Little Orphan Annie and My Grandmother

When I was seven years old, I was OBSESSED with “Annie.” My grandmother, Mary Byrnes Collins, introduced me to the Broadway record, and I was never the same. “Annie” was my love, my life. I hadn’t seen the play or the movie, but that was neither here nor there. Something in me was always incredibly drawn to orphans. Those without a home, who had nowhere stationary to place their love, so they had no choice but to go through life embracing all that was around them. Never taking love, or anything really, for granted. Appreciating the spirit and grandeur of the smallest things in life that most people didn’t know how to.

I was not a spoiled child. Everyone I knew and everything I owned was special to me, no exceptions. Including — especially — my Annie ring. It was a cheap, gold-ish ring in the shape of the cartoon Annie’s head. I don’t remember who gave it to me, or when or where, but I do remember wearing it with immense pride and immense love. It was my most prized and beloved possession. My physical bond to all the things inside me I didn’t know how to vocalize — triumph of spirit, love through loss. Beauty through the D(d)epression.

In the summer of ’82, Robb and I spent a week with my grandparents at Hewlett’s Landing in Lake George. It was the summer home that my mother’s parents had had since my mother and her siblings were little. We’d “used” it for weeks here and there when my grandparents were elsewhere. This was the first time my brother and I stayed with just my grandparents, because my dad had a business trip somewhere.

It was great. My mom’s parents were totally different from my dad’s parents, who were uber-warm and mushy. My mom’s parents were chill and to many kids, seemingly cold in comparison, but even though I was young, I knew that my mom’s parents were mad cool. They didn’t need to bake me cookies and shower me with accolades. It was amazing that they taught me that both men and women could play sports, and that Miracle Whip and celery turned tuna fish into a delicacy. They rocked, and the week that I spent in Lake George with just them? Was great.

So I was happy, hanging with them, and never was I happier when I was a child than when I was immersed in water, especially Lake George. This One Day in the lake was no exception. I was next to the docks, doing I don’t know what. Living in my imagination. Wondering, as I did with every visit, exactly how long it would take to swim out to the island that seemed so close, but was too far to swim, and blocked by a Frogger-esque motorway of boats. I wondered how I could get out there, but was also completely content just floating, and imagining, and really having one of those Perfect Summer Moments, when you’re a kid, and all that matters is the sun and the water and the possibilities.

Until my Annie ring slipped off of my finger, out of nowhere.

Now, I had worn this ring since I’d received it, obviously. In the bath, the shower, the Warnos’ awesome pool — this ring was a PART of me. It seemed safe to wear in the lake, or I’d never have worn it there.

And I’ve always anthropomorphized things, which when mixed with deep abandonment issues…well, let’s just say that losing my Annie ring was intense, and unacceptable along the lines of when you see overinvested “Grey’s Anatomy” people giving desperate CPR to certain patients, because…dude is gone.

But this was different. This was my Annie ring.

I spent the entire day diving down for my ring. It is one of my most vivid memories. I was a total fish in the water anyway, it wasn’t a sacrifice or a test of stamina, it was just what needed to be done. Down, up, down, up…

…no ring.

And my grandparents were incredible. Here is where it mattered the most that they weren’t worrisome cookie-baking grandparents. Here is where they walked out onto the dock, said, “What’s wrong?” and I told them, and they, despite being tremendous creatures of habit and probably wanting to go inside and relax, understood that this was ANNIE, and just let me do my thing. I couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t.

I don’t remember when exactly I did let it go, the ring. I can still feel my water breaths, and the desperation with which I refused to let the Annie ring go without a fight. Not because I needed a ring on my finger, but because I was not about to leave this thing that I loved the most, in the lake I loved the most, to travel out to that island without me.

But I did. It did. And that was the day that I learned to let things that I love go. At some point, I had to tear myself out of the water and realize that I’d done everything I could.

That same year, in November 1982, I went to the city with my mother and Nanny Collins. The party line towed by my mother was that Nanny’s Christmas present was “in the city,” and we had to go to my mom’s job (also in the city) to pick it up.

Sure ’nuff. I LOVED the city! And if getting a sweater or something meant a trip there, then awesome! My grandmother was never one for the warm and fuzzy emotional presents; it was more like “Here’s a perfunctory gift, enjoy,” and it was all good.

On our way towards my mom’s office, the three of us started passing the Uris Theatre in Manhattan. Home of “Annie.”

Home. Of “Annie.”

This was even before I acted, but dude! Black and white shots of the orphans and”ANNIE” emblazoned on the marquis? I was enamored. I was transported. I was filled with the all-too-familiar sensation of yearning for something incredible. I stood there in the cold, knowing that many people would go inside, but no one would appreciate it the way that I would.

It didn’t matter though, honestly. All that mattered was that I was THERE. Magical!

“Just think, Judith,” my mother was saying. “All of the actors are in the dressing rooms right now, just waiting to go onstage…”

“Yeahhhhh,” I breathed, used, as a financially challenged child, to knowing other kids would reap the wonders of the world that I could only imagine.

And that was it. I was satisfied just to stand there, and behold.

And then my grandmother, Nanny Collins, piped up.

“Judith,” she drew out in her unique voice, “…Would you like to see Annie?”

WHAT!

WHAT!!

WHAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

THAT was my grandmother’s present in the city — a dream come true! She’d watched me mesmerized, listening to the soundtrack. She had witnessed me dive all day long just to get back the ring.

And now, she was telling me that we could go inside, and see what was, to me, the equivalent of magic in real life.

It was my first Broadway play, and it was unequivocally perfect. There are no words to describe what that night meant to me. Except that there were three generations of Collins women sitting together in the Mezzanine, because one seven-year-old girl loved Annie. It was the best night of my life for a very long time.

Then, on August 23, 2003, my awesome grandmother, Mary Byrnes Collins, died unexpectedly.

She was the last one we expected to let go of at this point. She was the one who would have been annoyed by tears, and sentimentalities, and platitudes. She was the one who would have wanted to out-live everyone.

The day of her funeral, her family and friends who remained, went to the church and all the proceedings. I saw her buried on the hill in Lake George, while my grandfather said goodbye to her, to the mountains around her, to Lake George itself, as he sold the summer home the next year before beginning a new life for himself in a new town.

It was beautiful. And I think it — all of it — would be exactly what my grandmother, Nanny Collins, would have wanted if she had to leave this party first.

There was a moment that day — one of those most perfect of moments that can only be experienced in times of utter loss — when I walked straight out into the lake, because I could barely deal with all of it. I couldn’t bear that she was gone, and I just wanted to be immersed in water, in her memory, in a place that had always made everything feel okay for a little while.

I just lay there, floating on top of the lake. In the spot where I lost my ring, where I wondered about the island out there. Was it awesome, once you finally got there?

I really hope so.

~ June 19, 2007

(Repost on August 23, 2011 — it’s been eight years to the date. Miss you Nanny, I hope you and Pop Pop have reunited <3)

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6 Responses to Little Orphan Annie and My Grandmother

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