“I saw Dean Martin once at a party in Taos,” my Gramma Nancy once said to me. “He definitely checked me out, but I didn’t care for him much.”
I was visiting her in Santa Fe a few years back, and we were drinking tequila at one of her favorite restaurants, Maria’s, swapping stories. I’ll admit I find it fun to name drop the musicians I’ve seen here in Telluride over the years to friends and family in the outside world, but given the age difference between the two of us, I never even bothered with her because her musical tastes didn’t extend past opera and the classics, like Frank Sinatra or Barbra Streisand.
I’ve always been very keen on family stories. Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but I really value family stories from older generations. They only live on if told to the next generation. I had heard many of her stories over the years, but this was a new one. However, it came as no surprise given my grandmother’s fierce independence and sense of humor.
Nancy Hunter Warren, mother of four, grandmother of nine and great-grandmother of three, passed away just before Thanksgiving of 2019. This week, on what would have been her 88th birthday, my dad’s side of the family will gather to celebrate her life and spread her ashes. I was asked if I wanted to speak at her service. I declined as I’d rather not cry in front of a church full of people. I’ll stick to writing about her instead.
At the age of 40, after divorcing my grandad, Nancy went back to college and was taking anthropology classes and doing archeology work for the state of Delaware. She became enamored with New Mexico after researching a well-known Pueblo potter and she flew to Albuquerque to see the Land of Enchantment for herself.
She fell in love with Santa Fe, put an offer on a house on that same trip, and returned to Delaware to move my dad and his younger brother out to New Mexico. It was during this time that she leaned into her passion for photography, and she began working for the Museum of New Mexico’s Laboratory of Archaeology.
My childhood memories of visiting Gramma involve visiting the Santa Fe flea market, pretending I could handle the spice in her green chile stew or fawning over her impressive vintage Native American jewelry collection. Her house was like a museum itself with her amazing antique collection and her stunning black and white photography.
In 1996 she began to lose her vision and eventually became completely blind. As a photographer, her vision was, of course, one of her prized possessions. But she managed to handle this blow with an impressive amount of grace and grit and she lived independently for well over 20 years thanks to support from friends and family in Santa Fe, and through making blind modifications throughout her home and her daily life.
She authored four photo books on New Mexico’s Native American culture and architecture, and in 2017, she self-published her own memoir “Recollections of a Blind Photographer.” She wrote it with the help of two friends who transcribed her artfully crafted sentences and stories she recorded on a handheld recorder.
I read through that book as I wrote her obituary and couldn’t help but laugh when I read this line from her friend: “Above all, we have honored Nancy’s words, as she spoke them, because we love and respect her, and because she was very stubborn about allowing any changes.”
Stubborn and strong-willed, that was our Gramma Nancy.
She once told me she still envisioned me as a little girl when I was talking to her. To make up for not being able to see us, she would seemingly interview my brother and me about our lives every time we visited. It was almost as if by asking us a million and one questions, she was able to paint a picture of who we were in her head. And I would tell her whatever she wanted to know.
It was through these conversations that we transitioned from the traditional role of grandmother and granddaughter to two old friends catching up. And I feel very fortunate to be able to experience that in my lifetime, recognizing that not everyone’s grandparents are alive into your 30s.
Even though our musical tastes were wildly different, we bonded over the way music made us feel. For her it was classical, opera and Frank Sinatra. We would arrive at her home and she’d be on the couch intently listening to opera on satellite radio. Sadly, I never had a chance to ask her, but I wonder if losing her vision helped her gain a deeper appreciation for music. I’m going to make an educated guess that it did.
My uncle used to send her tickets to the Santa Fe symphony every year for Christmas so she could feel the music in the same room as her. And she was a fan of the Santa Fe Opera (but who wouldn’t be with such a beautiful music venue just down the road).
She describes it in her memoir: “I can’t see the performers on stage, but sitting in that open-sided theater and listening to beautiful music while feeling the cold night air blow across me is very special … my favorite composer is [Wilhelm Richard] Wagner, but they don’t do his operas [there] because they are too long.” She goes on to describe one of the other Santa Fe Opera performances where the lead baritone was pure magic (a descriptor I’ve certainly used to explain a moving performance).
I’m still rather unsure of the afterlife, or if it even exists, but I hope for Nancy’s sake that she’s somewhere taking photos again and listening to Wagner in its entirety performed live in the hills above her beloved Santa Fe.