Thursday, September 10, 2015

Margaret Carnahan Keeler (1925-2015)

I write mostly about sports here in this space, and one of the primary virtues that we extol in all of our athletes, no matter what level, is toughness, specifically players who come through when they're hurt. Sandy Koufax pitching until his arm practically fell off. Kirk Gibson hitting one of the most famous home runs in World Series history on one leg, limping around the bases while pumping his fist. Ronnie Lott getting a fingertip amputated so he wouldn't miss any time. Willis Reed walking out of the tunnel with a torn thigh muscle and igniting the Garden in Game 7. These are all indelible moments in sports history. But toughness obviously doesn't just apply to sports, it applies to ordinary people who don't see their names in the paper or on the internet. And the toughest person I have ever known was my grandmother, Margaret "Peggy" Keeler.

Peggy Carnahan was born on April 6, 1925 in Rochester, New York, fifteen minutes ahead of her identical twin sister Patricia. They were the second and third children born to William Carnahan (known to me only as "the judge") and his second wife Margaret Crowther Carnahan (his first wife and child had perished in the flu epidemic of 1918). They had an older brother, Bill, born in 1923. At the age of four, the girls were given an experimental scarlet fever vaccine. Peggy either developed an allergic reaction or actually came down with scarlet fever; in any case she spent nine months in a body cast and dealt with arthritis (particularly in her knees and back) and chronic pain for the remainder of her life. She spent her first two years of school with the special kids because she had to wear leg braces, and since she was unable to do a lot athletically (Pat became an avid golfer), the judge taught her how to score baseball games, a skill she passed on to my mother, who then in turn taught me.

One of the seminal events in my family's history was when Peggy and Pat went off to college. They decided to attend Beaver College (since renamed Arcadia University, in 2001), an all-female college on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Their third roommate, Nancy Demme, wound up marrying their brother Bill; they lived in Canandaigua, New York and had four children. After graduating in 1947, the sisters moved back to Rochester (Pat went into education, eventually becoming a high school principal). The Carnahans lived across the street from a boardinghouse, and one of the tenants there was a young electrical engineer from Bedford, Virginia, recently discharged from the regular Navy and working for Kodak. Owen Keeler and Peggy dated for a couple years before marriage came up. Owen was insistent that Peggy needed to live somewhere other than under her father's roof before they got married, so in 1949, Peggy moved back to Philadelphia to work at Beaver when a job came available. She found as her roommate a young woman from the class of 1948 with whom she had taken foreign language classes (German, if memory serves, although it may have been French), and who was also engaged. They became fast friends, planned their weddings together, and a week before Peggy and Owen were married (June 24, 1950), her roommate, Carol Roland, married Richard Ranger.

After a rather short interlude living in Alexandria, Virginia, the Keelers moved to Grosse Pointe, Michigan, which would be their home for most of the next thirty years. They had three daughters: Patricia (b. 1953), Catherine (b. 1956), and Susan (b. 1957). In the summer of 1960, after hearing from her old roommate Carol that they had moved to Michigan, they invited the Rangers and their eight-year-old son and baby daughter over. Patricia, then seven, heard that a boy was coming over and made herself scarce. The Rangers' son (also named Richard), unaccustomed to the Midwest summer heat, went into the cool basement, but was at a loss for what to do when he saw that all of the toys were (naturally) girls' toys. Periodically the other two girls, ages three and four, would come to the top of the stairs and giggle at the boy looking awkwardly around the basement. And that, dear readers, is the first time my mother met my father.

Grandma Keeler was more directly responsible for setting my parents up together many years later. The Keelers stayed in Grosse Pointe, while the Rangers moved first to Charlotte, then Richmond, then southern California, and eventually back to Michigan in the mid-seventies. I mentioned earlier how my grandparents were married a week apart. The Keelers typically celebrated big anniversaries by throwing a party at their house, while the Rangers celebrated by taking a vacation somewhere. The summer of 1975 was their twenty-fifth anniversary, and the Rangers took off for Mexico. Since they were out of town, the Keelers invited my dad as the Ranger family representative to their big bash across town. Patricia and Susy both had dates, so Cathy (then in the summer after her freshman year at Duke) was designated to welcome Richard (who had just finished his first year of law school at Denver) to the party, which she did before disappearing to talk to all of the people she knew. Richard, who was at that point not the loquacious man about town that those of you who know him now know him to be, spent the party rather on the fringes. As the evening wound down, my grandmother beckoned Cathy over and pulled out her wallet. "That nice young man hasn't had enough to eat," she said. "Here's ten dollars. Go take him to dinner." And the rest, as they say, is history.

