So something really scary and awful happened this past Sunday: my grandparents were in a car accident. My grandfather is thankfully fine, but my grandmother has two lumbar fractures, and a mighty sore hip. But even so, they were very lucky.

One might be tempted to worry about an injured grandmother. The very word tends to conjure images of delicate older ladies. Classy and elegant she may be, but delicate? No way. Not my Nanny Jo. We are more worried, I think, for my grandfather, who has doubtless been instructed by physicians to keep his virago of a wife in bed. It’s going to be an impossible job.

In any case, there’s nothing like a good scare to make you appreciate what you have, right? I hope that my Nanny Jo knows how much I love and appreciate her presence and influence in my life, but it’s always a good idea to make sure she does.

When I was born, JoAnn was 41 years old. Far too young, by her own admission to be called “grandmother.” Ugh. So she was christened Nanny Jo, and thus she has remained. My earliest memories of this lady are when she came to stay with us in Alabama, where I followed her around like a lovesick puppy, giggling like mad at every profanity she dropped while working away at her sewing machine. Nanny Jo made things. She was a wizard, who could create anything you could think of out of a swath of lovely fabric and thin air. She had, only six or so years before, sewed up my mom’s wedding dress:


Here modeled on a mannequin who is not as pretty as my mama.

The wonders that poured forth from the sewing machine of my Nanny Jo never ceased: Barbie clothes, princess dresses, witch costumes, anything my childish imagination could conjure would soon arrive at my house by post, wreathed in tissue paper and the faintest whiff of China Musk. When I was four, and we’d moved back to Kentucky, my Nanny Jo came to take me trick-or-treating as a little green-faced Wicked Witch of the West (my favorite character of the moment). She was the Bride of Dracula:


Nanny Jo doesn’t do things by halves.

About a year later, I got a sewing machine of my very own:


I think I still make that same face when sewing.

I would hoard the leftover scraps from her projects to make little bags and ill-fitting Barbie “robes.” I was entranced by sewing, but was never that good at it. Luckily, there were other crafts my Nanny Jo could teach me that were much more up my alley: crochet, cross-stitch, cooking (also highly aided/encouraged by my mom)… my Nanny Jo was always happy to pass along her crafty knowledge. Sometimes, like when she planted me and my cousin Jesi in sewing camp, she perhaps pushed the issue a little more than we liked. Hey, 7 am is early when you’re a kid and school is out!

My Nanny Jo is one of those people who excels at pretty much anything she puts her mind to. When she and my grandfather moved into an historic apartment house in a run-down part of town, she made it her mission to turn the dirty, broken yards into things of beauty:


The front yard’s got nothing on the back. Just for scale.

And nothing we saw on the yearly garden tours could rival her own. When Mom and I moved, I uncovered even more of her handiwork, from when my mom and aunt were in high school, and certain folk/rock singers were kind of a big deal:


Yes, that is a hand-embroidered Jim Croce on a jean jacket.

And she never rests on her laurels, either. Sometimes, you have to take on new challenges. Like millinery:


Should have hired out her talents for the Royal Wedding. Hats would have been less ridiculous, more awesome.

So after working for a nurse for ages, my Nanny Jo is “retired,” and does a booming business in wedding alterations, which she loves. And as I’ve grown older, my love, appreciation, and dedication to handcrafts has only grown. The things my Nanny Jo has taught me, and the things I was inspired to go out and learn because of her, are some of the biggest and most satisfying parts of my life. Thrift, good housekeeping, and an appreciation for fine detail are all gifts she passed down through her generations of daughters. We all—my mom, my aunt, my cousins—have taken from her legacy the parts that speak most strongly to us, but we all owe a large piece of who and what we are to this talented, crazy, wonderful, and energetic lady. So the next time I post some finished knitted item or recipe or a poem of longing to my sewing machine, spare a thought for the woman who inspires me.

And as soon as you can, go hug the Nanny Jo of your life.