Nana turned 95 on Monday of this week. The family took her out to The Buggy Whip restaurant, which at one time was probably a very nice steakhouse but now is only so-so. Nana’s lost her short-term memory, so she probably thinks of the place as it was in its heyday. About 30 of us crowded into their banquet room and surprised her with a birthday celebration. I’m not sure whose idea it was to surprise the 95-year-old woman on her birthday: Fortunately no paramedics were needed! 

Nell Mueller is her name, but she’s always been Nana to me. I know “Nana” is a nickname normally given to grandmothers, but Nana is actually my grand-aunt. She is my grandmother’s oldest sister and for my entire life the two of them have lived together. Birthdays and holidays always included her, so I have always felt as though I had three grandmothers.

She was always tall and big, but never heavy. Her salt-and-pepper hair always perfectly set in short curls. She is fastidious in her dress and grooming: Nana always has a nail file on hand and she uses it often. She has strong features, sparkling eyes, and a gentle touch. She has gotten smaller over the years—both thinner and shorter. Now she is bony but still strong. Physically she is in much better shape than my grandmother.

Nana was “the busy one,” or so I thought when I was a child. Nana worked on her business, while my grandmother, RoRo, worked on family stuff and raising grandchildren and all of the many cousins of my generation. Nana founded the Hobby House in the 50s, which later became the Graphic Hobby House, on the family’s property at Fulton and Marconi avenues in Sacramento. Mueller Corner is across the street from Town & Country Village, and while it has never performed as well as T&C, given that it is smaller and has less available space for tenants, it is a valuable piece of land nonetheless. That was where Nana, RoRo, and their sisters Dorothy and Mary grew up. They live only minutes from that corner even now.

Prior to starting the Hobby House, Nana was an artist and an art teacher at San Juan High School. I believe she has an art degree from San Jose State. There are a handful of paintings by her around, mostly landscapes in oil. She was the one who always gave me art supplies as presents; I’ve noticed she likes to give such gifts to my son, too.

Nana never married. I suppose at one time, she was Nell, or even Nellie. I’ve seen pictures of her as a young woman. I do not know if she ever dated anyone, and I am now curious about that. She was always involved in clubs such as Soroptimist International of Sacramento North, a charity that has donated lots of time and money to improving the lives of Sacramentans and the residents of the Arden Arcade area. She was always involved in family life, just never had a family of her own.

Nana doesn’t remember recent things anymore. She forgets what she ordered for lunch only moments after ordering. She doesn’t remember that she pruned the rose bushes yesterday and so prunes them again. She doesn’t remember that the woman she has always treated as a daughter (her neice in reality) has lied and stolen thousands of dollars from her in recent years (and is now trying to abscond with the family fortune through a legal battle over the trust). Nana does not recognize Asher. Every time she sees him she asks his name and his gender. 

It makes me sad to see her like this, however, in a way, she seems really happy. Some of her sharpness has rubbed off. She is easier to please and not as picky. She isn’t in a rush to accomplish anything, although she still putters and plays hours of solitaire on the computer, whose sole purpose is to let Nana play solitaire. She misses driving herself around. She used to drive very fast.

At one time, I did a “grandparent” report on Nana; I think it was my freshman year of high school. I wish I had it now because I know I’ve forgotten lots of things about her life. A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of helping Nana publish a tiny book about the history of the Soroptimist group of which she was a member and past president. It was kind of tough working with her at the time since she has a hard time with computers, but nevertheless I’m happy I got to spend that time with her.  In some ways, she was a pioneer in business in a time when women typically didn’t venture there.

Happy 95th Birthday, Nana. You’re wonderful and I love you.

Nana at our house, Feb. 3, 2008.

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