(granny moves in
with the newlyweds.
along with her suitcases
a memoir by
Some grandmothers are a vague blur; a name you know, but with a face you can’t quite
recall. When you were a kid, they faithfully remembered your birthdays with Hallmark
cards and a few dollar bills. They phoned you once a year on Christmas and always
hurried to hang up because it was “long distance.” Others you visited occasionally but
only under duress when dragged by your parents. You couldn’t wait to get home where
you could actually sit on the couch without mussing the plastic cover on top.
If you were really lucky, though, you had a grandmother like mine. She was your
best friend. The wall above my desk is filled with photographs of my Granny, Jo, taken
during the thirteen years she lived with my husband and me. Granny moved in with us in
1982, when we were newlyweds. Along with her suitcases she also brought Alzheimer’s,
a disease that wasn’t on anyone’s lips at the time.
We made quite a threesome in the pictures: a young couple with an old, white-haired
lady always in tow. There we were: crammed into the kid-sized seats of a bumper-car
ride, watching the Red Sox from the Fenway bleachers, going to church Easter Sunday,
walking barefoot on the beach, shooting pool in a smoky bar and just clowning around at
home. My favorite photo, though, is one that neither John nor I are in: Granny is holding
our newborn daughter.
I would like you to see her as I did but that is not possible: my eyes were muted
always by an immense and unconditional love. Besides, few see us as we really are—
they only know the way we are with them. So, I have chosen to begin these chapters with
Granny’s own quotes; words of advice she gave me when I was growing up in her home
in the 1960’s. She was appointed my legal guardian when I was 13. My mother had
been declared “mentally unfit,” by the Arizona Superior Court, and would later be
diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.
Despite having lived her own share of heartaches, Granny was willing to take on
mine. At the time, she was a high school guidance counselor and brought her wisdom
home. 16 years later, when I began caring for her, many of her early sayings would re-
echo in her own ears—now coming back from me. Of course, by then in her dementia-
addled state, none of them would be recognizable to her at all. Since you weren’t lucky
enough to know my Granny Jo, and her wise counsel was so wholly a part of who she
was, I share those words now with you.
“If you think you can do it, try it. Then you’ll know for sure.”
Certain moments stick themselves into your head and refuse to let go. Some are so
historically sad, that you remember just where you were when they happened: like the
day my 6th grade teacher burst into tears and said to our class, “President Kennedy has
just been shot.” Others are so magical, like your first kiss, that you can’t help but smile
when you recall them. But some are just so downright weird that you rewind them over
and over again in your head. It’s as if by reliving the moment you might finally make
some sense out of it. With Alzheimer’s though, it just never happens.
That was the case a few days after Granny first moved in with us. I had decided to
take her grocery shopping. It would be her first real outing since she arrived. Until then,
John and I had taken turns keeping an eye on her. When you’ve been told, ‘Your
grandmother has been talking to the TV set, and the TV set was turned OFF,’ you keep
her on a short leash. Granny was so eager to finally get out of the house that she was
waiting by the car before I could get my purse.
At the market, I set her loose in the produce department; her favorite.
“Now just pick out everything that looks good to you,” I said, “and I’ll be right back
with the cart.”
Granny slowly walked over to the grapes and began picking through them. She loved
grapes. I paused for a moment to watch her. Her long, willowy figure and white hair
were so familiar to my eyes. For years I had seen her bent over like this, daintily
choosing just the right fruits and vegetables. It was she who had told me that those ugly,
old, spotted bananas “were riper, sweeter, and easier to digest.” And it was also she who
informed me, “You never need to poke a cantaloupe. Merely smell the end where it was
picked. You’ll know.”
She seemed just fine, so I hustled to the dairy aisle and grabbed some milk. I was
gone only a few minutes. Returning, I noticed several shoppers had stopped in their
tracks and were staring in the same direction. Following their stares, I found myself
looking right at my very own, eighty-two year-old Grandmother. She was holding a
large, ripe, red tomato high up in the air above her head.
“I shall choose you!” she said in a theatrical voice strangely reminiscent of Bob
Barker on “Let’s Make A Deal.” Then, to my gaping astonishment, she placed a firm,
deliberate, smack-like kiss right in the center of that tomato.
Judging from the onlookers, this wasn’t the first piece of fruit Granny had christened
in this manner. Now sane people do not talk to fruits and vegetables – let alone kiss
them! Certainly not my grandmother, whose lifelong modesty and discretion were her
very trademarks! Startled by her uncharacteristic behavior, I kept her close at my side for
the remainder of our shopping. With one hand pushing the cart and the other clasping
hers tightly, I felt as jumpy and harried as a mother with a toddler in tow.
I filled the basket high with her favorite foods: fresh fruits and vegetables, cartons of
yogurt, soups, Ak-Mak crackers, cream cheese, and ice cream. The flavor never
mattered. She liked anything sweet. Granny had been a vegetarian for years, but I didn’t
realize that she had been eating almost no protein. Not only was it difficult for her to
chew but she also no longer cooked. While living alone, her typical dinner had often
been carrot juice, a small, green salad and a piece of fruit. She did eat meat on holidays,
and even though it was barely September, I decided to buy a large turkey.
“So, what do we need for your famous stuffing?” I asked, thinking she would enjoy
making something familiar.
“Stuffing?” she asked looking uncertain.
“For Mr. Big Bird here,” I laughed, pointing at the turkey.
Granny looked down at the pink bird and then back up at me.
“Why would you stuff that thing?” she huffed. “It looks big enough already.”
“Now, Granny,” I chided, “You have stuffed a turkey every Christmas and
Thanksgiving since I was a little girl. Not only that, sometimes you used to make me
plain, old stuffing for dinner!”
She gave me an incredulous look.
“Your memory must not be very good,” she scowled, staring back at the turkey.
Undaunted, I picked out the parsley, sage, onion, celery, raisins, butter, walnuts and
rice and we walked happily arm-in-arm down the aisles. Just being out and about seemed
to rekindle her spirits. I noticed that Granny gave a big smile to every shopper who
passed by. It was out of character for her normal reticence, but at least she was
At home, she asked to help put away the groceries. I was thrilled to see her actually
taking some initiative. However, as she put the crackers in the freezer and the ice cream
in the cupboard, it was clear that she no longer remembered where things went. Since
she thought she was really helping, I didn’t say a word, but merely trailed after her re-
doing everything. After dinner, I helped her into her pajamas, watched as she brushed
her teeth and tucked her into bed. She seemed better and I slept peacefully.
The next morning, I came into the kitchen and found what can only be described as
the mess a two-year-old makes, when left alone too long. All of the food that we had
bought the day before had been taken out of its place. The turkey was torn out of its
plastic wrapper and sat thawing on the counter. Rivulets of blood were already dripping
onto the floor making puddles. An apple was jammed where its head should have been,
and balanced on top of the bird was an entire stick of rapidly, softening butter.
Something had been sprinkled along the counters, but I couldn’t tell what. Salt?
Sugar? Several cans of soup were lying in various corners of the kitchen as if someone
had been rolling them around. There were stacks of crackers in little clumps everywhere
I looked. Amidst the chaos, was a trail of raisins that ran from the counters, down across
the kitchen floor and ended up in the living room. The ice cream carton was out, opened,
shaped into a peak and already turning soft. She had been at this for hours!
“What have you done?” I said, my voice much louder than I had intended.
“I have created the world,” she replied calmly.
“What?” I said.
“These are the Chinese people,” she said, pointing to the raisins. “They have been
terribly oppressed and are going in different directions.”
“Then what’s that?” I asked, pointing to the turkey.
“God,” she said firmly. “And He does not like what He sees.”
I did not like what I saw either and immediately began cleaning up the mess.
Grandmother started to cry.
“You’re ruining my picture of the world!” she sobbed.
John, hearing the commotion, came in to see what the fuss was about. His eyes
widened at the mess on the floor.
“What are you up to, Josephine?” he questioned far more calmly than I had.
She re-explained what she had done.
“Oh, I see,” said John taking this all in. “The crackers are the pygmy huts. The
raisins are the Chinese people and the ice cream is a snow-capped mountain.”
“Yes!” she exclaimed calming down, as if someone finally understood her.
“Well, you’ve done a lovely job, Jo, but if we don’t put the ice cream away now, we
won’t be able to have any for dinner.”
“Okay,” Granny said a little uncertainly. “But don’t disturb the Chinese people.”
“We won’t,” said John casting a glance my way.
Over the next several weeks we discovered why Granny would only eat soft foods:
her dentures didn’t fit and had rubbed raw sores along her gums. No wonder she
preferred only applesauce or ice cream. We had her dentures fixed and until she could
chew again, I served her yogurt with every meal. Very quickly, and obviously, her
behavior began to normalize. She initiated conversations, took care of her own grooming
and helped around the house again.
For a while she was almost back to her old self. Almost. One afternoon, I found the
front door wide open. Grandmother had left the house without me hearing her. Quickly,
I looked up and down the block. No sight of her. Frantically, I started running up the
street behind us. I finally spotted her at the front door of a house around the corner. A
man, naked except for a towel wrapped around his waist, was shaking his head at her. As
I drew closer, I heard her insist, “This is my house! Let me in!” His dark hair, coupled
with her poor eyesight, must have led her to believe that he was John. The poor, half-
naked fellow was too perplexed to be angry. His confusion turned to relief the moment
he saw me running up the driveway. I apologized and led her back home.
“I must be confused,” she confided. “I was sure that was our house.”
After that, John and I took shifts leaving the house and tried as often as possible never
to leave her alone. I ran errands when he came home from work after the stock market
closed. We had rented an unfurnished, two-bedroom house in Encinitas, just north of San
Diego. We were in a development of same-looking, single-story houses, east of Highway
5; a community with sidewalks, Hondas in the garage, and postage stamp front lawns; the
perfect starter home for our “new family.”
Granny’s daughter, Jane, lived nearby. Though she had considered having Jo live
with her, it would have proved difficult, if not impossible. She was a high school teacher
and Granny would have been alone all day. The last thing someone with dementia
needed was solitude.
I immediately began making our new home cozy. I filled the rooms with Granny’s
lifetime belongings until it almost resembled the home of thirty years she had left. The
transition was easy: As newlyweds, we had only purchased a king bed, small dresser,
bookcase and desk. I tried hard to re-create her ‘old’ bedroom: her father’s maple bed,
along with her cherry desk and dresser set fit perfectly. Under her rusting, wrought iron
lamps, I arranged her yellowed, lace doilies, as she had once placed them. Granny’s
upright piano, which I had taken lessons on as a child, now sat in the living room.
John and I consulted her throughout the move. We had to. Despite her mostly shy
and diffident manner in public, she had definite opinions about where everything should
go, especially in her own house. When I put the flowered chair too close to the striped
sofa, she shook her head in disgust, just like she did whenever I wore some “horrible”
outfit. I knew exactly what she was going to say:
“I used to be an art major at Smith, you know. I understand color and have a proper
sense of balance and proportion.”
It took the movers less than an hour to get everything in. It took us about ten more to
get everything to Granny’s satisfaction.
“No, John. Over here,” she directed. “Good. Nope. Nope. One more inch to the
left. Yes, dear. That’s it.”
John patiently moved and re-moved lamps, chairs and furniture until they were, “Just
right!” Granny was pleased when we finished. Everything was familiar to her now.
Although, instead of a newlywed pad, John said our house resembled, “something out of
the fifties like my parents would have lived in.”
The only problem making Granny really comfortable was the temperature: She was
constantly cold. Even in summer, she wore long pants and a sweater, complaining often
about the “cool breeze.” We had always liked the windows open, even in winter. She
ran around shutting them tightly as soon as she spied one open.
After several days of being sweaty and miserable we compromised: John and I wore
T-shirts and shorts and kept the heat at 70. Our bedroom window remained open but
with our door closed. Granny dressed warmly to move about the house. When she was
in her bedroom, she turned on the small electric heater we purchased for her. We now
had two completely different climates under the same roof; a harbinger of things to come.
I took Granny on daily walks around our neighborhood so that she would know just
where she lived. It was pointless to have her remember the street name or number on our
mailbox. She didn’t see well and they all looked the same to her. However, Granny had
her own, clever ways of imprinting her moorings: Our house was, “the one with the red
flowers to the left of the door, and across the street from the dirty-looking dog with the
Life inside our house, though, continued to be chaotic. One evening while I was
rehearsing, John called me in a panic.
“You’d better get home right away.”
Five minutes later I pulled in the driveway. The front door was wide open. Inside,
crawling on her hands and knees, was what looked to be an old, Arab woman with a cowl
around her head; the kind you might see in a marketplace being forced to do penance for
some horrible sin. She was babbling in what sounded like a foreign language.
As I stepped inside, Granny, wearing only her terrycloth bathrobe, began crawling
towards me. She was not babbling at all, but making “oink” sounds like a pig! Over her
head, she had draped a pair of large, blue, silk underwear. From the bottom of this get-
up, dangled two shoelaces tied up in knots. Affixed over her nose were several pieces of
Kleenex that resembled a surgical mask. She had tucked them up under her glasses, so
that every time she breathed, the white tissues flapped up and down. Around her neck
she had hung a stretched-out, wire hangar. It looked like a noose. The thing that I found
most odd, and yet most normal about her appearance, was that Granny had tied her
favorite blue scarf neatly around her throat. At its center, she had pinned her best brooch.
“What are you doing, Grandmother?” I said with both shock and embarrassment at
what I was witnessing.
“Oink. I am God,” she muttered. “I am carrying the sins of the world around my
I was too nonplussed to think of anything intelligent to say, so I got down on my
hands and knees and oinked right back at her. She liked this game. We crawled around,
“oinking” for several minutes. Suddenly, she stood up and took off the hangar.
‘Thank God, it’s over,’ I thought to myself.
Nope. Granny walked to the hall closet, donned a black hat and took out her
umbrella. Using it as a cane, she pretended to be a blind man and started shuffling right
out the front door.
We immediately took her to the doctor. He said that she was suffering from, “senile
dementia.” He described it as ‘the natural course of aging,” and said it was like a
“hardening of the arteries in the brain.” Of course, 20 years later, scientists now know
that there is nothing ‘natural’ about Alzheimer’s at all. It is in fact a brain disease caused
by amyloid plaques which completely destroy brain cells. However, despite his
misguided diagnosis, that doctor did give us one great piece of advice: Keep your sense
Interestingly, the term “Alzheimer’s,” would not be used to describe Grandmother’s
condition for another five years. Although the disease itself was discovered in 1906 by
Alois Alzheimer, the scientific world did not actively begin researching it until the 1980s.
In hindsight, Granny was already manifesting signs of what is now called the
“moderately severe” stage.
The doctor also prescribed water pills for her edema. Her ankles were badly swollen,
but we hadn’t noticed it. Even thin, loose socks left their deep line marks on her legs.
She also took digitalis for a heart arrhythmia. I figured these medications coupled with
the vitamins and calcium supplements I began giving her would keep her healthy and
kicking for a few more years.
As wacky and confused as Grandmother seemed to be at the time, she had so many
lucid moments that it was difficult to know when she was ‘normal’ and when she was
suffering from ‘dementia.’ It wouldn’t be uncommon for her to ask to read John’s
newspaper after dinner and an hour later not remember how to brush her teeth. Scientists
now know that this is part of the conundrum of the disease. Some days the neurons are
firing and others they just go cold.
Despite her odd and erratic behavior, her personal writings often reflected cogency.
During this period she wrote a letter to one of her best friends, which she never sent. I
found it folded among her things several years after she passed away:
. . .When I moved to Buzz’s I was suffering from a bad case of
disorientation from the experience of leaving my home and friends of so many
years. I had a very strange ten months there which I am sure disturbed Buzz and
Dixie very much because my behavior was peculiar. . . I was partly in a strange
world and partly myself looking on. . . I spent quite a bit of time wandering
outside which you can see would be disarming. Inside, I sent money to the
Republicans for which I received some recognition which I didn’t understand at
all . . . I made patterns out of things and followed voices that nobody else heard. .
. Finally, the family decided I wasn’t happy and John and Helen agreed to take
me for a while. Perhaps being with Helen steadied me and I have felt normal
after these first few weeks of adjustment. I have never told anybody these
experiences before. . .
After the doctor’s diagnosis, I decided that Granny needed a more structured routine.
So, every morning I know insisted that she make her bed, brush her teeth, get dressed and
come to breakfast. Her household chores were to keep her room neat, with clothes hung
properly and shoes put away, and to help set the table. I treated her like a child and even
sent her back to her room if her bed weren’t made. She seemed to quite enjoy the
Life ran very smoothly for several months. Granny liked the routine. She was eating
well and her edema was gone. She was constantly active with us, whether going to
church or the beach. In fact, people who met her during that time thought she was
perfectly normal. When she joined a bible study group and I mentioned to the older
woman in charge that Granny “has dementia,” she laughed. “Oh, honey,” she reassured
me, “That’s just old age. We all have a little memory loss.”
This reaction from others would continue for years. That is the great deception with
the disease. The plaques that begin to encroach on the brain, causing synaptic failure, do
so in a haphazard way. That is why no one reacts the same way or in the same time
frame. There is no clear cut beginning or end to the progression. It is tantamount to
giving a two year-old finger paint. One just never knows what will end up on the canvas
or most certainly, how it will look when they are finished.
However, in 1982 we were not thinking of what was actually happening inside of
Granny’s head. We were just thrilled that she had so improved from the day she had first
moved in with us. Her mind was so sharp and clear again that we could now play bridge
and Scrabble together! Many nights after dinner, the three of us were either deeply
engrossed in three-handed bridge or digging through the Dictionary for challenging
“‘Hot’ and ‘heart,’” I said confidently, using all of my tiles.
“Hmm,” she replied carefully looking at her letters. Then, with one deft swoop, she
laid out all seven of them against my ‘t’ and spelled, “Flippant!”
I was thrilled the first time she beat me. She was my granny again!
Well, not quite. One afternoon, I arrived to find the entire house covered in Kleenex;
white Kleenex as far as the eye could see – on the chairs, draped across the sofa, atop the
piano, over the TV, and even balanced on the lampshades. It looked like a summer
cottage does when cloaked for the approach of winter. Granny was in her bedroom,
trying to place yet another Kleenex on the doorknob. It wouldn’t stay put.
“Granny,” I smiled. “What are you up to now?”
“I am protecting the house from evil spirits,” she confided in a whisper.
“With Kleenex?” I laughed.
“Oh, yes,” she said quite seriously. “It is white. That is the color of purity.”
“Well, where are these spirits?” I asked her, pretending to go along.
“You can’t see them,” she said. “But they are everywhere. Especially in the TV.”
As I stood there trying to think of something clever to say, she carefully placed a
Kleenex on top of her head.
“That’s a good place for it,” I said. “Cuz right now you’ve got some weird little
spirits in your head that we need to get rid of. In fact, here, I’ll put another one up there
just to be extra sure.”
