frig) Take out for 3 ½ hours raising time. For evening pan 3 ½ hours early.
Rolls – after thawing loaf cut buttered time to raise 3 ½ hours after in the pan