My grandmother taught me a lot of things: sarcasm, how to pray, and the beauty of a gin cocktail, to name just a few. But the most important thing I learned from her is to tell stories that matter.
She died around this time last year. Her heart slowly failed, so she had a lot of time to prepare—as much as one can prepare to die, anyway. In her last couple of months, she picked up this infuriating habit of telling the same stories again and again. And slooowly. At first I assumed it was just another part of getting old, but she didn’t have any memory loss or mental deterioration. She was repeating those stories on purpose.
Her favorite one usually started with a question: “Remember the time you gave me a pedicure?”
“Yes, Grandma. I remember that story.”
I do remember, and I hated every minute of it. It wasn’t her fault; I just hate feet. Everyone’s feet. Even feet that are attached to people I love. Here’s how the story goes: I was a teenager, and my grandmother was recovering from surgery. She sat on the edge of her bed while I soaked her feet, clipped her toenails, and painted them with clear polish. At some point, I put my foot right up next to hers and told her our feet looked exactly alike. (It’s true; I’ve always had her hands and feet.) It’s not a particularly entertaining or sentimental story, but for some reason, she filed it away.
When she was dying, she became obsessed with other stories too. One was about a musical group she and her friends formed in the ’40s; they called themselves the Good News Jazz and Madrigal Society. They were practicing on the patio one day when a mockingbird picked up the clarinet’s melody and literally started singing along. Another was about the day she lost my dad, a toddler at the time, at the store. She eventually found him sitting on some strange man’s shoulders, having the time of his life. And then there was the one about her last day of service in the Coast Guard, when she stood over a fire pit in Hawaii and watched thousands of classified documents burn.
She clung to those stories, and the frailer she got, the longer it took her to tell them.
I just finished reading a book called How to Say It to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap with Our Elders by David Solie, which is basically a self-help guide to communicating with old people. I don’t really know why I started reading it or if it worked the way it’s supposed to, but I can tell you that this quote left me breathless:
When we start to realize that we’re not going to be here forever, we become aware that it’s not clear what it meant to be here at all.
I hadn’t really thought much about death before my grandmother died. I hardly slept during those last few months, though, because I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be her. I couldn’t imagine knowing that any day now, any second, your heart is just going to stop beating. That’s what happens when you die of congestive heart failure—it just stops beating. I felt overwhelmingly sad for her every day, but I didn’t understand her the way I used to.
In his book, Solie explains that old people go through a sort of developmental crisis, during which they look back on their lives and try to discover their own legacies:
In the case of the elderly, their attempts to resolve their developmental ‘crisis’ propel them backward, not forward, to reflect on what their lives have meant—to themselves, their loved ones, and the world at large.
I know, now, that my grandmother was reviewing her life. The fixation and repetition and lack of urgency were just parts of the process. Those seemingly random memories meant something to her. She was collecting and assembling the stories that defined her, so she could leave them here for my family.
Now I understand why she started with a question. “Remember the time you painted my toenails?”
“Yes, Grandma. I remember that story,” was probably all she needed to hear.
She repeated that unspectacular toenail story not because she was losing her memory, but because she wanted me to know it was part of her legacy. She wanted to know that I would remember. Maybe it was that she looked down from the edge of her bed while I washed her feet and clipped her toenails, and she felt loved and known by her family. Or maybe that pedicure wasn’t a defining moment in her life at the time, but when you’re 90, you turn around and look behind you and see things that weren’t there before.
Stories—my grandmother’s, mine, yours—aren’t linear. They come in different shapes and sizes, and they don’t usually move in straight lines. Sometimes life is orderly, but most of the time, it shoots out in a lot of different directions at once and you have to just go with it. Stories don’t always fit on a page or in a room or whatever else kind of box we want to put them in. Some begin and end in the same sentence, and others unfold over dinner parties, weeks, or lifetimes.
In the end, it wasn’t the birthdays or the wedding days or the tearful goodbyes that defined my grandmother’s life. It was the pedicures and the birds and the bonfires. Her storytelling, which seemed at the time like repetitive and erratic behavior, was really a beautiful human instinct: My grandmother was discovering what it means to be here.
I wish I could go back in time and slap my impatient self every time I rolled my eyes because she started telling a story I’d already heard. Some stories are worth repeating. Repetition is a natural way to emphasize things that matter, and our memories rely on it. Telling the same story twice is only a waste of time if the story never mattered in the first place.
We moved my grandmother to a hospice a few days before she died. We put out all her framed pictures and decorated the room with fresh flowers. I sat on the edge of her bed and held her hand as she took her last breath. The moment I felt her pulse stop, I was overcome with this unexpected and irrational feeling of panic: “Shit. Did I get all the stories?”
When I look back on my grandmother’s legacy and remember the time we spent together, a few things strike me: She looked right into your eyes and made you feel like her stories were meant for you and only you. She had this way with dramatic pauses and winked at all the right spots. She connected her stories by themes or feelings, and not by chronology. The stories she repeated are the ones I remember most vividly.
But now that she’s gone, all that really mattered was the telling: She told me her stories, and now they are mine.
I’m learning to embrace all the tangents and crooked lines and spaces between stories. It makes them harder to organize, but the good ones always rise to the surface. And when I finish with one thing that matters, I’ll try to move on to something else that matters, because where does the time go?
Before I left the room where my grandmother died, I turned around to get a good look at her. Her feet were sticking out from under the blanket, those toenails I once clipped that had grown back for the last time, and I could have sworn I felt her wink at me.