This seemed to please her so much that I put one on top of my own head. We made
dinner together that night trying to keep our tissues in place. However, after she went to
bed, I took the few remaining Kleenex boxes and hid them in our bedroom closet. Evil
spirits or not, I did not plan to leave temptation in Granny’s way if I could help it.
We had found a ‘balance;’ a precarious one, but a balance nonetheless. The best part
was that the three of us had become a family in every sense of the word. Our Christmas
card picture that first year showed John and me standing in front of the art museum, with
Granny squeezed in between us.
At a time when all of our “thirty something,” friends were having babies, we had
Grandmother. Life in our house was busy with the patter of big feet, not little ones. By
the time the first year flew by, John and I were both confident to forge ahead and keep
her with us. Granny was already fitting into our lives as neatly as a child, and our good
times together far outweighed the frustrations. We had tried what we thought we could
do and had succeeded – at least for the present – but I couldn’t help but compare it with
the past and the grandmother I had known then.
“You should never put anyone on a pedestal, dear. Even me. We are simply too
human to remain there for long and ultimately, you would be disappointed.”
It was the summer of 1968 in Phoenix and the temperature really was “110 in the shade.”
I was a teenager, just five months shy of driving age, stuck at home. We didn’t have an
air conditioner. To save money, Granny had installed a ‘swamp cooler’ instead. This
was some contraption that sucked in the hot outside air, forced it over water in its tank
and thereby ‘cooled’ the house. Whatever it was, it didn’t work—or if it did, it meant
that instead of being a dry, 110 degrees, it was now a more humid 100 degrees. I was
miserable and had tried reading a book, but even the pages were limp and reluctant to
“It’s so hot in here, Granny,” I whined. “Can’t we get an air conditioner – like
“It’s perfectly cool in here, darling,” Granny replied while wiping the sweat from her
brow with her ever-present, white, linen handkerchief. “The swamp cooler is on.”
“Yeah, well maybe it could cool down an alligator in a swamp, but I’m dying in here.
Can we go to the mall? Please?” I pleaded. “I really need a mini-skirt.” Yes, these were
my exact words.
“Now dear, if you insist on spending all of your time trying to be like everyone else,
you won’t have a single moment to be yourself.”
“But I am being myself Grandmother, and my ‘self’ really wants a mini-skirt.”
It was not easy being a teenager in the 60s being raised by a grandmother who was
brought up during the Victorian era. I liked the stereo blasting the Doors or the Who,
which Grandmother often referred to as ‘the What?’ Granny only listened to church
music on the radio. Fortunately she kept the volume so low, I could only hear a muted
organ or choir in the distance. I wanted to wear white lipstick and platform shoes.
Granny said the color made my lips look, “hideous” and that, “Any shoe above street
level is bad for your back.” And though I was often persuasive, she inevitably got the
best of me. . . by always being right in the long run.
Granny did drive me to the mall that afternoon to buy a mini-skirt. I happily chose a
cute, little number with white daises splashed on a black background. It didn’t exactly go
with my sensible, brown loafers but it was a start. When the sales clerk rang up the
purchase Granny handed her the money and said, “You certainly have a lot of nerve
charging so much money for so little material!”
As we walked to the parking lot I noticed that my new, very short outfit was drawing
several stares. Unfortunately, most of them were from old ladies; not my intended
audience. Granny noticed, too.
- 10 -
“Now, don’t be surprised by all the attention you get,” she said firmly. “Of course,
that’s really what you’re looking for, aren’t you dear?”
Not that she was a spoilsport all the time. When I insisted on ironing my hair, she
didn’t balk. She marched me right into the laundry room, set up the ironing board, thrust
the iron in my hands and said, “Go ahead. Ruin what the Good Lord gave you. There’s
the sink if you set yourself on fire.”
The “Good Lord” was mentioned often in our home. Religion was important to
Granny. She had several Bibles, all of which were well-marked with underlined passages
and creased from years of study. Granny wanted God to be as central in my life, but I
was a tough sell. I was at the age where if you can’t see it, wear it or touch it, what’s the
point? During high school, when hormones gave me the illusion that I was indeed God, I
refused to attend at all.
But Granny, not one to ever give up, always had a trick up her sleeve. The first time I
refused to go she offered me this alternative: “I’ll let you stay home today, if you use the
time to memorize all the chapter names of the Old Testament while I am at church.”
Then she slyly added, “Of course there are 39 of them and I’m not sure that you’ll be able
to do it.”
Me? The ultimate queen of memorization? Only 39? Ha! I would show her! Not
only did I welcome the challenge, I was thrilled at not having to dress up and sit in a
stuffy room full of old people for an hour and a half. Once I had Genesis to Malachi
memorized, she had me learn different Psalms and tested me when she came home from
church. Her clever ruse worked but perhaps not in the way that she had hoped. Though I
came to believe very strongly in God, it was as much through observing her as it was in
Granny also encouraged my constantly changing and rather diverse career interests.
When I dreamed of becoming a drummer, she took out every single one of her pots and
pans and handed me two large soup spoons. Then she closed the kitchen door and let me
bang away to Led Zeppelin’s, “Whole Lotta Love,” over and over and over again. After
several days of this cacophony, Granny took the cotton out of her ears, quickly gathered
up all of her S&H green stamps, drove me to the nearest redemption store and bought me
a set of bongo drums.
When my left hand proved too slow to keep up with John Bonham of Led Zepplin, I
decided I might want to be a doctor. Their hands only needed to be steady enough to feel
a beat, not keep one. Since doctors needed to understand anatomy, Granny purchased a
plastic model of, “The Visible Man,” complete with every organ, just so that I could see
what went where. For weeks, I painted and assembled every part. The veins, however,
were tricky and so thin that I got lazy and painted some of the blue ones red and some of
the red ones blue. I figured it wouldn’t matter to the model since he wasn’t really
- 11 -
Now that I knew what went where, Granny enrolled me in a mail-order Science club.
The first two months I learned how to make paper from wood pulp and create magnetic
fields with rocks and paper clips. On the third month, however, a fat, bulbous, dead frog
arrived pickled in formaldehyde. He was floating in a sealed, plastic sac. Next to his
disgusting, globular body was a shiny, sharp silver scalpel with a set of dissecting
Granny carefully laid a plastic sheet over the kitchen table so that I could begin my
dissection. She helped me cut open the plastic sac over the sink and informed me that I
would have to “reach in and grab the frog.” She wasn’t going to touch it. He was gross
and slippery in a rubbery kind of way and stank to high heaven. Nevertheless, I laid him
on my operating table and began. Despite the fact that he was dead, he simply wouldn’t
hold completely still. As I pushed on his belly, an arm went up. When I held down the
arms, the belly protruded. Finally, I yelled for Granny to, “Come and hold him down!”
After putting on her Playtex gloves, which she used to wash dishes, she gently held him
down by his four legs. Within seconds I had punctured most of his internal organs during
my first, shaky incision. It occurred to me that perhaps something less life-altering might
be my forte.
My next foray was into the world of bugs. I decided to be an entomologist. Always
prepared, Granny took every fruit, mayonnaise and pickle jar she had saved from her
laundry room cupboards and sent me into the backyard. The first afternoon, I caught
five, little brown grasshoppers. I watched. They didn’t do much except rub their legs
and twitch their heads. That night I spied a lovely, black widow in the garage. For the
heck of it, I put her in the jar with my grasshoppers and went to bed. The next morning
there was nothing left in my jar but leg pieces, an antenna and one, very, corpulent spider.
She was a splendid specimen and I even named her, “Bertha.” Granny was not
pleased to have a “poisonous arachnid,” in her house. As usual, she set parameters:
Bertha can stay as long as you keep that jar tightly closed and keep it in the laundry
room. But remember, if she gets loose, I’m gonna squash her flat without a second
Bertha lived with us for months and even made the journey to my dorm freshman
year in college. Unfortunately, my new roommate, despite all the proclamations of
“Love and Peace” on her black light posters, felt neither sentiment for my spider. So,
Granny drove Bertha home and put her back on the laundry room shelf where she lay
forgotten until Christmas break. Amazingly, despite never once being fed for a full, three
months, that black widow was still alive upon my return!
By then, however I was already quite smitten with a cuddlier pet; Mr. Wiggles, a
stray kitten that I had found in the neighborhood. It took all of my persuasive tactics to
convince Granny to let me keep, “that alley cat.” When she finally agreed, there were
“He has to be neutered and given rabies shots.”
- 12 -
“He has to sleep in the back porch, never in the house! He is not allowed in the
house. If you want to play with him, do so in the back porch. Remember, cats shed hair
and carry diseases. So always wash your hands afterwards.”
“Also, I refuse to clean out a litter box. Mr. Wiggles must do his business in the
Granny was a woman who picked her battles. A cat was a mere trifle compared, to
say, my living with a man out of wedlock. There would have been no acquiescing on that
issue: my own mother had plowed through a field of men on her way to five marriages.
Mother was the reason for the biggest fight of Granny’s life; the one for me. When I
was thirteen, Granny Jo was appointed my legal guardian. At the age of sixty-five, she
now had us both to support on her high school counselor’s modest salary. Next to that
struggle, Mr. Wiggles, cute as he was, paled in comparison.
Granny also thought that he might be a good companion for me as I had no siblings.
Really, I think she was just trying to find a rational excuse for letting an irrational
creature into her life and that was simply because she loved me. She even hired our
neighbor to install a cat door from the screened porch into the backyard. When it was
finished, she re-stated her final ultimatum:
“Now, under no condition is Mr. Wiggles ever allowed in this house! Ever!”
In less than a week, Mr. Wiggles had already made himself quite cozy on Granny’s
living room sofa; the one she had just recovered in a striped, green velvet pattern. Try as
she might, she could not keep him from dashing through every open door. He was
simply too fast for her. However, the second he curled up to snooze, which was often,
she grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and flung him back into the porch. When he
began sharpening his claws on that new sofa fabric, she immediately bought him a
scratching post and put it in the porch. It was never scratched on—not once.
“Here, Mr. Wiggles, use this,” she implored day after day.
Granny gave him countless demonstrations by scratching on it with her own
fingernails. He watched her politely several times, but had no interest whatsoever in the
thing. However, the second one of us went in or out of the house, he flew past our feet
and went right back to clawing up the sofa. After weeks of futility, Granny finally draped
old bedspreads and blankets over her favorite pieces. Our living room now resembled a
rather dilapidated, Navajo, blanket shop. And although Mr. Wiggles clawed up all of
those too, she never said another word about it.
When I bought my first motorcycle, a bright, red Kawasaki, Granny was the first to
go for a spin with me. She didn’t ask to go for a ride, mind you. It took me several
weeks to convince her just to get near it. She even made me park it on the backside of
the carport, “So the neighbors won’t see it and think I’ve raised a juvenile delinquent!”
What others thought was very important to Granny, but completely irrelevant to me at
the time. Although I forced myself to make it relevant. She was so important to me that
I did most anything to keep from disappointing her: drinking carrot juice and goat milk,
- 13 -
because Granny said, “Sugar drinks rot your teeth;” eating alfalfa sprout sandwiches on
whole wheat bread that she put in my sack lunches, because they were good for me,
instead of stopping at McDonalds, because it, “saves money and you don’t want all that
fried grease in your system;” wearing clothes she approved of, like stockings, pleated
skirts and button down shirts, instead of bell bottom jeans, whenever we went out
together; spending time with her friends, who were old, simply because it made her feel
good; taking typing in summer school instead of hanging out with my friends, because,
“It’s an important skill to know and you will need it later,” and “never, ever, drinking,
smoking or swearing,” at least in her presence.
I tried hard to live up to Granny’s expectations in every possible way, because the
truth was I did put her on a pedestal. It was hard not to. Her judgment was so sound and
fair that it was almost impossible to argue with her. She was such a hard and continuous
worker I was embarrassed to just sit around and do nothing, or worse watch TV! That
was “for people who have no life of their own.” Seeing even a tinge of disappointment in
her eyes could silence my tongue mid-syllable.
From the moment I was born, Granny was first and foremost my savior. It was her
arms Mother dropped me into when my father died of a sudden heart attack. I was just
nine months old. A few months later, Mother was off to the Dominican Republic with a
man who would soon become her third husband. It was Granny’s breast I cried into after
a beating from Mother; her hands who fed me after days of being locked in an apartment
with nothing to eat; her words that both counseled and consoled me through a turbulent
childhood and impulsive adolescence; and it was Granny, who despite her natural
meekness and Christian belief that a child should, “Honor Thy Mother,” bravely went to
court and won custody of me from her own daughter. Like I said, ours was not a typical
Which would account for her taking that motorcycle ride: speed of any kind terrified
Granny. Her heart could race just watching an airplane take off – on a movie screen!
This was a woman who drove 25 mph in almost every zone and never had a speeding
ticket or any other infraction in over fifty years of driving.
A policeman, though, stopped her once and I happened to be in the passenger seat
that day. His siren blared behind us and the lights flashed wildly in our rear view mirror.
Granny was so confused, having never been stopped before, that it took her a good five
minutes to finally pull over. It then took her another five minutes to actually find a place
in the road where she felt safe enough to stop. As the officer walked up to our car, baton
swinging from his hip, Granny locked her car door. Taking her lead, I locked mine, too.
As he stood there face to face with Granny, he motioned for her to roll down the window.
Very slowly and cautiously she rolled down the window just enough so that she could
hear his voice.
“Now, Ma’am,” he grinned. “I’m gonna have to ask you to pick up your speed a little
here if you don’t mind. It’s rush hour and you’re holding up the whole freeway.”
- 14 -
“Oh,” she replied somewhat startled. “Are you going to give me a ticket?” she asked
with an almost hopeful voice.
“Uh. No, Ma’am. I’m kinda new on the force and this has never really happened to
me before. But if you’d just pick up your speed a bit, I’d sure appreciate it.”
“All right,” she assured him and pulled right back into 65 mph traffic at a blazing 45
Motorcycles scared her the most. Granny spent weeks trying to talk me out of the
bike, but it was futile. I was twenty now and paying for it with my own money. Besides,
it would also transport me to my first job after college, as a high school English teacher.
Realizing the inevitable, she asked if she could at least go with me to the store to pick it
out. A sleek, black Honda first caught my eye, but it was Granny who chose the
“It’s red and people will be able to see you on it better.”
The afternoon of our ride, she gingerly strapped on the blue helmet that I had
purchased just for her. It matched her eyes, which looked even bluer now against her
pale, tremulous face. She was wearing a purple, polyester pantsuit which I feared would
burn on the tailpipe, but I knew it would have been useless to ask her to roll up her pant
legs. It wouldn’t have been “ladylike.” Daintily, she lifted one leg over the back of my
bike and climbed on.
“Now wrap your arms tightly around my waist,” I commanded, revving the engine.
“And grip me hard with your knees. I don’t want you to fall off.” Delicately, she placed
a hand on each of my hips.
“Tighter!” I yelled over the rev of the engine.
She moved her fingers, tentatively, one inch further around my waist. I shook my
head and started us slowly out of the driveway. However, the second I accelerated,
Granny gripped me for dear life and almost squeezed the breath out of me.
“Don’t hold so tight,” I screamed over the roar of the engine as we picked up speed.
“You’re gonna make me fall over!”
“Slow down!” she squeaked, her voice barely audible through my helmet.
“Granny,” I yelled over my shoulder, “If we go any slower we’ll tip over!”
She never did release her death-grip on me as we slowly cruised the neighborhood.
Several neighbors we knew looked up as we chugged by, and all of them, mostly retired
couples, were so startled they didn’t even say “Hi.” Others must have been peeking
through their curtains, because when we returned from our jaunt, the phone began ringing
and didn’t let up through my teenage years. They had only known “Jo,” as “the quiet
widow who lives by herself down the street.” She would soon be referred to as, “That
poor, old dear, who lives with that wild teenager!”
Okay, so I sunbathed nude in the backyard. All right, so it was a cyclone fence and
you could see through it and all the other fences all the way to the end of the street. But
- 15 -
Granny, acquiescing to my new persona – Vegetarian Nudist – had strung up bed sheets
across the fence first, before I pranced outside in my birthday suit munching a raw carrot.
Between the motorcycle, my hippie friends coming and going in their VW buses, and
my yoga practice, which she often did with me, Granny was quite the talk of the
neighborhood. I suppose the white, plaster cast of my nude torso, displayed at our front
door didn’t help. It was my college Art final; a statement of sorts on how war sullied
innocence. On top of it, I had glued sixty-five plastic, green, Army men. They were
posed in various military stances, marching across my breasts, down to the navel and up
my thighs to the pubic mound. Eventually, Granny covered that with a sheet, too.
However, as amenable as she could be, Granny drew the line at ear piercing. Despite my
thorough research and many compelling arguments, on the history of piercing and
adorning body parts, Grandmother remained entirely unmoved.
“The only holes you’re going to have in your ears are already there,” she warned.
“You listen with them.”
And that was that. I never did pierce my ears, but mostly because I had a terrible
aversion to needles. But I did listen, even when she didn’t speak. Her natural silence far
overshadowed her brief words, and both made an equal impact on me. Once you knew
where she stood—and neither her character nor ethics ever wavered—you could surmise
her response to most anything. Yet of all my memories of Granny, the one that
profoundly changed both of our lives, transpired because of something that I said to her.
I said it the summer that I turned twelve. Granny and I had planned a trip together the
month of August. We were driving to California & would spend some time on the beach.
We were both excited to leave the sweltering Arizona sun. However, at the last moment,
my great-grandmother, Daisy, had lost her help. At 86, and badly crippled with arthritis,
Great-granny could not be left alone that long. Though she lived by herself in an
apartment nearby, Granny Jo had always checked in on her daily.
We agonized over what to do and finally decided that a temporary nursing home
would be the best. For several weeks we visited “old age homes,” trying to find just the
right one for Daisy. It wasn’t easy. Most were filthy. Others were sterile and cold. All
were a shock to me. I had never seen so many bent-over, white-haired, wrinkled-faced,
decrepit people all together in one place before. It was like viewing a whole separate
species. Prior to that, the thought of death had often occurred to me, but aging had not.
Many sat mutely in wheelchairs with see-through, plastic bags hanging from the
backs. I was horrified when Granny told me matter-of-factly that the dark, yellow liquid
oozing into those bags was their urine. The few residents who were strong enough to still
walk shuffled so slowly in front of us that I became antsy and tried to pass them. Granny,
noting my impatience, merely took my arm and slowed our pace as we walked the eerily
Looking wide-eyed into every room that had an open door, I saw all the others lying
in beds with steel bars pulled up around them. They looked like dead bodies, until you
- 16 -
watched long enough to see that they were actually still breathing. I wondered why they
were penned in. It certainly didn’t look like they were going anywhere.
“They look like big, old babies in cribs,” I whispered with dismay.
Granny didn’t say a word. She just put a finger to her lips to shush me.
