Nudists in the Afterlife

Nudists in the Afterlife

Tropical beach at sunset - nature background

By JoAnna Novak

My grandma and I are meeting at a nudist colony in the afterlife. The sun is scorching, the beaches are sandy, the waves are plashing, we’re naked.

Not a stitch—that’s something other grandmas might say: not mine.

“Look for the lady with one boob,” says my grandma. This is our plan: her mastectomy scars will help me find her once we’re both dead and reborn.

Before this conversation, I didn’t know she believed in reincarnation. Or rather, I hadn’t known what she believed for herself. Though she still spoke to my deceased grandfather (he’d encouraged her to renew her driver’s license), I didn’t know my grandma considered where she would go—let alone where she wanted to go—once she was gone.

“One boob,” I say. There’s nothing to do but to laugh. To lop off the conversation. Before I was born, lopping was what doctors had prescribed for my grandma’s cancer. Mother, are you decent? my mom would shout when we visited my grandma, who wore yellowed undershirts that my grandfather had fatigued. It wasn’t until I was an anorexic teenager, committed to bandeau bras for flattening my own meager bust, that I noticed the sagging emptiness on my grandmother’s chest.

“Well, I’ll be the girl looking at people’s breasts.”

“No left, Joey,” says my grandma. “I got rid of the left.”


I don’t mean to eulogize my grandma. She’s alive; we talk weekly. But I’m afraid. In April, she became my last grandparent, and her survival stands as undeniable proof that one day she won’t be a telephone call away—that I, too, am getting old.

Her phone number is the last I know by heart: I learned it twenty-five years ago. Unlike my height, weight, or favorite food, it’s never changed. I can still remember being four and chanting that number to the tune of “The Mickey Mouse Club” theme. I can remember learning that the same number could be reached by dialing Memory One.

Memory: a button on a cornflower blue phone, mounted on a wall papered with bonneted geese, near a shadowy watercolor of chickens pecking for feed. I’m five in this kitchen: on nights the power went out, my parents lit a kerosene lamp with a droopy cartoon hound on the hurricane, and I sat at the table, eating ice cream.


Now I press the Home Button on my iPhone, and speak: “Call Grandma.”

I’m on Interstate 91 in Massachusetts, 908.09 miles away from her kitchen. I can hear it, Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, and I can smell it, crisp bacon and the acridity of a sponge-bathed body, and I can see it, my grandma’s table: yellow butter softening on a chipped china saucer; dinner rolls, smothered in plastic, leftover from Bingo; brown calico placemats, grainy with salt and pepper; phone numbers and bank accounts Sharpied on envelopes; back issues of Women’s Day, recipes snipped and paperclipped for me; a 4″ x 6″ of my grandpa, smiling, IV pole in the background.

I can picture the entire room. What will happen when, one day, she doesn’t pick up? What will I forget first—her house or her voice?

The sun sets, exploding over the Holyoke Range, as I drive. I hold my breath as the phone rings and rings, knocking my heart around my throat. And then, my grandma answers.

Before she speaks, I know how her hello will sound. The inflection is as familiar as pulling socks onto my feet. Where will those sounds go? Where will our memories reside when we die?

“What are you up to?” I say.

“Close your eyes and tell me what you see,” my grandma says.


I picture my grandma’s wink, and I know my lines—haha, nothing—but they take a moment. I am grateful to hear her, to know her words transport me back to her, to her house—Pat Sajak gabbing on Wheel of Fortune; alley traffic; on the carport, wind chimes ringing above a yellow banana chair cracked with dust.

Here is the cuckoo clock, brown gabled and white trimmed, watching the years count down by meals I’ve eaten in my grandma’s kitchen: Orange pekoe tea and white sugar cubes. Saltines and that soft yellow butter. Fried chicken and hush puppies dusted with powdered sugar, vinegar coleslaw and stewed apples. Potato kluski fried in bacon. A jar of Peter Pan peanut butter. A tarnished spoon. A leftover piece of Greek toast. Crumbs of crumbs.

