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.

Who’s Your Favorite?

top tenThese “top 10 of this” and “favorite 5 of that” lists are very popular these days. Someone is always posting a list of these types of things on Facebook: list your favorite book (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier), favorite song (“Your Song” by Elton John), favorite color (pink), favorite day of the week (Sunday), favorite Beatle (Paul), favorite food (cheese), etc. Answering these things on Facebook is supposed to help your “friends” get to know you better. To be honest, I enjoy reading these lists on my friends’ posts every now and then.

jesus and god with holy spiritRecently, one of my husband’s coworkers, a devout Catholic, lost his mother and my husband and I went to the wake. He and his wife are active in their church parish, which is something his wife mentioned about my husband and me when she introduced us to a friend of hers. priest cartoonShe then shared a story with her friend and me. She said she had recently been on a flight seated next to a man dressed in clerical clothing. She asked if he was a priest and he responded that yes, he was a Catholic priest. They chatted amicably for a few minutes, and then she asked him a question. She said that she hoped he wouldn’t think it was irreverent or sacrilegious, but she wanted to know, “Is it okay to have a favorite member of the Holy Trinity?”

whoa“Whoa!” slipped out of my mouth before I could catch it. She laughed and said that the priest had a similar response. As Catholics, we are taught about the Holy Trinity early on in our faith formation: “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, God in three persons, the Holy Trinity.” If they are three in one being, then how could you have a favorite? They can’t be separated that way, or can they?

mary with rosaryIn the weeks that have transpired since that conversation, I have thought about it quite a bit, and then, yesterday morning, after daily Mass, the priest gave a brief reflection after the Mass. He recounted a story to us about praying the rosary in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary, while his father was very ill in the hospital. In the middle of the rosary, he had a feeling of overwhelming spirituality come over him, and he stopped his rosary to pray directly to God the Father. He said it was almost as though Mary had stepped back and away from him in order for him to have this intimate conversation with God the Father. After this brief interlude, he resumed his rosary and felt at piece with the many issues weighing on him involving his father’s illness.

So, this young priest had clearly separated God the Father from the rest of the Holy Trinity. This made me think that perhaps my conversation with this woman at the wake was not that unusual after all.

The story from our priest reminded me about a similar episode in my own prayer life. Sometimes in the early ‘90s, I had just found out some bad news about my mother’s health. I left work and drove home, crying and sobbing over the dismal news. rosaryWhen I got home I went straight to my bedroom and got my rosary from my bedside table. I knelt there at the side of my bed and said the rosary, but somewhere in the middle of a decade of the rosary, I stopped saying a Hail Mary and turned my prayer directly to God the Father. I asked Him to please not take my mother then, to allow her to watch my girls grow up, to give her more time with us. God heavenI talked to Him about how she had struggled in her life and how she had had so many crosses to bear, losing both her parents at a young age, marrying my father and being part of a completely different culture, her many ongoing health issues, and later, losing every single thing she owned in Hurricane Katrina. I told Him everything, and I asked Him for peace in this crisis in my life. A calm came over me and I returned to saying my rosary. Clearly, I had had a spiritual and intimate conversation with God the Father, but until Saturday morning’s reflection, I had not really thought of it in that way.

god the sonAs a regular churchgoer, I think of the Mass in terms of God the Son. He is there, up on the crucifix, up on the altar, present in the Eucharist. We hear His stories in the Old Testament, we are His invited guests at the Last Supper during the Eucharistic Prayer. So, when I am in church, particularly in Mass, I feel that I am having that same spiritual and intimate conversation with God the Son.

holy spiritThat just leaves God the Holy Spirit. Catholic middle school students are told at dances to “leave room for the Holy Spirit” when dancing to slow songs. We’ve all heard the phrase, “It was the Holy Spirit” that did this or that. Last May, I received a call from a friend who told me of a job opening at my parish school, where my daughters were educated, where my husband and I spend so much of our time. I had always wanted to teach there but there was never an opening when the timing was right. This was the third time an opening in my content area and grade level had come up, and this time, I decided I would go in and interview for the position. Changing schools was a challenge, as I had only ever taught at one school for my whole career. Many times, I had taught four or more children from a single family, had watched the whole family grow up, graduate, and go to college. I had (and still have) many dear friends on faculty there. But, I felt the Holy Spirit was calling me to make this change.

