Rerun: Grandmother

 Hi! I’m out of town for a little while and am running some of my favorite posts, especially from the early days.

Originally published 6-22-11 [Today is the seventh anniversary of her repose. May her memory be eternal!]

She was an only child, doted on by her parents.

She
was a Girl Scout at a time when they really were scouts. She’d tell us
about going camping for two weeks during which time the weather was
mostly rain. They put up tents – not the modern “pop-up” kind, but the
kind that needed some skill. They built a ring of rocks in the creek and
put the butter in a water-tight container in the creek to keep cool.

She
was the secretary of a club in high school that must not have met for
long because there were only three entries in her book. She had
beautiful handwriting.

She
collected buttons. I still have oodles of them and use them only after
careful consideration. I have her button collecting books as well.

I
don’t think she could sew except to put on a button or sew a straight
seam to hem curtains. Her mother, however, made her clothes including an
elaborate pink confection of a prom dress and her beautiful wedding
dress.
She was petite and
looked like a movie star. I wish I had the photograph of her on the
beach in a bathing suit, leaning against the hood of a late-model (for
the time) car. She was a knock-out.

She
was Baptist, but married a Catholic and was a staunch Catholic ever
after. She sang in the choir until Alzheimer’s took that away from her.
Many is the Sunday I can remember sitting in the pew of St. Patrick’s
with a family memorial plate on the end, leafing through a missal with
English on one side and Latin on the other (note to self at time: kyrie
is not pronounced, “KY – ree”). I could hear her beautiful soprano
soaring over the other notes. She sang all the time. When she was busy
with something she’d half sing, half hum to herself. She also liked to
whistle.

She
liked to talk. She enjoyed talking with everyone from the people who
pick up the trash to the parish priest. We were always the last to leave
Mass because she was on the steps talking to the next-to-last person.
Everyone was a friend.

She
was always cheerful when we were around. I’ve been told that for a year
after my grandfather’s death at the untimely age of 58 she withdrew and
wouldn’t talk to anyone. Being only one at the time I don’t remember
this. What I remember is a smiling, energetic woman who was always
happy. When she got annoyed about something she simply couldn’t make it
last.

She had a
green thumb. She loved plants and I think they loved her back. Her yard
was always a paradise to us growing up. I don’t remember any fancy
“landscaping”, just beautiful plants and flowers. Because she owned the
lot across the street which adjoined the bay, she planted there too.
There were no houses to obscure the view of the water from her enclosed
front porch and she liked to see flowers there. Because there was no
faucet, she carried buckets of water across the street to water them
daily. Eventually we had a faucet put in, but she wasn’t able to go over
there much after that. I think she loved wild flowers the best though
and we always brought her bouquets of phlox.

She
was a pack rat. I’ve heard that people who survived the Depression
often saved everything because it might be of some use. She certainly
remembered the Great Depression and her house was stuffed. It was
beautiful, because she loved beauty, but if you opened a closet door you
were likely to get buried under an avalanche. As as child I loved
“rooting around” in cabinets, closets and the attic because it was like
going on a treasure hunt. I wonder if my love to this day of “junk”
stores and thrift stores stems from the joy of unearthing a figurine I
would be allowed to take home to my dollhouse. After she died, it took
forever to clean out her house.

She
was an English teacher and loved it. She loved her pupils, she loved
the literature. Like me, she found Shakespeare funny and I think Tom
Sawyer was her favorite book. “Tom and that poor cat!” she would say
with laughter. She loved to read and also subscribed to a multitude of
magazines. They were always hopelessly piled in multiple corners: by the
large chair that had been my grandfather’s, by the breakfast table, by
the television. I don’t think I ever left her house without taking a
magazine to read on the trip home.

