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Reading with ‘Meme’ makes this Christmas special

By Susan Shinn

For the Salisbury Post

When you have three young daughters, bedtime is typically a pretty lively affair. Tonight’s excitement level is even more so with the presence of visitors at Michael and Lauren Wetter’s home.

But what makes tonight extra special is that Nancy Penley — otherwise known as Meme — is here to read to Cameron, 5, Sutton, 2, and Brynn, 5 months.

“We’re more like sisters than anything,” says good friend Jane Britt. “We taught together and raised our children together. I did this last year, and I was determined she was going to have that this year.”

What Jane did was to wrap 24 books in bright Christmas paper, adding a label for each night. She even bought and wrapped books for Nancy and made the labels.

Tonight’s label reads, “December 10th. Love, Meme.”

Even though it’s Cameron’s turn to open the book tonight — she and Sutton take turns — she graciously agrees to let Sutton help. Because, well, Sutton is 2.

“I’m going to open mine tomorrow,” Sutton announces.

“These are how many we’ve gotten,” says Cameron, lugging a pile of books — Christmas and otherwise — and plopping them on the ottoman.

Meanwhile, Michael and Lauren are trying to convince Sutton to put away her pacifier since company’s here.

“Do you want me to put it in my pocket?” Nancy asks, and the child hands it right over.

The whole family is enchanted by the growing book collection.

“If you hit this button and wait, then all of a sudden the Northern Lights come on,” Michael says of one selection, called “Nighty-Night, North Pole.” “It’s pretty cool when you’re not expecting it.”

Michael and Lauren take turns holding Brynn before passing her over to Meme. They wonder if Brynn might need a diaper change.

“She might have a present for us, too!” Lauren says, but nope, Brynn is good to go for the time being.

All of the girls are dressed in darling red, green and white pajamas. Each says “Santa’s helper.” As you might guess, they’re compliments of Meme.

“She has kept them clothed,” Lauren says. “Everything cute they have on…”

“Is from the Meme!” Cameron pipes in.

The girls discover that tonight’s selection is called “Uncles and Antlers.” This is appropriate because they love their Uncle Brad, who also lives in Salisbury. Lauren also has an older sister, Elizabeth, who lives in Wilmington.

Brynn happily sits on Meme’s lap, taking in every word. Sutton is more interested in getting back her passy, which Meme discreetly slips to her. Sutton’s now satisfied, and before long, Cameron takes over the reading. She’s one of three kids in her kindergarten class who’s reading. She’s good at it.

After a few minutes, Meme switches from a chair beside the Christmas tree to the sofa, so the two older girls can sit beside her.

“That was a good book,” Cameron says, when they finish reading.

Cameron loves for her Meme to read with her, but they like doing other things together, too, she says. “We go to plays and movies. We’ve seen ‘The Magic School Bus’ and ‘The Magic Tree House.’ We’ve seen ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘The Little Mermaid.’ And we’ve seen ‘The Nutcracker,’ and we’re going again next weekend. And this week, we’re going to see, ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.’”

As much as Cameron loves going places with Meme, she loves her kisses even more.

“She puts a kiss on my forehead when she leaves,” Cameron says.

And not just any kiss. A kiss with Revlon’s Rose Velvet — and plenty of it.

“I gave her a kiss one night,” Nancy explains, “and she went upstairs and came back down and said, ‘Meme, my kiss came off when I drank water!’”

Meme knew how to fix that. She layered on some lipstick, kissed her forehead, and made sure Cameron knew that kiss was there to stay.

“Now, every time I come over, it’s a kiss on the forehead,” Nancy says.

She happily demonstrates by giving Cameron a kiss.

“Do you want one?” she asks Sutton, and of course, Sutton does. She obediently takes out her passy to receive it.

Nancy doesn’t leave out Brynn, either.

“At least they can say somebody’s kissed them today,” Nancy says with a smile, although it’s evident there are plenty of kisses to go around in this sweet household.

“I’m so thankful to Jane for getting me going this Christmas,” Nancy says.

“It’s been a great thing for her to be able to leave them that memory,” Jane says.

Before the girls go upstairs for bedtime, Cameron and Sutton talk about what they want for Christmas. Cameron wants a karaoke machine, a My Little Pony Play-Doh kit, and a necklace. Similarly, Sutton wants a necklace, a bracelet, and a Princess Sophia Play-Doh kit.

Then it’s Nancy’s turn.

“I want time,” she says. “I want more time. Only God knows when he’ll take me, but I just want some more time.”

At age 28, she had breast cancer. She fought it successfully twice before recently being diagnosed with lung cancer. Her doctor has told her she might not make it until Christmas.

“At first, that made me depressed,” says Nancy, who’s 63. “But one morning I woke up and thought, well this is crazy. By golly, no doctor’s gonna tell me when my time is up. My pastor, Jim Dunkin, told me I could live each day I have left like it’s my first day or my last day — but to live every day. So that’s what I’m doing.”

She’s hopeful she might be accepted into a clinical trial at Duke. But for the moment, she’s going over to granddaughters’ house every night, opening a book, and reading.

“Being a grandparent is the best thing,” she says. “No one can tell you — you just have to experience it, and I love it.”

Lauren says that she and Cameron have talked about the fact that Meme may be going to heaven soon.

“She’s excited that Meme is going to be with Jesus and my dad,” Lauren says. “But I don’t think she grasps the fact that Meme won’t be here. Her little heart is very tender. My heart hurts for her.”

Lauren’s heart hurts, too.

“Any time I can spend with my mom is so special to me,” she says. “I’ve had to tell myself she’s still alive and not to smother her, but I just want to spend every second with her. She’s such an amazing woman. It’s just not fair.”

She is amazing, and it’s not fair.

So before we leave, I can’t help it: I ask Nancy for a kiss. She smiles and puts on more lipstick. When I get home, I look in the mirror, and see Meme’s kiss on my forehead. I do not wash it off before bedtime. It will stay there a long time.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.

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