Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of Her Century

Cary, Lorene

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol
  • Date of entry: Sep-02-2019
  • Last revised: Sep-03-2019


In Ladysitting, novelist and memoirist Lorene Carey writes candidly and reflectively about the year and a half she cared for her century-old, ferociously independent paternal grandmother. The experience became a critical moment for personal and familial discovery. Carey’s intensive caregiving began when Nana Jackson could not be discharged from the hospital to the house where, for decades, she had lived by herself. Growing up, Carey enjoyed enchanted weekends of indulgence in Nana’s sunlit suburban home in South Jersey, a respite from her family’s life in urban West Philadelphia. Partly in gratitude for those weekends, partly from a sense of duty, Carey made physical, emotional, and spiritual space for Nana in the home she shared with her husband, a minister, and their teenage daughter. Along with Carey’s own artistic, community, and professional commitments, she also maintained the property management business that her grandmother ran until her confinement. Carey’s decision to become Nana’s primary caregiver brought momentary satisfactions along with overwhelming frustrations.  

Carey’s narrative agilely transitions between present encounters with Nana Jackson and the past: her own past and her African- and Caribbean-American relations’. By doing so, Carey tries to make sense of the complicated woman in her care, herself, and relationships within her family. She discovered generations of mostly “free-people-of-color,” several financially and politically successful, whose ambitions confronted Reconstruction, the Jim Crow South, the migration north, and the “lynchings [that] made sure that every gain would be paid for in blood and money, if not by [her family], then by other black people, somewhere.” How might that history, Carey asks, help her understand her family’s generations of divorces (including her own), alcoholism, deceptions, estrangements, and the elusive efforts of one generation to build on the accomplishments of the others?   

It took Carey ten years to research and reflect on that question. And then to write, hoping “to clear away the rage, uncover the simple grief, stored in the muscles that seized up then and cannot remember how they were before, and to convince us both, Nana and myself, that she has left this plane. And to forgive.”  


One important contribution that Ladysitting makes to memoirs about caregiving is its rootedness in the black diaspora and its companionate understanding that love and culture complicate each other. Carey’s courage and her balance of inward and outward gazes keep those complications in play. The narrative also captures multiple ambivalence of caregiving. For instance, Carey writes, “Nana’s coming would be another try at saying yes to life. . . or in this case, as if anyone had a choice, saying yes to death.” Because sustaining Nana’s life meant simultaneously attending her death (which she hoped would happen effortlessly as she slept, but did not), the memoir furthermore challenges simple notions of a good death, from either Nana’s or her family’s perspective. Carey also reflects on the complexities of her grief: “I thought I should feel free, but I didn’t. Caretaking chores dropped away, but a fine-milled rage dusted the corners of my grief like the powdery mildew that used to attack Nana’s tea roses. It sent out spores. . . .”  

Lorene Carey is probably best know for her first memoir Black Ice (1992), which insightfully describes her years in an academically rigorous, almost exclusively white boarding school. Her historical fiction The Price of a Child (1995), about a mother’s escape from slavery, was the first One Book, One Philadelphia reading selection. Along with continuing to write while caregiving, Carey sustained her responsibilities to her family, to teaching classes at the University of Pennsylvania, directing Art Sanctuary (a nonprofit she founded to support black artists), and participating in liturgical events with her husband’s congregation. Her artistic accomplishments, her search for community, her desire to teach and learn, and her generosity of spirit, which suffuse Ladysitting, are concentrated in her expressed aspiration for writing this book:  

“I’m writing to find out. I want not to forget, but to recall how the end of my grandmother’s life pulled into focus her hundred and one years on earth, the part we shared as well as the earlier life she brought with her into ours. I want to keep company with other families who have lived through and are living in the intense and demanding time of hospice. We underwent a mash-up of fear and mortality—she was dying, then living again, then, dying—and memory and love.“          


W. W. Norton & Company

Place Published

New York



Page Count