What upset me the most wasn’t the indifferent attitude of the attendants who pushed
their comatose charges down the halls. It wasn’t the crying I heard behind closed doors.
Nor was it the gooey mush that oozed out of all those toothless mouths at mealtimes.
Even the woman trying to nurse a baby doll at her exposed and withered breast didn’t
disturb me. I thought it was rather sweet in an odd way.
What has stayed with me since, was the soul-wrenching smell of those places; a
stench that went beyond that antiseptic, dried blood, feces, sour, vomit aroma that lingers
in the corridors of hospitals. It is what I can only describe now as the bitter, silent smell
of utter loneliness.
We finally chose a ‘home,’ telling ourselves, “It’s only for a few weeks.” Then we
kissed Great-granny, “Good-bye.” It is the first time I ever remember her crying and it
was hard to leave her there, surrounded by strangers. But Granny gently took my hand
and we went home.
That night as she fixed dinner, I didn’t help her like I usually did. Instead, I just sat
on my red, plastic stool by the counter and watched her work. As she peeled the
potatoes, I noticed that several, blue veins stood out prominently on the back of her hands
and there were also flat, brown spots across her forearms. Had they always been there?
For now I had just seen hundreds of hands like hers. As I studied her wrinkled face, I
kept thinking of Great-granny Daisy. For the first time it occurred to me that someday,
Granny, too, would be that old.
“What will you do when you’re old, Granny?” I suddenly asked.
“Oh, probably go to a nursing home,” she replied matter-of-factly.
For a moment, I was almost too startled to speak. How could she say that after what
we had just seen? The thought of the one person whom I loved the most, living in one of
those places was unthinkable. I knew then, unequivocally, that I would never let that
happen. And in my impetuous reply, I didn’t even pause to think, but my next few
sentences would someday change both of our lives.
“Oh, no!” I said adamantly. “I will take care of you myself. I promise, Granny, I will
never, ever put you in a home!”
She just smiled that soft, effortless smile of inner peace and said, “That’s sweet of
you, dear. But it’s really too much to ask of anyone. Besides, you’ll have a life of your
own by then.”
- 17 -
“Don’t judge too quickly. It takes time and investigation to see the whole picture.”
Sixteen years later I did have a life of my own; a blossoming career as a songwriter and
recording artist and John and I had been married almost two years. We were living in
Nashville the afternoon I received a call from my uncle, Buzz, in California.
“I think we may have to put Jo in a home,” he said sadly. “There is a long waiting list
in those places and we have put her name on one. We just want you to be prepared
because it is getting harder for us to take care of her.”
At eighty-two, Granny Jo could no longer live alone. Her unpaid bills piled up along
with the newspapers. While making a pot of tea one day, she started a fire on the kitchen
stove – both because she forgot to put water in the pot and had also left napkins by the
gas burner. Several times she got lost driving to the grocery store around the corner. The
final straw, I am told, was when she began accusing friends and neighbors of taking her
Realizing her precarious situation, Buzz flew to Phoenix and sold her home of almost
thirty years. He took her to Santa Cruz, and moved her in with his wife, Dixie, and two
young children. At first it seemed like a wonderful arrangement but Granny became
increasingly delusional. She was a lost soul now in a strange place.
Some nights she wandered off; others she sat and talked to the TV set – even when it
wasn’t on. Buzz had called the police many times when she disappeared altogether.
Some nights they found her at bus stops or wandering in the neighbors’ backyards.
Trying to care for her, as well as parent their own small children was becoming an
John and I decided to move her in with us, “Just to try it for a few months.” The
timing was fortuitous: we were already moving to southern California. I was on a break
from touring college campuses and he was starting his own investment business. I
thought the world of him for agreeing to move Granny in, even though it was “just
temporary.” He knew how much she meant to me. Neither of us realized what might lie
ahead. In hindsight, it was really better that way.
It had been less than a year since I last saw Granny Jo, but a lifetime had passed since
then; hers. She was standing in front of the open refrigerator when we arrived at Buzz
and Dixie’s house. Her back was towards me but I could hear her mumbling something.
As I drew closer, I clearly heard her say, “Shall I eat you? Or you?” Granny was talking
to a handful of raisins that sat unresponsive in her open palm.
I closed the refrigerator door and put my arms around her. We stood there for several
moments before she realized it was me. Then came the beautiful recognition.
“Oh darling. It’s you,” she cried. “I have missed you so!”
- 18 -
Her face held more lines than I had remembered, but that wasn’t what startled me. It
was the vacant, confused stare of her eyes. They looked at me without purpose as if they
had simply been dropped in their sockets like marbles to roll aimlessly. Still, her eyes
were blue, but such a gentle shade that it is not the color you remembered but the look in
them; a look always of acceptance.
The only time they seemed to gain color was in anger or disappointment but both
emotions were rare in Granny. If they did occur, one didn’t really see her eyes anymore,
just the purse of her lips; lips that had tightened so often to hold words back that they
resembled the pale, sealed edges around a clam shell. At night, when she removed her
false teeth, her lips collapsed inwards, wrinkling like the end of a tied-off balloon. She
hated the way she looked with her teeth out. If I chanced upon her before bed, she
quickly covered her mouth with her hand. Talking became awkward and embarrassing
for her. Between sentences, she even stuck her tongue against her closed lips to hold
them out with some semblance of shape.
According to her driver’s license, Granny was five feet, ten inches. I’d have sworn
she was even taller. Her posture was always erect, due, she said to her mother, Daisy’s,
constant admonitions to, “Stand up straight and don’t slouch!” Even now, she had
several inches on me, which always caused me to lift my own carriage in her presence.
Out of habit, I began to smooth her short, white hair with my hands. It had natural
waves that fluffed upwards and spread outward from the sides of her face like angel
wings, as if ready to carry her off with the next gust of wind. She constantly tried to
flatten them down. Mostly this was a desire to keep every hair in place and not draw
attention to herself. Granny was shy and abhorred any kind of focus on her person. She
was also self-conscious about her “big ears.” Since she kept them so well covered, they
never seemed big to me. In fact, I often referred to them as her, “valentines,” since they
each formed half of a perfect heart.
Granny just stared blankly as I looked at her face; that bemused face with the “Roman
nose,” she always thought was too big. I haven’t a clue as to what she meant by that, but
I do remember thinking that if her nose were really so big it would hold up her darn
glasses! They hung from a fraying cord around her neck. She rarely used them because
they never fit properly. Later, despite our sometimes weekly trips to the eye doctor for
adjustments and the countless nose and ear pads I bought to hold them up, it was futile.
Either they slipped down to the edge of her nose or fell off entirely.
I buttoned a button that she had left undone on her shirt. That wasn’t like her. Then I
pulled her shirt straighter around her wide, flat hips. They could seemingly hold the
weight of the world, or at least me. For I loved to sit in her lap, even when all grown up.
The length from her hips to her knees was so long that it provided the best chair
imaginable. Like me, Granny was short-waisted. Our rib cages met right at the hip. This
meant we seemed tall when we stood, but appeared much smaller when sitting. Granny
always said that it gave us, “an air of mystery.”
- 19 -
Mystery was important to Granny. She often warned me, “not to tell everything you
know,” especially to my husband. Later, she would be flabbergasted to learn that John
and I discussed everything, including sex; a taboo in her day. The night before we got
married, Granny called me discreetly into her bedroom.
“Now, darling,” she began to explain, somewhat uncomfortably. “Tomorrow, after
you are married, John might be expecting something from you.”
My mind raced.
“Expecting something?” I queried. “Like what?”
Carefully, she crawled up on the antique maple bed, which her own father had made
by hand. Then she crouched down on all fours like a cat.
“Now tomorrow, when you go to bed for the first time as man and wife,” she
continued, “John may want to . . .”
Suddenly I understood where this was going and cut her off abruptly.
“Oh, Granny,” I said as seriously as I could muster. “That’s all right. You don’t have
to show me. I know what you’re going to say and don’t worry. I’ve done some reading.”
Her Victorian training had never left her. She lived the values she had grown up
with: speak when spoken to; a woman’s place is in the home; and a wife’s duty is to
assume the missionary position whenever her husband asks. Years earlier, when I had
asked her about sex, I don’t remember her exact words but the message was clear: it was
something that men were biologically programmed to need and enjoy, and women were
equipped to provide and endure. Oh, how times had changed – but not Granny. The
family’s running joke was that Granny was, “the only twice-married woman with three
kids who was still a virgin.”
She seemed so far away from me and I wanted desperately to connect with her. So, I
kissed her cheek; that familiar, dimpled dollop that seemed to hold the shape of my lips
for just a moment and let go. She smiled and kissed me right back, just like her old self.
Her skin was still soft, almost buttery, despite the fact that she had never used anything
on it but, “plain, old Ivory soap.” The only difference between her skin and a baby’s was
that Grandmother’s had a papery feel to it as if it could tear.
Even now, she looked decades younger than she was. To see her naked after a bath
was always disconcerting for it gave the only clue to her real age: the droop of both
buttocks and breasts. In clothes, even I was often fooled into thinking that she was
younger. I will never forget the day some years before, that I had tried to help her with
her belt. She couldn’t see the hole to put the metal pin through. We were in a hurry, so I
belted her quickly myself.
“Ouch! You’ve hurt me,” she screamed.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, completely clueless.
“My breasts!” she wailed. “You’ve caught them under my belt!”
- 20 -
Indeed, I had belted both of them flat and hard to her waist. In later years, that
incident would remind me to always reach down through the top of her shirt and lift them
I took the raisins from Granny’s hand and led her to the sofa to sit down. Her hands
were her most beautiful feature and my coveted favorites. Over the years, I had caused
them to both applaud and be wrung in despair, but I knew and loved every single crease
in them. On first touch, they were always cool. When held, they warmed instantly as if
sparked by an invisible fire. When wrapped around mine, I felt safe.
They were hands that had lived, yet didn’t seem worn down. Strength lurked behind
each muscle of every finger. Like diligent nuns, they had worked quietly but ceaselessly:
pulling weeds, diapering babies, ironing clothes, washing dishes, spanking children,
though never me, baking bread, catching bugs, shooting pool, playing cards, carrying
luggage and painting flowers. Sometimes they flew nervously to her throat, other times
they folded on her lap as if in prayer. Her hands had held my own so often, that in
moments they seemed like part of my own body and I was loath to let them go.
I felt that way now. Even though it seemed as if I’d seen a stranger’s hand holding
those raisins, I knew the arch of knuckle and map of blue-veins that pulsed underneath. I
squeezed her hands. She squeezed mine back hard, just like always.
“Granny?” I asked gently. “How would you like to come and live with John and
“Right now?” she asked as much confused by the time as the question itself.
“Yes. Right now. How would you like to come and live in our house?”
“Oh, I would like that very much,” she smiled. Then immediately, her face clouded
over with worry.
“But how will we arrange it?”
“It’s already arranged,” I said. “We’re just going to pack your things and you’ll come
home with us.”
“That sounds wonderful,” she said. Still she didn’t budge from her spot.
“Do you mean now?” she asked again still somewhat uncertain.
“Yes, right now. Let’s pack your things.”
Granny gave me a big smile. I handed her a small suitcase and told her to just pack a
few things she would need for overnight. Then I began clearing out her closet. Though
there were many extra hangers, she had hung three or four shirts on a single one. Dirty
clothes were mixed in with the clean, and nothing was with its match. This was not the
closet of the meticulous woman I knew; the one who always arranged her outfits by color
When I returned, Granny was standing in exactly the same place I had left her, still
staring at her empty suitcase.
“Why aren’t you packing?” I asked. “Don’t you want to come with us?”
“Oh yes, dear,” she replied. “What am I supposed to do?”
- 21 -
“Put your overnight clothes in the suitcase.”
“Oh,” she said, without moving.
I picked out a nightgown, some underwear, socks, pants and a shirt.
“Put these in,” I said, handing her the clothes.
Slowly and carefully she began to fold her nightgown. Then she unfolded it and
folded it again. It was as if she were completely caught up in this one simple act and
could not stop. Finally, I put it in the suitcase for her. The rest of the clothes I handed to
her, item by item. Once all of them were inside, Granny stood mutely in front of the
“What else will you need for overnight?” I asked her.
“I don’t know.”
“How about your toothbrush?”
“Oh, yes,” she smiled, walking confidently towards the bathroom.
I waited. When she didn’t return, I followed after her. Granny was standing in front
of the bathroom mirror, just staring.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I forgot why I came in here.”
This was going to be more difficult than I had expected. When John had first agreed
to let Granny live with us “temporarily, to see how it goes,” I had never imagined this
once stalwart person could be so helpless. This was a woman who had always triumphed
over difficult circumstances: the Depression, bankruptcy, two divorces, raising three
children mostly on her own, earning a masters degree in her fifties, and raising her
granddaughter by herself. Who was this lost and feeble woman in front of me? What
had I thrust on my new husband? Inwardly I began to panic.
We finished packing her things, said our “good-byes,” and drove off with Granny
staring blankly from the back seat. As we wound our way down the coast towards San
Diego, I was equally sad and nervous. Sad, because the woman in the back seat was not
really my grandmother; the one who edited my college term papers, taught me how to
make a cheese soufflé, or told me countless times to, “Turn down the stereo!” She had an
answer for everything and always made me feel secure. This one was an impostor.
Nervous because I was afraid, given the circumstances that I might not be able to keep
that promise I had made her as a little girl.
I turned around and reached behind me to grasp her hand. She smiled and squeezed
mine back, just like always. Immediately though, her face went slack and she stared
blankly out the window. I knew from her vacant expression that she had no idea where
she was going or why. I also knew that I loved her so much it really didn’t matter.
My biggest concern at the moment was for my husband of less than two years.
Would he be able to handle this new responsibility? After all, this was not his relative.
Was I asking too much of him and the marriage? He answered my worries even as I
- 22 -
“Jo. How about stopping for some ice cream?” John asked.
“Oh, I’d love that, dear.” She smiled.
“What’s your favorite kind?”
“Oh, anything you’d like, dear.” She replied.
“Well, my favorite is pickle ice cream,” he teased. I’ll get you some of that.”
“You rascal!” she retorted.
We were on a roll – soon to become bumpy – but a roll.
- 23 -
“Men and women are different. Otherwise they’d be called the same thing.”
By the time I was a freshman in high school, I already knew I was going to college. It
never occurred to me to consider anything else, including marriage or children. Neither
ever entered my thoughts. Granny was adamant that I get a degree and be able to support
myself. She often said, “A woman should not be kept, but be able to earn her own
keep.” And she took her own advice: at the age of fifty, Granny earned a Master’s
degree and became a high school guidance counselor.
As for men, I was encouraged to “play the field and not get too serious” about anyone
until I was successful in my own right. So I did and I brought most of them home to
meet her: the auto mechanic, lawyer, gambler, shoe salesman, skydiver, college
professor, surfer, and the doctor. For over ten years, a multitude of my boyfriends came
home to dinner with Granny.
In they marched in sandals and T-shirts, Brooks Brother’s blazers, silk suits and
Italian loafers or armed services uniforms. They were barefooted, bare-breasted, long-
haired or buzz-cut. They wore cowboy hats, golf visors, bandanas, and sported tattoos,
love beads or cadet bars. They were black, white, French, German, Jew, Catholic,
atheist, Buddhist and born-again Christian; some were tall and strapping, others, short
and fat. One resembled Baby Huey, a popular cartoon character. You name the type and
I probably brought him home to meet Granny. How they looked didn’t particularly
matter to her as she treated all of them exactly the same: with polite interest.
At the end of these dinners, when the boys had gone and we were washing up the
dishes, I always asked her the same question: “What did you think of him?” For of
course, in that moment, whoever “he” was, I was no doubt madly in love. Her reply for
those ten years remained exactly the same: “He seems nice, dear.” And that was that.
The night I brought John home, Granny treated him exactly like all the others:
engaged him in conversation, asked about his family and was demurely polite. However,
by the time dinner was over and she went to the kitchen for dessert, I couldn’t stand the
suspense any longer. Quickly, I followed after her.
“Granny,” I whispered, “what do you think so far?”
“I like him, dear” she said decisively. There was even a sparkle in her eye as she said
That’s all it took. I knew I finally had her approval – as briefly spoken as it was! I
was so ecstatic that I barely remember the rest of the evening. But I did feel even then,
that John was a bit like Grandmother, and not just because they both had blue eyes and
were born in July! It was their sensitive, thoughtful demeanors. Even better, both were
exceedingly good listeners. For someone like me, who never runs out of things to say, it
was like hitting the jackpot.
- 24 -
I struck it twice: first with Granny, then with John. For without him, I would never
have been able to care for her. He was the one able to read her moods, not me. And
though I often made her smile, John was the only one who made her laugh out loud:
“Josie,” he said to her one afternoon, “how do you like my hair?”
It always took her eyes a few moments to focus. When she finally spied two, little
pigtails sticking out from either side of his head, she just roared.
“You look ridiculous!” laughed Granny. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Just getting a laugh out of you,” he replied.
“Well you did,” she said pretending to be disgusted. “You can take those out now.”
“But don’t I look cute?” he teased.
“No. You just look ridiculous,” she laughed again. “Take them out!”
I was forever encountering problems with her, while he was continually proffering
“Honey, Granny’s feet are so cold,” I said with worry, having worried of course for
“Yes, I’ve noticed that,” he said nonchalantly. “Why don’t you get her some thicker
socks? And be sure you get her shoes a half size larger so they’ll fit.”
Perhaps because John was not so emotionally connected to her, he was better able to
assess her behavior objectively. For example, now that Granny had so many ‘normal’
days in a row, it was easier to focus on the weird ones. John noticed that there was
always a pattern preceding them: they always followed a day of sweets, especially if she
had not eaten a well-balanced meal. And, the days when her edema made her ankles
badly swollen, she was the most confused of all.
I became even more rigorous about her diet. Out, went all salt and almost all sweets.
She was very angry with me. In, went lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. I made certain
that she ate three meals a day and had some protein at each. Often, I stood over her as if
she were a small child and told her that she could not get up from the table until her
vegetables were finished.
Her response to my new diet was like that of a small child. Granny had a clever little
habit of hiding her peas under her mashed potatoes. Or, when I wasn’t looking, she
might scoop her broccoli into her napkin, ball it up and throw it away. Once I caught her
spooning her squash onto my dish. So, like a parent does with a child, I even bribed her
with ice cream, “If you finish everything on your plate.”
Though she had always loved to walk, John and I decided that regular and more
strenuous exercise would be good for her. So, we signed up for a Family Membership at
the local YMCA and took her with us every single morning. It was fun watching the
faces of the other exercisers when we brought Granny into the gym. Beefy, sweaty guys
with muscles rippling under their tank tops often stopped mid-dead-lift, just to stare at
her. First I plunked her down on the mats and made her do sit-ups and leg raises – ten of
each. Because she was so hard of hearing, I had to yell my instructions pretty loudly:
- 25 -
“That’s four, Granny. Come on. Six more!” I barked.
