A Namesake for Nonny
By Mimi Sager Yoskowitz
At 32 weeks pregnant, I board a Chicago-bound plane from New York, teary eyed and wary about leaving my husband and traveling this late in my pregnancy. I’m heading back to my hometown to celebrate turning 30 with my high school girlfriends. We planned this getaway before I told anyone I was pregnant, so I never raised my concerns about the timing. But the timing turns out to be a blessing of sorts. My 94-year-old grandma has been in and out of the hospital, and this trip provides me with an opportunity to spend time with her.
Nonny’s apartment in the assisted living facility has a view of Lake Michigan. We stare out at the waters together, and she places her wrinkled hand on my burgeoning belly. Just as she settles in to check for some movement, her future great-grandchild kicks out a giant thwack!
“That’s a boy,” she says chuckling.
“You think so, Nonny? How can you tell?” I can’t help but smile.
“It’s so active.” Her tone is matter-of-fact as she rubs my pregnant middle, seeking out more signs of baby.
“All right Nonny, we’ll find out soon enough.”
I wonder if her old-fashioned stereotype will prove to be true. My husband and I are going the traditional route and not finding out the gender of our baby. And so it will be another few weeks before we know if my grandmother’s prophecy is correct.
After I return to Manhattan, Nonny and I start calling each other more frequently. It’s a mutual check-in; we are each concerned with how the other is faring. It seems that while my baby grows each day, getting ready to enter this world, my grandmother becomes weaker, getting ready to leave it.
“Hello?” Nonny answers the phone.
Cars honk and buses screech in the background as I walk home from work, but her voice still comes through stronger than the last time we spoke. Hopefully that means she is doing OK.
“Hi Nonny. How are you?” I ask.
“Oh, you know, Mimi. I’m waiting. I’m waiting until June 1.”
June 1 is my due date, and soon these words become her standard reply every time I ask how she is feeling. It’s just like Nonny to come up with a clever way of expressing her desire without being too emotional. Her love and determination remain strong, even as her heart weakens.
The special bond I share with my grandma dates back to my infancy when I served as a source of comfort as she grieved my grandfather’s sudden death. There are photos of us snuggling on the couch while she reads to me. Those cozy moments on her lap morphed into shopping excursions, sleepovers, and later, after I graduated from college, evening visits when I’d stop by her apartment after work.
As grandmother and granddaughter, we can do no wrong in each other’s eyes. For both of us, she has to meet her great-grandchild who is growing inside of me.
On Mother’s Day, my husband and I head to Buy Buy Baby to complete our registry and take one more gander through the mega store that seems to hold all the paraphernalia needed to calm our first-time parent jitters. After combing the aisles filled with every possible stroller, breast pump, burp cloth and car seat known to parent-kind, we hail a taxi and head back home.
“Let’s finalize our boy and girl names and be done with it.” I have my husband cornered in the back of the cab. He’s been avoiding a decision, wanting to wait until we are closer to the due date. Now I waddle instead of walk, and my belly tightens with Braxton Hicks contractions. It’s time to decide.
During the course of my pregnancy, our conversations about our baby’s name ranged from calm and funny to heated and frustrating. We’ve combed through multiple baby name books, searched the Internet, and drawn up lists. Our preferences vary from the traditional, like Jacob, to the more modern, such as Talia. We discuss naming the baby for the grandparents we have lost, though I’m too superstitious to even consider naming for Nonny. At this point, it’s been weeks since we last broached the subject in any way. But something about that taxi ride seems to do the trick. By the time we arrive at our apartment building, our soon-to-be born baby has a name.
Once upstairs and giddy about our choices, I call Nonny to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. She can’t get to the phone, her caretaker tells me she is sleeping, but I should try again later. For some reason or another, I never do.
My father’s phone call wakes me the next morning.
“She didn’t make it.”
My friend who lives one floor below tells me she heard my wails through the walls.
I beg my doctor to let me go to Chicago for Nonny’s funeral.
“You can’t travel at this late stage of your pregnancy,” she tells me.
We’re too close to that June 1 due date Nonny was trying so hard to reach.
Jewish custom calls for mourners to bury the deceased using a reversed shovel until a mound of dirt forms on the casket. Since I can’t be there in person to say good-bye, my pen acts as the reversed shovel, and my words are the dirt I use to help lay my grandma to rest. My brother reads the eulogy on my behalf, and I listen in from my Manhattan apartment, my cell phone on speaker. It isn’t the same as being there, not nearly, but I hope I’ve given all those gathered a sense of how much Nonny meant to me.
Nonny’s name was Cecelia, though she went by Cel for short. After her funeral, my husband and I toss out the names we finalized on Mother’s Day and come up with a different list of names that begin with “C.” Nonny didn’t make it to see the baby, but my first-born child will be her namesake.
Up until delivery, I debate whether I can name a girl directly for Nonny or if the pain of her loss is too raw for me to call someone else Cecelia, even my own child. But we do choose a boy name, Caleb, which means bold and devoted, two traits my grandmother embodied. She was brave attending law school in the early 1930’s, one of only two women in her class. She was brave when she wed my grandfather in secret at the age of 23. As a medical resident, he was not allowed to be married, but their love transcended the rules. Nonny remained devoted to him up until her last breath, and she always put family first.
It turns out Nonny also was good at predictions. Four days after my original due date, I give birth to a baby boy. Though they won’t ever meet, Nonny and her great-grandson will always be connected by their names that start with the letter “C.”
Mimi Sager Yoskowitz, a former CNN producer, is now a mother to four children ages 10 to 4. Her writing can be found on Kveller.com, the 2016 “28 Days of Play” series, in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me, and on her blog, http://mimisager.com.