She
was very fashionable and had a closet so full of shoes as to rival
Imelda Marcos. Because she was so tiny, no one else could wear them. She
loved shopping and enjoyed talking to every single sales associate. She
never left the house without makeup and jewelry and she liked her
lipstick red. She had had white hair from a surprisingly young age and
although I’ve seen pictures of a stylish woman with beautifully coiffed
silver hair, my childhood memories of her are with auburn hair. She dyed
it for decades. She had always been so well-groomed that the disheveled
look of Alzheimer’s was a particular pain. There was the Christmas she
was given some new slips and declared that they were so pretty she would
wear them outside her clothes. By then we were afraid she would.

In
her sixties she had a job as the waterfront director at a large summer
camp in North Carolina. She had that job for years. She had been a
strong swimmer in her youth and had awards to prove it. She was in
newsreels and I have never managed to find them. She had been a
lifeguard then as well, and the manuals have her careful notes in the
margins. When she would accompany us to the beach, it was with dire
warnings of “undertow”. We would sometimes squat down in the water so
that it was up to our necks when she wasn’t looking. We would then call
out to her on the beach. “You’re out TOO FAR! Come IN!” she would
holler, with large, expressive gestures. Then we would stand up,
displaying the water level just above our knees and she would laugh and
call us rascals. To this day, “NEVER…SWIM…ALONE!” is the thing I can
best recall her saying.


She
was not “crafty” and was in the perfect position to marvel at our
works. No matter what we made, she called it a wonder, held it up to the
light, turned it around, declared it a work of art, and displayed it
prominently. Since she kept everything (see above), her kitchen
sometimes looked like an art gallery. She always told us “You can do
anything.” Even my husband, then my husband-to-be, remembers her telling him that I could do anything.

She
was brave. One of my early memories involve finding a snake on the dirt
road behind our house and running screaming inside. Grandmother
happened to be visiting and she came out, snatched up a hoe and marched
around the azaleas to the road. She hacked it to death while we watched
in horrified fascination from behind a bush. Nothing was going to hurt
her grandchildren. She survived breast cancer and a radical mastectomy.
She was a survivor.

She loved gatherings. When her daughters were growing up, her
house was the location of the parties and she loved it that way. She
was the perfect hostess and would find any excuse to have someone over.
She was so happy that people wanted to be around her. When we opened the
old record player, put on records from the sixties and danced around
the living room, she would watch and sometimes join in. I tried to
imagine the parties of yesteryear.

She
hated driving and would only drive locally. When she came to visit us
she rode the bus. It got to the point that whenever we passed a
Greyhound bus on the road we all shouted, “There’s Grandmother!” When
she visited she
always
brought a package (or two) of Chips Ahoy cookies. I still associate
those cookies with her. It makes me smile that my son prefers the
old-fashioned crunchy kind, just like her.

She
was frugal, probably another product of the Depression. When we asked
for a paper towel, she carefully tore one into halves or fourths. She
saved plastic bags. She saved milk jugs, but those actually had an
intended purpose. When we stayed at the beach house we filled the jugs
with water from the tap in town and took them out to the beach with us.
We had indoor plumbing out there, and the water was perfectly good for
bathing and washing, but you couldn’t drink it. Filling the jugs was a
Sunday-after-Mass chore since we went to Mass in town.

She
was not mechanical, she said. She couldn’t figure out how things were
put together and how things worked. She didn’t watch television much
after she got a new TV because it didn’t have the clunky dials you
turned to change the channel. She said all of the buttons were
confusing. The day that I had to help her buckle her seat belt when we
were headed out to the store is sharp in my memory. As I buckled it, she
exclaimed, “You are so mechanical!” She was talking about something
that would break on a car and couldn’t remember the name of it. The only
clue was that it was found under the car. I tentatively suggested,
“transmission?” because it was the only part other than the motor that I
had heard of. “YES!” she said, “That’s exactly right! You are so
smart!” I will never know if the transmission was the part referred to
or not. What I do remember is the edge of fear tiptoeing in.

