Last Monday, I woke up early and reviewed the new script I’m writing for children. If you know me, you know that waking up early is a feat unto itself, never mind brewing coffee without burning the house to the ground.

As often happens, I kept getting trapped like quicksand thinking about the character of Anna, the older woman who re-settles in the Chernobyl zone after being evacuated because “the sun doesn’t shine right in other places.”

Woman waiting at home, Original painting for 2006 VFC by Tisha Terrasini
Woman waiting at home, Original painting for 2006 VFC by Tisha Terrasini

It’s hard to understand sometimes, this tie to one’s land that feels as vital as blood and water. One’s land and one’s house: hard for me to understand, since I’ve lived away from my childhood home consistently for twelve years and my home is now with my husband. This exploration is one of the themes that appealed to me when I first starting adapting Voices From Chornobyl.

That last Monday morning, however, I just kept getting stuck on Anna. Not helping the matter is that Anna is typically played by Enci, a phenomenal actress who imbues layers of meaning and emotion into the role. She believes in signs: “your palm itches, and you know to get ready [for something bad to happen]”. She believes in God “There are no priests….I have nowhere to take my sins.” She believes in her family, even if they are long gone. “Mother, forgive me for leaving you. I’ve taken some dirt [from your grave] to lead me back home.”

She believes in her home. She would rather die in her home than anywhere else, even if it means that death comes more quickly.

I managed to shake Anna’s hold on me loose by noting lines to explore later, and sent off the draft to Rachel, my Co-Producer and motivating machine for the April 2011 Awareness Events.

Then I received the notification on my cell: missed call from my father. It is not even 9:30am on the West Coast, so he’s calling me in the middle of the day for him (12:30pm East Coast Time), in the middle of his work day.

I returned his call, knowing the answer. My grandmother – Nanny to all – died.

Nanny, my Mother’s Mother, received a tin heart (when I was seven, that’s how it was explained to me) 24 years ago. I

Nanny & Grumpy, 1978
Nanny & Grumpy, 1978

remember standing in my backyard preparing for her party and hearing this operation meant she stood a chance of living seven more years, and thinking that was a very long time. It was my whole life, after all. That is how I remember it, whether that is how it happened or not.

Shortly after that operation, she lost her oldest son James Anthony to a heart attack. Around the time her heart was scheduled to stop working, she lost the love of her life, Anthony James (Grumpy to all), to cancer. She moved on to a new phase in her life, bravely and without a misstep, centering the entire family around her home, keeping us together. Not like glue, for that implies force; Nanny kept the family together as the magnet around which we all could always have a home.

Four surviving children, fifteen grandchildren,one great-grandchild, two sons-in-law & boy/girlfriends, an entire Catholic Daughters of the Americas regional tribe, and numerous nieces, nephews, cousins later, we all benefited from her laughter, sometimes inappropriate comments and deep feeling of family and the hearth.

The last few years, Nanny slowly lost her battle with her tin heart. My knowledge is pieced together through my Mother who was too close to the situation to talk about it, my sister Kelly (after Nanny’s maiden name) who always over-reacts to everything (love you Kel, but it’s true), and my Father whose pragmatic views are always trumped by unending support of my Mother. I always had to kind of juggle the emotional progress reports, but one thing was always certain: she was not doing well.

I mixed and matched what I heard because I was not present. I could not be asked into the rotation of home care, regular visits, bookkeeping, preparations, food shopping, scouting for nursing homes, talking to insurance companies, etc. etc., because I was not present. I live 3000 miles away and tend to overwork. My home is now in Los Angeles, but even that statement is inaccurate. My home is now wherever my husband, dog, and someday children live, wherever our creative lives and happiness thrive. My home is not tied to land, but skin. My home is not a house, but a feeling.

The concept of living so far away from home is a foreign one to most in my family. We still visit each other in the same homes today as we have since our parents were born, with few exceptions. Whether the magnet to those homes, those exact plots of land, was strongest with Nanny living or simply extreme comfort zones, I do not know. I never felt the draw.

Saint Rita (Nanny was Rita Ethel "Honey" Canillas)
Saint Rita on Nanny's table

Nanny believed in signs, in God, in family and most of all – her home. As Anna says, “The sun doesn’t shine right in other places.” Although most of her grandchildren do not have the relationship with the church and God that Nanny wanted for us, we do all have the feeling of compassion and desire to be good people and to do good work in the world. We all wish to be good to each other, even if we forgot the words to the Hail Mary. Nanny gave us those gifts.

Bloodlines tie us to each other. Home can sometimes be found through a string of comments on Facebook that tease for family memories from long ago. Their version of home is different from mine, though now time will tell.

The hardest moment I had last week was when I actually had to leave Nanny’s house for the last time. I felt stuck in a flush of memories that wouldn’t let my feet move. For that moment, I was tied to the place, the house, the soil underneath my feet and in the backyard that hosted so many days of playtime. I didn’t want to leave.

Thank you, Nanny, for continuing to teach me compassion and understanding of the world.