The Death of Nannie

Detail, Nannie in Garden with Cat

This is a detail of a drawing I did of Nannie back in 1983. You can see from her face that she was full of life – so much so, that it took 109 years for her to let go of it. Her body just wore out.

Nannie in Garden with Cat

This is the full drawing. Nannie loved roses, so I overdid them in my drawing. They look more like one of her bouquets than roses growing on a bush. The cat sitting at her feet was typical. She loved cats – she had 20! – but this was her favorite – Missy.

My grandmother of 109 years of age died on Easter Sunday morning, 2011. We buried her on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, two weeks later. It was appropriate. She was the end of an era.

I know that phrase has been over-used to describe a variety of different national and international figures; but my grandmother really was the end of an era; not only because her life spanned five generations, but also because she saw the introduction of nearly every major invention and discovery since the gasoline-powered automobile:

radio (1901,1916), air conditioning (1902), airplane (1903), plastic (1907), color photography (1907), Model T (1908), talking motion pictures (1910,1912), insulin (1922), 3-D movies (1922), television (1923,1925,1927), liquid-fuel rocket (1926), color motion pictures (1927), penicillin (1928), jet engine (1930,1937), ballpoint pen (1938), helicopter (1939), color television (1940), electronic digital computer (1942), atomic bomb (1945), microwave oven (1946), hydrogen bomb (1952), laser (1958), microchip (1959), first manned spacecraft (1961), audio cassette (1962), compact disc (1965), first manned lunar landing (1969), video cassette (1971), cell phone (1979), personal computer (1981), Apple Macintosh (1984), Microsoft Windows (1985), HD TV (1989), World Wide Web (1990), DVD (1995), etc.

Because she was a voracious reader and a perennial student, I know she read about all these breakthroughs with interest. When my cousins and I visited her house growing up, we always found stacks and stacks of magazines – everything from National Geographic and Smithsonian, to Look and Life. Those magazines were a big part of our education, and Nannie was always a ready teacher to answer any questions we had.

In spite of her many interests – which included art, music, writing, cooking, gardening, teaching and church work – her greatest love was nature: she was a true naturalist. Everything else that she did centered on that love: so when she painted, it was flowers or landscapes; when she wrote poetry, it was about her garden or birds or her neighbor’s yard; when she sang, it was about creation or the Creator. Always nature. That was what made her soul sing; and so she began each day with an eagerness to learn, an inspiration about life and beauty, and an expectation of what she would find in her garden.

As we sat on her screened-in back porch, either waiting to go out with her into the garden or playing cards in the afternoon, she would imitate the birds and tell us what they were saying. It’s amazing she wasn’t a bird-watcher, because she knew the name and call of every bird in her garden. She also knew the names of all the flowers. Her garden was as wildly interesting as herself: full of variety and color, but not too serious. Even though she worked very hard each day, she knew how to have a good time and made everything fun.

As my drawing of Nannie indicates, roses were her favorite flower. I’ve gone overboard in the amount and size of the blossoms, but I think in Nannie’s case that’s permissible because she was somewhat flamboyant herself. Often she wore the loudest – both literally and figuratively – jewelry she could get away with. And we often thought she looked more like a gypsy than anything else when she went out to work in her garden.

Nannie was an Anglophile, so her gardens were not neat and well-manicured after the French taste; but in true English fashion, they were wild and natural. And two things you could always count on finding there: cats and snakes. At one time, Nannie had 20 cats – all outdoor varieties, except for her favorite, Missy, which is the white persian shown in my drawing. At mealtime, when Nannie would stand in the backyard banging two pans together, they would come running from all directions. It was quite a sight. But Nannie had a big heart: she hated to turn away a stray. I think she was that way with people as well, though she showed her kindness towards them more through generosity than by actually taking them into her home. 🙂

As far as snakes, I’ve never known a more tenacious fighter than Nannie when she was on the trail of a venomous snake. Her property bordered a creek, and from that creek came many adventurous copperheads, unaware that their venturing would lead to their doom. None of them ever returned to the creek. Nannie had a special hoe with a tiny head with which, having marksman-like accuracy, she would separate those copper heads from their bodies. My fellow male cousins and I stood in awe of her prowess.

Nannie and her garden were the source of endless delight to me and my cousins through many years. Today, we enjoy retelling our stories about her almost as much as the actual living of them. You can read some of them in my book, Rembrandt’s Gardener, which I am in the process of writing; but the first three chapters are available now on my website. Go to

You can also read more about Nannie’s naturalist ideas as they pertain to food and taking care of your body under

Of all the people in my life, Nannie has probably had the most profound effect. Look for more articles about her in the future.

Waitsel Smith

Waitsel Smith, May 22, 2011

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Text and artwork © 2011 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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