She protested constantly.
“This is absolutely unnecessary, dear. I have no desire to have muscles. Men should
have muscles, not women. God intended them to be the weaker sex.”
It took me more time to actually get her on the equipment than she spent using it.
First I negotiated her path through that grunting mass of contorting bodies and clanging
dumb bells. When I found a machine that I thought she could use, I lifted her legs,
placed her arms just so, and told her what to do. Though I always used the lightest
weight, she still complained and made sure everyone heard her.
“This is absolutely ridiculous,” she scolded. “I have no desire to compete with men
and neither should you.”
Occasionally, the women in particular, looked disapprovingly at me as I counted out
Granny’s routines. Though I only made her do ten of each, she always complained by the
third one. However, I remained insistent until she had at least attempted all ten. No
doubt the casual onlooker thought that I was being too rough on her. When she had
finally finished her ten, she often giggled and whispered in my ear, “I could have done
more, you know.”
The delight for us was seeing her flushed face afterwards. Granny was more lively,
more talkative and simply more joyful. As the weeks and months passed, her step was
quicker and her spirits higher. The better she got, the more I pushed her. The more I
pushed her, the better she got.
What we discovered quite by accident 30 years ago, science has now proved.
Exercise increases a chemical in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor
(BDNF). Not only is it capable of building neurons and synapses, it also improves
learning and vascular function. BDNF is really a self-preservation mechanism in the
Two years had passed since her ‘dementia’ diagnosis and she was truly a different
person than the morning she moved in with us. Now that she was so much more lucid, I
bought her a journal, which I insisted she write in daily. Her entries, written in a very
cramped, tiny scrawl mostly involved the day at hand:
John, Helen and I are on the beach here on a bright, sunny day
which makes for a sunburn. Only a few minutes quicken the sensitivity of
an old, blue-eyed blonde to the dangerous possibilities. There is a fairly
strong breeze from the sea, which attempts to hide the burning
concentration of the heat, which is triggered not only by the sun but also
by its reflection from the sandy beach. This section of the beach is a cove,
a circular . . .
- 26 -
She rarely completed more than a paragraph at a time and often stopped mid-sentence
as if she had simply run out of thought. However, she seemed to enjoy it so much that I
also enrolled her in a local community college writing workshop. Every week she had a
different assignment, and every week, she wrote the same story about her father taking
her on nature walks as a child:
My father impressed me from the very first that God made
everything. He took me on short, Sunday walks when I was only four yeas
old. He showed me the fascinating little ants carrying their eggs across
the sidewalk to a new home. Then he stooped and held my little hand in
his with a nut inside to tempt a squirrel that came on our lawn.
Since she loved art, I bought her a tablet of paper and watercolors and sat her down to
draw in the afternoons. Every day she drew the same scene: the houses and flower
bushes outside our living room window. Still, they were lovely sketches and looked as if
an intelligent hand had drawn them.
Granny often spoke about writing her autobiography, so I bought her a blank book
with pre-printed questions. One of the first which she answered was, “Describe the
insights you have concerning your retirement years:”
I have now passed fifteen years of retirement. In 1977 I had an
implant operation in my eye and have had some blur and continual
medication and doctoral checking ever since. I was alone then and
couldn’t drive. Later, I was pleased to have my son suggest I live with
them so I sold my house and went. They were dear to me but didn’t
realize what a mental shock it was to lose my home of nearly thirty years.
They couldn’t understand my illness so I came to live with Helen and
John. I am happy with them but I know they think of a time when I may
become more incapacitated that I am now.
Interestingly, at the time, it never occurred to either one of us that: she would live so
long – 13 more years – or that she could be any more incapacitated! Like Granny, we
were all living very much in the moment. Neither John nor I realized at the time just how
important our care of her really was. But it became exceedingly clear during the two
weeks we had to be away from her.
I had an opportunity to visit my birthplace in Sydney, Australia, and meet family that
had only seen me as a baby thirty years earlier. Taking Grandmother was out of the
question. Fortunately, nearby was a very attractive, very clean, short-term, care facility
for older people. The residents were all ambulatory and each had their own room and
- 27 -
bath. There was also a nurse on staff, just in case. Well-balanced meals were served in a
lovely, flower-filled, dining room and there were daily activities and field trips.
It seemed the perfect solution. Though Granny wasn’t wild about going there, I gave
her no choice. We even brought in her own bedspread, lamp, and her favorite chair so
that it would feel homey. I put her night light in the bathroom and made sure nothing
was in her path that would make her stumble.
For the two weeks we were in Sydney, we called her every day. Though she was
beginning to sound confused again, the nurses on duty constantly assured me, “All is
well.” When we returned, I rushed upstairs and into her bedroom. Granny was sitting on
the edge of her bed, just staring. Her hair was uncombed, her teeth unbrushed and her
clothes disheveled and unbuttoned. Though she perked up at once upon seeing us, it was
as if the whole previous year had been undone in a mere two weeks.
As we packed her things, I noticed that her journal hadn’t one single entry. The book
I had left her to read hadn’t even been opened and her clothes were exactly as I had first
put them in the drawers and closets. When I questioned the staff, they told me that, “Jo
did not want to attend any of our activities,” so they simply let her vegetate. That night
as I readied her for a bath, I was shocked to discover that she had been wearing the same
underwear for the entire two weeks.
Now it was very clear to us how crucial we had been not only to her physical well-
being but also to her mental stability. She needed to be included, even if that meant
taking her everywhere with us. From then on, no matter where we went, even if she had
no clue as to where we actually were, she was with us. This led to both embarrassing and
At church one morning, she stunned not only us, but everyone else sitting within
“Is that man gonna keep talking forever?” Grandma suddenly blurted right in the
middle of the sermon.
“Shh.” I whispered. “We’re in church. That’s the minister.”
“Well, I’m ready to go,” she practically shouted. “He’s boring!”
Because she was so hard of hearing, we always sat near the front. Unfortunately, we
were in the middle of the row and there was no way to get out quickly. So, I took hold of
her hands and held them tightly. She glared at me and I shook my head ‘No,’ at her
several times to indicate that she was to be quiet. For the rest of the sermon, she sighed
and exhaled so loudly that several people in the pews ahead of us kept turning around.
Finally, when the choir began to sing, I took her outside.
“Well, I’m certainly glad that’s over!” she exclaimed.
“You used to love church,” I scolded.
“Well, not this kind of church,” she said. “They’re a bunch of stiff, old, boring
people in there.”
- 28 -
We never attended that particular church again. Instead, we began going to one that
had a ponytail-wearing minister, and lots of young people playing guitars. I could hardly
stand it – way too much “Praise the Lord” stuff for me. Granny, however, thought it was
“wonderful,” so I enrolled her in their Bible study class. Now, instead of my attending
church, I simply dropped her off and picked her up when it was over.
One morning I asked her what she had learned. Keep in mind that this was a woman
who could quote quite a bit of the Bible from front to back.
“It was very interesting today,” she confided. “I learned that a fellow with John’s
name used to capsize people.”
“Capsize?” I queried.
“Yup. Dunked them right under the water.”
“Oh, you mean, John, the Baptist.” I proffered.
“No,” she said, disgusted that I was so ignorant. “They called him, 'John the
“Why would they call him ‘a captive?'” I asked, thinking I might have missed
something in my biblical training.
She thought about this for a moment.
“Well, I’m not sure. But I think that maybe he was imprisoned in a lake or
“So why did he dunk people in the water?” I asked, now realizing that she probably
had not heard the teacher well and confused “Baptist,” with “captive.”
“Hmm,” she paused, mulling this over. “They were probably in his way.”
“Well, Grandma, that’s not a very Christian thing to do, is it--dunking people in the
water just because they’re in your way?”
“No,” she sighed. “But the minister said, ‘He was doing the Lord’s work.’”
Of course it was pointless to argue with her. It only made her more confused.
Though John and I had long learned to ignore half of what she said, others did not. The
average person meeting her for the first time or seeing her in public briefly had no clue as
to her dementia – including one of her own doctors.
One afternoon, I took Granny to the eye doctor for her Glaucoma pressure check.
This had to be done every few months. When she insisted that I wait for her outside, I
didn’t mind. I just figured that she was having one of her “independent days.” However,
a few minutes later, her doctor came out with a very, serious look on his face.
“Jo tells me that you’re putting something in her milk,” he said with raised brows.
“What?” I asked completely perplexed.
“She says that you’ve been putting a strange, dark powder in her milk.”
“Oh, you mean her hot chocolate,” I laughed, suddenly understanding.
“Hmm,” he replied, as if weighing my response.
“I give her diluted hot chocolate as a treat almost every afternoon, but now that you
mention it, she hasn’t been drinking it lately.”
- 29 -
“What about ‘the little white pills’ she says you make her take?” he continued, still
“They’re digitalis,” I said, feeling like I was on trial. “They’re prescribed by her
doctor for her heart.”
“I see,” he said, still acting suspicious. “Does she have a heart problem?”
“Yes.” I said, not pleased with the way this conversation was going. “She also has a
“I beg your pardon?”
“She has senile dementia,” I informed him. “According to her doctor, it is somewhat
common in people her age.”
“Well, Jo seems quite lucid to me,” he said.
“Just a minute,” I said marching into the examining room. He followed after me.
“Granny?” I asked. “Who’s the President of the United States?”
She looked at me like I was an idiot.
“The person in charge of the country, of course,” she replied indignantly.
“I know that. What’s his name?”
This threw her.
“Well, what year is it?” she questioned.
“Are you sure?”
“That doesn’t seem right,” she said suspiciously, as if I had given her the wrong year.
“Well, what year do you think it is?” I asked, playing along.
“That’s a tricky question,” she smiled. “But is it Harry Truman?”
Even as I marched her out the door that doctor still seemed to think there was
something suspicious about me. As a result, I found her a new one and we never went
back to him again. It wouldn’t solve all of our problems with the outside world in the
years ahead though: Alzheimer’s always leads to a case of mistaken identity.
- 30 -
“You can’t get something for nothing.”
When I was ten, I came across an intriguing ad in the paper that said, “Make $100 in your
spare time.” I was thrilled. It wouldn’t require someone driving me and I didn’t have to
be eighteen! All I had to do was purchase a few boxes of Christmas cards and the money
would just pour in. I wanted to send for the cards right away. Grandmother warned me
that, “Whatever it is, you can’t get something for nothing.”
She was right. That summer, just to get my initial investment back, I had to sell
twelve boxes of Christmas cards. On first blush that doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
But try selling Christmas cards in the middle of summer in Phoenix, Arizona to complete
strangers! In the years since that experience, I not only automatically dump all junk mail,
and refuse to buy lottery tickets, I even mute the commercials on TV. Unfortunately, I
would have to re-teach Granny her own lesson.
After the first year, we moved from the rental house and into a condo. With John’s
work and my travel, it was becoming too difficult to maintain a house. We found a
lovely, two-bedroom, two-bath unit on a high bluff overlooking the ocean. There were
about 65 condos in the 2-story complex, surrounded by sidewalks that weaved in and out
of garden areas, and led to a small pool at the center. What appealed to us the most was
that it was a gated community: one had to have a key to get in and out.
Granny would be safer here even if she wandered. Since our unit was on the ground
floor, she could now take her daily walks right out our sliding glass door. Just a few feet
away lay a well-worn path that ran along the bluff and overlooked the ocean. She loved
the view. I loved the security. Not only could I keep my eye on her, but it was lined with
a fence and had a locked gate at both ends.
We gave Granny much more freedom now. She had regained, again, some of her
basic abilities: dressing herself, helping around the house, answering the phone, showing
some skill in games that we played, and exercising. Even if she got lost on her daily
walks, we were always able to find her within the complex. Though we didn’t give her a
key to the outside gate, we did give her the one to the mailbox. She loved getting the
mail and after several practice runs, it became her daily responsibility. However,
confusion still arose when she had contact with others.
Imagine my surprise one morning when I encountered one of our neighbors at the
mailbox. On this morning I had retrieved the mail as Granny was in bed with a cold.
“Oh, you must be visiting Jo,” a woman said to me as I opened up our box.
I was puzzled. “Do you mean my grandmother, Jo Rogers?” I asked.
“Oh yes, we chat most every morning. You’re from Nashville, right? Jo said you
“Well, no,” I replied. “Actually, my husband and I live here and Granny lives with
- 31 -
When she looked at me strangely, I realized that I needed to explain.
“My grandmother is mentally confused,” I told her. “She’s been living with us for
the last two years. You’ll see the three of us around a lot. It was nice to meet you.”
As I walked away, the woman looked completely bewildered. And confusion continued
to stir in Granny’s mind. She had been keeping a tiny, handwritten calendar at her desk
that I probably should have paid more attention to. Looking back at it now, there were
clues that I missed. She noted each day with a few brief words:
7/1-Republican National Committee Fund
7/2-Children happier. Why?
7/3-Sharks at beaches.
7/6-Nancy Reagan’s birthday.
8/19-Furniture arrived. Neighbors helped unpack.
8/24-Helen in Nashville
9/19-Wrote Senator Packwood for Medal of Merit
The references to “Senator Packwood” and “The Republican Committee,” would play
a larger role than I realized. Granny thought that each form letter from these political
organizations was a personal note to her. She had no clue that her name was on a vast,
impersonal mailing list. Every time that one arrived asking for money she sent a check.
By the time we caught on, she had depleted her bank account by several hundred dollars.
One morning, I needed her to write a check to her doctor. Though I made sure her
bills were paid on time, I wanted her to feel that she was still assuming as much
responsibility as possible. As I result, I insisted that she fill out her own checks.
However, as she began writing, there were several previous withdrawals which I didn’t
Some were written to these political organizations. Others were made out to health
food products which advertised themselves as “Miracle Foods.” In one instance, she paid
$150 for a tiny bottle of chlorophyll pills. In another, she donated several hundred
dollars to a political candidate, receiving a phony “gold” coin in return.
I began looking through her desk and found stack upon stack of junk mail made out to
“Josephine Rogers.” The form letters all bore her personal name and were so cleverly
handwritten that it appeared, even to me, that the President himself was writing her
personally. I threw all of them out and she became very upset. Though I explained that
she was “being taken,” Granny wouldn’t listen. From then on, I tried to intercept all of
her junk mail, but a few slipped through my grasp.
Some weeks later, John and I arrived home one afternoon to find a stranger sitting on
the living room couch with Grandmother. He was about thirty-five, dressed in skin-tight
- 32 -
pants and, as far as I was concerned, sitting way too close to Granny. The moment we
arrived he became visibly nervous. Sweat began to bead on his upper lip and under the
arms of his bright, purple, silk shirt; a shirt unbuttoned mid-chest to show off his shiny,
gold chain necklace, along with a rather full profusion of black, chest hair.
“This is Vince*,” Granny said proudly. “I am joining his Singles Club.”
“Yes,” Vince quickly added, with a slightly pinched smile. “Jo has just decided to be
one of our special Senior members.”
“Exactly what does that mean?” I asked curtly.
“Well,” continued Vince. “Here is our brochure. We have a wide variety of activities
for our members and Jo will be a perfect addition to our group.”
I couldn’t stand the way he kept saying, “Jo,” as if they were intimate friends. He
gave me the creeps. I picked up the brochure. Inside were pictures of handsome twenty-
something couples dancing the tango, swimming, sailing and gambling in Las Vegas;
activities that she had not even engaged in when she was a young woman!
“Grandmother can’t possibly do these things,” I told him. “She can’t see, can’t hear
and has no interest in gambling. She gets seasick on boats. Besides, there’s not a single
person in this picture over the age of thirty-five!”
“Well, we have plenty of Senior members,” he enthused. “They just aren’t pictured
here. They’ll be in our new catalog which isn’t out yet. You see, there’s a place for
everyone in our Singles Club. Look, here’s the questionnaire that Jo filled out.”
I took it from his hand and began to read. Granny had filled out a three-page
questionnaire that asked everything from her smoking habits to her financial status!
Under the category which said, “The age of the partner you are seeking,” she had
checked: “It does not matter.” She had written her own age, “86,” correctly, however.
Apparently, Vince had decided to visit her in person. Granny had buzzed him in
through the electric gate, yet we had never taught her how to use it! She was clearly
thrilled to have a visitor. Vince was thrilled, too. In his hand was a $150 check which
Granny had made out to him personally.
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “Jo can’t possibly join this club.”
“Well,” he smiled, gaining confidence, “I’m afraid she already has.” He brandished
“I’ll take that,” said John slipping the check from his hand.
Vince cast one, last, hopeful glance at Granny who just looked bewildered. Then he
turned to face the two of us and his phony smile vanished. John ushered him out the
door. Even as it closed behind him, Vince was still trying to convince us that
Grandmother, was “perfect” to join his Singles Club. Despite the fact that Granny had
absolutely no interest in men and thought gambling was “a sin,” she burst into tears the
moment he left.
- 33 -
She fled crying into her room and accused us of keeping her from making friends.
Further, she said that she was lonely: “This was the one thing in life that could make me
happy,” she wailed.
I picked up the brochure again and looked closer. Perhaps I had been wrong.
“Are you lonely?” the pitch read. “Looking to make new friends? Our Singles Club
is just for you.”
Granny had never mentioned being lonely before. Already she had made several
friends among our neighbors and even our building superintendent visited her frequently.
She often said that she could never remember being lonely and wrote in her journal:
As a child, I don’t remember ever being lonely. I relied on my
curiosity whenever I was with grownups. Most often, I was the only child
among the adults. I wandered around within the allowable boundaries of
parental permission touching to “feel” whatever I dared. I think now that
the “feeling” or “touching” of things in strange places helped me to pass
the time whenever I had to wait for my mother to shop or converse with
However, Granny was no longer a child. Maybe her feelings had changed. Although
we included her in everything that we did, it occurred to me that she might prefer the
company of someone older. So, I decided to hire a companion for her during the
afternoons when she was alone. I was on hiatus from touring and had stopped working
nights. However, in the afternoons, I rehearsed and wrote in a small office nearby.
While Granny was alone for several hours at a time, she seemed to be just fine. She
walked the path along the bluff, did some reading and writing or sat in the living room
and, “watched the clouds float over the ocean.” Also, she was now answering the phone
and even able to take messages for us. Some, of course, were hard to decipher:
“Ree Sepcious, called you today,” Granny said blithely as I returned home. “She
wanted to remind you that you are having green tea tomorrow at three.”
“Who?” I asked confused.
“She said her name was, Ree Sepcious.”
“I don’t know any “Ree,” I said, mystified. “And why would I have green tea when I
don’t even like it?”
“Well, she certainly seemed to know you, and she made a definite point to say you
were having ‘green tea.’”
My confusion ended the following afternoon when I arrived for my three o’clock
dental appointment to have my teeth cleaned.
“I had a lovely talk with your grandmother yesterday,” said the ‘ree’ceptionist.