hands on the earthYes, it was a change, fraught with challenge. I have six preps (lesson plans) a day now which is twice as many as I had before. I am teaching 6th grade literature for the first time. At my school, the 5th grade is part of the middle school, and before this year, I was not around 5th grade very much. The student body is very diverse, with students from El Salvador, Peru, Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Philippines, India, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and many more. Learning to pronounce and spell some of the first and last names has been a bit of work, to say the least.

keep calmBut, there have been many blessings as well. All of those cultures blend together to make a very interesting and rich classroom environment. They are lovely children, polite and courteous, full of energy and enthusiasm, the same as children from my old school. I have grown greatly as a teacher, improving in many areas of my classroom skills. With increased preps, I have become much more efficient in my lesson planning and grading; I use my planning periods much more resourcefully. The atmosphere in the hallways and among the faculty is positive and upbeat. There is laughter everywhere. My commute is now only 1.7 miles each way, and I can be at school in about 5 minutes. I am more fully a part of my church parish community. And, I have my friend to thank for it, or do I? We both have commented that it was the Holy Spirit that made this happen, and so I offer prayers of thanksgiving to God the Holy Spirit each day for this opportunity.

gold triangleThe Holy Trinity has been a part of my faith life since I was born and baptized into the Catholic Church, but until that recent conversation at the wake, I’ve never really thought of them as having distinct and separate effects on my life. Saturday’s reflection after Mass has given me new insight into my prayer life and how I view God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, God in three persons, the Holy Trinity.

October: A Libra’s Day in the Sun

Libra Scales of JusticeI am a Libra. I’m not really into horoscopes or astrology, but a brief research of my “sign” reveals it fits me like a glove. The sun sign of Libra covers those born between September 23 and October 22, and is represented by the scales, symbolized by the Scales of Justice held by Themis, which is the Greek personification of divine law and custom. Some of the adjectives and attributes I found are ones I know describe me: artsy, talkative, diplomatic but likes to win, people-person, lazy if not engaged in something interesting, and sometimes fickle and indecisive. My family can attest to that last one…as they are able to recount many examples of this, such as the struggle to decide what color Kindle to buy (between black and white, why was that so hard?), and then, oh my, the decision for what Kindle cover to buy.  And, I do love to win, also well documented in everything from Scrabble to cards to Jeopardy questions. The lazy thing is not something I’m particularly proud of, and while I can work circles around anyone when I am actually at work, lack of motivation can get the best of me on the weekends.

my favorite color is octoberThe eternal question is of course am I all of this because I am a Libra or am I picking and choosing buzzwords from various descriptions of Libras that best describe who I say I am, of who I think I am? Long before I knew what a zodiac sign was or before I could “identify” as any of these attributes, I had my mind set on becoming a lawyer, with those scales of justice as my personal mascot. All four years of high school and all four years of college were spent thinking about this goal. My college major didn’t really matter; I was going to law school, so as long as it was something in the humanities I would be fine. I wouldn’t need to rely on that degree for employment because I would be practicing law. When I didn’t get into law school, I went to work in a law firm, working my way up from receptionist to legal secretary to paralegal. I traveled to courthouses and did title work for real estate transactions and oil and gas leases. acorn storageI organized files, maintained law libraries, interviewed prospective clients, drafted briefs and memoranda, and annotated and summarized depositions. I learned a lot about mortgages, real estate transactions, collections, bankruptcies, adoptions, divorces, personal injury, and medical malpractice. Eventually, on my third try, and with the help of a family friend, I was admitted into law school, but lasted only one semester. Back to work in law firms, back to the scales of justice, eventually becoming quite proficient at drafting and negotiating lease agreements for commercial real estate, where I spent fourteen years attempting diplomacy while always looking to win on each and every point being argued.

puccini at playWhatever the reason, October has always been my favorite month. Yesterday, while out walking the dog with my husband, I stopped to enjoy the beautiful fall colors of the landscape around our neighborhood. With the cool, crisp breeze and the clear, bright sky, I couldn’t help but think how much I love October. In true BuzzFeed fashion, I started thinking about the top reasons I love October, and being an English teacher, the image of an acrostic poem popped into my head. cropped acrosticI know I won’t be in the running for the Pulitzer in Poetry, but it does capture the essence of October for me.