Today, almond croissants and salted caramel cupcakes I bring from patisseries.

A small McDonald’s coffee—from the one on Harlem, not Ogden.

Hulking in the past, a hearty Bohemian meal: pork, dumplings, and sauerkraut—ordered and consumed in one muttery breath. Muttery, mothery: my grandparents were my godparents; my grandma, always mothering me.

She told me toast crusts would curl my hair—and then told me that was an old wives tale; what I needed to know was one hundred times—that’s how many strokes she brushed, every night, with a soft bristles, like Jackie Kennedy. She told me my husband needn’t know everything about me—and she told me that was something she couldn’t tell my mother.

There was a lot she couldn’t tell my mother.

My grandma, unlike my mother, demurs in person and slanders in private.

What does my grandma say about me?

Joey, her food thing, according to my mother.

“What are you having for dinner, Joey?” my grandma asks. “Kale?”


Between the two of us, my grandma says. She likes conspiracies. She likes aligning us, the way when I visit her and we go out for breakfast, she says: “Joey, we’re not big eaters.” She likes that we’re bonded together, that I’m the oldest grandchild, the one who sat beside her in my grandfather’s truck, sharing roasted peanuts, fidgeting with the beaded mahogany-and-mustard seat covers, mornings when my grandparents drove me to school in second grade when I was afraid to ride the bus. I was fat. Mean to other children, who didn’t like me to begin with. And why would they? I was a know-it-all—who professed to prefer adult company. I was a tattletale, a reader, and a weirdly reverential eater: my second-grade diary is devoted solely to English toffee cookies.

Now I realize I learned some of this particular criticalness from my grandma: she would drive two hours to buy eggs from a particular woman’s—Peggy’s—farm; she would slander the kolacky of every Bohemian restaurant in town.

Still I am ashamed of the ways I am not my grandma. I do not keep secrets and, though I am not a big eater, I am not frugal with food. For decades, I have made anorexia, purging anorexia, an epic show of denial: how much could I withhold from my body? How showily could I starve? I could reject my grandma’s kluski at dwindling family dinners or purge caviar; I could run twelve miles on a fasting stomach or eat only the “white chocolate” coating on Peppermint Stick Luna Bars. I could dispose of candy corn by garbage disposal or by wrenching it from my gut with two fingers.


My grandma remembers when movies cost five cents—and how, when she was twelve, she skipped the flick and used the nickel to weigh herself at a pharmacy. My grandma remembers wrapping meat in newspaper and throwing the parcel into the basement for the family cur. My grandma remembers the first outfit she bought from a store—a maroon skirt, a pink blouse—in sixth grade.

What my grandma tells me, I try to record. I want to keep her, her past, her nude beach dreams. There is this benefit of purging less: my brain has energy. Now I am the one who remembers: Until sixth grade, my grandma’s mother sewed her wardrobe; after high school, my grandma modeled for a photographer boyfriend. I have pictures: Harriett “Pin-Up Kid” Hanek, long legs tucked underneath her as she sits mermaid style on a rock, in a high-waist bikini.

Today my grandma is tired of clothes. She’s 95; can I blame her? Arthritis erodes her right shoulder. She hobbles, she stoops. With Chicago’s heat and her cranky carriage, she fantasizes about the nudist colony, where she wouldn’t have to argue her arms into a flowery blouse.

“What’m I getting dressed for?” my grandma says. “Lunch? At Bingo?”

(She never takes the meat.)

“Be comfortable. You’re just eating.”

“See so. That’s what I say. Let them talk. What do I have to show off for?”

“Nothing. I mean, no one. I wear shorts in summer.”

I am like my grandma: I could never tell her that her shabby closet and corroded body have driven me to spend, sweat, starve, to stave away what’s coming. And I could never tell her that my mother attributes that shabby closet to the radical mastectomy. For what? I can’t tell her that I’m terrified of winding up like her—in gray rubber shoes and poly slacks and a fleecy Chicago Bears sweatshirt, approaching death, or at least obliged to feed a body I no longer know.