“Though I think she had a little trouble understanding me. I kept saying that we were
going to “clean your teeth,” and she kept repeating back, “green tea.”
- 34 -
Yes, perhaps a daily companion might be just the thing she needed. I ran an ad and
interviewed several people for the position with Granny present. The woman I finally
chose was quite personable, enjoyed playing cards and the two of them seemed to hit it
off. Marie was to start the following Wednesday. That afternoon, I came home a little
early, just to see how things were going. When I arrived, Granny was playing solitaire in
the living room, alone.
“Where is Marie?” I asked.
“Oh. I wrote her a check and sent her home,” Granny replied breezily.
“Because I don’t need a baby-sitter. I am perfectly happy by myself. In fact, I prefer
it. I don’t know why you hired her. It was a ridiculous waste of money.”
So, back we went to our merry ways as a threesome. Granny particularly enjoyed
going to our local pool hall, which also doubled as a biker hangout. I just loved the jaw-
dropping look that crossed the faces of all those tough guys, when Granny entered.
As we bought our balls and picked out our cue sticks, you could feel the atmosphere
in the room change. Granny squeezed between the players, some of whom wore jackets
inscribed, “Hell’s Angels,” and blithely waved away their cigarette smoke, as she
proceeded to our table. When she flipped her stick around for her trademark “behind-the-
back shot,” it was so quiet, that hers was the only ball you heard sinking into a pocket.
Other afternoons found us at the beach where Granny, sunblocked head to toe, and
wearing a large, floppy hat, walked along the shore. Her posture was ramrod straight.
She always managed, in spite of her poor eyesight, to navigate that special distance
between where the water stops and the sand starts. She did not like to get wet--not at all.
Just getting her into the bathtub at night was as difficult as immersing a Siamese cat.
As soon as she saw the water, her body went completely rigid. Her back arched and she
refused to step a foot in. I had to physically take her right leg, lift it over the edge of the
tub and force her in. Her fingers splayed out like claws as she tried to stop me.
“Oh! No!” she yowled as her feet hit the water.
“In the tub, young lady,” I insisted.
“You’re so mean,” she sputtered. “I hate this. I don’t know why I can’t just take a
“Because it doesn’t get you really clean. Besides, you stink!”
“Oh,” she said thoughtfully. “Then perhaps you shouldn’t get so close to me.”
“That’s impossible, Josiebell,” I teased. “How else could I give you hugs and
“Well,” she grinned, “then you’re giving me too many hugs and kisses.”
“Impossible! You can never have too many.”
“I suppose you’re right,” she sighed, now sinking in to enjoy the warm water.
- 35 -
For the next half an hour, I added hot water and bath oil to her tub. She loved me to
scrub her back with a washcloth. Then she placed it modestly over her breasts, closed her
eyes and appeared to snooze. When it was time to get out, she fought me again.
“I don’t want to get out,” she pouted.
“Well you’re wrinkling,” I replied. “And with the wrinkles you already have, you’ll
be so wrinkled that no one will recognize you.”
Reluctantly, she stood up, steadied herself on the handicapped handrail we had
installed, and stepped out. She dried each and every toe meticulously as if she were
polishing small, rare stones. I toweled her down from behind, lifting each sagging
buttock to dry the area underneath it. Then I combed her hair. Every few weeks I gave
her a trim. It was easy to cut. She had a natural wave so that even if I did a horrible job
she always looked pretty good. The little white tufts fell about her shoulders.
“That tickles,” she giggled.
“Hold still,” I ordered. “Or you’ll lose your nose.”
“It’s too big anyway,” she giggled again.
By now she had lost both the interest and ability to cut her own nails. It was tricky to
manicure a five foot ten, 145-pound “girl.” So, I always sat her down in front of me with
my legs straddled around her. I figure that during the thirteen years she lived with us, I
probably cut her nails more than 300 times. And she said the same six words to me every
single time I cut them:
“Stop! You’re cutting them too short!”
My reply was always: “When I was a teenager you told me long nails were hideous.
You said it made women look like they were about to strike. You said a woman should
always keep her nails short and clean. You said anything less would show that a woman
wasn’t practical-minded and too concerned about her appearance.”
“I said all that?” she questioned.
“Yes, you did,” I replied.
“Well,” she said after some consideration. “I was right.”
She was often right, even between her most delusional moments. One evening, John
and I were having an argument. She walked into the room and just stood there listening
to us. After several minutes of realizing we were being watched, we finally stopped and
looked at her.
“You are both being ridiculous,” she said. “You’re arguing over absolutely nothing.”
Then she walked out of the room.
We were dumbfounded. Of course, she was absolutely, unequivocally right. It was
like having our own, live-in, marriage counselor. Our first few years of marriage would
have been tough with or without Granny. John and I were opposites in most ways: He
was reflective. I was expressive. He did things after much deliberation. I did things
quickly without thinking. He was the oldest of eight children. I was an only child. The
latter, of course, was our biggest problem.
- 36 -
The majority of our arguments were over silly things, like his leaving the toilet seat
up or not capping the toothpaste. It sounds ridiculous to write it now, but I had never had
a father or brothers – and I certainly had never lived with a man before. “That,” Granny
had once told me, “would drive me to an early grave.” So, the first time I heard John pee
standing up, I actually thought that there was something wrong with the plumbing!
But Granny made a great ameliorator:
“Now, John,” she said sweetly, “since there are two women in the house now, it
would be nice not have to sit down in the cold, toilet water in the middle of the night. Do
you think you could remember to put the seat down?”
“Now, Helen,” she said diplomatically, “if you’re going to be so possessive of your
toothpaste, why don’t you just buy yourself another one. Then, John can do whatever he
wants to with his. Heaven knows how he ever gets any of it out, though, with it all
squished up like that.”
Her living in such close proximity to us also had its awkward moments. One
afternoon, Granny flung open the door and walked straight into the bathroom where John
was just emerging from the shower. He was so startled that he didn’t even have time to
wrap a towel around himself. She looked straight at him and said:
“Helen, darling. I can’t find my white sweater. Did you take it?”
“Uh, No,” John replied, quite embarrassed.
“Well, can you help me find it then?”
“Uh, O-k-ay, Jo,” he said tentatively. “Just give me a minute.”
“Thank you, dear,” she replied and turned on her heel and walked out.
Grandmother was such a modest and considerate person that we were never quite sure
if she pretended not to see and hear or if she were really quite deaf and blind. Her
reactions to us in the first few years were probably a mixture of both. But as time passed,
she became increasingly blind from glaucoma and could only hear out of her right ear--
and then only if you practically shouted.
Neither John nor I realized that we had both developed a very loud talking style with
Granny Jo at home. It wasn’t uncommon for us to have to repeat things several times to
her--at the end of which, we often simply yelled. For example, she couldn’t hear the
difference between consonants like “b” and “d.”
So, if I said, “Granny, did you make your bed?” She might well answer back, “No. I
didn’t wake the dead! Why do you ask?” After these convoluted conversations, when
John and I ended up screaming at her, she would look at us completely disgusted and say,
“You know, you don’t have to yell. I can hear you perfectly well.”
But she didn’t hear us and our forays in public were getting increasingly
embarrassing. Many a passerby scowled at me when it appeared that I was yelling at my
poor, old grandmother. One afternoon at the market, I had repeated the same thing to
Grandmother several times: “We already have peas,” when she insisted on buying more.
“I said, ‘please,’” Granny replied, as if I were questioning her manners.
- 37 -
“No.” I countered again, “I said: ‘We already HAVE PEAS!’”
A lady passing by the frozen food section had only heard the final statement from me
and at that point, I was screaming. She shook her head at me and scoldingly said under
her breath, “Can’t you just buy her some peas?” I was so embarrassed that I grabbed a
huge bag of frozen peas, and quickly put them in the cart.
I took Granny to the doctor to have her hearing tested. He suggested a hearing aid,
but said that it might not really help her in distinguishing consonants. She took one look
at the hearing aids and wanted no part of them. “That’s ridiculous,” Granny scolded. “I
hear perfectly well and I’m not going to wear one of those things. They’re for old
people!” Apparently, she didn’t think that being eighty-six was particularly ‘old.’
Strange to me at the time was that Granny often said: “I don’t feel old unless I look
in a mirror.” It was only then, she confided, that she realized she had white hair! The
day she first told me that, I wrote her this poem:
To Granny: Looking in the Mirror at 83
Granny, please don’t look so sad
Although your hair is turning gray.
And please don’t think your wrinkles bad
For I don’t see them anyway.
You are a rose now fully-bloomed
More radiant than gold
And yet it seems that all too soon
It withers and grows old.
But when the petals start to fall
And fade as roses do,
It’s only that they’ve had His call
To turn to something new.
And when the rose is only dust
And that is blown away,
It’s never any less a rose
Than what it was today.
For all the things that we can see
And touch, will someday pass.
And all the things we’ve yet to be
One can’t behold in glass.
- 38 -
A life beyond the one we’ve had
Is coming bye and bye.
So Granny, please don’t look so sad.
You’re closer now than I.
As time passed, of course, her eyesight was so poor that she couldn’t see in the mirror
at all. She also could no longer navigate little curbs or bumps in the road, so I bought her
a collapsible cane to walk with. Though she insisted she didn’t need it, she rather liked
the way it folded up with a snap of her wrist. So, just to please me, she used it whenever
she walked by herself. After awhile, though, we could only let her walk alone if she were
on a completely flat surface. Even that was not reliable. She always managed to find
every dip or dent in a path that was unobservable to our naked eyes.
When we went out together, one of us always held her arm tightly as her gait was so
unsteady and she couldn’t see. Approaching curbs or bumps, we yelled, “Step! Step!” so
that Granny would lift her legs higher to clear them. When she and I walked alone, I kept
my right hip pushed against her left one so that we stayed connected. If we were in a real
hurry, John and I got on either side of her and the three of us synchronized our steps so
that we could cover ground quickly. Sometimes, just for fun, John and I squeezed her
tightly between us and lifted her right off the ground between steps.
She particularly liked to hold John’s arm, and always insisted that he, “walk on the
outside.” Though it was something that he did naturally, each time she re-told him the
story of how this custom began. John was so patient with her, that he endured her
“It started during the horse and buggy days. Back then all the roads were dirt. There
was no pavement. It hadn’t been invented yet. The men walked on the outside so that
the women’s dresses wouldn’t be splashed by the mud the horses kicked up. . .”
Three years earlier, in 1983, I was chosen Campus Entertainer of the Year for solo artists,
by the National Association for Campus Activities. I performed at about eighty colleges
across the country each year and was often gone for several weeks at a time. We hired a
young woman, Linda, to handle my publishing business, contracts and travel
arrangements. She worked part-time in my office, which was close to home.
Whenever I was on the road, Linda came to our condo, both to work and also look
after Granny part-time. Otherwise, John had full responsibility of her. At first I agonized
over leaving and tried to arrange as many details for him as I could. After the first few
trips, however, I didn’t worry one bit. John and Granny did just fine without me!
They went to the beach and took walks. When Granny returned home, covered with
sand, John helped her into the shower and “hosed her down.” She fought him as hard as
she fought me, but he persisted. Immediately she forgot the ordeal, until the next time of
course. It took both finesse and discretion to help an elderly lady bathe herself without
- 39 -
either compromising her modesty or her safety. My husband, as I was learning, had both
qualities in spades. He continued to prove himself the same man who had written this
letter to Granny the year before we married:
July 19, 1979
Dear Mrs. Rogers:
I’ve written three previous letters to you but did not mail any until
now. Each prior letter seemed inappropriate, except for one statement
included in all three. That is, thank you for your hospitality, for being so
kind, which made my stay in Arizona so lovely. I enjoyed our swim, the
weather, the beauty of the landscape, but most of all, our talks.
The reason previous letters were inappropriate was that each
avoided telling you how much I love Helen. I love your granddaughter
and if God is willing, someday we plan on getting married.
I would like your advice on a few matters. As you might sense
from meeting me, I believe in doing what is proper. Would you give me
advice on the proper way of becoming engaged, setting dates, announcing,
etc. Secondly, I want to give Helen something as a symbol of our
togetherness and commitment to each other. Typically, a diamond ring is
given. Since Helen does not wear any jewelry, do you have any
You noticed that I addressed this letter to Mrs. Rogers. Previously,
on the phone, I called you grandmother, which was perhaps a bit brash
and forward of me. I realize it was not proper, but it just came out. I
observed that Helen often calls you Jo, and am a bit confused about how
to address you.
Presently, I am on a plane headed for Boston. It’s a bit bumpy, so
excuse my handwriting. I hope to visit with you again. Any advice you
feel like sharing with me would be appreciated.
John also took her to the movies. Although Granny could never remember what they
had seen, she just loved being in his company. She even pretended to be interested in the
basketball games that he liked to watch on TV:
“What’s going on now, dear?” she would ask every now and then.
“The guy in green just fouled the guy in white, so he gets a free throw,” John would
“A free throw?” she would inquire sweetly.
“Yeah, that means he gets to try and make a basket without anyone playing defense.”
- 40 -
“Oh, I see,” she would say as if she understood completely. Then after a brief pause,
she would ask, “And what’s a free throw again, dear?”
In fact, with me out of the way, they could both eat all the ice cream and “naughty”
foods they liked. Sometimes I returned home to find empty ice cream cartons along with
discarded, cookie bags in the garbage bins! After one trip, I found these lines in her
January 1986 – California
I cannot believe the years have gone so fast. Also, my present
permanency in the Weavers’ lives has crept up on me without awareness
until now. They are charmers unidentified. I hope my presence adds to
some need or pleasure in their lives. As long as I am here, may I never
cause friction or unhappiness to either.
- 41 -
“Do your best. Then forget about it.”
All through my school years, I remember being just about the only kid who never worried
about a test after it was over. Granny had imprinted on me long ago to do my best and
then “forget about it.” She first taught me this when I was about eight and had just
finished one of those sand paintings that come in a kit. As I presented it to Granny, I
realized that there was a tiny spot of glue without any sand on it. My picture was not
perfect! When I hurried away to add more sand, Granny warned, “Now don’t you change
a thing. This is fine just the way you made it. It captures the way you felt at the
It bothered me to leave that imperfection. So, when she wasn’t looking, I quickly
added more sand to the empty spot with the glue. Unfortunately, as I poured it, too much
ran out and stuck to the painting in other places. Frantically, I tried to pull out the extra
grains but succeeded only in making holes in my picture. Granny hung it up on the wall
anyway and said, “I hope this will remind you not to try and be so perfect.”
During the years Granny lived with John and me, I made so many mistakes that if I
hadn’t been able to ‘forget about it’ and move on, I’d have become immobilized. There
was a constant battle within me: treat her as the woman I had known or as the woman
she was becoming. I was more often wrong than right but that is the trickiness of
Alzheimer’s: one moment the patient is adult and aware – the next they are childlike and
For example, I forced her to chew her vegetables for weeks before I realized that she
couldn’t. Her dentures didn’t fit but she could not make that connection herself. I got
angry with her when she didn’t tie her shoelaces. It never occurred to me she had
forgotten how to do it. Strangely enough, while she lost this ability for years, she
actually was able to tie her shoelaces again during her last year of life. I spent months
chastising her when she spilled food all over her clothes, before I finally put a bib around
her neck. When I did it automatically one night while we were out to dinner, she scolded
me for treating her “like a baby.”
The truth was that her capabilities vacillated from one extreme to the other. Some
days she was lucid, mature and capable; others she was confused, childlike and helpless.
Those who witnessed our threesome said it must be difficult, “like having a child” to care
for. But it was not like that at all: a child constantly builds on their skills and improves;
an adult with Alzheimer’s constantly loses their skills and gets worse.
The tables had turned. These days, I was not the little girl making sand paintings.
Granny was the one busy making her own art, and she wasn’t using paper and paint.
Almost daily, I would come across “patterns” that she left for me in various rooms of the
house. She fashioned a memorable combination of things one night before dinner.
- 42 -
Granny was supposed to set the table. As I began to bring in the food, I found a
strange juxtaposition of objects strewn across the dining room table: The three placemats
were laid out neatly, but napkins were placed on top of them instead of plates. On top of
the napkins, she had crisscrossed the knives like scissors. Instead of forks and spoons,
she had placed several bottles of hand lotion and an alarm clock. Where glasses should
have been, stood her opened, empty, digitalis, pill bottles. In the center of the table,
standing upright, was the Scrabble dictionary, with her bottle of water pills balanced
precariously on top.
“What IS this, Josie?” I asked. “You were supposed to set the table.”
“I did,” she said with great confidence.
“Well, where are the plates and glasses?”
“Hmm.” She replied not a bit concerned.
“And what’s the alarm clock doing here?”
“Hmmm,” she replied again as if considering this. “I guess to tell the time.”
“Well, it’s time for dinner and the table isn’t set. Get to it,” I commanded.
Granny walked back to the table and began re-examining the items she had placed
there. Instead of removing them and setting the table, she began re-arranging the same
items for several minutes. I was rapidly losing patience.
“For Heaven’s sakes, what are you doing now?” I demanded.
“Making a pattern,” she replied calmly.
“Well, what for? We can’t eat off of the napkins. Put the plates out!”
“If you insist, dear. But I thought this made a pretty centerpiece,” she said, indicating
I was softening.
“Okay, you can leave your centerpiece, but at least put out the dishes so we have
something to eat on. I can’t put the spaghetti on napkins!”
During the months and years that followed, Granny left us many more “patterns.”
Sometimes she had explanations for them. Other times, I think she simply enjoyed
rearranging whatever was put before her. For example, after breakfast, instead of
throwing away her banana peel and putting her dishes in the sink, she would shift them
around at her place on the table. She particularly liked to drape the peel in the shape of
an octopus across the tablecloth, and push her leftover cereal into little stacks at the end
of the tentacles. Then she took the dish rag from the sink, folded it and created a pillow
under the “banana-octopus’s” head. Sometimes she simply laid her spoon, with one bite
purposely left on it, across the empty bowl and balanced her dirty napkin on top. My
personal favorite was the day she finished the milk, turned the carton upside down,
squashed it halfway down, and then spent over half an hour trying to balance her bowl on
top of it.
Granny was also prone to scavenging anything left about the house and putting it into
one of her “patterns.” This drove John, in particular, crazy. He was not in the habit of
- 43 -
putting things in their place and she took merciless advantage of this. More than once he
had to retrieve some important business card he’d left about, from the bathroom, or
worse, the floor of her closet.
One morning John spent almost an hour looking for his keys. He finally discovered
them on Granny’s bed, along with a burned out lightbulb, a screwdriver, some bolts and a
bracket for the shelf that he was going to put up the week before.
“Jo!” he called out sternly. “What is all my stuff doing on your bed? I’ve been
looking for my keys for an hour!”
Granny calmly walked into the bedroom, looked at the pile and said, “Well, dear, I
don’t know. But if you would put things away in their place after you use them, you
would always be able to find them.”
