The story of Nanny and I goes like this…in April of 1993, when I was six weeks old, I was placed into the hands of Edith Stephens for 2 days a week while my mom worked part-time. My mom sang with Edith’s daughter, Pam, in the choir at church and had mentioned to a few people in the choir that she was looking for a babysitter for me just a few days a week. Pam responded that her mom had just retired and would probably love to babysit, and so in that moment, the Cooper family was changed forever, because we had just gained our “Nanny.”
On May 19th, 2018, my precious Nanny went to be with Jesus. I was with her frequently in the week before her death and watched it take her a little more each day. I had never witnessed anyone actively dying before and it was heartbreaking and painful, yet beautiful because my Nanny did it so GRACEFULLY. She was very much herself until the end and even when you thought she was unresponsive, there was more she had to give – even if it was just her poised smile. Those moments were sacred and holy – something I’ll treasure being a part of for the rest of my life. It opened my eyes. It brought out emotions and strength I had never felt before. Even as her body grew more frail and her breaths more shallow, I just wanted to cling close, tell her all the things, and ask for God’s perfect peace over it all. These past 5 weeks have been unbelievably hard. I miss her more than words can say…it’s like all this love I have for her has no where to go and grief is just the craziest thing. But that peace I prayed for … it came. It continues to come. Even amidst the tears and heartbreak, He is the Redeemer of the brokenness that leads to death. Praise the Lord for her whole and healed body in His presence in her Heavenly home!!
For 25 years I was blessed by my remarkable Nanny. I’m told that Nanny would meet my mom at the car on the cold winter mornings, have a blanket that had been warmed by the fire in hand, and wrap me up as quickly as possible and bring me inside, telling my mom to not worry about a thing. I don’t think mama ever worried about a thing because Nanny had it all under control – never was there a day in the entirety of our relationship that she didn’t make me feel safe and cared for. I’m also told she’d hold me all day if she could, sometime putting me down in my play pen, but even still watching me sleep.
The way my Nanny adored me, from two months old until now, is something I will never understand and never deserve, but man, was it the sweetest blessing to be loved so strongly by her. And, oh how I adore her. As I grew older, I would pretend to be asleep when I knew my parents were pulling in the driveway, hoping they would just let me stay at Nanny’s overnight. Sometimes it worked, other times it didn’t, but our sleepovers were always the most fun. Nanny would give me a bath, tuck me in so tight so that I wouldn’t fall out of the bed, tell me a story that she had made up (they were always the best), and then we would say our prayers together and she would play with my hair until we would fall asleep beside one another. In the morning, she would have made me her amazing cheese grits, always instructing to me “eat around the edges” as they were cooler, so I wouldn’t burn my tongue. If it was winter, she would have a fire going with my favorite little red teddy bear chair sitting in front of it for me. Truly words cannot capture the love we shared and I praise Jesus with all I have for blessing me with mine and Nanny’s special and strong bond.
When Clay was born, she kept him for a little while as well and when we were both over there together on Wednesdays, she would bathe us, curl my hair in sponge curlers, shine our shoes, and have us looking our Sunday best for Wednesday night church. People commented on my beautiful curly all the time…but truth is Nanny just dolled me up so much people thought it was my natural hair! She was so tangibly helpful to my parents in every way – always having us ready when needed, sending us home with meals many nights (she was the BEST cook this world has ever known!), as she knew cooking was the last thing my mom wanted to do after a long day, and always extending her love and prayers each and every day.
When I started school, I didn’t stay at Nanny’s as much, but we made sure to see her as often as possible. On those special days when she did pick me up from school, I would be over the moon excited all day, wishing away the hours so I could see my Nanny. She was always the very first one in the pick-up line, waiting for me with a huge smile, a pack of peanuts or some type of snack, and sweet tea…always her AMAZING sweet tea. Afternoons with her consisted of lots of talking, her teaching me how to sew little outfits for my babies, bird-watching, swinging on the front porch, riding on the lawn-mower helping her cut grass, “helping” her cook (we loved to make scratch biscuits together), and watching all the many shows she recorded on VHS for me (Franklin, Little Bear, The Wild Thornberries, Gullah Gullah Island, LOL). Everything about being with Nanny was a treat from age 0 to 25. How my heart aches for these moments.