Maybe age will reason me. My grandma, despite her wardrobe, is beautiful. Her hair is downy and argent, like ice cresting on a lake. Her ears are delicate, her nose triumphant, her mouth full. Her hands are big, knuckly, and knit with veins.

Once, before my wedding, she handed me a pair of tweezers and asked me to pluck the hairs from her chin.

Once, she led me to the bathroom, where I ignored the stacks of newspapers in the tub. The room smelled like urine and Yardley lavender. She asked me to help her put her earrings in.

They were hoops, the size of quarters, the gold filigreed. Her skin was tender and soft as I struggled with the clasp.


At a nudist colony, my grandma wouldn’t have to think about what sweater would go on easiest and best combat the air conditioning at Bingo.

It was so cold in Chicago last night that my grandma moved two potted plants—tomato starts—from the kitchen window sill to the warmer bathroom, where the steam heater sings. In the morning, the tomatoes were perked up, and my grandmother waited for the municipal bus. She stood under the carport, at her walker, more than an hour, waiting for that goddamn bus.

“Next time, I’m driving,” my grandma says. I wish I could be there with her, that I could take the wheel. I would leave Bingo for another day. I would get us McDonald’s coffees, pastries we could testily taste, and zoom us onto the interstate. I would roll down the windows and let the air, thick with Argo cornstarch from the Summit plant, muss our hair. We both still have nice hair, somehow. I would drive my grandma downtown, past her old house and the old streetcar stables and the old Campbell Soup factory that once sold her father stumpy tomato plants, to Oak Street Beach, where we could spread out a towel and strip and blouselessly arrive at the nudist colony, the place where our spirits will convene, denuded, stitchless, on an endless tract of sand, surrounded by scarred, naked women.

JoAnna Novak is a writer of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her debut novel, I MUST HAVE YOU, will be published in 2017.



Big Grief

Big Grief

By Jenna Hatfield


While my grandmother may not have been my mother, she mothered me.


I’ve known grief.

I’ve fought it off, angry and afraid in the same breath. I’ve wallowed in it, allowing it to wrap me up in its dark cloak of solitude. I’ve ignored it, pretending it away for a moment, for longer.

I thought the sudden loss of my grandfather and two of my husband’s relatives in quick succession felt unbearable. Different than the loss of my daughter to adoption, these beloved figures in my life were simply gone. I dreamed of my grandfather’s voice, of riding in cars with him as I did as a child.

But grief, as it does, ebbs and flows, and while I missed my grandfather, I felt whole again.

Until my grandmother, his wife, died last June.

I grew up on a farm with my grandparents. They lived just across the driveway for the first seven years of my life, and then down a great big hill when my parents built a new house. I spent my after school hours with my grandma, helping her start dinner, watching television, playing with her dogs. She made my formal dresses as I grew into a teenager, helped me get ready for proms, brought a suit up to college for an important event, and worked diligently on the decorations for my wedding.

Even though it should have occurred to me she would someday be gone, it didn’t.

My grandmother always stood as a strong, positive fixture in my life. Sure, she told me how my brown 1990s lipstick didn’t match my skin tone (she was right) and ragged on my nose ring and tattoos, but she lifted me up in so many other ways. She taught me to sew. She sent beautiful letters when I felt homesick in college. She sat with me in the hospital when I first became sick during my pregnancy with my daughter; her presence during that time calmed me then and soothes me now.

The final diagnosis of renal cancer caught the entire family off guard, but it wasn’t until I made it to the hospital the day before she entered hospice that I allowed myself to believe my grandmother was, in fact, dying. I held her hand in mine and knew she would leave us soon. Two days later, my grandmother passed away.