After a long hard winter and a spring that seemed to sprint past us, we endured a hot summer. Then, it’s back-to-school season, and I am immediately saddled with grading summer reading assignments while trying to get to know my new 7th graders and helping my 8th graders buckle up for their very busy last year of middle school. Just when I feel as though I can catch my breath and ease into a good routine of school life, fallen leavesOctober rolls around. Even with the later sunrises and earlier sunsets, the days are just so much more pleasant. The crisp, cooler temperatures and beautiful fall colors seem to work their magic in easing away stress and tension. The promise of holidays is just around the corner but the crazy frenzy of those holidays still seems far off.

And, naturally, October 11th rolls around and because of its proximity to Columbus Day; I almost always get a three-day weekend to commemorate my birthday! If I’m lucky, decoupage leafthe temperatures will have dropped and I can pull out a favorite sweater to wear for my birthday dinner out at a favorite restaurant. Growing up in southeast Louisiana meant that I never owned an overcoat until I moved to Washington, DC, in 1988. Every year just before school started, my Aunt Helen would take me shopping in New Orleans and buy me a few back-to-school outfits. I distinctly remember those outfits, particularly a black and tan striped sweater and black “gauchos”.

pumpkin and pelicanFall weather also brings to the dinner table root vegetables and soups. I could eat soup every day. There used to be a small restaurant next door to the courthouse in Baton Rouge called Soupçon, which had a very limited menu that changed daily. Written on a sandwich board outside the restaurant were the choices of the day: soup du jour, salade du jour, and sandwich du jour. Whenever I was assigned work in that courthouse I ate there every day, where I tried whatever soup was on the menu: cream of carrot, pasta e fagioli, Italian wedding soup, and of course, Louisiana favorites like chicken and sausage gumbo or shrimp and corn soup.

colorful leavesOctober is also the month of the rosary and for Catholics this is a treasured devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Appearing multiple times before three shepherd children in Portugal, Mary asked the children to pray the rosary. The apparitions began May 13, 1917, and ended on October 13, 1917, which is the date that the Catholic Church commemorates the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. I grew up with the rosary and watching my mother pray the rosary before Mass every single Sunday. The Hail Mary was the first prayer she taught me and it is the first and last prayer I say each day of my life. During some of my darkest moments, spending hours in hospital rooms and sleeping in chairs in ICU waiting rooms, the rosary was a constant comfort to me. The words of my cousin Anna from Scotland became somewhat of a mantra for me, “Our Lady will not let us down.” So, I prayed, and it is that prayer that sustained and comforted me during her surgeries, illnesses, recoveries, and eventually, her death. living rosaryLast week, on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, before first period, my school said the Living Rosary, where students represent each bead of the rosary, all standing in the outline of a rosary, spread out across the auditorium. As each prayer is said the student sits and passes the microphone to the next “bead”. The rest of the school is seated by class, all following along on their individual rosaries, reciting the rosary quietly in their place. What a way to start the day! I am truly blessed to be able to experience this in my work life.

pretty colorsAnd so, my love of October continues year after year. As much as I love spring and the promise of rebirth, as much as I love summer which now to me means time off from work, October and fall will always be my favorite time of the year. As I know my words have not done it justice, I will close with the words of someone far mightier with the pen than I.

“October”

by Robert Frost

 O hushed October morning mild,

Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;

Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,

Should waste them all.

The crows above the forest call;

Tomorrow they may form and go.

O hushed October morning mild,

Begin the hours of this day slow.

Make the day seem to us less brief.

Hearts not averse to being beguiled,

Beguile us in the way you know.

Release one leaf at break of day;

At noon release another leaf;

One from our trees, one far away.

Retard the sun with gentle mist;

Enchant the land with amethyst.

Slow, slow!

