My nana, Mary Kathleen, was orphaned at the age of four in Texas.
Her mother died a few weeks after my nana’s brother was born, of what they then called “blood poisoning.”
My nana’s father decided it would be best if he took off into the wild blue yonder after his wife’s death, rarely to be seen again by his abandoned children.
Mary Kathleen and her brother were shuttled from relative to relative and never felt, according to my mother, wanted. Her brother, tragically, ended up an alcoholic.
My nana met my grandpa, Thomas Cecil, one of eleven kids, a poor farm boy from Arkansas, fell in love, and got married. They had a lot in common, not all of it happy. My grandpa also lost his mother when he was about four years old. His father, a farmer and sheriff, married three times and outlived all of his wives. The eleven kids were his, hers, and theirs. There was love in that house but not much money.
In his early twenties, my grandpa, who had an eighth grade farm education, left Arkansas and headed to Los Angeles with a few brothers to build homes. They needed work, they did not want to eke out a living on a farm like their father, yanking up crops from an unforgiving earth, and they heard there was money to be made in LA. My nana left with him and the trek began.
My grandpa loved his wife and his daughter, my mother, Bette Jean, and he loved his grandkids. But, as I understand it from my mother, Grandpa had mellowed out considerably by the time his grandkids came along.
When he was a home builder in California, he was a tough, rough man who was not afraid of a full blown fight and letting his temper run around and amok when someone pushed the wrong button, or when the lumber he needed or the electrical wiring that had to be installed had not arrived on his building site.
My mother remembers my grandpa sitting down for dinner with her and her mother, white lace tablecloth ironed, silverware shiny, a properly laid table, and then getting up to take, or make, phone calls for work. “Excuse me please, Mary Kathleen,” he would say to my nana, quite calmly, as he refolded and placed his white napkin on the table.
My grandpa would then yell into the phone, swear, threaten to knock heads together, then slam the phone back into its cradle when he was done. He would sit back down at the table, place his white napkin over his lap, look at my nana across her fine, white, lace tablecloth, and say, “Mary Kathleen, this dinner is delicious,” as polite as could be.
My nana would then continue the conversation as if her husband had not just gotten up and set the phone lines on fire with his temper.
Nana might have grown up poor, but she had gentle southern manners that never failed, no matter what the situation, even when her husband got up and cursed like the devil during dinner after they had said grace and thanked God for their bounty, through Christ our Lord, amen.
Nana was a polite steel magnolia.
But the steel magnolia had a favorite saying when it was someone’s birthday that might have been outside of that polite realm. She would happily add candles to the birthday cake, counting them off as they were squished into the icing: One candle for health, one for wealth, one for happiness, and one for sex.
As most of you know, the original birthday candle saying is “one for health, wealth, happiness, and success.”
Somehow my sweet nana had missed that part and thought the wish was not for success but for sex.
When I was a teenager I remember her counting off my birthday candles as she dropped them into my cake, “Here, dear. One for health, wealth, happiness, and sex.”
This wish for sex, especially coming from my gracious nana, was pretty darn funny. As a gawky teenager with looks only a mother could love, I could only hope that one day I would have sex with a handsome man but it seemed like a remote impossibility at the time.
That my Nana wished for it for me seemed like a good omen. Maybe it would happen one day!
When I light candles on birthday cakes, I often laugh and think of my nana. It was a difficult life she led in so many ways, but she always kept her elegance, her manners, her integrity, and truly wished everyone only the best – health, wealth, happiness, and sex.
Wishing you the same.