For ten months I’ve been waiting for it to get better, this grief and grieving, this loss of someone who mattered so much in my life. She too appears to me in dreams, sometimes with my grandfather and often times without. Recently we sat on her back porch and watched her dog chase chipmunks.

I miss those little things.

I cry when I make macaroni and cheese the way she taught me. I feel a heavy weight of sadness when I need help picking new curtains and she’s not there to call. I miss her so much some days I feel a physical pain.

“But she’s just your grandma. It’s not like she was your mom.”

I’ve heard it, and I’ve even whispered it to myself on hard days. My mother is still very much alive, dealing with her own grief of having lost her mother-in-law and mother just four months apart. Yes, my mother is still with me for what I hope is a long, long time.

While my grandmother may not have been my mother, she mothered me. In our weekly telephone calls as an adult, she offered me advice on dealing with fussy babies and stubborn toddlers. “You’re doing such a great job raising those boys,” she told me regularly. She listened, she comforted, she mothered.

While walking in the cemetery with my seven-year-old son recently, he asked a series of questions about life, death, and the afterlife. He talked of missing my grandmother, his Big Mamaw, as the boys called her. I let him talk and process, as I do every time we end up here, and added my own bits of understanding, sadness, and question-prompting.

“I just miss her. Like, I BIG miss her. You know, for BIG Mamaw,” he said, never missing a step.

I nodded, a bit too choked up to respond in the immediacy. I let the words he spoke hang over us both as we walked past gravestones of people long gone before either of us entered this world. I assume we all have someone—or even someones—we will Big Miss when they die. It matters not how directly they were related or if at all.

What matters, I suspect, is that we loved them in the first place. Learning to feel the presence of that love without the presence of that person slowly helps the grief feel less Big, what turns the Big Grief into just grief and the grief into missing and the missing into pleasant memories.

For now, I work on getting out of the Big Grief stage by allowing myself to feel, to write, to do what I need to do in this moment. She would be proud of me for that.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at

Photo: Breno Machado


One, Lucky Granddaughter

One, Lucky Granddaughter

By Jennifer Reinharz

Gram and me wedding picture

On October 15th, I lost my grandmother to cancer. The disease engulfed Dot’s body almost as quickly as she learned the diagnosis.

Three days earlier, when the doctors assured she still had a few weeks, I returned home from my hospital visit, gathered my notebook, and made plans to capture my grandmother’s unusually talkative mood.

There were so many possibilities. Perhaps, as my husband’s Jewish tradition teaches, Dot could fulfill the 613th mitzvah and write a Torah, a personal 10 commandments thus sealing her life scroll; or maybe, as a member of her church’s quilting guild, she could share patch ideas for a memory quilt.

But by the time I reached my grandmother’s home hospice bedside, she was already in a final sleep. Weeks whittled to hours. Before sunrise, she was gone.

Dot’s death was beautiful; swift, pain-free, and at home surrounded by loved ones. Her last days, passing, and funeral had been a fluid waltz. Everything fell into place as if she was the choreographer.

Without her words, I had to stretch my accordion memory file for tucked away treasures. Two came to mind; Sweet 16 and Oh Definitely.

Each birthday, my grandmother would caw over her candles, “I’m sweet sixteen and never been kissed.” Sixteen was her forever age, the age at which she liked to remember herself.

Any time Dot emphatically agreed with a point, she broke her silence with a high pitched, “Oh, definitely!”

My notebook soon filled up with Dot’s Sweet 16 of Definite-lys.


1. Listen for understanding. When talking with other people, don’t uh-huhright, or yes them. Take it all in. Dot was everyone’s ear—mine included.

2. Visit the sick. My grandmother was not afraid of the fray. She recognized that a friend’s comfort was more important than her own. The key to helping those failing feel alive, she had recently told me, was to talk about old times. Present day connections are less meaningful to a lost mind.

3. Create a warm and inviting home. Dot raised three daughters on the second floor of a modest, two-family house. Even as the family grew, her apartment was “the place to be”; men congregated in the living room, ladies packed around the dining table. A full home filled my grandmother’s heart.