My Nanny also held healing power in her house, I believe! But honestly – the comfort of just being in her presence was unmatched. She made every sickness and bad day better, and every good day greater. When I called home sick in elementary school, I wanted to go to Nanny’s house. When something really wonderful had happened, I wanted to go to Nanny’s house and tell her in person. When I had my wisdom teeth out at age 18, I asked to go to Nanny’s house. I never outgrew the ability for her sweet love and hospitality to heal whatever is broken or hurting. She always met me right where I was, cared for me so genuinely and so deeply, and loved me despite every one of my flaws. Her warm fires, her delicious meals, her sweet prayers, her braiding (or as she called it, “platting”) my hair and rubbing my back, her unapologetic realness and vulnerability – it is what made her home a safe place. I will never take the lessons I learned there for granted.
Nanny displayed Jesus’ love so beautifully. You could never leave Nanny’s presence without a full heart from just watching her live for Jesus. If you were at Nanny’s, you were going to talk about the good Lord! The wisdom she imparted to me was always rooted in Scripture and her desire to honor Jesus with her life. My most precious memories with her are the real and honest conversations we had about the Lord. What He was doing in my life, what He was doing in hers. She would look at me after certain conversation and say, “Caroline…God..He’s just so real, so very real…we serve such a mighty God and he holds us in the palm of His hand. But oh honey, you know the devil never sleeps. He doesn’t even nod his head. He is a crafty thing, you have to stand guard.” Her love for Him and His word oozed out of her. She would talk with me about the passage of scripture she had been reading the night before (as the Bible was her nightly reading every night, without fail) and many times, we would read the passage together. She was so honest and when she didn’t understand something about the passage, many times the war passages in the Old Testament, she would ask me about it, so I would whip out my blue letter bible app and we’d try to work through it together to better understand. I’m telling you – there was never a generation gap between us. Nanny and I talked about real deal kind of stuff – anything and everything – our struggles and our triumphs – and I always knew whatever was said would stay just between the two of us. She would go on and on about how she wasn’t formally educated and not eloquent and that all she knew she had just figured out by observing others and just living life. But she was the SMARTEST, WISEST, and MOST ELOQUENT lady I’ve ever known.
Oh, and how Nanny could make me laugh!! She thought every outfit I ever had on was new (definitely not true) and would always say “Ooh, honey! You’re a diva. You look like a movie star, but I’m glad you’re not.” This was usually on the days when I would go to her house after work to help her fix her TV because she couldn’t figure out something with the remote. She would always say, “Caroline. I will figure this out. I will not be outdone. I hate being outdone.” We often looked through pictures on my phone together, and when the screen would go black, she would say “oh no, what happened?” And I’d say, “Nanny…it just went dark to save energy, if you tap it, it will come right back.” And she would reply, “Oh yes, honey, what was I thinking…my phone does that too.” Note that she never had a computer, cell phone, or anything of the like – she was so stinkin sassy, but in the sweetest way. She called my bridesmaids “The girls” and always made me laugh because she wanted to know what was new in their lives (some of them she only met once, but remembers the way their hair looked, their sweet smile, etc.).
As I grew older, our discussions grew deeper and even more meaningful. I cherish the conversations we had during my season of engagement to Luke more than anything. We talked so much about marriage – my fears, my excitements, my wedding plans. She would say over and over that our wedding was going to be the most fabulous wedding Rock Hill had ever seen. It cracked me up, because as ridiculous and far from the truth that statement was, she really meant it and believed it and that made me smile. She would listen to every detail I told her and would relish them all. I never got to meet Nanny’s husband, Perry (always “My Perry” from her mouth), as he died of cancer about 8 years before I was born, but in many ways, I felt like I had known him through Nanny’s stories. She loved her Perry, let me tell you. He was tall and handsome, a family man, smoked a pipe, and loved my Nanny dearly. It was extra meaningful and precious to me to hear her speak of the triumphs and trials that characterized their marriage.
