Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs
By Tomie dePaola
Tommy loves his Sunday visits to see his two Nanas. One Nana lives upstairs in bed, because she is ninety four. One day she dies. Tommy rushes to the bed where she once was, only to find it empty. Tommy must come to understand that death means not seeing Nana again, at least as the person he remembers. But, Tommy wonders over a falling star, perhaps Nana Upstairs is not so far off after all.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
Topics like dying, death, and grief, are important, but also difficult to approach with children. Luckily for us, there are books like Nana Upstair & Nana Downstairs which gives a gentle, and reassuring way in to a philosophical discussion about the nature of death. Death is an inevitable, and natural part of life. It is also the part we know the least about, since to date, no one has come back with a description. Yet seek to understand death as best we can. We try to draw parallels to things we can understand. We say things like Tommy's mother says to him, that dead loved ones live on in our memories.
But what is it really to die? And is the notion of surviving death at all even coherent? Many dominant world religions seem to suggest so. In fact, if one is good in life, the story goes, life after death is very pleasant. But as Tommy notices, Nana is gone. So whatever survives death must be quite different from anything we would normally associate with a person. And what of memories? Philosophically speaking, it means something to say that our memories can somehow contain the essence of a life lost. How could a memory store such an essence? Do memories have contents like this? Or is a memory more like a historically informed imagining? Tying the notion of surviving death to memories seems to raise more questions than it answers.
Nevertheless, many seek comfort from grief in such thoughts. Tommy feels comforted by the idea that in seeing the shooting stars, his Nanas are still somehow with him, in more than just memory. His comfort comes not from memories, but from some kind of perception of the essences of his Nanas; that there presence was somehow real, even if not tangible. Philosophically, we may wonder just what the nature of this essence is, and whether we actually perceive them in the way that Tommy believes he perceives his Nanas in the shooting stars.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
Tommy is told that Nana Upstairs has died.
His mother tells him that Nana lives on in his memories.
One day, Tommy realizes that Nana Downstairs has come to be very much like Nana Upstairs.
At the end of the story, Tommy says that both of his Nanas are Nana Upstairs's