How my grandmother helped me discover that being sensitive is a blessing, not a curse.
This is my Nana. Her name was Virginia Florence Young (née Malley) and she lived from 1917-2004. Today just so happens to be the 18th anniversary of her passing. She was my father’s mother and grew up in Rochester, NY where she met my father’s dad John (Jack) Young and they went on to raise 6 children in both White Bear Lake, MN and Haddonfield, NJ. As a child, I'd see Nana (and my “Pop Pop”, her husband) maybe twice a year, once in Haddonfield and once in Seneca Falls, NY, where I grew up.
The front door of their house on Moore Lane in Haddonfield would open and the cold burst of central air conditioning (which at the time, made me think they were rich) would greet us, as would the warm embrace of both Pop Pop and Nana. While Jack (for whom my son is named) was a social butterfly who could talk to ANYBODY (sound familiar?), my Nana, or Ginny as she was called, was much, much more reserved. This wasn’t to say she wasn’t a wonderful host or for that matter, a wonderful grandmother. But she was starkly unique in her own quiet, profoundly private way.
My siblings and I loved her fiercely and were always particularly struck by her unique scent. To this day, I can walk through a Macy’s and feel as though she’s standing right next to me when I smell a sample of Estee Lauder’s ‘Youth Dew” perfume. She always called me “Nicky” and her striking blue eyes could see right through my (at the time) guarded, painfully shy exterior. On more than one occasion, I recall her saying, “You wear your heart on your sleeve, Nicky, you’re so very sensitive.”
When I was young, I viewed the word “sensitive” as almost a pejorative…a weakness of sorts. But my Nana knew it was far from a weakness, even if it took me years to figure it out for myself. It was what made me ME. On the night my Pop Pop passed away in 1999, I was alone with Nana in her bedroom, enthralled by her stories of how her and Jack had met and fell in love. Around 11pm that night, my Uncle Bill stuck his head into the room and calmly but sternly announced, “He’s gone.” Pop Pop had been in another bedroom, just feet away from where we sat as he took his last breath, as we had anticipated he would sooner than later.
Nana’s head turned sharply and her eyes locked with mine. “Come on, Nicky, let’s go.” I had never laid eyes on a dead body at this point in my life, much less one that had so recently passed so I was undoubtedly anxious but was also absolutely sure that I would not allow my grandmother to go into that room alone. We held each other’s hands as we walked into the bedroom where my grandfather’s body lay, my heart beating at least twice as fast as normal. Here, my memory grows hazy but I do remember an immensely peaceful feeling in the room. Death, the most fearsome of all human anxieties, was right in front of me and yet, there I stood. Pop Pop didn’t look like Pop Pop to me anymore and frankly, I no longer felt his presence in that room.
I am not a religious person but I am a deeply spiritual one and on that day, I became convinced that there HAS to be someplace else after we die...and if not, it sure is a nice thought, at the very least. Nana lived for 5 more years after losing her husband of 50 plus years. She stoically accepted her fate upon her cancer diagnosis and died with dignity and grace, in her bed, in that very bedroom where we had spent so many hours chatting and laughing over the years. I wrote a song about her death shortly thereafter, written from her first person perspective of how I believed she likely faced her final days. It also certainly delves into how I'd like to look back on my life and face death when MY time comes, which I think is something we all can’t help but think about at times.
The song never made it onto the three albums I recorded in the subsequent years, mostly because I felt the song was a bit too personal to be relatable. But when it came time to record demos for my latest album, I rediscovered the song in an old notebook and brought it as a "backup" to the recording sessions I did in Hoboken, NJ his past March. As I arrived the night before our first session, Dan McLoughlin, the record's producer, told me he loved all of the demos but that "Florence Virginia" HAD to be on the album. The song's name is reversed from her actual name because after her death, I was told that one of her old passports listed her name as Florence Virginia and while it’s not factually correct, I just liked the way it looked in print better and it's MY song and MY record so I do what I want. I hope you enjoy the song as much as I enjoyed writing it all those years ago and thank you, Nana, for teaching me that being sensitive is a blessing, not a curse.
Listen to “Florence Virginia”: