Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sleepovers with Nana

Growing up, I was routinely asked by others outside the family, "What's it like to be the grandson of Harold B. Lee?" Now it is my children and grandchildren who are asking. Today's post is another installment in partial answer to their questions.

Fern Lucinda Tanner Lee
 When I was a young boy around the age of eight, I often went to stay with our “Nana” on weekends. Grandfather Lee was routinely away from home on stake conference assignments and mission tours, and Nana remained home alone most of the time. "Nana" was our name for Fern Lucinda Tanner Lee. She was a small and very petite (almost fragile) woman. I wasn't very old when I could look her straight in the eye, then most of her grandsons passed her in height and she started calling us her "big boys." We all loved her very much.

Nana had two daughters, and she was delighted as the grandsons were born because boys in that family were a rarity. Five grandsons later, she finally got two granddaughters, Martsy and Jane, then three more grandsons followed. We were a very close family -- cousins were more like brothers and sisters.

I was her oldest grandson. At some point, Nana and Mom conjured up the idea of having her "big boy" David come to stay with her on weekends to keep her company. These were long weekends. Jet travel had barely been introduced. The General Authorities often left home on Friday to travel by train or car to their stake conferences which were held over two days – all day Saturday (two sessions, morning and afternoon) and all day Sunday (two more sessions). Often they travelled home on Mondays, so they were gone for four days out of the week.

Mom would drop me off at her home, 847 Connor Street in Salt Lake City, usually on a Friday night after school. We would settle in for the night after she made dinner. She was a marvelous cook. I learned early and often just how skilled she was, and it was apparent where my mother had learned her homemaking skills.

In those days, television was in its infancy and it was still in black and white. Her very favorite TV show was “Perry Mason,” a series about a defense attorney and the stories about his clients. There was a very hard-nosed police detective named Lt. Tragg, who was always gathering evidence against Perry’s clients so they could be prosecuted in court. The District Attorney was Hamilton Burger. Mason was always matching wits against both. He had Della Street, his secretary, and Paul Drake, a private investigator, on his side. They made quite a team as they matched wits each week with Tragg and Burger. They would investigate the facts, Mason’s client was accused and charged with a crime, more investigations would continue. Then the trial would begin and in the climactic courtroom scene Perry Mason would introduce new evidence and often get a courtroom confession from the real lawbreaker who was never Mason’s innocent client.

Nana loved it. I think she loved it so much because the “good guys” always won. She loved the innocent person being let free at the end. What you always knew is that Perry Mason’s client was never the guilty party. All that remained was to discover how he or she would be proven innocent. She often guessed the plot in advance, and would tell me who the real guilty person was going to be. She was seldom wrong. I used to think she was brilliant, and wondered why she hadn’t been an attorney.

“Dragnet,” a police drama, was also a favorite. Nana would finish her Friday evenings by watching the variety shows that included song, dance and skits. They were very popular and she loved several performers. I especially remember that Diana Shore, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Red Skelton, Sid Caesar and Milton Berle were among them. She also liked “I Love Lucy” with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It was called “The Golden Age of Television.”

The stars of Dragnet were Jack Webb and Harry Morgan (long before he achieved fame in M*A*S*H as Colonel Sherman T. Potter). If Nana had lived long enough, she would have been hailed as a prophetess. She told me as a young boy, observing all the smoking on television, that people could die by smoking cigarettes. Jack Webb later died of lung cancer.

Her TV was a good companion when Grandfather was gone. TV was much more innocent and fun than it is today. But I remember her moaning with disdain over Fatima Cigarette commercials (the sponsor of Dragnet) before they were banned from TV. She asked aloud, "How could anyone think smoking cigarettes is attractive?" She saw it as a filthy disgusting habit, and she embedded a dislike for the products in me as a young lad so the temptation was never appealing to me.

She would tuck me into bed down the hall from her bedroom by reading me stories just as my mother did in our home. Then we would kneel down together and we would take turns praying together. I loved to hear her pray. Her prayers were to a Father with whom she was on intimate and familiar terms.

