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 involves 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.