Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs
By Tomie de Paola
Earlier this week, our parish suddenly lost its pastor, Very Reverend Leonard J. Gilman, O.Carm. I lost a friend. His passing was sudden and swift.
I learned a lesson that I had always instinctively known, but never fully intuited; that nothing is promised, except life, and love, which is eternal.
Picture book authors have tried for years in many iterations to make some sense of death to the children that it touches. They attempt to couch death and its loss in ways that enable children to cope, process and understand its concept. Yet, even for adults, it’s a very long learning curve.
I am thinking of the 8th grade class from the parish Academy about to graduate on Friday with joy and promise, and in an instant, their friend and pastor is gone. For it is still a mystery that we ponder; how one moment someone is here and full of life; and the next, they are not. Nothing is promised.
Let me amend that. Life is promised, as pure gift, during the time we have it. It is full of hope, opportunity, growth, challenge and most of all, love. We must teach that also to our children.
One of the earliest picture books to treat the concept of death for children was Tomie de Paola’s 1973 “Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs.”
This autobiographical picture book resonated its larger theme to young readers everywhere. And it still does today. It’s a classic. I think I will reread it today.
Every Sunday young Tommy visits his two grandparents. Busy downstairs, his first floor grandma is all bustling activity, and upstairs his 94 year young great grandmother is confined to bed.
When his upstairs great grandmother dies he is bereft, yet his mother comforts him with these words, “..she will come back in your memory whenever you think of her.” So long as a person’s name is uttered and spoken of in memory, they live on. Fine words for young readers to hold onto in the face of such a mystery.
Death is a universal theme in books, but I hope young readers take hold of the idea also that a person’s presence while here leaves ripples in other lives, far beyond their own. They were here, they influenced us and loved us – and that too is a reality they should be encouraged to embrace.
Fr. Leonard’s ripples will be forever felt, but they are also printed in words on the plaque near the front door of the church community he served:
“No matter who you are,
no matter what you’ve done,
no matter where you’re from,
no matter where you’re going,
no matter how good or bad
things may seem, you are
Life is blessed by the people that pass our way. Let’s pass that concept along to our children, too.
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