Grandparents Saint Fannie and Nicholas as newlyweds in 1940, at their weekend getaway cottage.
(Photo Courtesy Daniella Latham)
It was located on a familiar, winding, bumpy road that held the memories of youth.
There was always a flurry of activity in our house growing up, along with the daily traffic that cut the tree-lined suburban street and turned it into a raceway. Each driver navigated the sharp curve as if they were Mario Andretti, minus the looks and money that went along with that type of fame.
A 1950’s split-level, the house sat a stone’s throw from the center of the universe (Manhattan) and it gave off the feeling that anything was possible. I lived with my mother and my grandparents. My grandfather stood out as the only truly present man in our lives, and his moral center was paired with Saint Fannie, my grandmother, the matriarch who cooked a mean eggplant parmesan and was my favorite person on earth.
As a child growing up in 1970’s suburban New Jersey, nothing could touch us. Life was good — golden, in fact. I had no siblings, so it was always just the four of us, our own nuclear family that had been touched by divorce (my father had left), but emerged even better in the end, with all parties virtually unscathed.
How could a rich, full life be reduced to a neat stack of papers, an organized desk and handwritten notes?
When I was in my late 20s, I came back home to live with Saint Fannie. What was weird to the outside world was not the fact that a grown woman was living with her grandmother in her childhood home; it was the fact that I never wanted to leave it — because it meant leaving her.
Saint Fannie and I had gone to see the movie “Casino” in the theater. (“An interesting movie, but I didn’t care for the curse words,” she said afterward.) We had a bond like that, beyond the average granddaughter-grandmother relationship. You know how people say they wished they had savored a moment as it was happening, because by the time you looked back, it was over? Well, in every second that I had spent with her, nothing was lost.
On the way back from the theater, we drove past the gorgeous, old Catholic church that sat at the beginning of our street, and she motioned to the mausoleum where my grandfather had been interned five years earlier.
“That’s where I’ll be when my time comes,” she said quietly. My heart broke because I could never imagine a life without her; she was my pillar, my building block. It was same church where I would get married years later, chosen specifically so that they could both have the best seats in the house.
There was Kermit-the-Frog green carpeting throughout the house and the décor had not changed since the early ’70s. Didn’t everyone have a puke-yellow refrigerator and a dishwasher that always sounded angry?
Oh, and if anyone(boyfriends, random family members, anyone) dared to speak ill of the lack of modernity, that was it. They were kindly escorted out the door and probably didn’t return. Saint Fannie was loyal to her décor, no matter what.
In September 2001, everything changed. We all felt the immeasurable loss and fear on that one sunny morning that turned the entire country dark. The days ahead were not any brighter. Saint Fannie was in Hackensack Hospital, dying from colon cancer — we had suspected she knew all along that she was sick, but never told us; she was a true warrior.
When I returned to the house for the first time after she was gone forever, it was filled with the kind of quiet that made me want to run through the house screaming.
But there were things to do, rooms to clean, a life to carefully and thoughtfully deconstruct. How could a rich, full life be reduced to a neat stack of papers, an organized desk and handwritten notes? As I read through her letters, which were written in perfect, cursive script, the house itself seemed to let out a long sigh. It knew it would receive no more love from the woman who had taken care of and nurtured it for so many years.
A few months later, we sold the house. It had lost its soul — and I felt like I had, too. But when I closed the front door for the last time, it seemed to say, “Shhh…it will be alright.”
Now Saint Fannie visits me in my dreams and she is always opening that same front door, looking beautiful, inviting me in, and forever smiling.