We both became more diligent about where we put things. Otherwise, who knew
where they might end up? I once discovered the top of my bikini wrapped around
Granny’s stuffed Farmer John doll. He was a doorstopper that had long, padded legs to
keep out the draft underneath her bedroom door.
“J. J.?” I asked. “Why is Farmer John wearing my bikini?”
“Oh that,” she smiled. “I thought it looked cute on him.”
“It does, but how do you expect me to swim without my top?”
“Well, I assumed you didn’t need it, dear,” she said nonchalantly. “It’s been hanging
on the back of the kitchen door for days.”
Slowly and quite imperceptibly, John and I had been reconfiguring our lives as if we
had a small child: installing a night light in the bathroom so she could see in the dark,
being sure nothing was left on the floor that might make her stumble, and even mashing
her vegetables so they were easier for her to chew. These were little compromises.
Bigger ones followed.
The first major change was the day that I sold my Volkswagen convertible. I had
wanted one since I was seventeen and at 30, finally purchased a cute, used, red one. I
loved that car, but it was not well-suited to Granny. Her arthritis made it difficult for her
to even get into it so I was the one who squeezed in the back seat. She hated the wind
blowing her hair, so we always had to keep the top up. Conversation with her was
already difficult. In a convertible, it was nigh impossible. Finally, I realized my precious
VW bug was simply more trouble than it was worth and we purchased a “family car;” a
Though conversations with her were often exasperating, I was pleased that she kept
her journal. One afternoon we took her to the baseball game. My memory of that day
was merely two-fold: the difficulty of actually maneuvering her into a seat, after
negotiating countless stairs and barking, “Step! Step!” at least two hundred times and
trying to keep her clothes clean while her sandwich dribbled down her chin. Granny’s
was quite different:
- 44 -
This is June 2, 1986. I have just come home from the San Diego
Stadium where Helen, John and I attended the Padres-Mets game. The
Mets were winning when we left. This was my second baseball game ever
and what a sight it was! The three tiers of grandstand were a complete,
colorful circle except for a break in the section which had a scoreboard
and movie. I could not distinguish the difference in the teams very well,
but the enthusiasm of the crowd kept me informed. Also, the movie helped
by showing the individual players. Directly behind John was a bloated-
faced man so overly enthusiastic that his vociferous blasts of
encouragement to the Mets made me deaf for several minutes.
It reminded me of the first baseball game I attended with my Uncle
Charlie when I was sixteen. Mother had just bought me a new green and
white silk skirt with matching white silk blouse. It was elegant. The wind
was blowing as we walked up the aisles. Suddenly, the man ahead of me
turned his head and spit. A large wad of tobacco juice caught the wind
and blew on to the side of my beautiful new outfit. When it dropped off, it
left a big blob of brown stain where everyone could see it. I was crushed.
Today, the panorama of this arena was magnificent with its
thousands of people. What a contrast to the few hundreds that were in the
Cleveland Bowl so long ago. Today there were no empty bottles nor cans
to have to walk around. But such a change in the size and atmosphere
from 1916 to 1985 does not seem to be echoed by differences in the game
and uniforms. But what a difference in the age and appearance of one
individual in 69 years! Perhaps that was the purpose of the game for me.
Though Granny turned eighty-six this year, she was really getting ‘younger’ and more
helpless as the days passed. In reading her journal at that time, it is clear that at least in
moments, she maintained a fairly good perspective on who she was:
I am considered a well-educated woman. As I look back over my
life, I have used that education well in bringing up children of both sexes
and teaching high school. Yet I feel that I have done almost nothing.
There is something missing. This is to be a search for whatever that may
At present I am living with an adorable granddaughter and her
charming husband. Both are college educated and socially acceptable.
They are busy with little time for attempting extra skills or pleasures. I
have time, but find it evaporates unexpectedly over the hours in the day.
I need to increase it. Perhaps action should be a daily routine like
meals. But action is part of everything we do, even thinking. So, after
- 45 -
reading the above I realized I have not really been fair with myself. I
rarely take a nap and am always ready to do things and go places when
the opportunity arises.
That was very true of her. Granny was always a willing participant in everything we
did. The following year, when John’s business took him to New York City, Grandmother
seemed quite pleased and was ready for the new adventure. She had lived in New York
for several years during her second marriage and had often visited New York City during
her college years at Smith. She wrote this in her journal as we were getting ready to
We are in the last throes of moving away from our cliffside
apartment. A neighbor came by to get some earlier spoken-for-things.
Our suitcases are open for the last needed equipment. I am sitting with
my back to the ocean pretending I am ready to leave but really trying to
form an imprint of this scenery on my rather casual mental equipment.
After eighty-seven years of storing lifelong remembrances one wonders
what is really important. Review over that space of time is sometimes like
shuffling cards to have one rich remembrance pop out
unexpectedly….Waiting is part of traveling. . .
When the moving van arrived, however, Granny was completely confused, having
forgotten that we were going anywhere. She followed the moving men back and forth
through the house, telling them “not to touch” her things. At one point, she demanded
they bring back a suitcase they had just loaded in the van. Finally, I had to take her in the
backyard and occupy her until they had finished.
As we stood looking out over the ocean, I felt guilty. She loved the quiet beauty of
this place and I was about to thrust her into the world’s most crowded city. Hour upon
hour she had stood in this very spot, just watching the sky and sea unfold in front of her:
This is a beautiful December day above the unseen edge of the
Pacific Ocean. The water is as calm as I have ever seen it. The sky seems
colorless in slow movement above the fog. Intermittent flocks of birds
flying high over the beach cross before our living room windows.
Southern destination is obvious from the unison of the flight pattern. My
mind yearns to follow the birds. I have only flown in an airplane once but
that isn’t like being a bird pressing into the wind with your wings.
- 46 -
Granny had always had a horrible fear of flying. I knew that getting her on the
airplane would be difficult, if not impossible. I considered giving her sleeping pills, but
feared she wouldn’t be able to walk. She was too big to carry. Knowing how poor her
memory was, John and I tried a different ploy. We decided not to say anything about
going to the airport at all. The morning we left, John put the suitcases in the car without
Granny seeing them. We drove to the terminal and checked the baggage at the curb. So
far so good.
Granny and I window-shopped at the stores inside and then stopped for a bite of
lunch. It was clear that she thought we were simply on a trip to the shopping mall. When
we passed through security, however, I thought the ruse was over. The alarm beeped as
John walked through with his keys. He had to take them out of his pocket and walk back
through again. Though this startled her momentarily, it didn’t arouse her suspicions
further. Her ability to follow through both an action and a consequence was rapidly
It was time to board. I had booked us the center seats of the centermost aisle so that
Granny was not anywhere near a window. As the plane began to move, she turned to me
and said with awe, “My, this is certainly a big train.”
“Yes, a very big one,” I responded.
“I love taking the train,” she continued. “But I wish we were by a window.”
“Well, maybe we’ll get one next time,” I said nervously.
Just then the flight attendant’s voice crackled overhead:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just been cleared for takeoff. Please be certain your
seatbelts are fastened and your trays are in their upright position.”
I looked at Grandmother. She was still smiling, and obviously hadn’t understood the
garbled words over the intercom. We were picking up speed now and rolling fast. As the
engine roared to a thunder and the plane tilted upwards, I held my breath. Not to worry.
Granny burst into a big smile and said loudly, “Oh. Another train has passed us! Just
listen to the noise!”
We rented an apartment on the West Side of Manhattan and moved in the fall of
1987. That year, our Christmas card showed us with New York City’s finest: Granny Jo,
wearing a borrowed policeman’s hat, sitting with two cops on the docks of Southside
Seaport. She didn’t know they were policemen, though, despite their badges and gun
holsters. All her eyes could really distinguish now were their dark suits and jackets. So,
after the photo was taken and the policemen left, it didn’t surprise me when Granny
suddenly turned to me and asked, “Oh, dear. Where did our chauffeurs go?”
- 47 -
“An intelligent person is never bored.”
Only once do I recall saying, “I’m bored,” when I was growing up with Granny and I
came to regret it. “Take that phrase out of your vocabulary,” she ordered and I did.
According to her, “If one has a brain to think with, there are always things to do.” One
afternoon, she suggested that I time the seconds it took an ant to carry a grain of sugar I
spilled on the counter back to its home through the crack in the baseboard. As I recall, it
took him about 15 seconds. To this day I still don’t say that phrase out loud even if it
briefly crosses my mind. It’s a lose-lose situation: If you’re really bored, you don’t dare
tell anyone because they’ll think you’re stupid. Worse: You don’t dare feel bored or
you’ll think you’re stupid.
Take that typical, 110 degree August afternoon in Phoenix: You’re sixteen. All of
your friends are vacationing at the beach in California. Then you make the grievous error
of telling your grandmother, “I’m bored. There’s nothing to do.” The next thing you
know, you’re sitting next to her at the Ladies’ Bible Study – just you and twenty, blue-
haired, old matrons, discussing The Good Book.
So, lest you get bored, you spend the entire two hours trying to imagine what each of
them must have looked like when they were young. If that fails, and it does because
they’re just sooo old and it’s too hot and stuffy in the room to think straight, you imagine
them naked. Then you get in trouble for giggling out loud during the prayer.
Prayer, of course, is a daily necessity in New York: You pray you can get a cab even
though it’s raining. When you don’t, you pray you make the next subway. When you
don’t, you pray you can still get to your audition on time, even though you only have
seven minutes to walk 36 blocks. And, when you arrive late, soaked to the bone, with the
wrong sheet music, you pray they will love you anyway.
Granny reveled in the city life. One upside to her being deaf was that she couldn’t
hear the noise; the jackhammers, taxis honking, and car alarms going off at midnight.
From her perspective, New York City must have seemed like a fast-moving yet quiet
symphony. We took her to plays, concerts, Lincoln Center and Central Park. She loved
it all, though I constantly worried about her. The crowds on the streets shoved past her
like she was nothing more than a wad of clothing. Often, we had to wait through two sets
of lights just to cross the street. If we didn’t catch a green light at its very beginning, she
simply could not get across fast enough. Even then, there would often be a taxi right on
our heels as the light changed.
Granny loved walking our block, though, every morning. Our apartment was in a
brand new, fifty-two story, high-rise across the street from Lincoln Center. Otis, our very
tall doorman, stood outside and watched as Granny took her morning stroll up and down
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the street in front of our apartment. The name, ‘Otis,’ brought both a sad memory and
fear of elevators to her mind. Granny had lost a young uncle in the early 1900’s in an
elevator accident and she had avoided them for as long as I could remember.
Our apartment was on the 22nd floor. At first I worried how I would get her up to it.
Fortunately, Granny didn’t seem to realize that she was actually in an elevator. Maybe it
was the mirrored walls or the fact that it ran so quietly and smoothly. I simply showed
her which button to push and she pushed it. We practiced this several times and though
she couldn’t actually read the numbers, she eventually memorized their position on the
Every day she walked up and down our block with Otis and me keeping a watchful
eye. As the weeks passed, Granny grew bolder and began circling the entire block.
Because she insisted on her independence, I followed a short distance behind her the first
few times, just to be sure she knew where she was going. There was quite a world to see
around our single, city block and Granny loved the adventure.
First she turned right out of our building and walked to the corner of 60th and 9th,
where a large church stood. The most activity that ever occurred there during week days,
was when Woody Allen auditioned actors for his movies. Granny squeezed between a
wild array of characters spouting monologues, belting songs or practicing dance steps and
then turned right. Sometimes she paused to watch the auditioners, and then continued on
to the corner of 59th: the emergency entrance to St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital.
Ambulances pulled up all day long, unloading gurneys, but they rarely kept her from
missing a step. She continued slowly around the corner, and by the middle of the block
had reached the John Jay School of Criminal Justice. Plodding her way through students
on their way to becoming police officers, she reached 10th avenue and turned right again.
This was my area of greatest concern, as it was kitty corner to the projects. However, the
walkway was under construction and configured with plywood barricades that made her
naturally have to turn right at our block where she was again in sight of Otis. After
weeks of following her, I became rather blasé. She circled the block and returned home
in about 12 minutes.
June 3, 1988, New York
Just finished a good bowl of vegetable soup during which my
blinds were closed. As I ate, I felt as if something were missing beyond
Helen and John. For a few moments I was puzzled. Then realized how
important a view can become. I opened my shades – the world was alive
again. The river was still running down to the sea.
Helen married a choice young man, John Weaver. I live with them
in the best of situations – we move often but in comfortable apartment now
in New York for Helen’s part in a play.
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At the time, I was performing at The Circle Repertory Theatre Company, a rather
prestigious gig as it was the premier showcase for promising new playwrights. The piece
I was in called for me to compose an original, musical score on my 12-string guitar.
Interestingly, it would also connect me to Kevin Bacon by those “Six Degrees of
Separation.” Kyra Sedgwick, his soon-to-be wife, also performed on our bill. One night,
Kevin stopped me after the show to tell me how much he enjoyed my playing. “I want to
do that someday,” he confided. “I’m taking some lessons.” (20 years later and he is now
touring as part of the Bacon Brothers and has several albums out!)
On nights when I was not rehearsing or performing, John and I took Granny to the
movies, Broadway shows, out to dinner, ordered Chinese food in and had a ball. The
most difficult part of city life with Granny was riding the subways. It took forever to get
her down the steps as commuters shoved past us from both directions. “Step! Step!” I
yelled over the noise and commotion. I was so anxious that she might fall or get shoved
that I held onto her like a buoy in a raging sea. By the time we finally reached the
turnstile, at least two trains would have come and gone. Whether I liked it or not, her
presence forced me to be slow down. It also made me notice how ignored older people
are in society.
Once on the train, people rarely gave their seats up to Granny, despite the fact she
was now eighty-eight. During our four years in New York, I only recall one woman ever
offering her seat to Granny. Ironically, she was seven months pregnant! As a result,
when the train started, I had her grasp the middle rail and then wrapped my arms around
her tightly. Every now and then, when the subway pulled up to a sharp stop, we both
started to tip over. Fortunately, the train was usually so crowded, that the other
passengers kept us from flying too far.
Initially, Granny mentioned missing her view of the ocean, but by our second week in
New York, a funny thing happened: she thought she was still seeing the Pacific Ocean!
No doubt this was because her bedroom still faced west as it had in California. The view
from her window was now the long, silver line of the Hudson river, snaking the west side
of Manhattan. In her mind, though, the sun was still setting in the same place over water.
Since it made her so happy each night, “to watch the sunset over the ocean,” we didn’t
tell her any differently.
And, when night fell, Granny developed a new favorite pastime: watching the lights
come up in the other buildings outside her window. Often I came into her darkened room
and found her staring out the window.
“Josie, you’re sitting in the dark,” I said. “Do you want me to turn the lights on?”
“Oh, no, dear.” She replied. “I am looking at all the beautiful patterns the light
makes. See right there? Doesn’t that look just like a ship far out to sea with a burst of
diamonds for a sail?”
Sure enough. The top lights along the George Washington bridge were indeed shaped
like a sail outlined with diamonds, and the lower, golden lights from buildings in the
distance, shaped a wide-looking boat underneath. If I stood long enough, I could see
what she was seeing. Granny was also causing me to be more observant.
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The journal that I insisted she keep was often so cogent that it belied her day-to-day
confusion. Surprising to me at the time, was that she was really thinking. Between her
natural quietness and increasing detachment from the world, I often assumed her brain
wasn’t working. So, stumbling on brief paragraphs, like the following, was always a
Tonight as I look out my window, a misty purple haze makes the
plants on my window sill appear in full roundness and color. Now they
are subdued by the electric light I need to write with. Intermittent flashes
of lightning enhance my blackening view. The atmosphere is alive,
occasionally mumbling some discontent.
New York is not as clean and cheerful as it was in 1918. It was a
slower pace then. It is lacking the variety of horse-drawn transportation.
Now there are mechanical cars only. There are more skyscrapers. The
clothes styles are similar, with the semi-long skirts of the 1920’s.
Grandmother, though never a fashion plate, had always dressed in a socially proper
manner. She preferred solid colors and conservative styles and usually wore dresses or
suits with matching shoes. However, she was no longer able to dress herself. The few
times that she did, she appeared in completely inappropriate attire. In winter, it wasn’t
uncommon for her to put on a silk blouse over pajama bottoms and shuffle out in
One morning when it was snowing, Granny insisted on going out for her walk
wearing only a T-shirt and shorts.
“I’m boiling,” she fumed, starting out the door.
“You can’t go outside like that!” I scolded. “Put on your turtleneck and sweatpants.
It’s 22 degrees outside. You’ll freeze.”
She looked at me as if I were a complete idiot.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she huffed. “You’re wearing shorts.” Clearly, she couldn’t
distinguish between our indoor heat and the concomitant outdoor cold.
“That’s because the heat is on in here, Granny, but it’s freezing outside. Put warmer
clothes on and don’t forget your hat.”
“I’ll burn up,” she scoffed.
“Okay,” I relented. “It’s your choice. But trust me, you won’t last long out there in
shorts. It’s snowing.”
After she left, I went out on the balcony and looked down towards the street, waiting
to see if she would emerge. She didn’t. Moments later she hurried in the door.
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“The building has put on the air conditioning much too high!” she blithely informed
me. “I’ll have to put on something warmer.”
I took her shopping and bought her a new wardrobe: sweatpants, turtlenecks, and
Velcro shoes. I was getting tired of tying her laces. I purchased all of her clothes in a
size too big, because it was easier to dress her that way. Shopping with her was an
interminable chore: one afternoon, it took us almost four hours to buy a single shirt--two
hours of which were spent just getting there and back. Once we found a few things to try
on, I could rarely get her to make a decision:
“Whatever you decide, dear, is fine,” she said giving me her standard reply.
“No, Grandmother. You choose. I am not going to decide for you.”
“They’re both fine, dear,” she replied.
I had purposely chosen two shirts: one was an ugly, loud print and the other a plain,
navy blue. The idea, of course, was to make her choice easier.
“It’s up to you, Granny. Either pick one of these or you can go around naked.”
She gave me an indignant look and finally pointed to the navy blue. I was relieved to
know that she still had taste. However, I eventually bought all of her clothes mail order.
Had she actually been able to see herself the way I dressed her now, she would have been
horrified: She looked like an L. L. Bean farmer’s wife wearing her husband’s clothes.
On the surface it may have appeared as if she no longer cared how she looked or what
she wore. That wasn’t the case, though. In her brief, lucid moments during the day, she
cared very much. Sometimes she stood half an hour or more combing her hair in front of
the mirror; an act she did completely from memory. She could not see herself at all and
didn’t know how long she had stood there--unable as she was, to sustain any kind of
John has just walked in and talked to me. I can’t write it down
because I can’t even remember what was said. Why? Yes, it probably
wasn’t important but we don’t usually turn off a conversation so quickly
from our memory of it.
