My Nana, Jo Barton

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My nana died this week. It wasn’t sudden. It wasn’t unexpected. She was lucid enough to make her own decisions and, as much as possible, die on her own terms. She’d been feeling unwell and experiencing pain for a long time. And I thought that because of these things, and because I’ve spent so much time with her in the last twenty-eight years, that somehow I’d be spared the grief that seems to inevitably come with death. But as with most inevitable parts of life, I was not spared. After a week of acting like nothing unusual was going on, it hit me extra hard Friday night. And so I started writing this… 

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Nana rarely let me take pictures of her. I snuck this one in when we spent two weeks together in Florence.

When I was a little girl I thought Nana was probably one of the most important people in the world. I thought she was best friends with the Queen of England (not true, although she did have a framed invitation to Buckingham Palace on her mantel). I thought she was an expert on everything -as I found out later, so did she. With Nana, there was her way and there was the wrong way.  She was annoyingly right much of the time. As a child, she was the arbiter of etiquette, always on hand to critique dirty fingernails and table manners. Into my twenties, she’d ask me if I was wearing a slip. She often talked about how you had to always wear the correct underwear just in case you were in a car accident so you wouldn’t be embarrassed at the hospital. In many ways, she seemed much like the Dowager Duchess on Downton Abbey (I’m not joking).

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Nana was so incredibly beautiful. She helped make her own wedding dress.

But later things changed. She’d momentarily abandon her prim persona and tell me scandalous stories, like the one about her friend who “had an affair with a prominent gynecologist” with a wink. In college, all my sexiest lingerie came came from Nana at Christmas. There was a store that kept all of her granddaughters’ sizes on file. In December she’d go in and say, “find me things that don’t look like your grandmother bought them.” She taught me to needle point, but she also taught me how to make jello shots – which she brought in green and red to one of our Christmas Eve dinners when I was in high school.

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Christmas Dinner with Nana, Papa, and all my cousins.

Nana wasn’t best friends with the Queen, but as I grew up I also discovered what an interesting and important life she’d lead. While most of her best friends dropped out of college after freshman year to get married, Nana was one of the first women to graduate with a law degree from The University of Oklahoma. She practiced law. She owned several businesses, including a liquor store (named DWIS short for Do What I Say), a children’s clothing store, and a book store. She lead a politically active life:sending “Another Mother for Peace” cards to the entire roster of the Oklahoma City Junior League well before protesting the Vietnam War was in vogue and serving on the board of her local Planned Parenthood. Of these accomplishments, she’d wave her hand and say, “It was nothing.”

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Sherry tasting with Nana in Spain.

Nana loved to travel. She took my mother and her siblings on road trips across the country where they travelled in matching outfits, that I’m pretty sure she sewed. She took me and my cousins on trips all over the world. Together, she and I went to London, Stockholm, Helsinki, Saint Petersburg, Copenhagen, Monaco, Province, and many different cities in Italy and Spain. In college, she took me and two friends to San Francisco. We road cable cars, ate delicious dinners, and walked through Hait-Ashbury where she looked at every third tattooed/pierced person and said “Is that really necessary” under her breath. She even put up with me on a trip to Disney Land when I was five where I was too scared to ride any of the rides, except for Peter Pan – and somehow we still had a great time. She took my sister to South Africa, travelled to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and China in the 1980s. She spent a good part of her seventies living in a small town in Spain where only one other person spoke English. Going to her house was special for many reasons, but one was that it was filled with treasures from so many different trips. She definitely knew how to have an adventure.

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Nana traveling with her matching outfits.

Nana was a great reader. So many of my favorite books are ones that she put in my hand. I found out about Harry Potter, because she’d given it to my cousin Sam. On a trip we took into Washington DC  to see the American History Museum, Sam read the scene where Dobby tries to convince Harry not to go to Hogwarts out loud on the metro, while Nana and I laughed along. I knew I wanted to read the books too. I watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice mini-series for the first time at her house, spurring my big-time love of all things Jane Austen. Every time I saw her, she asked what I was reading. I’m really going to miss talking to her about books.