4. Keep an open door policy. Dot always left an empty plate on the table. Crowds of cousins, neighbors, and friends would traipse through the door in search of company and my grandmother’s eggplant parmesan, kielbasa, spareribs, and peanut brittle. Guests knew when Dot’s Westminster doorbell chimed, she would welcome them in. No appointment needed.

5. Talk to everyone and do it with respect and genuine interest. My grandmother was well versed in the art of chit-chatting; she could work any room. From store clerks to politicians, children to commuters, she never categorized or judged. In recent years, however, she became increasingly disillusioned with technology. “No one stops to talk anymore,” she said. It made her sad.

6. Be a good time Charlie. Cut a rug, laugh, quip, banter, sing. Dot loved to tell tales of old boyfriends and reminisce about her young and single watering hole shenanigans.

7. Send cards. I’m convinced Dot single-handedly bankrolled Hallmark. My grandmother sent a card to every grandchild, great-grandchild, in-law, daughter and cousin regardless of age for every birthday and holiday, Jewish, Christian, secular or otherwise. Enclosed was always a personal check and for the little ones, an additional side of cash.

8. Watch your television stories but limit the news; it is depressing and redundant. When my grandmother told my husband she had to check into a quiet hospital room to escape Fox News, ISIS, and Ebola, he couldn’t help but laugh.

9. Take advantage of an opportunity but own up to its responsibility. Although my grandmother didn’t get her driver’s license until she was a mother of three in her thirties, she loved to drive. With a dashboard tap for luck and a tank that never fell below the half way mark, Dot was always on the go. But when her eyes weakened a dozen years ago, she didn’t hesitate and returned the keys.

10. Forge ahead. My grandmother’s limited eyesight was exacerbated by arthritic knees, a temperamental heart, weekly doctor visits, and piles of medication. Not once did she complain to anyone.

11. Volunteer in your community, house of worship, schools or wherever you see fit. My grandmother’s obituary noted her occupation as HomemakerMore so, she was a chauffeur, troop leader, lunchroom aide, caregiver, church elder, and neighborhood sentinel.

12. Say “I love you.” Dot had a hard time saying “I love you”; showing love seemed easier for her. In the hospital, the last time my grandmother heard me say I love you, she still flicked her wrist and squawked, “I know, I know,” trying desperately to fight the tears.

13. Avoid self pity. Dot was a Depression kid with an estranged, alcoholic father. She dropped out of school in the 10th grade to go to work. These experiences never stopped her from embracing life.

14. Communicate. My grandmother didn’t speak to her sister for thirty years and regretted the lost time. “Put all the cards on the table now,” she advised. “Grudges are worthless. Life is too short.”

15. Keep the faith. Dot had an unwavering commitment to prayer and church, attending and sharing a pew with the same senior ladies each Sunday, often offering the young ministers words of kindness and encouragement. She embraced what spoke to her in this universe, and in the end, it was her faith that helped her to let go.

16. Love well. During my grandmother’s final hours, her apartment was filled with family giving to her and my grandfather what she had always given to us: attention, care, support, strength, and comfort. At her funeral, it was no surprise that strangers approached my grandfather saying, “You don’t know me, but I knew Dot.  She was a special lady.”

Before Dot’s death, my five-year old said goodbye to his great-grandmother.

He stood at the base of the hospital bed and said, “I love you, G.G.”

“You do?” she replied.

“I will miss you when God comes.”

God came—all too soon and all too suddenly.

People speak of rocks; Dot was mine. Her spirit and legacy fill me today and always.

I am one lucky granddaughter.

Most definitely.

Jennifer Reinharz writes for children, and blogs for grownups. She is a teacher, CrossFitter, and most importantly, Mom to Bubbe and The Skootch. Jennifer is the creator of the personal essay blog, Red said what? ( Follow her on Twitter @redsaidwhatblog.