Helen has just come in to present me with a huge dish of pink ice
cream which will melt before I can eat it if I write. So, I’ll eat a bit and
write a bit. It is tasty but I do not recognize its flavor. It is a different red
color but I am not sure if it is raspberries or strawberries. I’ll just enjoy it.
Granny was also losing the ability to brush her teeth and would not take her dentures
out at night. Though she sometimes let me brush her teeth, she flatly refused to let me
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“Stop!” she yelled, when I tried to take them out. “You’re pulling out my teeth!”
“They’re not your real teeth, Grandma. They’re false teeth. They come out.”
“No they don’t,” she insisted. “Look,” she demonstrated, trying to tug on her upper
plate. “They’re in solid. They’re my real teeth.”
“Granny, they’re dentures. You’ve had them for over thirty years. They come out.
You soak them overnight in Polident.” I tried to remove them again.
“You leave my teeth alone, this instant!” She screamed. “You’ll make me
“You already are toothless!” I countered.
“You’re blind!!” she scoffed. “They’re as real as can be. Look!” she said, tapping
her front teeth with her right index finger. “They’re all mine!”
I gave up for several nights in a row, but one morning her breath was so bad I
couldn’t stand it anymore. I insisted on taking her dentures out. As I reached into her
mouth, she bit me hard, drawing blood. Though she felt badly at having hurt me, she also
said, “That serves you right for sticking your fingers where they don’t belong!” For
many weeks afterward, until she acquiesced, I had to wear a rubber glove and once an
oven mitt, to do the deed. Eventually, she just let me have them without a fight.
Gradually, her other personal habits were lapsing as well. While doing the laundry
one afternoon, I noticed that her underwear were filthy. I watched her carefully in the
bathroom for several days and realized that it wasn’t for lack of trying. She just could no
longer do it efficiently by herself. So, I bought her some baby Wet Wipes.
Now that my involvement with her bodily functions was so intimate, I noticed that
Granny had several unaccounted for bruises. I chalked this up to old age and thin skin.
By now, I had amassed several books on aging which I referred to often. One of them
suggested taking extra doses of Vitamin C. I gave it to her diligently along with all her
other vitamins, but still the bruises appeared.
One afternoon I grabbed her arm very tightly to keep her from getting hit by a car that
ran a red light. A few hours later, her arm had a terrible black and blue spot right where I
had grabbed her. Then I noticed that the wrist under her wristwatch also had a nasty
bruise, so I made her take it off. She was very angry with me, despite the fact that she
had long been unable to tell time with it: the face was too small for her to read.
I am no longer allowed to wear a watch so I wander around
wondering what I have time to do. I dislike very much being separated
from my watch. I have it again. Helen’s at work. John is watching a
basketball game on TV.
She ‘had it again’ because she simply took it off the dresser when I wasn’t looking
and put it right back on. We argued about the watch for several months as it now always
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left a bruise. Finally, I took it off and hid it. After a while she simply forgot about that,
While most of her daily life remained quite forgotten, Granny often remembered that
she had to attend her Smith club meeting. This frequent ‘meeting’ came up several times
a week. Spontaneously, day or night, she would suddenly appear in front of one of us
fully-dressed with her hair neatly combed.
“I have to go to the Smith club meeting,” she announced.
“What?” I replied.
“The Smith club meeting. I have to go now so I’m not late.”
“Well, where is it?” I asked her.
She thought a moment. “In the penthouse,” she assured me.
The first time this happened, I jumped up fast, dressed and grabbed my keys. We
took the elevator to the penthouse and wandered up and down the floor. No notices of
any meeting. No signs for “The Smith Club.” Nothing. It was only then that I realized it
was one of those little brain quirks that get stuck in the heads of Alzheimer patients.
Though she would dress for this meeting dozens of times as if it were quite important, we
found gentle ways of getting her mind off the task; a favorite was always a nice dish of
During our stay in New York City, I performed in several other plays and also had a
cabaret act at night. So, Granny and I spent our days together. Each morning, I jogged
the six miles around Central Park. It took me an hour as I was slow. Often, I walked her
into the park with me and sat her down on a bench near the pond; a safe, well-traveled
area full of families. From there she could watch the boaters, joggers, children on the
playground and her favorite; the squirrels. While she waited, she ate a snack that I had
packed for her. I didn’t worry about her leaving the bench. She had not wandered in
over a year and really loved watching the people and sights. Sometimes, I had trouble
getting her to leave!
Twice a week we played, “Beauty Parlor;” my excuse for both bathing her and
treating her to special attention. After her bath, I gave her mud-pack facials or applied
clear polish on her nails. She patiently put up with all the fussing, until the day I gave her
a peel-off face mask treatment. The moment I began to actually peel it off, Granny went
“Stop! You’re taking off my face!”
“No, I’m not, J. J. I’m just peeling off the mask. That’s how it works. It takes off
the dead skin.”
I continued to pull it off around her eyes and nose.
“Stop right this instant,” she yelled. “Or I won’t have any face left!”
She jumped off the chair and made for the door.
“Okay,” I said, fearing she’d run out of the building half-naked. “I’ll leave it if you
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She calmed down and began walking back towards me. The papery thin mask was
now hanging off her face in several places, as if she were peeling from a sunburn. As she
walked, the breeze made her whole face flitter and flap.
“You look pretty funny,” I said with a giggle.
“Well, of course I look funny,” she fumed. “You’ve taken off half my face!!!”
To distract her, I sat down at the piano and began to play, “Heart and Soul.”
“That’s pretty,” she said with a smile that looked oddly crinkled under the transparent
“Sit down next to me Josiebell, and I’ll teach you the left-handed part.”
“Oh, I don’t remember how to play the piano anymore,” she said.
“I bet you’ll be surprised. Come on. Just try it.”
She squeezed in next to me on the bench and immediately placed both hands on the
keys as if she had played all her life. I showed her the first chord and she got it
immediately. Getting her to remember the next three in sequence was a little trickier but
she finally focused on her four chords long enough for me to add the melody.
By then, she had forgotten all about the face mask so I put her in the tub and washed
it off. Other days we did exercise routines together to Jane Fonda’s workout tapes.
Though she still insisted that exercising “was absolutely ridiculous,” she was a good sport
and had fun trying to do the “doggy leg lifts” with me. By late afternoon, after a warm
cup of tea or hot chocolate in her “Josiebell” mug, Granny was ready for a nap. Then I
could practice my guitar and vocal warm-ups and get some songwriting done. I was
working on an original musical that had been accepted for presentation at the ASCAP
Musical Theatre Workshop.
I mention her cup because the name, “Josie,” was a horror to her for years. “Mary
Josephine,” was her given name. Daisy, Jo’s mother, had insisted that no one was to call
her daughter, “Josie,” as she hated nicknames – curious since Daisy’s real name was
“Louise.” Granny also disliked, “Jo Jo,” because it conjured up the name of a sideshow
attraction popular during her youth: “Jo Jo, The Dog-Faced Boy.” However, John and I
called her “Josiebell” so often that we had it monogrammed on a mug we gave her one
Christmas. Granny pretended that it bothered her, but I think she rather liked the
In the late meantime, some very, merry boy sneaked into calling
me “Josie.” I said nothing, thinking it might pass but it doesn’t. The odd
part is I don’t object to the name from this particular young man. Why? I
guess he has become such a beloved young person that it sounds better
coming from his voice. So “Josie” I sometimes become. I wonder if he
likes to be called, “Johnny” – at least my nickname doesn’t sound like a
small bathroom. How odd names are and how necessary!
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Had anyone told John or me at the time that within the next few years Granny would
forget names entirely, we wouldn’t have believed them. The beauty of Alzheimer’s, at
least in Granny’s case, was that it moved so slowly we could keep up with it. After we
tucked her into bed, we too, sat and watched the city darken, and then slowly dazzle with
a myriad of colored lights.
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“You are only as interesting as the people you know. And remember, dear, ordinary
people are just as fascinating as famous ones, if you take an interest in them.”
“The chauffeur opened the door of his long, black car, but when he stepped out, I was
shocked: he was the oldest person I had ever seen! His hair was pure, snow-white and
his body was all bent over. While he waited in the living room, he didn’t say a single
word to me. I decided then that all old people must be shy. But as he left, he handed me
a shiny, new dime and said, ‘Now put this in the bank and by the time you’re my age,
you’ll be rich.’”
Granny Jo often told this story of meeting John D. Rockefeller, Sr., when she was a
young girl. Her family’s relationship with the Rockefellers had dated back to the late
1800’s when her mother’s parents, the Davidsons, attended church with them at the
Cleveland Euclid Avenue Baptist Church on 79th Street:
At Christmastime, the men always prepared baskets of food for the
poor. One year, Mr. Rockefeller asked my grandfather to help him fill
bushel baskets with potatoes. He told him to slit some of the potatoes so
that they could slip a one dollar bill inside. Then John D. and
Grandfather put one of the ‘special’ potatoes into each basket as a
‘John D.,’ as the family called him, visited Jo’s home whenever doing business with
brothers O. P., and M. J. Van Sweringen; real estate entrepreneurs who built much of
Cleveland, Ohio. They had purchased land in Shaker Heights, twenty miles outside of
Cleveland, in order to create, “an exclusive residential community.”
At first, selling the lots proved difficult: there was no way to get people from the city
out into the suburbs. By 1911, however, the Vans had built a high-speed rail called the
nickel-plate railroad that ran from downtown Cleveland out to their property; a fortuitous
venture that made them millionaires almost overnight. Jo’s father, Benjamin Jenks, was
made vice-president of their real estate company; a firm which would soon be a mere
fraction of their formidable empire during the 1920’s.
Granny was never impressed either by famous people or material wealth: she had
known both. Her family’s home was the first one that the Vans built in Shaker Heights,
and their first model showcase, “Daisy Hill Farms,” was later named after her mother,
Daisy. The brothers then built their own home right next door. Their relationship was so
close that Granny knew the Van Sweringens only as, “Uncle Oris,” and “Uncle Mantis.”
Perhaps because they never married or had children, they treated Jo like their own
daughter. For her eighteenth birthday, they even bought her her first car; a cloverleaf
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Lincoln. Hers was a life of privilege few can imagine: along with her grand home and
famous visitors, came a chauffeur, maid, gardener and even a groom for her horse, Duke.
Despite their wealth, Granny’s parents never gave her even the smallest allowance so
that she could buy things for herself. Daisy chose and purchased everything for Jo,
without ever asking her opinion. Granny was so nervous about wearing clothes that “cost
a fortune,” that she said she, “was terrified to wear them for fear of getting them dirty.”
One winter morning, when she was about eighteen, Jo heard a loud explosion from
the basement. Fearing that the house was on fire, her first reaction was to open her
bedroom window and throw out--not herself--but her finest evening gowns and mink
“Had I let them burn up, Mother would have been furious. Fortunately, they landed
on the snow and were fine once I brushed them off. There was no fire. Our old boiler
Granny was so cowed by Daisy that she would reach adulthood afraid to make any
major decisions on her own; a trait which carried through her life. However, upon her
arrival at Smith College, in a private car with a driver, carrying a huge trunk stuffed with
beautiful clothes, she would make one ‘minor’ decision:
“The other girls looked at me wide-eyed. They thought that all those brand-new
dresses which Mother had just bought and I hated, were absolutely beautiful. So, I
started selling them off to the girls to have a little extra spending money.”
The few that Jo kept, she ‘modified’ by cutting off ribbons and lace so that she would
“appear more sensible than frivolous.” She would need both her frugality and modest
sense of decorum over the course of her life. Her first husband, Hans Glad-Block, a
Norwegian she married in Paris, served briefly as Norwegian Consulate. Granny
entertained many luminaries in her own home, including Charles Lindbergh, and explorer
Friedrich Ahmundsen, of North Pole fame.
Unfortunately, she would not get a chance to reap the bounty of her dime from
Rockefeller. The year Granny turned twenty-nine, the Depression hit. She was now the
mother of a young daughter, and recently divorced from Hans. The Van Sweringens lost
almost everything and her own parents’ affluence came to an abrupt end.
But Granny weathered life’s ups and downs with equanimity. Since her interest was
in who people were, not what they had, it is not surprising that one of her favorite
childhood companions was their gardener:
Marshall was our hired man and the hugest person I had ever
seen, but every inch of him was kindness and protectiveness. There were
no children around my age so he let me follow him around. He let me
make my own doll-like gardens with tiny saucer-size pools. Then we stuck
weeds in the dirt for trees and shrubs. His patient, fatherly presence filled
my otherwise empty hours.
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Those who knew Josephine Rogers rarely forgot her: her Polish washerwoman would
later name her own daughter after Jo, and continue to correspond with her for over forty
years. The high school students that Granny had counseled during the fifties, continued
to send her Christmas cards and pictures of their own children until the year she died.
She was even on close terms with our building’s handyman, Charlie. He often came over
to chat with her and have tea in the kitchen. They discussed his family, his heart problem
and even building maintenance issues.
It was Granny’s opinion that the more people you had met and known, the richer you
would be for the experience; a philosophy guaranteed to create extroverts out of even the
shyest of souls, as she was. She so impressed this conviction on me that I went out of my
way, not only to talk to complete strangers, but to rub elbows with the rich and famous
myself. I wanted to be interesting!
So, it was no surprise that I met my own husband at a bus stop in front of Carnegie
Hall. He was standing by himself in the rain. Assuming that he was going to the same
concert I was, I immediately started up a conversation. We had a lovely chat until his bus
arrived and I realized my mistake. Fortunately, before the bus pulled away, we
exchanged business cards and met again six months later. I have learned through
experience that it takes about three minutes to turn a complete stranger into an
acquaintance – or a complete stranger into a husband!
Thanks to Granny, I have always taken an interest in the ‘ordinary people’ in my life.
I can often be found dispensing boyfriend or college advice with the baristas at Starbucks
and the lifeguards at the YMCA or taking lemonade to our trash collectors, Rafael and
Ignacio. Our postal woman is a single mom with three kids who tells me she’s never
been to a beauty salon. I’m guessing that few customers at our local grocery store know
that Dan, the ‘bag boy,’ is thrilled with the new hearing aids that his insurance company
just paid for. Or that at 40, he’s never married, lives with his mother, has a 164 bowling
average, and had flank steak for dinner last night.
It is also no wonder that I, too, made some famous friends along the way: dating
James Taylor in my teens, corresponding with both President Reagan and his wife,
Nancy, (who would later encourage me to marry John), and having Lucille Ball as a
personal mentor during my years in Hollywood. Lucy and I spent many an afternoon at
her house reminiscing about, “How lucky we were to have had wonderful grandmothers
who raised us!” Indeed.
These days, though, Granny and I were far removed from such heady swirls. We had
mostly just each other now, and that was all that we needed. Our last year in New York
City would be the final one that Granny’s journal so clearly captured her days:
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April 24, 1989
Life slips away faster than I can believe and memories are
wonderful for happy reviews of our ups and downs. Every person in my
life has been a valuable asset in some area of growth or pleasure or has
filled a necessary void. My family has been my rich reward for a long life
of happiness. My marriages have shown me my weaknesses. Divorces are
The only ‘regrets’ that Granny ever mentioned in her life were her two divorces. The
first one, from Hans, was actually arranged by her parents. Benjamin and Daisy had
always considered him, “a foreigner,” and never accepted him into the family. Leaving
Europe to start a new life and career in the States with Granny was difficult. Tensions
between them worsened after the birth of my mother, their only child. At the time, Daisy
actually paid Hans a sum of money to divorce Jo. He took her check and returned to
Granny’s second marriage to a college music teacher was fraught with problems: his
alcoholism, difficulty holding jobs and subsequent bankruptcy forced her and her three
children, briefly out on the streets. Though she believed it was her “Christian duty” to
remain in the marriage, she eventually had to make an agonizing choice: stay with him or
devote herself to her oldest daughter’s escalating mental problems. She chose the latter.
Sadly, there was little she could do for my mother, who would later be diagnosed a
paranoid schizophrenic and sent to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. The resultant stress
took its toll: Granny was briefly hospitalized in an Arizona sanitarium, where she was
given electric shock treatments. At least her final years with us were more peaceful ones:
I’ve reached the stage and age of life to take life as it comes, each
day for itself. God was and is good to me and my family. I have no
complaints. The world is spectacular, its people miraculous; each life a
story. I have enjoyed my little corner and expect to continue to my end,
which may not be far off though I am unusually healthy. Beyond the
above, I am extremely grateful to Helen and John for the interest, help and
love they have expended on me. I’m not good at giving personal
appreciation though I’d like to be.
Reading her journals now, they seem almost like indirect “Thank You” notes to John
and me. For it was true that Granny was not a vocal person. She rarely made her
opinions known to others and never stood out in a crowd. That wasn’t her style. She was
so quiet at home that she almost blended into the furniture. There was a ghostlike quality
even to her walk: she seemed to float rather than step. We rarely heard her coming.
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Many times she startled us simply by appearing in the room, seemingly from out of
nowhere. If you knew her, though, her presence always made itself known--as much by
what you thought she might be thinking as anything she actually said.
Well, I’ve now had my hair mussed and pulled, (I often gave her
quick, little scalp rubs with my fingers, telling her: “just getting a little
extra blood to your brain!” She actually liked it, but always warned:
“Don’t muss up my hair, please.”) my back brotherly slapped and am left
alone – oh no, no, no!! A cup of hot, well-diluted cocoa just arrived with
my name on it. It’s a bit too hot for my cowardly lips.
I remember wondering why there had to be men AND women. I
was afraid to ask the question. There was machinery that could be made
to do what men do. Women could run it just as well, but men were
considered more necessary than women EXCEPT for having babies. I
wanted to be a man. I did not want to have babies. Fortunately for me,
mine did turn into little children whose development was fascinating.
Helen tells me that Lucille Ball died. Fortunately she will live on
in film to be remembered to bring back our laughter. Helen just brought
me some good potato salad which I ate with pleasure. She is a dear.
John is still humming to his typewriter, occasionally talking to
himself while Helen goes through the newspaper. It’s a gray day and
Helen is yawning over the news when not talking to John. She just made
us fresh raspberry ice cream. We have fun among us three. John is
humming again so I’m sure all’s right with the world. 11 o’clock. Good
It is clear even from her journal that John and I lived naturally with each other despite
the fact that Granny was always there. She made it as comfortable to be ourselves in
marriage as she had for me when I was growing up with her alone. Although we
sometimes got a little too cozy:
One very, memorable evening, John and I were in bed, in the middle of what most
married couples are often in the middle of. At a rather climactic moment, our bedroom
door suddenly opened and in walked Grandmother. She stopped at the edge of the bed,
looked straight over the top of John’s raised, bare buttocks and said to me nonchalantly,
“Helen, darling. I’m all out of hangers. Do you have any extras?”
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Helen has just taken me up onto the roof. Instead of seeing the
vastness of the ocean we see a vastness of buildings inhabited by
unknown, hundreds of people whom we will never know. Life is a
conundrum. We know and we don’t know. Everything we know is in the
terms of fractions. People are the bits and pieces of humanity which
divides into color fractions, black, white, red, yellow and mixed. Bless
Our Lord for our marvelous variables.
