By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
My first Christmas without Nana
12348113 10207806883277267 8091415296962277357 n
Oneta Dodd with grandson Jeff Benziger circa 1964. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

For the first time in my 54 years, a very special woman won't be at our family Christmas gathering.

My grandmother, my mom's mother, passed away 11 days ago. She was 96 and lived a long and fruitful life.

She wasn't just a grandmother. Oneta Dodd was my Nana, a pillar in my life.

She helped teach me to be a better person, much about God, and how to treat others. I watched as she served others. You could say she lived a righteous life, which I suppose sounds too ethereal. Maybe it could be better said that she tried her best to live the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." If that sounds too churchy, try "Treat others the way you want to be treated."

Nana didn't use foul language, didn't drink and never indulged in extravagant things like cruises or travel out of the U.S. She visited Disneyland only once. She loved to fish. She loved to grow things from the ground. She loved to sing and she loved country and gospel music. She loved to tell others about Jesus. She knew how to laugh and smile. She had this silly foot shuffle that she called a "jig" which I captured once on videotape as she stood at the northern end of the Knights Ferry covered bridge. I have got to find it.

Hers was a hard life. Born in Oklahoma in 1919 to a dirt-poor family, the only way the kids knew it was Christmas was the smell of oranges - their only gift. Imagine any child today being happy with a piece of fruit which they routinely get on a lunch tray. She told me that at times she'd have to eat banana - peelings and all - for sustenance at lunch.

When her mother was committed in October 1936 to a mental institution for three years stay, my 17-year-old Nana was forced to drop school as a junior to take care of her year-old baby sister. She raised Alice by default of being the oldest and only female child in the family while her dad worked the fields. One of the saddest things I heard out of her mouth was that her father never said he loved her. But as she said, "I can't help what's happened in the past ... but I just try to let it go."

Nana regretted not graduating with her classmates and she longed to go back and earn her diploma. She died without one.

She died without a lot of things but one that she enjoyed in ample supply was love. She loved people and people loved her.

She met Chester Dodd, a strapping young man with movie star handsomeness. He was attracted to her looks and her maturity. She was beautiful, poised. My grandparents married on Dec. 7, 1939. He worked a cattle ranch to support her. It was so cold one winter that cattle froze to death standing up. They were so poor that first year that they'd make soups out of nothing. That first year was very hard but it was also the best of her life she told me in tears. Out of adversity and trial their love blossomed.

My mother came along in 1940.

Nana and Granddaddy moved to a rented house on Newton Avenue in Oakland. With World War II in full swing, he found work in the naval shipbuilding yards. In 1944 they settled in Merced County for life.

Roy came along in 1943, Carl in 1945 and Donald in 1949.
Uncle Carl would return from Vietnam shot up and wounded in body and psyche. When he died in 2005 he took a big piece of my grandfather who began to fail. Chester Dodd spent the last two years of his life at Elness Convalescent Hospital in Turlock. When he passed away in 2007, Nana continued living in their home by herself. She'd shuffle around with the aid of a walker. My grandfather gone, their neglected yard slowly became overgrown and then killed off by the drought. She stubbornly refused any attempt to convince her to sell and move into a retirement facility. To her, there was only one home and she was in it.

On Oct. 24 we gathered for a birthday party at her favorite eating place, Hometown Buffet in Turlock, to celebrate her 96th. Nana was strong, a bit hard of hearing, but we had no idea it would be our last gathering with her. She had only 50 more days to live.

The night of Nov. 13, Nana slid off the bed and onto the floor. Too weak to pull herself up, and because she had not taken my advice to carry her cell phone on her, she spent the night on the cold floor after failed attempts to pull her bed spread on top of her. When my Uncle Roy came to check on her the next morning, she was calling his name. She went to the hospital later that day, never to come home again.

For a woman who had never been in a hospital in her life, she went very fast. Confusion and dementia rapidly clouded her mind and she couldn't understand why she was in the hospital. Her heart was failing.

Memories flooded my mind as I held her hand, covered by tissue-thin skin that bore dark blotches. Those very hands searched to find the face of her first grandson in blankets as my parents arrived at Fort Mason in San Francisco aboard a Navy ship after my birth in Japan. Those hands must have changed thousands of diapers in the family. Those hands applied gobs of Vick's salve to my chest during colds. She buried her face in those hands upon hearing that her granddaughter, my 10-year-old cousin Sandra, died of leukemia in 1975. I saw those hands take fish hooks and cuts from paring knives. Her hands would cruelly slit a rabbit's throat and ring the necks of chicken for meals but lovingly patted the faces of ones dear to her, especially the children. She loved children but those hands also spanked bottoms when need be. They touched people she prayed over them and cooked thousands of meals.

On one occasion her hands carried out a devious plot to "attack" an impending train robber aboard the Knott's Berry Farm train. She stealthily crouched down behind a seat and when the pretend gunman walked up with his Colt .45 she jammed a wooden toothpick through his denim. She was breathlessly laughing, as silly as a 12-year-old, after he let out a yelp.

Those hands also protected, like during the time she was driving my brothers and me to their home. As we passed through the intersection of Geer Road and Whitmore Avenue, a big-rig barrelled through the intersection to make a left in front of us, its wheels coming off the ground and tipping toward our car. She slammed on the brake and threw her right arm outward to guard us kids in the front seat. She credits God for stopping that truck from smashing us like bugs.

She never stopped smiling. She never stopped trusting. She never lost hope.

"Jesus loves you" she'd tell those she encountered. "Trust in the Lord" was another phrase.

I visited her in the hospital after work and helped feed her when the dinner tray arrived. I had to tell her what she was eating. Eventually she ate less and less. I'd tell her I had to go home and she thanked me for coming and, in an emotional moment of fear about her new surroundings, told me, "God bless you, Jeffery." I suppose my visits settled her unsettledness.

I said numerous final goodbyes to her in the last weeks, not knowing if she'd survive each night. Many times I'd walk in and she'd be in a coma-like sleep and before I left on a four-day trip to Vegas I stopped by and couldn't wake her. I cried walking out not expecting her to be alive when I got back.

No visiting on Dec. 7, her anniversary. She was hard asleep.

The night of Tuesday, Dec. 8, Nana was wide awake and eager to talk but slightly confused in one moment and clear in the next. Her old loving personality was back and she was smiling but also vacant. She agreed to record a video message my son in Texas which I posted on Facebook. It would be our last conversation. It was the last time I'd gaze into her eyes.

The next two nights she couldn't be roused. Dr. Arakelian, whom she watched growing up, sensed her time was short. Her breathing was labored and her blood pressure was faint. I went to see her twice the day before she died. She didn't acknowledge my presence but I leaned over and told her that I would see her again, some day. Promise.

Her mind and spirit seemed to have moved on. I watched her try lifting her hands upward, maybe to participate in a dance or embrace another in the next world that I could not see. Her lips tried to form words but nothing but a slight mumble came out. She may have been trying to return the words she heard a lot that day, "I love you."

Nana went home Saturday evening, Dec. 12. Her heart gave out after beating an estimated four trillion times since Woodrow Wilson was president.

I'm sad but oh so very grateful that I was blessed to be her grandson.

Everyone should have a Nana like I had.


How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at