For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,

Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,

Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—

For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

Cradle to Grave with Mary

My mother told me when I was a young girl that when her mother lay dying in a hospital bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, she would say that the children were coming to get her. My mother asked her, “What childrenour lady of fatima book?” She then told my mom that the children of Fatima were coming to get her and take her to God. Years later I was in a used bookstore, killing time while waiting for my daughters to finish Saturday morning dance class, and I saw a beat-up paperback book called Our Lady of Fatima by William Thomas Walsh. Thinking of my mother’s story, I bought the book and read it cover to cover in one sitting.

With both parents having been raised Catholic, I am, as they say, a cradle to grave Catholic. However, I did not know much about Fatima when my mother first told me of her mother’s final hours. After reading Walsh’s book, I was overwhelmed by this story. I followed up with the story of St. Bernadette’s apparitions of Mary at Lourdes. While compelling, I was more fascinated by the story of the three children at Fatima, particularly the actions taken to try to make them retract the story of Mary’s visits to them. The children were separated from each other at the local police station and each child was told the others were being tortured for lying. The children remained steadfast in their stories and refused to recant.apparitions in belgium

When moving overseas in 2002, I had hoped that I would make it to Lourdes and Fatima, but it didn’t happen. My daughters and I, along with a friend and her daughter, did visit a lesser known site of Marian apparitions, Our Lady of Beauraing, located near Namur, not far from where we were living in Waterloo, Belgium. Belgium boasts yet another site of Marian apparitions, in Banneux, about 50 miles from Beauraing.

our lady of beauraingThe story of the five children who were visited by Mary in Beauraing is a very moving story, similar to Fatima in the disbelief by town officials who held candles to the feet of the children as they knelt in the school yard praying as Mary appeared to them. The children experienced no pain from the candles being held to their feet and remained trance-like until Mary left them.

As a result of my self-prescribed study of the Marian apparitions, I began to think about the rosary in a different way. Growing up, we were not a family to gather together and say the rosary. My dad did not like getting to church too early, because some parishioners would be saying the rosary together, out loud, and that bothered him. For years after learning more about Fatima, though, I began saying the rosary (silently) before Mass.

In 1993 my mother was very ill for an extended period of time and suffered through many surgeries, twelve in a two-year period of time. I spent a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms when she was in intensive care and in her hospital rooms when she was well enough to be moved out of ICU. I always had my rosary with me. When my mother’s cousin, Anna, came from Scotland to be with my mother after these surgeries, we talked a lot about the rosary and about Mary. Anna’s mantra was always, “Our Lady will not let us down.”  I prayed the rosary more fervently than ever, with Anna and alone as well. It was through Anna that I truly felt I began to experience my faith as an adult, that it was mine–not just something I had inherited from my parents. The peace I felt praying the rosary during those difficult times was of great solace to me.

Once when I was home in Maryland, in 1994 I believe, I received a call that my mom was back in ICU in Louisiana and not doing well at all. I was on the telephone in my bedroom (landline) and I remember reaching into my night table drawer for my rosary while I was talking to my brother. As soon as the conversation ended, I started a rosary then and there. I remember asking Mary to please spare my mother, to allow her to recover to see my daughters grow up, to let them have the opportunity to know their grandmother. This was important to me because my mother’s mother died when my mother was still in high school, so I never knew my maternal grandmother, or my maternal grandfather, who died shortly thereafter.

My dear mother died in 2007, just a year before my older daughter graduated from high school. She didn’t get to see the wonderful young adults my girls have become, although she certainly knew and loved them up to the end of her life. In fact, in April of 2007 we spent Easter with my parents in Louisiana, attending the Easter vigil Mass together. My mother was in relatively good health then, which made her death in August of that year even more shocking to us. I have a great photo from that night of my morosarym standing in between my two daughters, the three of them caught in silly laughter, a rare thing since my mom, raised in the Scottish tradition of being reserved and restrained, seldom laughed out loud.

This essay is being written on Holy Saturday, the “silent” day in the Catholic church. We are between death and life, after the crucifixion and before the resurrection. On this day we think of Mary, a mother who has experienced the death of her son, who waits at his tomb. We wait with her in this quiet time. Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, and our family will go to Mass and celebrate Jesus rising from the dead. I will take time to say the rosary and to give thanks for the gift of my faith, given to me by my parents at birth, but a gift I nurtured and fostered through attending Mass, through receiving the Sacraments, and through prayer, through devotion to Our Lady and the rosary.  Happy Easter!