I have written a time or two about how, when I became a full-time co-parent, I would sometimes open my mouth and my mother would come out. Having never expected to be a parent of any kind, I always assumed this particular truism would never apply to me. I experienced it the first couple of times with trepidation, and then accepted it as an inevitability.
About a month ago, I was flying home to Missouri for a funeral and trying to figure out if I would write about it. The deceased and I had been close as children but hadn’t seen each other in a decade. Our stories were old ones and involved being corralled in our grandparents’ basement and Star Wars versus Indiana Jones. I found, instead, that my mind turned to my Grandma Shirley, who had just been moved to a nursing facility where they could better care for her in an advanced state of Alzheimer’s.
I wasn’t sure whether or not I would see my Grandmother on the whirlwind trip. As it turns out, she ended up getting an eye infection that required my mother and I to sit for an afternoon in an eye doctor’s office, where the woman next to me in a wheel chair was recognizable as my Grandmother in only the most remote ways. The rings on her fingers. The shape of her mouth. The sound of her voice when she managed to get words out.
Grandma liked it when I scratched her back and told me I was pretty, and tall. The fact that I am tall, like her, is what she fixated on last time I saw her, two Thanksgivings ago. “Same,” she said, pointing from herself to me. As a younger woman she was 5’11, a height I missed by about three inches. When I saw her that Thanksgiving though, we were, indeed, the same.
That afternoon in the eye doctor’s office she told me I was pretty, and tall, and that she was scared. So I went into the parking lot and called Joel and cried and cried. Because what I had realized on the plane was that, when I parent, I am not channeling my mother so much as my Grandmother. Or who my Grandmother used to be.
My Grandma taught me to make pies with store-bought crust, but that’s about the only solid home-making advice I got from her. Mostly, she was grooming me to be confident and self-sufficient and to pick myself up when things didn’t go my way. She did not put up with my pouting, and allowed me to feel sorry for myself only momentarily before encouraging me to get back at whatever it is that needed getting.
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you about that,” she would say, when I would explain some injustice that had befallen me.
“And that’s probably the last time you’ll do that, isn’t it?” she would ask, when I’d tell her about some boneheaded move I’d made that didn’t go my way.
“What do you expect me to do about it?”
“Why would you be friends with someone like that?”
“I love you, but you should have known better/thought harder before you [insert stupid thing I did]/known that wasn’t going to work out.”
Grandma Shirley bought me my first interview suit – hilarious, because my first job was at an ad agency where I wore Tretorns and Gap overalls to work most days, and was made fun of later for even owning a suit. She also bought me my first wedding dress, which was more expensive than we were planning on, but was so perfect at the time that Grandma took it without another word and just took care of it. She praised my smart fashion choices and mocked my terrible ones, but with love.
Note to Joel: When I am horrified at some of Claire’s more…interesting sartorial choices and have a hard time keeping my mouth shut, this is probably why.
I have always admired how, when my Grandpa died way too young, my Grandma put on her big girl pants and got a great job and became a bit of a clotheshorse and traveled to other countries and made more than one man fall totally in love with her to the point of showering her with jewels. When I got out of college and realized I could be really good at my job and pushed and pushed, I was emulating her.
Grandma paid for my books throughout college and, along with my mother, used to take me shopping most weekends for groceries or random odds and ends. The three of us were quite the team, going out to lunch and shopping the sales at the mall. People always, always asked us if we were family, the cheeky ones joking that my mother and I were sisters.
(To be fair to my mom, she has always been totally hot and looks much younger than her age. That is no lie, and no suck-up. Ask anyone.)
My Grandmother would point to the rings on her fingers and joke that we were so close that we had already divided her jewelry for after she died, which horrified some and amused others. “Screw ‘em,” Grandma would say to the ones who grimaced instead of smiled.
And then I moved away, first to North Carolina and then to California.
I seldom made it home. Mom, Grandma and I went to Vegas once and I had to stay in our room to work more than I wanted. Mom and Grandma came to visit me in California and taught themselves to ride the train, again while I worked. I took them to my favorite Napa Valley spa and my Grandmother talked through the entire massage. I know, because her room was next to mine, and I was mildly annoyed. I would totally do that again and again if only we could.
While I stubbornly stayed in California, my Grandmother got older. All at once, she was too frail to come visit again and never got to see the house my ex and I bought or to meet Huck and Cooper. Her Alzheimer’s was so bad by the time I was divorced that we never told her. She met Joel, but by that time had forgotten I was related to her – or that my mother had ever had a child. We didn’t even try to explain that I now had a Claire. Alzheimer’s Grandma would never understand what a big deal that was, not like pre-Alzheimer’s Grandma.
Yesterday I flew home from Minneapolis and sat in a nursing home room stroking my Grandmother’s hair. She died about 20 minutes after we left for the evening. The nurses told us that some people want an audience, and some people just want to be alone. I guess Grandma claimed her independence, even at the end.
I am sad. Relieved that Alzheimer’s can’t take anymore from her. Glad I had so many awesome years with her as my best friend. Mad at myself for hiding in California while she was in decline. Devastated that she didn’t get to be a super-cool great-grandma to Claire. She would have LOVED that kid, and loved Joel for helping me learn the potential of myself as a parent.
Claire has struggled to understand Alzheimer’s, how someone can be sick but not in ill health. She will get it eventually. I will save all the good Grandma stories for when she is older, like how I stayed with her on my wedding night and she snored so loud I had to move to the couch and still couldn’t sleep or how she had to take me to kindergarten because I cried so much when my mom did it. Other examples of her no-nonsense approach to raising me up.
Next time when I open my mouth and my Grandma Shirley tries to come out, I’m going to let her, unchecked. There are far worse things than being raised by her, like kissing her forehead and saying goodbye. Like trying on her rings – now my rings – after she is gone.