Listen to this story
Alone in my parents’ house, I hunt through drawers and boxes for old photos — the older, the better. Square snapshots from the 60s, edged in white, colored as though they were drawn in soft colored pencil. Black-and-white photos from the 40s and 50s, with names written on the back in my great-grandmother’s loopy blue fountain pen. Childhood photos of my mother, out-of-focus pictures of Yorkshire terriers, and a photo of my grandmother herself — young, red-haired, gorgeous, wearing a strapless bathing suit and a pair of cat-eye sunglasses, smiling from a poolside lounge chair with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
I gather up all of the photographs in a plastic shopping bag and drive twenty minutes into town to find the nearest color Xerox machine. I focus on the mechanics — how many photos fit on a page? How many pages can the plastic presentation book hold? I know I can’t bring the originals to the nursing home — the risk of losing them is too great. But I try to make sure the copies are as crisp and clear as possible. With a fine-tipped marker, I mark up the color copies, captioning as many of the photos as I can.
A decade ago, I sat on the floor of my grandmother’s house, holding up old photographs, insisting she tell me her stories. “Who wants to hear about Mississippi? The Depression? Ugh,” she would say, waving me off.
“I do,” I protested, holding up another photograph. “Who’s this?”
I dragged those stories out of her. I was greedy for them. She eventually relented, still baffled by my interest. For so many years, she had lived as a Yankee executive’s wife, taming her accent to fit in at the country club, her Southerness reduced to a penchant for sweet tea and a jealously-guarded fried-chicken recipe. She led a life kissed by glamour, but one where the memories of her dusty, sweet childhood were often tucked away. I always got the sense she was a bit ashamed of where she came from.
Her stories were of pranks, of games, of children playing among the detritus of a crumbling society, all innocence.
I wanted all of it, fascinated with equal parts awe and horror that my grandmother, who smelled like rich-lady perfume and took me to the Estée Lauder makeup counter when I was nine, was from such a backwards place as Mississippi. A place that was not just poor, but tainted by the legacy of slavery and segregation in a way I found repulsive. But somehow it was also a place of beauty, even in the sweeping cotton fields and stately plantation houses. It was a place that only existed in my imagination in extreme dualities: grandeur and squalor both. No in-betweens.
It turned out my grandmother was thrilled, once she got started, to relive the madcap adventures of her childhood. Yes, her family had fallen on hard times, just like everyone else in the 1930s. But, as she put it to me, “If we were poor, I never knew it.” Her stories were of pranks, of games, of children playing among the detritus of a crumbling society, all innocence. She wasn’t trying to gloss over anything — that really was her experience. I knew that was only the case because of how hard her parents must have worked to create a protected space for her to be a child, and I was filled with a rush of love for the great-grandparents I’d never known. At the time, I was the single mother of a five-year-old, and my daughter didn’t know we were poor either.
I took notes, pages and pages of details and names and anecdotes. Back then, I didn’t really understand the value of what my grandmother was giving me. But sitting in a strip-mall office-supply store, those notes mean I can actually identify the girl with the pageboy haircut standing in front of a pecan tree in this late-1920s snapshot. Kathryn, I write with my fine-tipped Sharpie.
I slide the pages into their plastic sleeves and write on the cover, in large, thick letters, Dorothy’s Book. All of this while glancing at the clock and mentally calculating the minutes I’ve been away from my grandmother’s bedside.
This is my second visit to my grandmother in as many weeks, which is complicated by the fact that I live some 500 miles away. The change in her, from 10 days ago to now, is so dramatic as to be almost unbelievable. It started, as these things so often do, with a simple fall.
Last week, I brought my youngest daughter, age three, along with me. Grandma was in pain and pissed-off about being in rehab, but she was utterly charmed by the antics of her great-grandchild. Sure, she looked tired, bruised, worn out. But she was still able to laugh, to put in her order and then smack her lips in delight at the food I brought in from the local barbecue joint. My daughter tried to mimic my grandmother’s Mississippi accent, the way she said my name taking her sweet time with the vowels, leaning into the “au” and giving the “r” just the lightest touch. Laura. Even when a sharp rise in her blood pressure sent her to the ER for a few hours, we sat with her in the triage room and giggled when she spilled ice chips down the front of her hospital gown.
After a few days, my daughter and I flew home, and my aunt came and took over. Day by day, her phone calls turned more grim. “When I went to see her today, I don’t think she knew who I was,” my aunt reported. This was new. “She’s having trouble swallowing. The doctors say she may have had a small stroke.” The news was darker every day, the fear and pain in my aunt’s voice more palpable. My parents were on the other side of the world, taking a long-planned and much-needed vacation, after bearing the brunt of my grandmother’s care for years now. They sent emails hoping for reassurance. My aunt and I decided I would come back to take over, this time alone. My parents were due back in a few days, and I’d cover the gap. She’s not doing great, we told them, but don’t change your plans. We can handle it.