For all of my life, however, my grandparents lived in Annapolis, Maryland, where they retired (in 1980) as so many former naval officers do, to a house on Meadowgate Drive that became a second home to me. Even though, throughout my childhood, we lived on the other side of the country, my parents sent me off every summer to spend two to four weeks with my grandparents as soon as I was old enough to fly by myself. It was with my grandmother that I first started cooking, beginning with pan-fried trout and steamed asparagus. After a day of playing hours of baseball with other boys in the neighborhood or doing any one of the fun activities that Annapolis has to offer (sailing, swimming, crabbing, etc.), I would eat a wonderful dinner with my grandparents (I have had the privilege of growing up around some excellent cooks in my family, on both sides), and then Grandma and I would typically play several rounds of double solitaire or gin rummy before bed, eating some of her ridiculous chocolate chunk cookies.* Those were idyllic summer weeks, and I was always loath to leave.

*Andy, Justin, Jared, and Lawrie will all bear me out on the quality of those cookies.

When I started applying to boarding schools, the main rule for location was that any school had to be within two hours of grandparents or aunts. I wound up attending Woodberry Forest School, which was right on the edge of that range from Annapolis (and would easily be three hours now). My grandfather passed away suddenly during the winter of my first year at Woodberry, and the day before my cousin Bill (Nancy and Bill's youngest son) picked me up to take me to Annapolis, my mom called me with instructions on what to pack. Her strongest point was that I pack my good shoes to wear with my coat and tie in the Naval Academy chapel,* because there was no one else to borrow size fifteens from should I neglect to bring them. So what was the one thing I forgot? Naturally, my nice shoes. The one saving grace was that the loud Nike sneakers I did have were Navy blue and gold (Grandma forgave me my mistake because of that detail), but it turned out not to matter much anyway. As I escorted my grandmother down the long center aisle to her seat, all of my grandfather's classmates and boyhood acquaintances were too struck by my resemblance to him to even notice my ridiculous shoes.

*My vote for the most beautiful church in the country. Seriously, if you're ever in Annapolis, go onto the Yard and make your way directly to the chapel.

I visited Annapolis four weekends a year while at Woodberry (once per trimester plus our four-day midwinter break in late January/early February). On the first of these visits, less than a month after my grandfather had died, she took me to her regular sushi place, Joss in downtown Annapolis. I did the ordering, and when the bill came, it was for just over one hundred and fifty dollars (of which she had had maybe five pieces). For a long time after that (I'm talking years), whenever she went to Joss, they would ask her if she was bringing her grandson.

Eventually the big house on Meadowgate became too big for Grandma to manage, and the decision was made to move her into independent living at a senior center in Annapolis (where she already had friends). She spent just over thirteen years in Ginger Cove, first in an apartment and then in assisted living, and finally in the health center. When my parents moved to DC ten years ago, my mother built her schedule around being able to drive out to Annapolis at least once a week to take Grandma out for lunch and her weekly hair appointment, or to the doctor, or to bring her back to DC for holiday celebrations. She almost always took Mocha with her, and Grandma would tell her every time, "You know, you can leave the dog here if you want. I'll look after her."

Earlier I mentioned how tough Grandma was. Arthritis had ravaged her bones; I think she eventually had at least as many artificial joints than real ones (knees, hips, shoulders), and eighty-plus years of pain and pain medication would be taxing on anyone. But she never complained. Not only did Grandma never complain, she was generally cheerful, especially with the Ginger Cove staff. She never wanted to trouble them, even though it was their job to take care of her. She always had a smile and a kind word for the nurses and aides, and would do what was asked. Life of the party that she was, she would tell these nurses that they should go out on the town together, or that they would have had so much fun together had they been the same age. Even though you could tell in candid moments, by merely a glimpse of her face, that she was in near-constant pain, she never let on. Several months ago I spent the day in the emergency room with her after she had fallen and cracked her hip. Kristen had come with me, and in making conversation with Grandma, observed that the heart rate monitor on her finger looked like a laser gun. At some point later, while I was out either calling my mom with a status report or trying to hunt down a nurse, she pointed a finger gun at Kristen and said "Pew pew!" One of the most touching things about being by her bedside at the end was the endless stream of staff members who poked their heads in to stroke her hair, or sit for a minute, or hug my mom, whom of course they all recognized from her regular visits. And all of them said she was a perfect patient.

My grandmother was a wonderful lady. She raised three terrific daughters, and was everything you could ask a grandmother to be for Emilie and Grace and myself. My dad will tell you that you couldn't ask for a better mother-in-law either; she adored all three of her sons-in-law. She was friendly, outgoing, and a hit at any party or gathering. She was a willing participant in various volunteer efforts and causes (she volunteered at Anne Arundel Hospital for years and sang in the civilian choir on Sundays at the Naval Academy, for example). She was color-blind and status-blind, and because of her early affliction always had empathy for the seriously disabled (although she forever insisted on not being treated as such herself; even in the last few years she would conveniently "forget" her cane or walker). She was a tremendous cook and a classy, snappy dresser. She was clever and funny, and always willing to help. Most importantly she was incredibly tough and resilient, and never let anything keep her down; no one who met her would guess that she dealt with chronic pain, often serious, for over eighty-five years of her life. The world needs more people like her. After sixteen-plus years, she has been reunited with my grandfather and Susy (and Mocha, whom she always wanted to have anyway). Rest in peace, Grandma. We will miss you.