The next morning she would always be up before me making breakfast. She called it a “big boy breakfast,” and it included EVERYTHING: pancakes or French toast, toast with peanut butter and jam or honey, eggs cooked any way I wanted (scrambled or “sunny side up or down”) and orange juice or apple juice and milk or hot chocolate if it was winter. Sometimes she would even cook oatmeal or put out cold cereal I liked. Grandfather suffered from ulcers much of his adult life, so fixing "stuff" for her big boys was particulary exciting for her, since Grandfather's diet was often restricted to milk toast and soft foods that didn't irritate his ulcers. At an early age I associated ulcers with stress and pressure -- that's how they always explained Grandfather's ailment.

President Harold B. Lee
While we're on that topic of food, I am often amused when I read in books what the favorite foods of the Presidents of the Church were. I have no doubt about Harold B. Lee's favorites: milk toast, apple pie a la mode (with vanilla ice cream), and a slice of sharp cheddar cheese. Favorite fruit -- apples, of course.

During the winter after breakfast, I would go outside and shovel the driveway and the sidewalks. In the summer I mowed the lawn and raked leaves in the fall. They had stately elm trees in the backyard and the leaves were gigantic, easy to rake and gather up into the compost pile Grandfather would use for mulch in the spring. That pile always smelled bad as it decomposed, but Grandfather loved it when he could spread it around his rose garden in the spring. His roses were planted in two rows with a decorative pedestal holding a round shiny blue ball anchored by a piece of rebar so it wouldn't fall off. I often helped him prune the roses, and he taught me that cutting them back every year assured more robust blooms. She was very particular about how I did all the yardwork, knowing how important a well-kept yard was to Grandfather. She always made sure I did it her way.

Newlyweds, first home
 One year, she and Grandfather had been to New York City together while he attended board meetings. They attended the opening run of “My Fair Lady” on Broadway, starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. They came home with the original playbill (program) and a stereo 33 1/3 RPM record of the soundtrack. (You younger folks may be forgiven for not even knowning what that has reference to). They had recently purchased a large (probably six feet wide for good speaker separation) stereo console. It's an antique now, but they were delighted with the sound it produced, a quantum leap up from radio. Grandfather would instruct me where to sit in front of it to get the full stereo effect. Dad found that old playbill among Nana's treasures in her cedar chest recently, and knowing of the special connection with it I had shared with Nana, sent it along to me as a loving memento.

She would play that record on their stereo in their living room night after night. At one point it was the ONLY stereo record they owned, and she loved it. She warned me in advance to cover my ears when Rex Harrison blasted out his, "Damn, damn, damn, damn" in the introduction to "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." She did not want me to be tainted by the "bad words." And yes, our mouths were washed out with soap if we ever repeated them. I would listen to it with her, and often fell asleep on their plush white carpet in front of the stereo with a pillow and blanket. I learned every song and every word because I heard it so frequently. I don’t ever remember hearing her play any other record, though I am certain they eventually must have added to their collection.

Those were magical years for me as a little boy growing up. She loved us all, but I always knew I was her favorite. As my brothers and cousins grew older, they often came with me, or got their own turn to stay with her. And then I learned the sad reality -- they all thought THEY were her favorite too. The reason this was so important to her was that Grandfather’s work as an Apostle took him out of town so often and she welcomed the company on weekends when he was gone.

I still remember his description of jets when they were first introduced. He said it was like “hedge hopping.” He described the airplanes taking off in a much steeper angle, almost “straight up” it seemed to him, then by the time they reached their cruising altitude it seemed like they were coming back down because it was so much faster than train and car travel. He believed jet travel was the most incredible advancement to the work of the Lord in the last days because it meant the General Authorities could get to the people so much easier. Now, of course, we have so many other modern tools like the Internet and computers to broadcast conferences and keep the General Authorities closer to the people.

I couldn’t wait until the time when I turned sixteen so I could drive Nana wherever she wanted to go on the weekends. She didn’t like to drive very much, and Grandfather left his white 1960 Buick Electra in the garage while he was gone most of the time. Favorite car:  Buick. Never owned anything else. He had a good friend who was a Buick dealer in Tooele and he was loyal. And yes, he liked the fins on that beauty!

Grandfather loved Nana very much. However, she died in 1962, when I was fifteen.  He was so sad when she died. I loved her very much too, and I missed our sleepovers when she was gone.

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