The day after Thanksgiving at the ancestral Mahoney estate, my siblings and I sort through the stuff in our mother's house and choose our inheritances. There are some investments, an IRA hardly touched in mom's brief retirement, 100 Euros we find along with her passport, and the house itself. But we are here to settle the real estate—all that's really left for us is the sentimental inventory.
There are plenty of things. Spend a lifetime living in a house and accumulation happens. All these objects need to be evaluated for emotional significance. There's a baby grand piano—I should take it as I was the only child who ever played piano, but where would I put it? The massive mirror in the dining room that Dad and some of his buddies once moved across the room by rolling it on baseball bats—which of us will take that home? No takers. Same for the dark-hued Madonna and Child Renaissance-style painting of unknown provenance with the hulking scrollwork frame that looms over the couch, giving the living room an air of sophistication it perhaps did not deserve. In that room, the people would come and go talking mostly football, not Michelangelo.
I will take some things: the battered pot that Mom cooked pasta in that looks like it traveled cross-country on a buckboard wagon and served as a combat helmet along the way. I'll also grab something unexpected, a five-page typewritten letter buried under report cards and grade-school diplomas in mom's dresser.
The letter is from my grandmother, Nancy, to my cousin Mary in St. Louis. The letter is in response to a request by Mary—who must have been in high school or college—to "do a story on Nancy Craig." Typical of the time and her upbringing, Nancy starts off by telling Mary "I don't know that it would be very exciting—you may decide to go elsewhere for a subject." The next 30 paragraphs serve to undermine my grandmother's initial demurral.
Nancy was "born with a good ear for music" in St. Louis in 1914. She studied music and theater at Colorado College. Back in St. Louis, Nancy "tried a little concertizing and quickly discovered this was not what I wanted. There was more to it than playing the piano. It was a public relations job—going to parties to entertain, etc." Nancy then got a job as a program director at KMOX, a radio station in St. Louis, hired by her future husband, George Junkin. "For about five years I worked there for about 18 hours a day. No one there had any sensible schedule, and you might be working on the telephone board and be called in to perform as a pianist or to speak the part in some play. It was a marvelous experience that we all enjoyed and I never worked harder in my life."
After marrying the boss, Nancy and her husband moved to New York where George went to work at CBS and Nancy got a job on the radio at NBC "on a women's program covering the exciting things going on around the town." Working at NBC is where Nancy, formerly known as Alice Junkin, took the pseudonym she would forever be known for. As she explained to Mary, "They insisted that I either assign them my name or let them give me a name that they would own. I chose the latter and they named me Nancy Booth Craig for NBC."
During this period, Nancy was approached by a publisher putting together a book called It's as Easy to Fly a Plane as Drive a Car. The author, flight instructor Bill Strohmeier, wanted to prove that anyone could learn to fly. "I was the guinea pig," Nancy wrote. "They decked me out in an all-white flying suit—with goggles—and we went to a flying field in New Jersey to teach me to fly over the weekend." After 12 hours of flight instruction over three days, Nancy soloed. "I said my prayers I'll tell you, but being up there on my own was probably the greatest thrill of my life."
Next up was television, a program called "Woman of Tomorrow," though Nancy didn't like it as much as radio: "You had little or no rehearsal time and you were at the mercy of the director, cameramen, and guests." Guests included Marlene Dietrich, Danny Thomas, Joan Crawford, Bing Crosby—"the list is endless." (At no point in this letter does Nancy mention the birth, or rearing, of her two children during this period.)
After a few years on TV, Nancy ended up at House Beautiful magazine, where she worked for 23 years as a home, kitchen, and appliance editor. "After radio and TV, this job seemed like play," she writes. "There were no daily deadlines—only monthly ones, and there was plenty of time to prepare and improve what you were planning." (Speak for yourself, grandma.) Nancy retired in 1978, though she continued to write a column on microwave cooking for the magazine.
Nancy concluded: "In my spare time, I'm a babysitter for my grandsons Brian (10) and Conor, who is almost two years old. Alice, Kevin [my father], and the youngsters fill my life with a great deal of love and interest, and I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world." The letter is dated September 15, 1980, just a few months before Nancy would die of cancer, though it was undiagnosed at the time of her writing to Mary.
There are the expected types of inheritances—money, objects, real estate—and then the unexpected and wonderful ones, like personal histories of your loved ones.