My great-aunt Nancy passed away last week. I had what felt like a premonition a few days before she passed, when I came out of my room after dressing to hear strains of the soundtrack from the Phantom of the Opera. Quint couldn’t say why he’d picked that music, which we hadn’t listened to in years, as he and the boys built with Legos at the table. But it immediately took me to my Aunt Nancy’s house, sitting in front of the stereo as we listened to “Phantom,” me poring over the cassette tape’s liner notes. Nancy’s life was filled with music, and it spilled over into my own, from the instrument-less hymns at her church and a cappella arrangements she directed during rehearsals for weddings, to teaching me “Edelweiss,” to blasting Phantom from her car stereo as she sheepishly grinned at the joy it gave her.
“Do you like the Sound of Music?” she onced asked me, as we sat in the twilight of a Fourth of July on the grassy hill at the McKinley Monument waiting for the symphony to play the 1812 Overture. I was confused. What kind of question was that? At eight years old, I hadn’t yet been exposed to the movie or musical. As I puzzled over how to answer, she explained she was going to treat me to a local production of the musical, a night after which I dreamed many times of the children dancing and imagining myself as Leisl, leaping from garden benches.
Aunt Nancy was such a fixture in my life growing up that when I was about ten, I decided she needed her own special grandmotherly appellation, and coined Grancy, for Great-Aunt Nancy. Grancy was the one waiting in front of our house when I got off the bus on days when my mom couldn’t be there; she came over regularly to help us tidy up—cleaning the fridge (“When in doubt, throw it out”) and scrubbing surfaces in the kitchen. Living in the same town as us, she was there for us in a way that my actual grandmothers couldn’t be, much as they would have loved to.
“I learn something new every day,” I heard her say many times. For her, it wasn’t a trite cliche, something to say when you didn’t know what else to say. It was the way she lived—curious, active, forging ahead. I can’t think of anyone else besides my parents from whom I learned so much.
I learned from her that a woman could be a protector, a guardian, assertive and strong. One of my earliest memories is one that I don’t think I experienced so much as inherited through being told the story many times: Aunt Nancy yelling into the phone and scaring away a creep who had been calling our home repeatedly. She was our guardian angel, and I was in awe of her strength.
Grancy always kept African Violets in a pot in her “parlor” as she called it. Whenever I visited her, she would fill the watering can and let me water the plant, showing me how to carefully place the spout under the leaves to send water straight to the soil. My favorite color has always been purple, and I can’t help but think those bold, dark violet petals had something to do with it. I read recently to have something living in every room in your home, and it made me think of those violets. Every room of Grancy’s life was full of living.