We
knew Grandmother had always been somewhat eccentric. We knew she wasn’t
mechanical. We knew she had always had to search for a word. We knew
lots of things. But what we didn’t know was that she was developing
Alzheimer’s Disease. Her distinct personality hid it for a long time.
One day, we just knew. I saw a paper on a desk with the word
“Alzheimer’s” on it and felt sick. Not Grandmother. But it was.

The
descent was slow at first. Once we recognized it and the doctor
confirmed it, we were able to look back and see the signs as they had
appeared. I have since read that many families of people with
Alzheimer’s are in denial for a long time. We certainly had been. Now
that we knew what we were facing, the old, familiar forgetting of a word
became sickening. I couldn’t meet her eyes at those times. I didn’t
want her to know. I was embarrassed that I knew something about her that
she didn’t. Suddenly I didn’t feel like a child any more.

We
hired help to come in during the day to cook and clean. It worked for a
while but it wasn’t long before we realized she needed more help than
that. We hired a personal aide who would help with hygiene. She refused
to move out of her house, the one she had lived in since her marriage.
She had always been strong-willed and that was one thing that wasn’t
going away. Someone found her lost in town one day after she had gotten
in the car. We took away the keys. I think that was actually a relief to
her. She never had liked driving. But, the worst part was that she
couldn’t go to Mass. I was angry for a long time after finding out that
the local priest had never visited her at home during those few years
to bring her communion.

She
had been on a local environmental board and was still interested in the
issues. My aunt took her to a meeting and she wound up getting up to
speak. She still had moments of “normalcy” and this was one of those
moments. She gave a rousing speech and my aunt was very proud. That was
one of the last of those times.

When
I was a junior in college, the family decided she had to be moved to an
assisted living facility. They were afraid she would burn the house
down and her with it by leaving a burner on again. It was a mercy
someone had come in and found it the one time, but no one wanted to
think about it happening again. A nice one was found in the town where I
had gone to high school, not far from my parents. I remember the call
from my aunt who wanted me to go down with her and my father to move
Grandmother out of her house. I agreed to go, but was afraid of what it
would be like. My aunt inherited the cheerfulness from her mother and I
was good at faking it, so we were the ones who would pack her personal
things and break the news to her. My father went along to drive and to
load up furniture.

We
put on cheer and enthusiasm like costumes. I’m not sure exactly what we
said to Grandmother to tell her we were taking her away from her home,
never to return. I’m sure we didn’t put it that way, but I was too busy
looking busy and cheerful to hear exactly what was said. We turned the
day into a girls’ party, picking out clothes, making outfits, matching
shoes and jewelry. We left Grandmother occupied with some small task
that would keep her out of the way and went through the house, picking
out small-scale furniture to take with us. We picked out some ornaments.
We kept chattering, not talking about the elephant in the room. I kept
telling myself I could cry later, but now I had a job to do.

Unbelievably,
we managed it and made the trip up to the assisted living facility. We
stopped just before we got there and my aunt ran in a store to get a
bottle of wine. After we unloaded Grandmother, her furniture and
luggage, and arranged all of her things, my aunt gave the bottle of wine
to the director with the instructions that Grandmother was to have a
glass of wine every night with dinner. We had a doctor’s approval
already and the lady smilingly said that she would make sure it was
done.

Grandmother
came to like the facility. There were lots of people there and she had
always been good at making friends. We found out that families decorated
the residents’ doors for various holidays and that there were contests.
You have never seen a more Christmasy door in your life. We left
“tasteful” behind in the dust. I remember the grim determination with
which my sister and I decorated that door. It had to be the
best. Nothing less for our grandmother.

Over
the years she gradually continued her descent, “unlearning” everything.
My family came frequently to see her, to wash her hair (she wouldn’t
let anyone else do it), and to adjust her wardrobe as she slowly lost
weight. My youngest sister visited in her prom dress with her friends
the night of prom. When I was married, we hired an aide from the
facility to be Grandmother’s caretaker so my mother would be freed up as
the mother of the bride. She was impeccably dressed, hair and makeup
done (courtesy of my aunt) and the aide was dressed up too so it
wouldn’t be obvious. She cried buckets when she saw me in my dress. I
was thankful she was able to be there and I suspected it might be the
last one for her.

