Nanny’s Cameo

My maternal grandmother wore the cameo between her breasts as long as I can remember. Peaceful portrait on a pin. Garland of roses swirled atop upswept hair.

Nanny’s face mirrored that peace, wise and gentle, with glowing almond-shaped eyes. For me, her face and the cameo always symbolized unconditional love.

She rushed to the hospital when Mom gave birth to me and my fraternal twin, Carol, six weeks prematurely. I came first, weighing just 2 pounds, 3 ounces. My twin weighed slightly more.

“I’ll stay with you and help you take care of the babies,” Nanny told my mother.

“This one’s a real fighter,” the doctor said to Nanny about me. “She’s got personality.”

Then and there, Nanny told me later, she knew I would be her favorite.

Knowing that from a very young age, something I was never to feel from my parents, was a gift beyond measure.

Not only did Nanny take care of me when I was a baby, she remained a profound influence and comfort as I grew up.

Nanny was an independent woman far ahead of her time. She was also highly creative. After being widowed in her 30s, she raised four children alone by designing one–of-a-kind hats for her wealthy clientele – something to go with that summer frock, or fur coat.

“I inherited my creativity from Nanny,” mother always told me, “and you have inherited yours from me.” Mom painted, sculpted, wrote and played the piano. She loved to describe the parlor where Nanny created the hats as her own first artist studio. Snowy egret feathers, Birds of Paradise plumes, and colorful ribbons filled the room.

I was 20 when my grandmother died. Even though she had three daughters and three other granddaughters, she left me the cameo. That final gesture not only confirmed that I was her favorite, but inspired me to try to find a way to carry on her legacy.

In my 20s and 30s, the cameo spent more time under my pillow than between my breasts or in the jewelry box. Life was fraught with challenges, and having her near, if only symbolically, brought me great comfort – a reminder of the peace and unconditional love she’d always given me. But, by my 40s, the cameo was back in the jewelry box, replaced with meditation beads. I was learning to nurture myself.

While I often thought about Nanny’s legacy to me – her creativity and independence – it wasn’t until I wrote my first will at age 55 that I really began to think about my own legacy.

The cameo! Health issues had rendered me childless. To whom could I pass on this beautiful jewel? Who truly cared to be inspired by the best of what my grandmother had given me?

The first person I asked was my stepdaughter, Erica. “I’m sorry, but it’s just not my style of jewelry,” she said.

Then I offered it to a close friend, Mimi, who happened to be the age my daughter might have been.

“I’m touched,” she said, “but I know I’d never wear it.”

The question of what to do with my beloved cameo continued to trouble me.

And then, as magically as ideas for stories often come to me – when I least expect it or am not consciously focusing on the theme – an answer to the question of what to do with my cameo came to mind.

“I’ll sell Nanny’s cameo,” I told my husband, “and create the Ray Anna Kauffman Creative Writing Award for a female senior at the local Performing Arts school. I will give the award to the creative writing student who writes the best essay about the influence of a grandmother, or any family legacy that has shaped who she is. The contest entry packet will include a photo of Nanny’s cameo with the story of how it inspired me to offer the award.

As I present the check to the winner, I will imagine Nanny’s eyes glowing with pride. And I will know that because of the support my grandmother always gave me, this student writer will know a bit of Nanny’s spirit and, hopefully, be able to use that to enrich her own.

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  • Roz Warren November 15, 2016 at 8:45 am

    A lovely and evocative story. When we are well-loved and taken care of, it’s so important to pass that on.!

  • B. Elliott October 31, 2016 at 10:21 am

    What a beautiful way to remember someone special.

  • Jeanie October 31, 2016 at 10:20 am

    Thank you for sharing such a heart-warming story. You were so lucky to have someone like your grandmother in your life. Hearty congratulations for your brilliant idea as a way to carry on her legacy.