My Nanny Pat

nanny patMy aunt, Ann Patricia Harvey Tomancik, passed away on Friday, May 18, 2018, just 28 days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After spending all weekend doing lesson plans and prepping for missing school, my husband and I flew to Louisiana early Monday morning for the wake on Monday, the funeral on Tuesday, a quick visit with my almost 92-year-old father-in-law Tuesday night, and then we flew  back to DC early Wednesday morning. While in Louisiana, I was able to spend time with my cousins and their families, with both of my brothers, my sister-in-law, my nephews, my husband’s brother and his wife and their two sons. Over the course of those whirlwind days and nights, I learned two important things: (1) it is wonderful spending time with family even in sad times, and (2) grief is exhausting.

On Wednesday, after coming home from the airport, I took a nap, did a bit of school work, and went to bed early, only to awaken on Thursday feeling exhausted and numb. Another nap on Thursday after school did not help, and I found myself half-asleep long before my normal bedtime. Thankfully, we had no school on Friday. After sleeping in late yesterday and today, I finally feel “normal”, although I am still feeling in a very personal way the loss of someone very dear to me. You see, she wasn’t just my aunt, and I felt an incredible and overwhelming need to express this. My cousin graciously allowed me to read my own eulogy to my aunt at the family luncheon that was held after the funeral and burial. Here it is.

To all of you, she was Mom, or Grandma, or Pat, but to me she was my Nanny Pat, my godmother, my mother’s only sibling. I was the flower girl at her wedding to Uncle Frank, and she has always been dear to me. As a little girl I remember our pilgrimages to Baton Rouge to spend a weekend with the Tomanciks, where I would be glued at the hip to my first cousin, Elizabeth, or as I have always called her, Lizard. When the Tomanciks came to visit us in Port Sulphur, I always knew there would be a tin of her little miniature pecan tarts coming out of that car.

One of the best birthday presents I ever received was my very own subscription to Reader’s Digest magazine. I was an avid reader even as a young child, and I had discovered the little magazine filled with stories in the bathroom of Nanny Pat’s house in Baton Rouge. Months later, near my birthday, I received one in the mail, with my very own name on the label. I believe I was 11 or 12 years old at the time, and I could not believe I was going to get one of these wonderful little magazines every single month for a whole year.

One summer we went to Baton Rouge for an entire week. My mom went to help Nanny Pat after she had surgery on the veins in her legs. During the day, my brothers and I went to Vacation Bible School with our cousins. I remember having so much fun that week. Another time, just after Michael was born, we went to Baton Rouge and collected Richard, who was a young toddler. He came home with us to Port Sulphur for a short while to give Nanny Pat time to recover with the new baby and the two older children, Lizard and Steve. My dad set up the baby bed in my brothers’ room and every morning Richard would wake early and stand in the baby bed, shaking the rails back and forth, singing the Batman theme song at the top of his lungs. If we shushed him, he would just whistle it instead. We would finally fish him out of the baby bed and bring him to the kitchen where he would happily eat or drink anything we put in front of him, shouting out, “I do, I do,” when we asked, “Who wants chocolate milk, who wants eggs, who wants toast?”

When I married into the Ardillo family in Amite, Louisiana, Nanny Pat married in as well, coming to visit my in-laws whenever we flew to Louisiana for Christmas or Easter. She loved eating at my father-in-law’s restaurant and having coffee or tea with my mother-in-law in her kitchen. Whenever one of my husband’s relatives was in the hospital in Baton Rouge, there would be Nanny Pat, sitting in the waiting room with them, keeping them company, praying with them, helping take their minds off of things. Just this past Christmas, she sent my father-in-law a Christmas card with a little note, which he kept on the kitchen table to show me at Easter.

My Nanny Pat loved my daughters, always asking right away when we talked, “How are the girls?” For birthdays and holidays, we always received thoughtful gifts in the mail, always things with ties to our Louisiana roots. She loved sharing pictures of her friends and family, especially her grandchildren, whenever we were together to visit. She wrote me long letters, many pages long, filling me in on the whole family and all of her friends, many of whom I had never met nor would ever meet. I always knew what was going on at Woods and Waters and in her church groups. She loved sending me clippings from the newspapers with recipes or articles about people I knew from Louisiana. It seemed like she was always thinking of me.

