Family History / Uncategorized / Women

They say, at about 6am this morning, Gloria Maxine Mitchell Altizer Moran passed away peacefully in her sleep. Gloria Maxine Mitchell Altizer Moran. That’s twelve syllables, at least three lives and five epic novels (maybe six, “Maxine” alone is worthy of a twofer). I always thought I’d name my daughter Gloria after if I’d ever gotten around to having a daughter. But I never called her Gloria, not to her face anyway. I always, only knew her as Nana.

Nana was born in Pocahontas, Virginia in 1926. She was the third child and eldest daughter of a one-time minor league baseball player turned coal miner improbably named Jarvey Mitchell and one of the world’s great unsung culinary geniuses, his wife, Gladys. After a mine accident in the early 1930s, they returned to the Mitchell family farm on an expanse of green bounded by the Blackwater river in the foothills of the Blue Ridge in Franklin County, Virginia to heal and grow tobacco. Nana was a smart, ambitious, imaginative kid (and evidently an A+ basketball player). She envisioned a world beyond the farm and a life full of possibility.

When she graduated high school, she quit Franklin County for the closest city of Roanoke, which, in the 1940s, during the war, was a thriving railroad hub, with a bustling downtown full of nice department stores and opportunity. Nana found a place at a boarding house among a small group of similarly dreamy young women, eager to be something bigger and discover more of the world than the place from whence they’d come. Nana took a job as a typist for Western Union, and later, with the help of her housemates, found a position as a salesgirl at Hieronimus, one of the department stores, while she took night classes in business at a local college.

After the war, Nana met her first husband, my grandfather, Vernal Darnell Altizer. A charming, handsome young bookkeeper, freshly returned from the Pacific, with pretty eyes, a million dollar smile, a yellow Studebaker he called “Hubba Hubba,” and the biggest heart in Southwest Virginia. Nana was unambiguously beautiful, sassy, and a great dancer. He was besotted. She was charmed. They married in 1946 and settled into a little brick bungalow up on a hill a couple blocks from the local movie palace and maybe a mile from the church my grandfather was helping to build. A few years later, they had their first child, my mother, Karen, followed a few years later by their second daughter, my aunt Teresa.

Nana was a force. She was pure kinetic energy. She danced through life in double time with the same energy and finesse she applied on the basketball court, to the jitterbug, to her developing professional career. A lifelong passion for beautiful things and the interesting stories they tell eventually brought her to the antiques business. She was, to put it mildly, a natural. She opened her shop, Homeplace Antiques, just north of Roanoke, up in Botetourt County in the early 1970s. It was a modest place at first, but her curatorial inclinations and love of travel, particularly to the UK, soon filled the space with the most exquisite relics of the 17th, 18th and early 19th century.

A visit to Nana’s shop transcended retail. It became something more like a trip to museum or a pilgrimage for the kind of person that likes to rest a hand on the inlaid top of a table old enough to remember the petty dramas of the Stuart dynasty and commune with the past.

Her customers adored her. They followed when she outgrew to the original store and moved her furniture, her Chinese and Japanese porcelain, her tea sets, Persian rugs, sterling silver, gilt-framed mirrors and lamps to a sprawling log house on the other side of town, a couple of puffs of a Virginia Slim Ultra Light from the Blue Ridge Parkway. I grew up in that antique shop and also in a series of homes it furnished. The house Nana shared with my grandfather was a modest, mid-century brick ranch on the outside, but on the inside it was a glittering constellation of wonders and marvels orbiting around the greatest wonder and marvel of all, Nana herself, who remade herself as “Nana” and “best grandmother ever” and, frankly, my third parent a few seconds after I was born.

She was never a knitted cardigan wearing cookie baker, but she lovingly endured fat baby fingers tugging a her silk scarves and designer eyeglasses (throughout my childhood, she wore oversized silvery acrylic Dior frames, not quite Iris Apfel, but close), as she translated operatic arias and interstitials into nonsense worded lullabies. It was years before I realized my favorite, a song I only knew as “Dum-De-Dum” was actually “Gaudeamus Igitur,” which Nana had picked up from Mario Lanza doing “The Student Prince.”

She was an early riser and encouraged me (ultimately unsuccessfully) to follow suit. As a child, I’d trundle into her bedroom in the pre-dawn darkness and crawl up into the princess four-poster, under a rosy damask coverlet and an almost comically oversized crystal chandelier dangling above us and snuggle into her slender arms until she rose and made coffee.

We’d creep out to the front of the house, just the two of us. She’d sit like a queen in her velvet and satin robe, waiting for the coffee to percolate, as she finished her first cigarette of the morning. She looked like a queen. She was exactly the same age as QEII (which felt entirely correct) though she never admitted it; Nana, fifty at the time of my birth, was, if you asked, perennially 39.

Nana loved coffee and Nana loved me. These things I know to be absolutely, incontrovertibly. And thus she fixed me my first cup (mostly warm milk and a little sugar) when I was about three years old (it didn’t stunt my growth, or maybe it did, I am shorter than both of my parents, but I am the same height as Nana was—a shade or two above 5’8. She was, for most of my young life, the glorious, blazing center of my universe, my hero, my savior, my fairy godmother, my closest confidante. When things were weird (and things are often weird), Nana could be relied on to steady the ship.

