Marcella Novak Crandell 1925-2008
Courtesy Photo

My grandmother had a laugh that rang of discovery.

When something struck her as funny it sounded like she’d had an epiphany, like you had the greatest sense of humor in the world, like she’d never derived so much joy from anything in her life. It was a laugh that lit up her face and brought smiles to those around her. It also was probably one of Marcy’s secret ingredients to her perpetual youth and verve.

Ironically, there seems to be very little that my grandmother hadn’t experienced, despite the revelatory quality of her laughter. With an adventurous spirit and voracious curiosity, my grandmother was willing to try almost anything. She was a Shakespeare scholar, an avid traveler, a consummate mother, a real-life Rosie the Riveter, a dance instructor, a brilliant writer, and a professor of English at UCSB before giving all her attention to her five children.

She told the stories of her life with relish. I remember her relaying how, because she was tall, she played the male parts in beloved Shakespearean productions at Barnard College. I recall her describing, with a giggle, how a creative writing professor called her into his office one day because a fictional story she had written was so realistic he thought she was writing autobiographically about accidentally killing her baby sister as a child. Another time, she sheepishly admitted to having unwittingly welded all of the drain holes closed in a tanker she worked on in the shipyards during WWII, recounting how someone mentioned to her that the drains had to be re-drilled, without suspecting she was responsible for the mistake.

My grandmother was quite literally the master of “making lemonade when given a lemon.” With several overproducing lemon trees in her yard, her culinary skills with citrus were honed to a fine art, resulting in the most delicious lemon curd and lemon meringue pie I’ve ever tasted. She would willingly hand over her recipes for these delicacies but no one could re-create her divine results.

Her prowess in the kitchen was also an integral part of our holiday festivities. Each Christmas, battalions of spicy gingerbread men were produced under her guidance. These edible ornaments, though intended for decorating the tree, were so delectable that they only had about a 50 percent chance of surviving long enough to be tied with a ribbon and hung up. As if by magic, my grandmother always managed to bake enough to satiate everyone’s sweet tooth and still cover the Christmas tree.

My grandmother’s travels took her all across the globe. From visits to Morocco, to boat rides down the Avon in England, to watching dragon boat races in China, she delighted in seeing new places and trying new things. Stories of the trips she had taken became part of family lore. Even her grandchildren can tell the story of how, on her honeymoon, Marcy and her newlywed husband Larry were invited to stay an extra week at their hotel in the Bahamas because their dancing was so exquisite that they merely took a few turns across the floor in the evenings to earn their keep.

More recent journeys frequently claimed Disneyland as their destination, where my grandmother would eagerly await our arrival at the Magic Kingdom with as much giddy expectation as the youngest grand- or great-grandchild. Shorter trips brought her frequently to the Solvang Theaterfest, and to her beloved Butterfly Beach, which lay within walking distance of her house.

My grandmother’s death came suddenly and unexpectedly, while her life was in full stride. Before she died she had plans to go to Belle Story Farm for tea and to the Presidio to watch Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. She also planned to go to Florida in the coming year to watch her daughter Leslie run the Disneyworld Marathon, to England to visit me during my study abroad at Oxford, and I suspect also to visit Hawai’i, one of her favorite haunts, where only a matter of months ago she was snorkeling happily at the age of 83.

An important center of gravity for our family, my grandmother has left us circling around a void that cannot be filled. Whether it’s chancing upon one of her beautifully composed handwritten notes, watching her favorite Shakespeare plays, hearing her favorite Nat King Cole songs, or merely taking an ocean swim she would have loved, we are often reminded that we miss her. But these same moments also bring her back, and help us to see that she is not so far away after all.


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