Nanny was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in April of 2015 – right after Luke and I got engaged and right before my graduation. It was a time filled with so much promise for me, and pain for her. It was during that season that Nanny was the most real with me she’s ever been – many visits were filled with tears and reminiscing and just soaking up every moment together that we could. For a while, she would shy away from talking about her presence at the wedding, which made me cry every time, and I begged the Lord to let her live to share in that day with me. I couldn’t bear to think what I would do without her. Praise the Lord for answering our prayers, as my Nanny was present at every Wedding event and our time together on our wedding day will always be one of my most treasured memories. The way Nanny loved and adored Luke and the prayers she prayed for our marriage were unmatched. Anyone who knew my Nanny knows she had a language all her own and she loved to call people “dolls,” meaning she thought they were precious. She always referred to Luke as her “boy doll” and adored him, his smile, and his personality. One time when Nanny was in the hospital, Luke was on pharmacy rotation in the same hospital and went to visit her. She talked about that visit with Luke every time I saw her for a year after it happened because she just adored him. My heart swells when I think about how blessed I am to have had my Nanny know my Luke and for Luke to know her.
As I think back on my time with Nanny, so many of her “phrases” that were a part of her language come to mind and make me smile, laugh, cry. And it wasn’t just the words, but the way Nanny said her words. Always genuinely and with passion. A few of my favorites were…
“Caroline, don’t every doubt the power of God. He is just so real”
“All I know is to give of myself.”
“The Lord didn’t bring me this far to turn me loose.”
“I’m a tough old bird.”
“It is what it is.”
And my favorite of all…”I love you, MORE.” I started telling my Nanny this about 3 years ago and it just became our thing. She would never hang up the phone until I said “I love you, MORE” and then she was laugh and do a little squeal and say “ahh, I love that!”
I found a sign that said “I love you MORE” on it and gave it to her for her 87th birthday and she cried and acted like I had given her a million dollars. We put it on the mantle and she said, “Oh goodness – that just says it all! It’s perfect – right where I can see it everyday!” Then she hugged me real tight and said “Thank you for being my girl…I love you and I pray joy, peace, and happiness upon you for the rest of your life.”
I run over so many memories in my mind and I thank Jesus for them and pray he continues to remind me of more. These don’t begin to scratch the surface. I don’t ever want to forget how she would do a happy dance when I brought in her mail and there was a social security check in it, or how she would yell at squirrels “GET!” and “you better be glad I don’t have my cage” when they were messing with her birds. I don’t want to forget how she loved a pretty head of hair and acted as if it was a sin to cut it at times. How she would play with mine and say “hm, Caroline – I think your hair has gotten thickerer.” I don’t want to forget how she would put Thanksgiving meals in the drive thru box at CVS for her pharmacists when they didn’t get the day off. How she told me when I was on diets that she had taken all the calories out of whatever fattening thing she had made me… LOL. How she acted when I gave her flowers I arranged for mother’s day – as if they were made of diamonds, saying “Oh, I see such love and care and your little hands all over this.” I don’t want to forget the time I showed her the picture of the table Luke built for us and with tears in her eyes, she prayed for all the memories and lessons that would be shared at the table. I can’t forget how I honked and waved every time I pulled out of her driveway from the moment I got my license to the very last time. How she would just start praying for you out loud at the perfect moment. I especially don’t want to forget the way we laughed together when I brought her my old size 2 skinny jeans when she started losing weight and she put them on and they fit perfect and she pranced around like a fashion model.
I pray I will always remember the way her sweet voice sounded, especially when she was singing my song. The song she made up for me as a baby and sang to me my whole life and it went…
“A tiny turnip nose
Two cheeks just like a rose
So sweet from head to toe
My baby Caroline.
No one will ever know
How much I love her so
She means the world to me
She sits upon my knee
To me she’ll always be
My baby Caroline.”
Oh, what a legacy you left my sweet Nanny. She dedicated her to life to serving her family and others. She was truly remarkable in every way. Our story is indeed unique but anyone who knew my Nanny has a story to tell – one about how Nanny loved them, met them where they were, and became their “Nanny” too. Edith West Stephens was strong, beautiful, radiant, wise, beloved, and will be treasured in my heart, memories, and through my life always.