It
became too difficult to dye her hair so the beautician suggested
gradually dying it lighter shades and then letting it go natural. She
had white hair after that and suddenly looked older. She became
increasingly belligerent and sometimes combative. She fell one day while
trying to hit an aide who was trying to help her in the bath. Her hip
was broken. She spent time in the hospital after surgery to fix it. My
father had begged me to come for a visit solely to distract my mother
who was distraught at what happened. I stayed for several days and I
took my two-month-old daughter to visit her in the hospital.

It
became obvious that although the staff at the assisted living facility
loved Grandmother, and had broken rules to allow her to stay despite her
increasing incontinence and needs, it was time to find another place.
This time she moved into a nursing home in a different state, closer to
my aunt. She moved again to another one not too long after and in this
last one she found her final home.

I
visited her in this facility while I was expecting my second daughter.
We saw her on the way back from a trip down South to see family while we
were in seminary. I knew she would be different and I was right. She
didn’t recognize me and wasn’t able to put too many words together. She
was wheelchair bound and wore a bib at meals. She loved my
fifteen-month-old daughter even though she didn’t know who she was.

That
was the last time I saw Grandmother. That Christmas I didn’t know what
to send her. I finally decided on a baby doll. I bought one and dressed
it in real baby clothes, handed down from my daughters. I anointed it
with baby powder to give it a “real baby smell”, and wrapped it in a
blanket. My aunt reported that Grandmother loved the doll (she always
had liked dolls, come to think of it) and had it on her bed. Somehow, as
childish a gift as it was, I felt better about sending something she
might notice and appreciate, rather than something practical that she
wouldn’t understand. I’ve always been glad that I did.
We
moved across the country, twice, and during that time Grandmother held
on. Except for the cancer she had always been very healthy and it looked
like it was the Alzheimer’s rather than anything else that was going to
take her. I secretly wished she’d have a massive heart attack at night
that would relieve her sufferings. The only medications she was on were
one for Alzheimer’s and one for her hypothyroidism. She was too healthy.

When
my oldest son was a baby we were living back in the South and
Grandmother started a steep decline. She would be worse, then better,
then worse… She stopped eating. We made the decision that if she
refused food and liquid that we were not going to force anything. There
would be no tubes. She did have a catheter by now since she was entirely
bed-bound, but that was a comfort measure. She developed congestion. We
suspected she was slowly aspirating her own saliva and would develop
pneumonia. Family started keeping a vigil. The days and weeks dragged
on.

I
was supposed to attend a conference in south Florida but the hotel was
heavily damaged in a hurricane two days before I was supposed to fly
down. I had already been scheduled out of the rotations at the hospital
so I actually had unavoidable time off. We decided to pack and drive up
to Holy Protection monastery in PA the next day. My aunt called. She
said that she had been watching by Grandmother’s bed and that she
thought her breathing sounded different. She wanted my opinion. She held
the phone over to Grandmother’s mouth for several long moments. I could
hear her slow, congested breaths. I knew I was hearing them for the
last time. I whispered through tears, “I love you, Grandmother.”

She died the next day.

We
were in the van, driving through TN and it abruptly occurred to me that
I had not turned my cell phone on. I suddenly felt strongly that my
mother might call about Grandmother. I hurriedly turned my phone on,
explaining to my husband. Five minutes later the phone rang.
“Grandmother is in Heaven now,” my mother said. I asked when she had
died. “Just a few minutes ago.” I thanked her and after another minute
we hung up. I had known.

Alzheimer’s robbed me of the chance to give my Grandmother to my children. What I can
give them are stories. There are ancestors of mine that I only know
through stories. The maiden aunt I was named for died at the age of 96
when I was two, but I feel like I knew her through the stories I was
told. I hope that some of these memories will give my children their
great-grandmother.

2 thoughts on “Rerun: Grandmother

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s