Tuesday, May 11, 2010

When I was really young...

My sister and I had a Great-Grandmother.  She was old when my sister was born, by the time I came around she was ancient.  We called her 'Nana.'

Nana used to watch me when my mother had to work and there was no one else available.  She lived with us so it was horribly convenient.   What no one realized at the time was that Nana was slowly losing her mind to fatty deposits collecting in her ancient arteries.  When she left ironing and wandered away to another chore, only to leave the next unfinished as well, it was taken for granted that she was, after all, one of us, and for us that behaviour was not in the least strange.

We had a thing about reptiles.  Not into them at all. If it's not furry and cute it doesn't belong in our lives.  My sister had begun calling me a lizard long before I was born.  Apparently that tidbit of information made it through Nana's hardened arteries and stuck in her frontal lobe;  like a piece of gum under a chair.

Eventually I learned that if I got out little plastic toys resembling lizards (OK, I had a lot, evidently the Lizard thing was an immense source of amusement), Nana would roll up her morning newspaper and chase me around the house with it.   Years later my mother would speak of the devastation caused by the build up of plaque in Nana's arteries, but being unable to look at anything without some humor attached, she would add, " We finally figured out why  we'd always find you hiding in the closet."  

By the time of that discovery, Nana had also begun lighting matches all over the house each time she'd pass gas.  Hey, it works, burns off the odor, but one has to remember to put the matches out, and Nana wasn't. My mother would arrive home and follow the trail of burnt wooden matches to find Nana.  In the end, when her heart finally hurt more out of fear than it hurt for Nana's lost mind, she decided Nana would have to go to The Home.

It was a quaint home for old folks, three blocks, or a one minute bike ride, from our house.  Having made all the arrangements, Mother got us together and took the last pictures of Nana at home.   The one that made everyone laugh is of Nana sitting on the coffee table looking confused, her sensible shoes evident, and me sitting as far away as I had been able to get, looking away, like a cat.  If I couldn't see her, she wasn't there.  One never knew if she had that rolled newspaper in her apron pocket.

Our mother cried when she packed the suitcase with the floral dresses Nana was so fond of. Pretty, v-necked dresses with rhinestone buttons down the front.  Nana sat in the chair she had brought from my grandmother's house for her bedroom, staring straight ahead.  We knew she was in a world where she couldn't be hurt, one we could not join her in.

Nana always had a consuming fear of Mom's latest car. It might have been because she had been subjected to Mom's hair-raising motoring technique.  Get in, Aim it, and Get There.  Or it may have had a lot to do with Nana's dementia, coupled with the fact that my mother used to say things like, "Lets take the BUG out for a spin."   Cute term for a VW, but not one Nana understood. In any case, Mom took Nana's blue suitcase by its contrasting white handle in one hand, Nana's hand in the other, and off the four of us walked to Nana's last place to stay.

It was one of those summer days, when the air temperature so perfectly matches the human skin a summer breeze feels like cotton floating past. Nana stepped lively as she always had, her pace not slowing as the Home loomed nearer.  Mom had to pull slightly on Nana's hand to slow the momentum.   When she gently put the brakes on, a look of infinite despair momentarily washed over our mother's face, and was gone as quickly as it had come.

The nurses helped us install Nana in her new room.  The two big windows there overlooked a rock garden on the side lawn. My sister said it wasn't a rock garden, rock gardens were not four feet high, it was a pile of rocks cemented together, with multicolored marbles stuck in the cement between the rocks.   Our mother called it the Indian Burial Ground.

We unpacked Nana's dresses, hung them up in the cedar closet, lined up all six pairs of identical, black orthopedic shoes,  and made her bed with her own sheets and quilts, while she sat in a rocker and stared.   We kissed her  'So Long,'  filing out of her room and down the hallway.

It wasn't until we were nearly to the front door my sister noticed Nana marching right behind us; with her purse.  One of the nurses caught up to us while, a bit too briskly, taking Nana's arm and saying to our mother, "Just go. She doesn't know who you are, or where you are going."   What ensued was the first time we would ever really witness the wrath of our mother losing her temper.  Her voice got lower than we had ever heard her speak, the lower it got, the worse things seemed.  The only thing my sister actually remembered hearing clearly was our mother saying, "Do not ever say anything in front of an unconscious person you don't want them to hear."  Though Nana was not unconscious in the purest sense of the term, she was definitely on another plane.  Somehow we no longer saw emptiness in her eyes.  What we imagined was another world those of us outside those eyes couldn't quite grasp, but knew was there.

Years would pass, my sister and I always calling a temporary truce when the decision was made to go visit Nana. We were of the same mind for that mission.  We'd walk, or ride bikes to the Home, and upon the approach we would always see Nana regally sitting on the front porch in one of the wicker chairs.  Her posture always gave one the impression a curtsy would not be out of order at all.  Back straight, shoulders aligned, head slightly turned, with both hands on her purse; she sat.    My sister would say, "The Queen always has her purse, and so does Nana."   During the winter Nana always wore a thick, wool coat with a horseshoe shaped mink collar my sister said should have been ermine.  Nana's head would be covered with the handwoven, black linen hat the little Shaker ladies from Canterbury had made for her.   Here, Nana let us all know, simply by the particular way she continued to dress and carry herself,  that part of her was still there to visit.

It was for this reason our mother had such a hard time visiting.  She would always say she thought Nana was waiting for her to come and bring her home.    Truth was, in Nana's mind, though we couldn't go there too;  she was already home.


  1. I had to laugh in certain parts- the way your mom drove....the match lighting.. i heard that trick too..The sad part - your Ggrandma walking behind u guys as well as sitting on the porch waiting...Do u think we all do that at that age?

  2. No, it depends on one's gene pool. As far as hardening of the arteries or "Oldz-Timers," (different conditions)goes, some members of my family had it, others didn't. Thanks to the insane sense of curiosity my mother instilled in my sister and me, coupled with the fact that I am still involved in a research study, I have had several DNA profiles. Except one. That being the new one to determine if one is predisposed to "Oldz-Timers." It has nothing to do with the research study, and my insurance would not pay for it. But I would like to know.

    Jack Kervorkian - call me.....!

  3. My grandmother never had it... towards the end ( she lived till 96) she was pretty aware.. I think once my mom put her in a nursing home, she slowly went downhill... they put her in diapers because they were too busy to help her to the bathroom... she knew she was peeing in her diaper- that is the first step I feel to making them turn inward... The last year of her life she was experiencing some delusion.. she thought she saw me and my son out of her window at the home... She has always been an active person.. I have read that staying physically and mentally active is what wards it off if u are predestined to being Alzheimerish..(is that a word? lol)they say being sedentary is the cause as well...

  4. My 94 year old mother-in-law stays with us...and is pretty much bedridden. She sees "people" who walk through her room and sometimes stop to talk. My wife has to make sure that her unused bathroom door is shut tight so "they" will not sneak in. Once a dignified woman...she is a confused shell.

    I know I would prefer to leave this old world with dignity....just as your great-grandmother maintained her dignity and poise sitting on that porch.

  5. I think now, if our Nana had spoken, we would have at least known where she was in her mind, given us a clue as to what to chat about. As it was we were limited to our then short lives experiences, feeling not as useful as we wished. Nana hadn't spoken for at least a year before she went to the home. Doctors couldn't figure it out, but we had a funny feeling she was living by her motto, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything." She didn't feel well a lot, probably didn't have a nice thing to say.

    She died in her sleep.

  6. Oh gosh...this is so touching. xo