My paternal grandmother, Nana Barbara lived in a camper on a Chevy truck in a Safeway parking lot somewhere near Campbell and Prince in Tucson for most of my early childhood. From what I remember her little “neighborhood” consisted of a grocery store, dollar store and a Bosa Donuts.
My father would take my sister and me to visit her on the weekends and I have a vague memory of sitting in the parking lot among other cars visiting with her and my tata. Since she didn’t have a kitchen, we would often make our way to the donut shop where we would feast on powdered donuts while my Dad and grandparents would drink coffee and talk in Spanish. If we were lucky, she would hand us a few dollars and send us over to the dollar store for whatever we wanted. Everyone in Safeway and the donut shop knew my nana and tata by name. Going to see my nana never seemed weird until it did.
I must have asked once, or maybe my sister did, but either way we were told that she chose to live that way because she was afraid to live in a house, and to make things weirder it was because she was afraid someone may have died there. My nana lived in a camper in a Safeway parking lot because she was afraid of ghosts.
Sometime later she moved into a ground floor apartment (parked the truck with camper outside) and covered everything in plastic. The floor, carpet and couch and everything squeaked. I guess since they lived indoors now, my dad would sometimes leave us with her and that’s when she’d wash us. My sister was three years younger and much smaller, so she got the “on the kitchen table tub treatment” while I was scrubbed raw with a washcloth. (In her defense, our maternal grandma practiced this, too.) Once she was finished, we were deemed clean enough to sit on the plastic covered sofa. She’d give us Cokes and sugary Mexican cookies and hide them when my dad came back because she was diabetic.
As I got older, I went to see my nana less and less and she rarely ventured to our house. She was afraid to come to our side of town and if she did make the trip, she’d hurry off before dark fell. About the time my tata passed away the family set her up in a gated senior mobile home park where she smudged the house everyday and my aunts would take her to Furr’s Cafeteria for food she shouldn’t eat. Occasionally, my dad would show up and raid her pantry and remove all her Cokes and Mexican cookies. To my knowledge everything remained covered in plastic until she died.
For years when I was at dinner parties and people were comparing their weird family stories I’d always win. “Oh yeah but did your nana live in a Safeway parking lot?” This was still amusing right up until the other day when I had an epiphany.
Lately I have been having trouble sleeping, which I believe is rooted in anxiety. As the monsoons have been raging on here in Patagonia our 106-year-old roof sprung a leak. Nothing major, just enough to send me over the edge with worry. Add that to the million other things I think about and now I’m really not sleeping. Then a few thoughts crossed my mind. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we didn’t have this house to think about? Or this job to worry about? Or this stuff to clean? Or…?
I finally understood her. She couldn’t control her environment, so she made it more manageable. She was anxious about living in an unknown place, so she fixed it the best way she knew how. She covered her world in plastic and tried to live the best way she could.
My nana had some major anxiety. As a kid it meant all the donuts I could eat and a surprisingly good story I could tell my friends and now I feel bad that she didn’t get the help she needed. My lesson: quirks lead to funny stories but deserve a second look. Sorry, Nana.