'Nana Polly,' as she was known in my house growing up, was the matriarch of the family on my dad's side. In the 1960s, she made big meals for family who gathered for Friday night dinner and holidays in a small apartment in the Bronx. She was married to 'Papa Mark' who owned a bookstore in Manhattan with his brothers until he passed away in the 1950s, widowing her at age 40. She was the only great-grandparent I met and although she passed away when I was little, her reputation as THE cook lives on in chicken soup and schmaltz. But other than her recipes and a few black and white photos, I don't know much about Nana Polly, who she was as a young and middle-aged person, and how she coped with the unexpected events of her life.
This summer, while helping my parents pack up our family home to sell, a framed picture of Nana Polly, was left in the attic closet. I took it home, and six months later, after finding myself recovering from a breakup, I decided to hang it up. Nana Polly would keep me company. I hung her up in the hallway where I would see her frequently.
Over the past couple of months, as I've ridden the emotional roller coaster of recalibrating my life Nana Polly has looked on - her steady gaze silently reassuring me that this too shall pass. I've had good days and bad day and worse days. I've tried new yoga routines and gotten on dating sites. I've tried to stay busy.
That was a few weeks ago. That was before coronavirus. Things are different now.
Now, socially isolated in my apartment, not allowed to go out and meet people and have new experiences, I find myself looking at her photo more and wondering more about her life. She was 23 in 1918, the year of the infamous 1918 flu. She was in her 40s when the polio epidemic happened. And in her 80s during the AIDs epidemic. What was it like for her to live through a pandemic? Was she worried about her parents and picking up groceries for them?
In the photo she is young, late teens or early twenties, unaware of the long life she would live, and the loved ones she would lose much too soon (she lost her husband, father, favorite uncle, and son all in a tragic two-year window, although it was not an infectious disease that took their lives but heart attacks or cancer). I gaze back at her, wondering what thoughts are behind her steely gaze and hope that strength is in me too.