I was the first, but not the only, grandchild. My little sister and my cousin have their own secret rituals, their own tales, their own fat fingers around Chanel-scented silk, their own moments of awe as Nana pulled off some bit of magic. She had a cross-stitched pillow in the bedroom reserved for grandchildren, If mother says no, ask grandmother. She was reliably good for it.

This is not to say that Nana was perfect. She was stubborn, capricious, demanding, judgmental and completely full of whatever flavor of malarkey was necessary to sell a Chippendale highboy or an opinion about what you’re doing wrong with your hair or a highway patrolman on not giving her a speeding ticket (she drove her always respectable, luxury sedans like she’d learned to drive in hopped-up jalopies on country roads in bootlegging country, which I suppose she had). She was always right in an argument (and certainly Right if the topic was politics), a fact she underscored by prefacing her remarks with “Everybody knows.” You couldn’t win. And that was fine. Because why would you want to? You couldn’t help but surrender to her. She’d flash a smile. She’d laugh. Nana had the best laugh. She’d suggest something magical. And it you’d forget to be sour because it was about the best thing in the world to simply be with her.

Nana was not just wonderful in spite of her faults, but because of them. That same stubbornness made her fiercely loyal. That capriciousness made her endlessly inventive. Her demands made her intolerant of anyone who refused to acknowledge her intelligence and her dignity and anyone that failed to treat her with respect. Nana taught me two of the greatest lessons I ever learned as a woman: 1) Never wait for someone else to give you the things you truly want and 2) (and she’ll forgive me—I hope– for saying this aloud) Take no shit. Period. I credit her with so much–she has, for so long, been my totem, my north star—but above and beyond, Nana showed me how I could be myself in the world fearlessly, even if (perhaps especially if) that version of myself was not one she always approved of.

After my grandfather died, my grandmother moved into her new house and I took to spending significant portions of summers and school vacations with her, just the two of us. This persisted through my freshman year of college (at a school a few miles from the original location of her antique shop) through the four years I spent in Greensboro. It was an easy drive up and, unless she was traveling, Nana was reliably there. My best friend, five decades removed. We spent hours, days, months together. At our loneliest moments, we’d talk until we were hoarse. It was her I’d call when I had a bad day in sea of bad days. It was her I’d call when I’d find some moment of ridiculous joy.

She called me when her friend Jocelyn introduced her to the man who would become my step-grandfather. She tried to play it coy, but from moment one, I know she was all butterflies. He was tall and handsome, a widower, an avid reader and a former Commonwealth’s attorney. I think I was a little jealous at first that Nana would add another character to our perfect late night dialogues, that her garden table would need to occupy more than the two of us. But the small miracle of seeing Nana in love? That was something. That was beautiful. They married a few years later at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. They spent fifteen years together, traveling, talking, taking in all the wonders together.

Nana filled her life with beautiful things—flowers, antiques, art, fashion. She traveled widely and made friends wherever she went. She was ambitious, brave, and famously suffered no fools, but she could be sublimely romantic and hugely loving. She loved the opera and taking high tea in England, especially at a grand hotel. She loved the walking on the beach and sitting by ocean, at the edge of the tide, in a low chair with her toes in the sand. She was a great fan of birds, especially the big, exotic ones, and fish, especially flounder, which she could prepare perfectly. She liked Florida more than is fashionable and Las Vegas more than was sensible. She loved tending to her splendid garden and hosting bridge parties. She had far more pairs of shoes than necessary and loved wearing things that sparkled. She looked beautiful in pale pink. Like any good force of nature, she loved life, absolutely and truly, up to the very end, and lived it with great style and elegance, a stubborn grace, and an indomitable spirit, rich with surprise, that sometimes bordered on the miraculous. She was so brave, so unpredictable, so luminous with a light that burned so astonishingly clear and bright, it is hard to imagine how any of us will navigate without her.

Nana was at home when she died. Home meaning the house I visited in high school, in college. Home meaning the collection of curiosities I spent half my life pouring over. She’d only recently traded out the four-poster for a hospital bed, but the curtains were still rosy damask and that old chandelier still sparkled over the bed like a haughty wink from Versailles.I don’t know what Nana was dreaming about at the end, but I hope it was a good dream. I hope she was swept up in it and borne out gently on the tides, through the mist, to blue skies and onto whatever glorious adventure awaits on the distant shore.

My mother called to report that, just prior to learning of Nana’s passing from her caretaker, her iPhone blipped and started playing Duke Ellington’s “Angelica.” That’s not what I would have expected. I would have said Puccini (which, in fact, I listened to and wept at in bed this morning because we all have our grieving rituals). But “Angelica” feels like grand hotel music and I’m thinking Nana’s just settled in. I hope she’s found her father and her own favorite grandmother. She’s found her sister and the two men that loved her. Maybe she’s even ordered a Bloody Mary and tracked down Thomas Chippendale, because I’m sure she has a thing or two to say to him. I hope she finds peace there and beauty and hopefully a luxury suite, because Lord knows, she will absolutely insist that management puts her in the best room.

I know I’m biased here, but I think she deserves it.

Rest in Peace, Gloria Maxine Mitchell Altizer Moran.

I love you, Nana. I don’t really do goodbyes, so

Bon Voyage

The Author

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