The Story: Nana & Bobby

The eighth of eleven children, Annie was born to David and Mary Gillis in Glendale, Inverness County, on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, on May 20, 1902.

After a childhood living on the Glendale farm, at the age of 17 she and her sister Mary arrived in Boston in search of work to help the family and start new lives.

In 1937, she gave birth to her only child, Robert.

In 1941, now a nurse, she purchased 10 Trull Street in Dorchester and opened the Uphams Corner Rest Home, which she operated for over twenty years.

She lived quietly at 10 Trull Street for 54 years, which she opened to tenants in the 1960s. Her regular visits were her daughter-in-law, Marguerite, and her grandchildren, Bobby and Theresa. Her son Robert took care of the house repairs until his death in 1984.

She died at the age of 91 from complications of a stroke on November 16, 1993.

But she was so much more than that.

A person isn’t just a few lines in an obituary, a few sentences scribbled in a newspaper. She was my Nana, and I loved her dearly. She led an interesting, remarkable life, and I was part of it for nearly three decades. Her life mattered. I’m a better person for having known her.

Nana never had much company; Mom handled the bills and made the twice-weekly visits with us in tow, and Dad continued to do repairs as long as he could, but I was Nana’s only regular visitor. That daily stop began when I was five years old.

When I was little, the visit was a good living — Nana gave me a dime or quarter when I stopped in, and shoveling the snow would bring in one or two dollars.

Nana loved to talk, and we spent nearly an hour every day chatting. There were many stories that were repeated again and again, but I know Nana liked to tell them, and I never really minded. As I got older, I became more interested in the family history, and I’d ask Nana questions.

I heard the stories of Glendale, Nana’s hometown in Cape Breton Nova Scotia, and the adventures and stories of her family and friends of long ago. I learned about the Glendale fiddle players and step dancers, Nana’s love of the Gaelic language and Scottish heritage, her eight brothers and sisters, life on the farm, the miners of Sydney, coming to America when she was 17 to work, and memories of her dearest friend, Sister Andrea MacVarish, who lived to be 103.

As I grew up, I was able to do more. I made her dinner every night and took her shopping. When I started driving, I tried to take her out every now and then; it always did her good.

We took other trips as well, and on three occasions we flew to Maryland to visit her sister Florence. Nana was a like a little kid when we traveled and an excellent companion.

It was on one of those visits to Maryland that I finally realized that Nana was aging and my time with her would be finite. At Florence’s house, Nana had grown confused about where she was, and we sat up and talked for almost an hour. Nana talked about her fears of losing Florence, who’d been ill, and then she said something she had never said before. “Bobby, I’m getting old and I don’t want to die.”

Nana went on to explain that she was very afraid. She was starting to forget things and not recognize familiar places. I felt so bad and tried to imagine how she must feel, to have lived all those decades and suddenly be so confused about simple things.

I listened for a long time, just holding her hand and reassuring her that everything was fine. Finally, I said, “Nana, I’ve always done my best to help take care of you and I promise you that as long as I’m around, you’re going to be fine. I will stay right here with you and I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise you that I’ll take care of you for the rest of your life. I’ve always been there for you. I promise that I’ll watch over you and take care of you.”

I’d long since accepted my responsibility toward Nana, but that night put things in a new light. For the first time, I acknowledged that Nana really was getting old, and it occurred to me how often Nana thought about her mortality, and how much she feared being alone. I promised myself that as long as I was alive, Nana would never be alone.

For another four years, I visited Nana almost every day. Then, she took a bad fall in June 1992 and finally needed to leave her home, and became a resident of Saint Joseph Rest Home in Dorchester, where she received excellent care. Mom and I continued to visit her regularly. Nana flourished at Saint Joseph.

The stroke she suffered in August of 1993 left her in a vegetative state, and mercifully God took her only four months later. One of the greatest blessings God ever gave me was allowing me to be with Nana when she died. I know she was aware that I was right there, saying the rosary, holding her hand as she died. We buried Nana on my 29th birthday.

Losing Nana devastated me. Even losing Dad wasn’t a blow of this magnitude. Suddenly, I had no one to take care of. I didn’t need to be anywhere in the evening anymore. And I hated it. I hated not being able to see Nana and help take care of her.

The years passed and I grieved, and I ended up writing a book about Nana and her life. It was part journal, and part grief therapy. It ended up being a loving tribute.

I always thought I was the one doing the care taking, but Nana took care of me. She was my best friend growing up – I just didn’t know it. If things were bad at school, I could go to Nana’s. If I was upset at home, I could go to Nana’s. We never had heart-to-heart conversations and I rarely told her my problems, but somehow just being with her – in a place where I was unconditionally loved and accepted – made all the difference. Even if everything else was going wrong, I could see Nana, make her a cup of tea or something to eat, or do some work on the house.

Nana took care of me in ways she never imagined. This recent realization has helped me to understand just why losing Nana was so absolutely devastating, and the unexpected truth that I grew up, and stopped being a kid, on the day Nana died.

The Good Lord helps us heal over time. Nana’s death hasn’t hurt for a long while, but I miss her stories, the complaining about her arthritis, the Cape Breton accent, and just feeling so happy to be with her.

Nana gave me so much. It’s because of Nana that I love senior citizens so much, and recognize them for the treasure they are. It’s because of her that I am interested in my family history, and history in general. It’s because of her that I want to help other people. Despite her melancholy and often-gloomy outlook on life, she was wiser than she ever imagined and made a great difference in my life. For that and so much more, I am so very grateful to her.

This is our story.