Coming up to the end of my college career, I find myself reflecting on all my formal education has taught me. Thousands of pages read, hundreds of pages written and dozens upon dozens of lectures attended have all imparted great knowledge and wisdom and a growing up. And yet I realized the most significant things I have learned have not been scholarly.
I learned a great deal about life from my grandmother.
Like other Boston-Irish Catholics, Nana has always preferred handshakes to hugs. She does not tolerate backtalk or ignorance. And like her late husband, Mortimer, who taught English at Notre Dame, she believed it’s better to read Hardy Boys or comic books than nothing at all.
Her daughter, my mother, has always cited Nana’s words to live by. No long soliloquies or drawn-out harangues, but rather a series of succinct, wise aphorisms accrued from years of life experience.
Nanaisms, if you will.
These little lessons are so ingrained in me that I don’t think twice about their significance anymore. They have become a part of our family tradition, and I know someday I will pass them along to my kids as well. My mom has joked that she wants to make a book of Nanaisms someday. Well, Mom, here’s a start.
Healthy birds fly away. This was Nana’s explanation for the restlessness her children felt at the end of their high school years. They longed for a world beyond Blaine Avenue — free of curfews, full of novelty and away from home. They soon scattered themselves all over the country — New York to Chicago to Texas. Kids are supposed to want to take off on their own. Surely, she said, that is better than the alternative — feeling complacent and comfortable at home forever. Leaving one’s comfort zone, I learned from her, is the only way to grow.
Enjoy poor health. Nana was never an advocate for playing hooky, cutting class or lying. Sometimes, though, when children cried “sick,” Nana would see through the pouting façade and allow the delight in not having to go to school that day. My mom would later extend such excused absences to me and my little sisters when a sudden case of a sore throat or stomachache would render us unable to make it to, say, piano practice that day.
Nice is what you say about someone when you have nothing better to say. About six years ago, Nana visited our family shortly after we had moved to North Carolina from South Bend. She met my mom’s new friend Monica, who, gushing about my mother, called her “just so nice.” “No, she’s not,” Nana said. “She’s a lot of other things, not just nice. Nice is what you say about someone when you have nothing better to say.” Monica was taken aback, but Nana explained: Nice is the go-to compliment, the default praise that doesn’t really require a deeper understanding or true feelings for the other person. My mom definitely is not just nice.
She has not had a new idea in decades. Nana would use this to describe someone’s conservatism. It perfectly captures the disgust she felt at stagnant thought. Admittedly a lifelong liberal, Nana by no means discriminated against people based on their political beliefs. But lack of innovation, she thought, was not excusable on anyone’s end.
Tell your friends not to call during the dinner hour. A worse offense than burping at the table, cursing or fighting was that of calling a Donovan family member during that sacred time the family shares. Dinner was the one time in the day set aside for civil togetherness, a difficult task for a family of six kids with different agendas.
Everyone really is doing the best they can. Nana used this one whenever she heard kvetching about DMV personnel, late mailmen, telemarketers or whomever. People don’t act the way they do in this world to annoy you personally or complicate your life, she’d caution. They probably have it a lot harder than you, she’d say. They are doing all they can to get by, even if it doesn’t look like it and even if it somehow bothers you.
I always knew Nana had to be as sharp as she is to raise four boys and two girls in a strange Midwestern city, far from her Massachusetts hometown. Nana was always a fixture in the lives of my sisters, my cousins and me, and I didn’t realize how much she had taught me until we moved away, until my mom began to quote her mother’s homegrown proverbs and until I had grown enough to fully appreciate them.
In my day-to-day life, in any given situation, I often find myself asking the inevitable WWNS question — what would Nana say? That’s because, as she would say, my behavior is a direct reflection of my parents. Or maybe, in this case, my grandparent.
Katie Peralta, an American studies and Spanish major, is the spring 2010 intern at this magazine.