So, I am here now, my grandmother’s only relation for hundreds of miles. I am here to handle it. And I am wholly unqualified.
This visit, there hasn’t been any laughter or barbecue. When I arrived two days ago and walked into my grandmother’s room, she was sleeping. Her head tilted back and her mouth gaped wide. She looked like she’d aged a decade in the week since I’d seen her last. When she woke, she barely acknowledged me. I took her hand. Her skin felt like paper. I wasn’t sure she knew exactly who I was, but she seemed to know I was on her side. She complained bitterly about the goop they were putting in her coffee, pleading with me to do something about it. The nurse explained that she could only have thickened liquids because of her swallowing trouble. My grandmother scowled at the nurse and told her to go hell.
Not having a toddler’s needs to manage this time, I’ve been spending as much time as possible at my grandmother’s side. But she’s mostly just slept or yelled at people. I wasn’t even sure she knew who I was, until I came through the doors of the nursing home this morning to the sound of my name being bellowed down the hall. “Laaaaaauuura!” As I hurried down the hall, one of the nurses nodded to me and said unnecessarily, “she’s been asking for you.”
In all my life, I have never heard a more pitiful sound. It was the sound of someone drowning, calling out for help with their last breath. My grandmother’s voice was panicked, unhinged, raw with pain. I ran into her room, frantic in my assurances, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.” She was in tears. When I got her calmed down, it was clear that her mind was slipping, her hold on reality growing tenuous. Her grasp of her current situation faded in and out, like the signal from a radio station just out of range. And when the signal got staticky, it threw her into a panic. Where am I? Who are these people?
I needed to give her back her stories, her past.
Later, I ran out for a quick lunch, worrying the whole time that I would come back to the sound of her wail. I returned to find that the nurses had wheeled her down to a common room and she was happily chatting, or to be more precise, flirting, with an elderly gentleman over a cup of goo-thickened coffee. “This coffee is terrible,” she hissed at me. “Can you get me one that doesn’t feel like I’m drinking pudding?” As I undid the wheelchair brake with my toe and turned the chair around to wheel her back to her room, she grabbed my arm with surprising strength. “What time is it?” she whispered fiercely. I told her it was about one o’clock. “Oh, we’d better hurry then! Daddy’s going to kill me for being out so late!”
That’s when it snapped into place. I realized that when she became disoriented, she wasn’t totally lost — she was just stuck in the past, in her own memories. When the signal faded out and the nurses and rehab-center surroundings became unfamiliar, I needed to give her something she could recognize. I needed to give her back her stories, her past.
I sidle into her room at the nursing home with Dorothy’s Book under my arm. My grandmother doesn’t appear to recognize me.
“It’s me, Laura,” I reassure her.
“Laura,” she repeats, stretching out the vowels, finding the sound familiar but unable to place it. I open the photo album and lay it across her lap. I lean back and watch her face for signs of recognition. Her face goes from closed and blank to a sun-warmed flower in an instant; I can actually see her bloom. She sits up straighter, every muscle of her face engaged, where moments before she was slack.
Here is a book full of people she can name. “Oh! Look! That’s Mama and me! Oh, and there’s Cathie as a baby, have you ever seen such a pretty child?” It is one of the last times I will see my grandmother smile. Years ago, she named these people for me. She gave me her stories, her memories, because I’d asked. I didn’t know what to do with them then. Now I’m trying to give them back to her.
Watching her lit from within, turning the pages and caressing the photos with tender fingers, I begin. “Do you remember when Kathryn made you that doll?” “Isn’t that the pecan tree your Daddy planted?” “Is that your brother George, the one who chased you with the kitchen knife when you stole his breakfast?” Each prompt is a key, and it unlocks another memory. I start, and my grandmother picks it up and continues, adding details and flourishes as she goes. It’s the most she’s spoken in days.
For the past ten years, I’ve been a caretaker for a legacy I didn’t understand. I thought her stories had been a gift to me, so that I could understand her past. I didn’t realize I was just holding them in trust.
Before I leave the nursing home that evening, I sneak down the hall. In the common room, I find what I’m looking for. Quickly, with fumbling fingers, afraid I’m going to be caught at any moment, I pour a cup of forbidden, un-thickened coffee. Cream, sugar, a stir with a floppy plastic stick. I bring it to her, holding it in both hands like an offering. She sips the lukewarm coffee with her eyes closed, as if it is the very nectar of the gods. I watch her carefully, terrified she’s going to choke and it will be my fault. But after a few sips, she sighs and lays down her head. After she falls asleep, I pour out the contraband coffee, put the photo album on the tray by her side, and tiptoe out.