In 1995, my Nanny Pat gave my family a life-changing gift: she donated a kidney to my mother. My mother had been on dialysis for two years, and she was on the transplant list but she was not doing well. Nobody in my family was a match, not my dad, my brothers, or me. Lizard volunteered but my mother said no, since she was a young mom with two little boys, my mother wouldn’t take the chance that something would go wrong. It wasn’t a good time; Uncle Frank was seriously ill and Nanny Pat was busy taking care of him while worrying about her sister. After Uncle Frank passed away, Nanny Pat quietly went and got tested and then, to our surprise, announced to all of us that she was a perfect match. The surgery was June 20, 1995, and almost immediately my mother’s health improved. She saved my mother’s life and gave all of us twelve additional years with her. When my mother passed away in 2007, my Nanny Pat was at my side, in my parents’ little apartment in Belle Chasse, where they lived after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina. She and I said the rosary together, along with my dad and brothers and my cousin Penny. I was so thankful she was there.

My Nanny Pat never met a stranger, she could make friends at the drop of a hat. She was so cheerful and full of life, even when I last saw her Easter week this year, before she even knew she was so ill. I will miss her so much, but I know I will see her again. For now, she is with Uncle Frank, my mom and dad, her brother, her parents, and all her relatives from Scotland who have gone before her. Thank you for everything, Nanny Pat. May Perpetual Light shine upon you.

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Learning the “Write” Way

On September 12, 2015, my father would have been 85 years old. On September 8, it will be four months since he passed away. I miss him. I think of him all the time, just like I think of my mother all the time and it has been eight long years since I lost her. One of the things I miss the most is not being able to call them to tell them good news. That’s when I feel my grief the most.

Reflections front coverJust a few weeks ago, on August 26th, I received a package in the mail: ten copies of a paperback book called Reflections: Ultra Short Personal Narratives collected by CoCo Harris. The minute I ripped upon that box, I immediately thought of my dad and how much I would have liked to get out my phone and call him to share my good news. An essay I wrote was included in that book. And, that essay is about a lesson my dad taught me many, many years ago.

Last Christmas, when both my daughters were home for the holidays, we talked about my desire to become a writer. I had been writing essays and personal narratives with the hopes of getting them published somewhere. I had sent a few off to contests and magazines but had not been successful in getting my foot in the door anywhere. We talked about different ways I could improve my skills as a writer as well as ways to improve my chances for publication. We decided I needed a platform of my own, so I created my own website, Cajun Girl in a Kilt, purchased my domain name, www.michelleardillo.com, and for my first entry, I selected a short essay I had written about my dog and his off and on difficulties of navigating the stairs in our house, “License to Carry”.

Knowing myself all too well, I knew I needed some sort of plan or goal to motivate me to continue writing and posting essays on my new website. So, I came up with the idea of “an essay a week for one year”. I mean, it worked for Julie Powell. She set out to cook all of the recipes in Julia Child’s tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she set herself a goal of doing it in one year and blogging about it as she cooked her way through it, one recipe at a time. She accomplished her goal and more. Her blog became a book and her book became a movie. And, she became a writer. I was inspired.

It is now September and I have been at it for eight months. I have posted an essay a week while teaching full-time, directing a middle school musical with a cast of 43 7th and 8th graders, coordinating 8th grade graduation, and, last but certainly not least, having my father become very ill and passing away. Through it all, I have never once considered that I would not post my weekly essay. To say I am goal-oriented is an understatement. I simply can’t quit something when I have truly set my mind to it. This I attribute to my father and his steadfast work ethic.

telling our stories pressSo, when I read about a small publishing company, Telling Our Stories Press, http://tellingourstoriespress.com/telling-our-stories-press-contributing-a, asking for submissions of ultra-short personal narratives where the writer reflects on a lesson learned, I knew mine would be about one of the many lessons I learned from my father. A story from my past popped into my head, a story featuring a legal document donutsand my father’s advice that “honesty is the best policy”. I submitted my essay on May 19th, just days after his funeral. In June, I learned my essay had been selected for publication. And, on August 26th, my package arrived with my copies of the freshly printed book. Oh, how I would have liked to call and tell my mom and dad about it. They weren’t big readers, but I know they would have loved getting a copy of that book in the mail.

