Nfld. & Labrador·First Person

Nanny was born in one pandemic, died in another, and taught me so many things

Born in St. John's in 1920, Emily Finlay set an example of strength and perseverance — living through economic depression, world war, cancer and the deaths of loved ones. In a First Person column, her granddaughter says she remained grateful for what she had.

She lived through wars, depressions, the deaths of loved ones — and always remained grateful for what she had

Sara Ditta with her grandmother, Emily Finlay. (Submitted by Sara Ditta )

My grandmother was born during one pandemic and — at the age of 100 — died during another. Known as Nanny to her grandchildren, she left behind many lessons after a century of life.

Born in St. John's in 1920, Emily Finlay set an example of strength and perseverance — living through economic depression, world war, cancer and the losses of her husband and her 10 siblings.

Through it all, she remained grateful for what she had, always thanking those who cared for her even in her final days when she didn't speak much at all.

Nanny was fiercely devoted to her family. She was the first to offer a helping hand and could be counted on to be there when needed. While she had an easy smile, it could quickly turn if she caught you crossing someone she loved.

To me, the most potent lesson Nanny left behind was on the power of paying attention to the movement of time — to embrace it rather than fear it passing by, and to appreciate when time may move in unexpected ways.

A wonderful wink across the table

I couldn't help but feel special as a kid when Nanny winked at me across the dinner table or sneaked me a treat when my parents weren't paying attention.

The best treat was to stay up late. On one occasion when she babysat me as a kid, Nanny let me stay up well past my bedtime and watch TV with her. The two of us drank tea, ate shortbread cookies and watched Shirley Temple sing and dance for hours.

Finlay, born in St. John's in 1920, died last year. Ditta says her grandmother taught her many lessons about how to live. (Submitted by Sara Ditta)

Whether it was the rule-breaking or a sugar high, I was buzzing the entire time. I saw parts of the night I hadn't known existed before that point. When I woke the next day, it felt like the night before had lasted weeks.

I later told Nanny about the phenomenon, whispering it to her like a secret confession. Nanny, of course, had the answer. She explained how time can move in strange ways, especially moments shared with loved ones. She told me to give special attention to moments that feel like magic.

As the world has grappled with a pandemic for more than a year, it has been much less delightful when the movement of time has seemed erratic.

It was early in the pandemic when Nanny caught COVID-19 at her long-term care home. Time slowed to a crawl as my family waited for even the smallest updates on how well she was breathing or how much she was eating.

What we had intended to be a gathering of family from across the continent last April to celebrate her 100th birthday turned into a video call. Nanny was surrounded by balloons, cards and flowers — she even had birthday greetings from the prime minister and Queen by her bedside — but she couldn't get a hug from her family.

We did our best to make up for it by yelling into our devices how much we loved her and cheering at anything that resembled a smile.

Sitting together in silence

When I last saw Nanny days before she died in late May 2020, it was through a face shield. I held her hand with my gloved hand and, after telling her how much she meant to me, I sat with her in silence. I measured time by the rise and fall of her chest.

Nanny had been a constant in my life. Even when she didn't speak often in more recent years, she would still wink at me from across the room and it left me as reassured as I was as a child — like we shared a secret that only the two of us could possibly understand.

Finlay, in the middle, poses with her sisters in a family photograph taken in St. John's. (Submitted by Sara Ditta )

Nanny would light up when talking about events that had happened many decades earlier. They often involved stories about her childhood in St. John's.

She would speak fondly about horses her father had owned or even an argument she'd had with a sibling. Sometimes she weaved together stories from the past with the present day, as if the events were happening right in front of her while she retold the tale.

I watched her travel through time in real time. It made me see how moments with loved ones from the distant past could feel as near as if they just happened if we let them. It became clearer why it was important to give extra attention to certain moments as they happened — it makes it easier to travel back to them.

Breaking the rules of time

When time has shifted from moving at a constant and relentless pace, when it has revealed itself to be malleable, I have had some of the most vivid experiences of my life. While these moments outside time are difficult in some instances, they are also a common thread in some of my favourite memories — such as late-night conversations with my closest friends or wandering around the city aimlessly with a partner.

But none stand out in my mind as clearly as the night I first broke the rules of time with Nanny.

Finlay with her granddaughter, Sara. (Submitted by Sara Ditta)

I still sometimes travel back to that night at my grandparents' house where they settled in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. — in the basement with the white leather sofas, the smell of smoke from my grandfather's pipe in the air and the songs of Shirley Temple — and remind myself what I learned from Nanny.

The pandemic has continued to rage as the anniversary of Nanny's death draws near.

The lessons I learned from her have helped me through some of the tougher moments of living through a global pandemic, to still find some magic within the mayhem.

It is not as easy as it once was to spend time with all the people I care about, but when I do, I make sure to take notice and stay in those moments — no matter how fast or slow they may be moving — thanks to Nanny.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Sara Ditta


Sara Ditta lives in Toronto and works in public policy.

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