Nana: 96 years, 800 journal entries

Columnist Steve Lange looks back on the life of his grandmother, self-documented

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When my Nana died, 16 years ago now, she left me — or I was given — two items as mementos.

One is a painting that I had liked as a kid — The Man in the Golden Helmet. On the back, she had written "For Steve, when I’m done with it."

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Columnist Dan Conradt says passing Officer Duane each morning, I should have been aiming for the "thumbs up" sign, not the hand signal I normally received.

More importantly, though, I was given Nana’s small leather notebook containing 50 ruled pages, of which 45 are filled.

"Nana" is what we called my grandmother on my dad’s side, but it became synonymous — especially in the Bay City, Mich., area — with Virginia Lange.

Nana, even when she was in her 90s, could still be seen pedaling her white-basketed bicycle through our neighborhood. Rowing a green dingy down the river that connected her house to ours. Then, on Sundays, dressing up—always dressing up — and leaving for church.


Every summer, from when I was 5 until 15, Nana took me and another grandkid camping in her small, teal, 1959 trailer. Camping with Nana meant coming home with a legendary story. Like that trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, when, during a scorching hot day, Nana mortified us by taking off her shirt and sitting in front of the camper in pants and a bra.

"People will just think it’s a bathing suit top," she assured us. But we knew. We knew.

On summer nights, she would sit on her porch swing and listen to Detroit Tigers games on the radio. She took our pennies in gin rummy. Read cheap romance novels (and insisted she "skimmed over the racy parts").

Her notebook entries cover 73 years, from "June 10, 1933: Married" through Jan. 25, 2006, just a few months before she died. I can’t read the last one. She kept making notes even after her handwriting could no longer keep up with her.

In between, she documented roughly 800 events — one-line reminders of a dozen or so memorable moments per year.

No embellishment. No emotion. Every line, if you were to look at it as a handwriting exercise, carries the same weight. Which seems impossible for the woman who regularly laughed until tears filled the inside of her glasses. Who cried at TV shows if animals faced any sort of danger.

Line two marks the birth of my father. "March 22, 1935: Ken born."

Line three, the birth of her only daughter. "May 27, 1937: Judy born."


Line four: "Dec. 26, 1938: Judy died."

So it goes through the next eight decades.

"Got new Springer pup, Scout" (May 11, 1943). "Bought new Electrolux vacuum" (Dec. 6, 1950). "(Son) Tom got scarlet fever" (April 15, 1951).

Bought used rowboat. Attended hockey game in Detroit. Scout killed by school bus.

Got new Schwinn. Drove to Milwaukee, saw Tigers play. Bought used Ford Fairlane.

Occasionally, she included newspaper clippings (like my parents’ marriage announcement that includes a picture of my late mom, then 20 and — this seems impossible — the same age as my oldest daughter is now).

Plastered living room ceiling. Bought television (Crosley). Art and I took 25th anniversary trip (Quebec).

Bought 3-horse Evinrude outboard motor. Fixed broken washer. Got two electric blankets as gift.


Nana didn’t need to embellish. Those two- and three-word entries tell you everything you need to know.

Bought used piano. Planted pear tree. Stephen Kenneth born (that’s me!).

The line about her husband’s death ("Feb. 10, 1970: Art died.") looks the same as those around it.

"Jimmy went to hospital with ear infection." "New bike (Huffy)."

When she was 94, Nana fell down her basement stairs — backwards.

There’s an entry, in her shakiest handwriting: "Oct. 11, 2004: Broke neck."

That, we all thought, may be it for Nana.

Instead, she chose to go through the long, painful rehab process. She spent weeks wearing one of those mechanical halos to keep her neck straight, counted the minutes until she could take her next pain pill, suffered through the simplest exercises.

Even then, the notebook entries are about neighbors and grandkids. Kenny and Natalie graduated. John and Ophelia got married in Hawaii.

Nana wasn’t able to ride her bike again. Or row her boat to our house. Or sit at a campsite in pants and a bra.

But she did, one more Sunday, get dressed up and go to church.

Not long after, she was gone. It was one of life’s monumental losses.

If Nana were to write it?

"June 13, 2006: Nana died."

Steve Lange is the editor of Rochester Magazine. His column appears every Tuesday.

Opinion by Steve Lange
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Highlights of events in 1997, 1972, 1947 and 1922.
Highlights of events in 1997, 1972, 1947 and 1922.