Anthologies of personal essays are not the kinds of books that typically fly off the shelves at Amazon’s mega-warehouse or at your local B&N, but I’m still very happy with this stepping stone toward my goal of becoming a writer. This short essay detailing a small fiasco of mine at my former job as a real estate paralegal
marks my first words in print. I’ve been fortunate to be a guest blogger twice on an author’s website, http://www.cindycallaghan.com/the-art-of-the-afternoon-tea-part-1-by-michelle-ardillo/, and then again on a website about reading that has a wide audience, https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/my-kingdom-for-a-lamp-by-michelle-blanchard-ardillo/. And, of course, this essay is #38 in my “essay a week for one year” so I am over half-way there and well on my way to accomplishing my goal. I have no idea where this “essay a week for one year” will lead me but I have enjoyed writing my weekly essays and I know my self-imposed weekly deadline has strengthened my writing skills as well as my discipline for writing.

For those of you out there who have been following me on this journey by reading my weekly essays, let me say thank you. Thank you for your comments, reflections, and encouragement. Thank you for sharing the link on your Facebook page or retweeting it. Thank you for casually mentioning in a conversation something you read in one of my essays and making me feel great. And, if you are so inclined, head over to Amazon and order a copy of “my book”.  Reflections back coverYou’ll find my essay “You Can Handle the Truth” on page 46. Whatever you do, though, keep checking in to see what the Cajun Girl in a Kilt has written and where this journey of becoming a writer will take me. Michelle and PopsIn the meantime, on September 12th I’ll go outside and sit on my porch, raise a glass of red wine, and say, “Happy Birthday, Daddy. Thanks for everything.”

À bientôt

On Thursday, May 14, 2015, I said my final goodbye to my dad or at least my final goodbye in this life. Being a faithful Catholic, however, I truly believe that I will see him again in eternal life, so perhaps Thursday’s goodbye was merely à bientôt.

Religious items from my father's funeral

Religious items from my father’s funeral

His funeral was beautiful. My brothers and I tried our best to include all the different branches of our extended families. An Irish priest, a longtime friend of the family, in his still thick Irish accent, celebrated the Mass, with another priest concelebrating. My older daughter was the cantor for the parts of the Mass and hymns, and my husband sang the responsorial psalm. My younger daughter, originally scheduled to read the first reading, served as lector reading both readings as my dad’s niece’s laryngitis kept her from doing the second reading. My nephews brought up the gifts, along with my mom’s niece and my parents’ godchild, my dad’s nephew. Pall bearers included my nephews and four men who were all very dear friends of my dad’s. Nearly a hundred people came to the church for the two-hour visitation prior to the funeral, and while there were many tears, there were also many light moments, reminiscing about my father’s legendary storytelling and practical jokes.

At the visitation, a family friend said to me, “Losing a parent is tough, but losing the last parent is something else, something greater.” He was so right. At my mother’s funeral, also beautiful with many family members and close family friends participating, I remember holding on to my dad’s arm. He cried throughout most of the Mass, and after that, he cried every time he went to Mass. He had been devoted to my mother throughout their nearly 53 years of marriage, but particularly so during the last fourteen years of her life, when he cared for her around the clock during many surgeries and medical treatments for heart and kidney disease. We all worried so about him and how he would cope with my mother’s death. The belief that they are together again is of some comfort, but losing him is the final ache in a series of pain that began with Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on August 29, 2005.

As readers of my essays will remember, I lost my hometown to Hurricane Katrina, and along with my hometown, my parents lost their home and almost all of their possessions. My mother wasn’t feeling well preceding the mandatory evacuation order and did not pack to the same degree as she had for previous hurricanes. She later told me that she was lying on the sofa directing my father, tense and nervous about the storm, as to what to pack. Later, when unpacking her suitcase in a La Quinta motel room in Houston, she discovered she had mismatched pairs of shoes, pants with no matching tops, and an odd assortment of other items.

Blanchard home, post-Katrina, located in pieces on back levee, Port Sulphur, Louisiana

Blanchard home, post-Katrina, located in pieces on back levee, Port Sulphur, Louisiana

When news eventually arrived that the house was gone, and by gone, I mean totally gone-its remains were located weeks later on the back levee, broken in pieces-my mother was devastated and really never recovered from that. I recently learned from my mother’s sister, my beloved Nanny Pat, whose gift to my mother of a kidney in 1995 gifted all of us with twelve additional years with her, that my mother had said she really did not want to live through another anniversary of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. She died on August 23, 2007, just days before Katrina’s second anniversary. We all pretty much agree that she just gave up fighting as she had done for so long.