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Nana with my friends, Sarah, and I at her friend, the artist, Emile Norman’s beautiful home in Big Sur.

My nana threw the most magnificent parties. I believed in Santa for so much longer than most of my peers, in part, because she hired the same man to play Santa at the Christmas party she threw for us and our friends every year. At one astrology themed party she wrote fake horoscopes for the 100+ attendees. At a hippie themed party guests sat on mattresses and ate delicious beef stew that she’d re-canned into empty tunafish containers. Nana also wore some of the most outrageous outfits I’ve ever seen. She told me once, that my uncle asked her to stop coming to his little league games because she was the only mother who wore mini-skirts. She wore an outfit that can only be called “the little bo peep” outfit for a dinner where she sat next to Ted Kennedy.

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My sister, Sarah, and I wearing matching Halloween sweatshirts from Nana’s Store.

I could keep going with crazy stories about her life. The people she met. The things that she accomplished. I could keep writing about those things forever, but I won’t. More than anything, what I keep thinking about this weekend is how so much of who I am and what I like has been influenced by her. Classical Music. Ballet. Broadway. Cooking (how have I not yet written about what an amazing cook she was?!?!) Books. Bloody Marys. Travel. The New York Times Book Review. Museums. Italy. Writing letters. My towels and dishes are yellow because of her advice when I was shopping for my first apartment. I saw her not every day growing up, but often. Every month at least and often several times a week.

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Nana and Papa in the Big Sur house.

Living in her Big Sur house was when I first committed to becoming a writer and where I started learning how to make myself happy. Spending much of nine months together as an adult was often frustrating, but now I’m treasuring that time.

Nana wasn’t perfect and she wasn’t a perfect grandmother, even though she didn’t know that. She very vocally hated my long hair. She was obsessed with thinness and, perhaps to a lesser extent, wealth/status. She once told me I was buttering my toast at breakfast “the wrong way”. When I told her I was thinking about reading Game of Thrones and her response was to tell me about Bran becoming paralyzed, Cersei and Jamie’s relationship, and the red wedding. She could hold a grudge more than anyone I’ve ever heard of. 

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Nana with my mother, looking very glamourous.

I think a large part of life is learning to love and be loved by imperfect people. Nana taught me that lesson well many times throughout my life. I loved her, and she loved me very much. She taught me to seek out beautiful and interesting things. I will always be very, very proud that I was her granddaughter and so grateful for all our time together.

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Nana and I in Majorca on a very hot day.

20 thoughts on “My Nana, Jo Barton

  1. Wonderful to read and know her better. Visited her many times at Big Sur during my Santa Barbara college years. She had an exquisite presence. Thank you for writing this.

  2. As I was growing up, I knew your Nana well.
    You have captured her perfectly and with great humor. I was one of the kids who traveled by stationwagon with her and two two other moms (one being mine) all over the USA. We will all miss her.

  3. Alison, how very lovely. I can only imagine how much your exceptional grandmother would both approve and appreciate your words, touching memories and likewise celebrate your special relationship.

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  5. Allison,

    I took another long look at your elegantly touching tribute today.Such a creative selection of graphics accompany your fond affections of grandmother.

    Jo Barton was a jewel,of a quality and character we won’t see the likes of again.Her intellect invariably was a step ahead; her gracious personality, ever-present humor,and exquisite bits of sardonic wit, constant treats. And I say that having had but maybe 15 conversations over 28 years with Jo, from Big Sur to Kiawah.

    How perfectly delicate too and so outright beautiful she was indeed on her marriage day, though my favorite would be Jo and the children in their matching outfits. Plainly she arranged the shoot with care. It was one for the ages,and she knew it.

    Best of all was reading prose at once evocative and genuine, informative and so mesmerizing in its loving remembrances few might express as well; none more personally, more charmingly… than your own.

    Any who knew this lady well or little could not help but notice —especially as the curtain was drawing down– that her sense of fun and antique courage were there still,assuring that her final days among us were sturdy examples of how to die every bit as well as she had lived her life.

    Thank you.

    Leonard Long

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