Everything changed after my mother passed away. In October of 2007, just a month and a half later, I realized I would never get another birthday card in the mail from her. My mother (as well as my Nanny Pat, who continues to this day in this family specialty) was a master of correspondence. She wrote to me almost daily during my four years of college, and sent many, many care packages. The contents were usually somewhat odd and I learned to open the care packages in the safety of my dorm room rather than in the student union where I picked up my mail. Once, the small box, heavily armored in scotch tape, contained about a hundred sticks of doublemint gumDoublemint gum (still individually wrapped, but loose, not in packages) and some personal sanitary products.

My mom sent out scores of greeting cards all year round. Hallmark was her favorite store, and no matter how poorly she was feeling, my dad’s offer of a trip to the Hallmark Gold Crown store was sure to perk up her spirits. Naturally, all birthdays, anniversaries, and major holidays warranted a card, but so did the minor ones as well: Fourth of July, Halloween; if Hallmark had a card for it, a card was purchased. When family members married, their new spouses were added to the address book, along with their birthdays and special dates. My husband often remarked that he found it so touching, how my mom and my Nanny Pat never ever let his birthday or Father’s Day pass without Hallmark making an appearance in our mailbox.

My dad wasn’t much on correspondence although he would sign his name to any card my mom put in front of him. He was, however, very attached to his cell phone. While he never graduated to a smart phone, he and his flip phone were best friends. He was famous for calling people closest to him several times a day. While my mom’s cousin Anna was still alive in Glasgow, Scotland, he called her frequently. Once he pronounced his initial greeting, he immediately passed the phone to someone else. I will dearly miss talking to him and hearing his familiar “Whatcha doing?” which was always followed by a litany of what he had eaten that day, and sometimes, what he ate the day before. He loved to tell me exactly how he had cooked something. How many times did he tell me how he made his famous smothered chicken? “First, I rinse off the chicken pieces and dry them. Then, I lay them out on aluminum foil and season them with salt and pepper. Next, I brown them on all sides in a big pan with some olive oil. I set them aside and brown thinly sliced onions and bell peppers. When they are nice and soft, I put the chicken back in, add a little water, cover them with foil, and put the pan in the oven for about an hour. It’s so good it will make you slap your momma.”  This was always served with hot white rice and good French bread.

Food has always been an important part of the fabric of our family life. None of us were ever breakfast people, and lunch was usually leftovers or a sandwich (in my father’s case, a “half a sandwich”) but extensive discussions ensued each day about what would be cooked for supper. Most of the meals served at the supper tables of homes in southeast Louisiana need to be started early in the day and simmered for a long period of time. Red beans and rice with smoked sausage or ham needs to cook for hours. My dad’s smothered chicken also involves considerable prep and long, slow cooking. Gumbo is not a dish to throw together after work on a weekday night.

My parents also loved to eat out. My dad would first order his glass of red wine and settle in to study the menu, cover to cover, all the while asking what everyone at the table was going to order. He was always a gracious diner. I don’t think I ever saw him send anything back to the kitchen or complain about a dish served to him. He was not exactly a picky eater, but he was not very adventurous until he quit smoking in 1995. He claimed that his tastes changed after he quit smoking, that food tasted “more alive” and then he really branched out trying all sorts of things that shocked us, like Chinese take-out and delivery pizza. He loved to outsmart anyone at the table who was intent on paying the bill, often handing the waiter his credit card when he placed his order to ensure he would get the bill. The best you could do was to offer to pay the tip, and that was not always something you would win at either.

I feel so fortunate to have spent nine days with my dad in April, helping to get him out of the rehab facility he had been in and get him back home with my brother. My brothers and I worked together to make important health decisions for him. During that time, in spite of the stress and difficult decisions, my dad and I had such a good visit, shared some good meals, and had some nice chats. I was able to tell him thanks for being such a great father, for teaching me so much, for giving me a strong work ethic. None of that made it any easier when the news did come on Friday, May 8th, that he was gone. It is and will be for a long time incredibly hard. À bientôt, mon père, à bientôt.