I’m now in bed. Helen is still working and John has just retired.
In a moment I will be fast asleep. Tomorrow BIGGER WRITING.
I constantly battled with Granny to get her to “write bigger!” Her scrawl became so
tiny and faint that it was almost impossible to read. Yet, it was fitting because ‘she’ was
getting smaller and more withdrawn as the months went by. Our handwriting truly does
reflect our person. Gone was the ramrod straight posture and confidence in her gait. In
its place was a slightly drooped head and the beginnings of a hump in her back. When
she sat, she now resembled the letter “C.”
Granny, once so vigilant, was now merely complacent. Gone was the disciplinarian
who greeted my dates at the door, asked to see their drivers license, then followed us out
to the car and wrote down their license plate numbers, too. Gone was the taskmaster who
stood over me when she thought I was asleep, and bent down to smell if there was liquor
on my breath after a late night out during my teen years. Nowadays she didn’t even
notice the drunks lying on the street, but merely shuffled her way around them.
In her place was this docile, white-haired wisp of a woman, staring into space or
writing a few lines in her journal; lines that might take her several hours or more to finish
and only under my constant prodding. Each morning, I had to turn the next page and
write the date on top for her. Otherwise, the days all blurred together in her mind:
Went to a surprise party for my brother Dave’s 80th birthday.
Everyone thought it unusual for an 89 year-old to ride the subways. No
one seems to realize what “curiosity” this old cat has. “Meow.” The
secret is I have delightful young people who encourage me to be me!
It seems that a full dark night has spread its misty shadows over
Earth. It’s good to have Helen here. Just having her in the house seems
to improve the atmosphere. Each of us changes the atmosphere for others
to some degree.
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During my walk around the block today I passed no one without a
raised umbrella. Having none myself, I expected to get really wet but I felt
a few drops and arrived home with a quite dry coat.
Blank. Interestingly, during this week she did dress up for the “Smith
Club” meeting again.
This was my father’s birthday. It brings back happy memories of a
tall man much loved by his daughter who loved to take his hand for a
Sunday walk to learn about the bees and birds. In a quiet way he is still
with his little daughter though both are changed. He is in Heaven and I
hope to meet him.
Helen removed the bandage on my right wrist, [from her watch],
and brought me a bowl of yogurt with blueberries – yum! I have a blood-
blot above my bandage the size of a dime. The sore on my right wrist
dried in the shape of a mouth. The skin gathered in the middle leaving
half raw but now dry.
How wonderful she and John are to me. I hope that when they
reach my age they will have everything for their happiness, including each
June 17-December 8
Today is misty and I am too aware of my cold hands and feet. I
should put on a raincoat and hat and go see a friend but I have no one
here. Boxes prepared for Christmas on our table in vivid wrappings.
John is watching TV. Helen is soothing him intermittently with caresses –
December 30, 1989
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A few months later, as I waited for Granny to dress for her morning walk, she was
taking much longer than usual.
“Josie,” I yelled. “Where are you? It’s time for your walk.” She didn’t answer.
Finally, I went into her room. She was sitting dead-still in her chair. Her right leg
was stuck just halfway into her pants. Her unblinking eyes were glazed open. It looked
as if she had been shot or was suddenly frozen in the middle of a game of freeze-tag. At
first I thought she was being funny. Looking closer I noticed that her head was drooped
awkwardly to the side, like a puppet whose neck string had been severed.
“Granny?” I asked.
“Uh. . . ,” she responded in a deep voice with great difficulty.
“Is something wrong?”
Her lips moved. Then she garbled something as if she was talking underwater, but I
couldn’t understand her. I lifted her leg out of the pants and began rubbing her shoulders.
“Just breathe deeply,” I said. She began to breathe harder so I knew that she could
hear me. I continued rubbing. Granny’s body began to relax but still she wasn’t moving.
I sat on the floor and vigorously rubbed her feet for several minutes. Suddenly she said:
“Oh. That feels good, dear.”
We immediately took her to the doctor.
“Your grandmother has probably suffered a mild stroke; a TIA, transient ischemic
attack. Actually, she’s probably had several of them but you may not have noticed. Try
giving her an aspirin a day. It will reduce her risk of having a major heart attack.”
From that day on, I gave Granny a daily aspirin. And, from that day on, while she
still had mobility, we never left her alone again. Her increasing dependence on us had
crept up so gradually in stages, that neither John nor I realized just how much we were
doing for her.
The truth was that we no longer saw ourselves as separate and apart from Granny.
Our lives were as interconnected as the pedal and chain on a bicycle: when one pushed,
the others simply circled the gears together. During these years, one would think that
John would have at least said at some point, ‘Hey, enough is enough.’ But he never did.
The summer of 1990, I sang the national anthem in all 26 major-league baseball
stadiums. People magazine covered the story and I appeared on a string of TV shows
including, “Live with Regis & Kathie Lee,” “Good Morning America,” and
“Entertainment Tonight;” my “fifteen minutes” of fame which landed me in The
Guinness Book of Sports Records.
We took Granny to the Mets, Yankees and Red Sox games and I flew alone to the
others. My final team was the San Diego Padres, and a semi-media event as Roseanne
Barr had also sung there that summer, creating mayhem. ESPN, along with several other
journalists and TV reporters, flew in to profile me.
- 64 -
John and I decided to turn it into a family reunion and 90th birthday party for Granny
as well. Traveling with her on the plane was a breeze: she had no idea where she was
anymore. Like a child, she obediently followed us any and everywhere, content as long
as we were near. Unlike a child, she would have no memory whatsoever of where we
had been or whom we had seen.
The night of my performance, we rented a box at the stadium and invited 50 of our
close friends and family. Granny had fun but kept asking, “Who are all these people?”
Her son, Buzz, daughter, Jane and brother Dave were the only ones that she recognized
on her own. Her grandchildren or longtime friends, who also joined us, were simply
‘faces in the crowd’ to her now.
Afterwards, Granny said that she enjoyed seeing me “on TV,” which was actually the
stadium screen. She also asked me, “What was that familiar song you sang?” The next
day, when I showed her my picture on the front page of the newspaper, she not only had
no idea why I was in it but didn’t remember being at the baseball game herself!
Fame and notoriety made as little impression on her with Alzheimer’s as it had in her
early life. Granny had always believed that it was “what one carried within,” that was
important. She expressed this sentiment in a poem of hers which was published in The
New York Astrologer, in July, 1932. She never mentioned that she wrote poetry, though.
I would discover this one, along with others almost 60 years after she wrote them:
It matters not how great or little fame
A yellow, blue, or scarlet flame;
It must discarded chaff consume
Of former karma’s residue; perfume
Its universe with love lest death be doom.
A happiness within
Is constant proof of cosmic origin.
– Mary Jo Rogers
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“Don’t wait for things to happen or you’ll get tired of sitting.”
I probably took this aphorism too much to heart. When I was young, Granny never let
me sit idle. I was to constantly be learning or doing. It was with great reluctance that she
let me watch an occasional TV show. Even then, she always asked me what I had
learned from it; a tough question to answer after an episode of, “Leave it to Beaver.”
Whether it was studying the classics or mastering my skateboard, my mind and body
were in constant motion. Thanks to Granny, by the time I was twenty, I had both an
athletic body and a college diploma.
As a result, when she became my charge, I demanded the same from her. Sometimes
I felt that I was probably too tough on her. But in hindsight, had I just given up and let
her vegetate, as she most certainly would have done, I know that she wouldn’t have lived
so long or near as happily. Still, it was difficult to make the distinction between her
raising of me then and my caring for her now. I was young and developing new skills.
She was deteriorating now and barely able to finish a sentence.
There were some days when my patience was short and I had just had it. One
afternoon we were going to the theater. I had bathed and dressed her before lunch; a
mistake, as afterwards most of her soup was down her shirt. Begrudgingly I pulled off
her shirt, scolded her for making a mess and re-dressed her. Just as we were leaving she
had to go to the bathroom. Impatiently, I told her to, “Hurry up!” She hurried so quickly
that she came out of the bathroom with toilet paper hanging out of her pants. I took her
back to the bathroom only to find she hadn’t wiped properly. I was fit to be tied.
In my mad hurry to get to the play on time, I half pulled her by the arm down the
street and she fell. Though she wasn’t hurt badly, she had scraped her knee so we
returned to the apartment to clean and bandage it. I was fuming. We would never make
the play now and the tickets had cost a small fortune.
As I recall the too many times I was impatient with her and told her to, “Hurry up!” it
makes me sad. My only conciliation is that the times I was most intolerant with her, were
the moments that she was most unaware. Granny said she had always been, “a slow and
deliberate kind of girl.” She wrote this memory of early mornings with her brother:
“Mary Josephine,” he called out to me. “I’ll beat you dressing.”
“No you won’t,” I boasted at first.
Oftener than not he did beat me even though I tried harder.
Finally I gave up and came to the comfortable conclusion that I
was just born slow. Later, being left-handed gave me another excuse. I
was told that left-sided people were usually slower than right-sided ones.
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However, this was made worse when my mother insisted I take
dancing lessons. She wanted her daughter to fit in with the society circle.
I was hopeless. None of the boys wanted a “left-footer” for a partner so I
gave up and stood behind a pillar so no one would see me.
Her ‘left-footedness’ never bothered me. Granny and I danced often. If she were just
sitting by herself staring into space, as she often did, I impulsively put on music. I took
her by the hand, lifted her off the chair and put her arm around my waist. Whether it was
Michael Jackson’s, “Beat It,” or Bing Crosby’s, “White Christmas,” it didn’t matter
anymore. Her ears could no longer distinguish the difference. We two-stepped and
twirled about the apartment until we both were dizzy and collapsed laughing. If music
were playing in the lobby, I often danced her to the door.
“You be Fred. I’ll be Ginger,” I commanded.
“No. I’m a girl,” replied Granny quite miffed. “I’ll be Ginger.”
“Well, I’m a girl, too.”
“Oh,” she replied, as if she had never considered this. “Well, then, I’ll be
Fred, but you lead.”
“No, you lead,” I said. “You’re better at it.”
“You rascal!” she giggled, leading like a pro.
Sometimes, just for fun I would burst into a verse of, “It Had To Be You,” and start
waltzing her around wherever we happened to be – at the market, the doctor’s office, the
subway terminal, it didn’t matter where. Onlookers usually smiled. The ones who didn’t
probably just thought we were nuts. Despite her shyness, this impulse of mine never
seemed to bother her. Perhaps she remembered what she had always said to me when I
was a teenager on my way to a dance: “Now remember, dear. Always dance with
everyone who asks you.”
Boy was I popular. The moment I said “yes” to the first oddball who asked, every
pimple-faced, fat boy, and nervous nerd for miles lined up for a dance with me. I never
once turned a boy down – never. Granny had made it plain that to do so, “would be
hurting the feelings of someone who had finally worked up the courage to ask you.” It
was my duty and I did it. Although to be honest, I sometimes added a little something of
my own: if a particularly objectionable fellow asked for my name, I made up a phony
one right on the spot.
One afternoon, when I was seventeen, Granny and I were at the drug store. Suddenly,
a rather ungainly, awkward, bumbling kind of guy smiled in my direction.
“Hi, Rachel!” he said, absolutely beaming.
- 67 -
I didn’t pay any attention to him. Didn’t know him from Adam. Wouldn’t want to
know him. Kept walking. But he followed us over to the next aisle, got right in my face
and said, “Rachel! Rachel! Remember me? It’s Frank. . .from the dance last week!”
Mortified doesn’t begin to describe my internal horror at that moment.
“Uh, Oh, Yeah, right,” I replied meekly. “Nice to see you again, Frank.”
From the look on Granny’s face, I knew I would have to explain. She was fairly
understanding, though she couldn’t resist adding: “Remember, dear, it’s a very, tangled
web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
By the fall of 1991 we were all ready for a change: John could run his investment
business from anywhere now, and was tired of the pace on Wall Street. City life was
getting to be too much for Granny, and I was feeling the tick of my biological clock--
after all, I was almost 39! We decided to move back to Nashville where we were married
and I had begun my music career ten years earlier. A quieter, more ‘country’ life
appealed to all of us.
We purchased our very first home: a thre- bedroom, two-bath house in a quiet
subdivision just south of the city. Instead of tall buildings, we were now surrounded on
all sides by lush, rolling greenbelts with blooming forsythia and deciduous trees. Though
most of the homes had that southern, Georgia mansion kind of look, ours ironically
resembled Granny’s old house in Phoenix: a ranch brick rambler painted gray. The only
differences were the huge, towering hackberry trees that filled our property.
What really sold us was the pool in the backyard. Granny had always loved to swim.
The day we moved in, I suited her up and in we went. She luxuriated in the warm water
and still remembered how to do the breast stroke. Afterwards, my aging, white-haired
mermaid stretched out her long, lean legs under the sun and fell blissfully asleep. For the
first time in her life, Granny either didn’t notice or feel the sun and didn’t hide from it as
she had always done. By this one simple act, we could see that a large part of her
consciousness, if not self-protectiveness, had disappeared.
One evening as I was washing up the dinner dishes, Granny walked into the kitchen,
with a serious, almost stern look on her face. Then she said something that she had never
said before and never would again:
“I think I am losing my memory,” she confided quietly.
My first impulse was to laugh, but she was so sober-faced that I replied:
“Yes, Granny. You are.”
She thought about this for a moment, then said matter-of-factly:
“Well, I guess that’s just God’s way of making me forget what might hurt me to
The philosophy in her reply stunned me. For almost ten years, she had been able to
recall an immense amount from her very early life but almost nothing from the present.
- 68 -
Now, her early memories had all but vanished. However, even in her current confusion,
she had found a way to make sense of things.
“I love you, you old goat, whether or not you can remember anything,” I said hugging
“I love you too, you little imp,” she replied, hugging me back.
“I love you more, you little goofy, muffin head.”
“I love you most, you little droopy. . .
“I’m not ‘droopy,’” I scolded.
“Okay, I love you, you . . . what are you?”
“How about ‘loopy?’”
“Hmmmm. I love you. . .you loopy, loopy. . .LOOP!”
“I’m gonna kiss your tomatoes!” I continued, popping a kiss on each cheek.
“I’m gonna kiss your peach!” she smiled, kissing me back.
Life was considerably slower in the south and far more genteel. The first obvious
difference was that people actually held the door for us now when they saw
Grandmother. Age carried some respect here and I liked that. We still did everything
together and at first, everything was easier to do. The grocery store aisles were wider,
and the clerks even carried our bags to the car. Trips to the movies or out to dinner were
relaxed and the pace everywhere was infinitely slower. Even strangers stopped to talk.
Unfortunately, by now, Grandmother heard almost nothing that others said. It was all
we could do to make her understand us. She was so accustomed to not hearing
conversations, that she wore a practiced smile, especially in public. She smiled if
someone said the weather was bad or their kids were sick. She smiled if a stranger
bumped against her and said, ‘Excuse me.’ Once, she even smiled when we passed a
man in the parking lot yelling at his wife. However, after these conversations, and once
they were out of earshot, Granny’s smile dropped abruptly, and she whispered, “What
was all that about?”
One afternoon at the health food store, I ran into a friend who had just found out she
was pregnant. “I haven’t told my husband yet,” she confided. “But I just had to tell
When my friend walked away to pay for her groceries, Granny leaned in as usual and
asked, “What did she say?”
“She’s pregnant,” I whispered.
“She’s a vagrant?” Grandma said, looking worried.
“No! Pregnant,” I whispered again a little louder.
“A Reagan? She’s a Reagan?” Grandma asked, perhaps remembering that she had
known Nancy and Patti had been my high school roommate.
“NO. She’s. . .going to have a baby,” I said in almost a normal voice, while rocking
my arms madly back and forth.
- 69 -
“Oh! A baby!” Grandma shouted. “SHE’S GOING TO HAVE A BABY!”
Everyone at the cash register, including my friend, turned to look at her.
Turns out she wasn’t the only one expecting. A few months later, I was too.
Considering I was now almost 40, John and I were thrilled. We called everyone we knew
to tell them the exciting news. When I told Grandmother, though, she was completely
nonchalant and rather unimpressed.
“Oh. That’s nice dear,” she said. “But babies are a lot of work. I hope you’re ready
for all that.”
“Well, since you’ve had three kids, Granny, you can help me,” I smiled.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said suddenly looking worried. “I don’t remember what to
do with babies anymore. But I do know one thing: I don’t want to change any diapers!”
There wouldn’t be any to change for a while. A few weeks later, I had to fly to Los
Angeles for a performance. The night of the show, as I sat in an elegant, Hollywood
cabaret waiting to perform, my lap felt wet. At first, I thought the performer next to me
had spilled his water. So, I picked up a beautiful, starched, pink linen napkin from the
table and pressed it to dry off my black, satin pants. When I brought the napkin up,
though, it was covered with splotches of bright, red blood. Just then, my name was
Fortunately, I only had two songs to sing. Unfortunately, they were both ballads.
The second I finished, I squeezed my way quickly through the applauding crowd and
grabbed another napkin on my way out. Over the next several hours, I had a miscarriage
in my Santa Monica hotel room. I tried to save as much of it as I could in the plastic,
hotel cups to show my doctor, but blood was everywhere.
The hardest part was my phone call to John and the trip home with no baby inside of
me. When I told Granny, though, I probably needn’t have bothered. She had already
forgotten I was pregnant in the first place. And there was no time to be idle. Caring for
her consumed me even more.
Though we lived on a cul-de-sac in a quiet section of town, Granny was slowly
getting too feeble to walk it on her own. After a while, John or I went with her but she
labored with each step. She became breathless just walking to the end of our street, and
always had to stop and rest before returning home. A simple walk past seven houses
could take half an hour or more.
I felt that I needed to keep her moving, so I came up with her new daily “chore.” She
was to get the mail every day from the mailbox at the end of our driveway. There was a
gradual slope down to the box, which meant a gradual climb home. Though the distance
was only about fifty yards, it took her fifteen minutes or longer just to get there. She
shuffled slowly, paused every few steps and sometimes stopped altogether.
“Go to the mailbox,” I would yell out the window.
She’d start walking again, and finally get to the box. As she retrieved the mail, she often
dropped several pieces on the ground which she neither saw nor heard fall. I would have
- 70 -
to pick them up later. Once the mail was in her hand, she liked to sit down and rest in the
grass or on the rock wall, before returning home.
One afternoon while I was in the kitchen waiting for her to return with the mail, I
heard a siren. As I walked to the front porch an ambulance turned into our street.
Several people were standing near our mailbox. I ran down the driveway to find
Grandmother lying in the small ditch that ran along the bottom of our lawn. It was a
rather comfortable depression in the grass that she sometimes simply sat in.
“Granny, are you all right?” I asked, as the ambulance pulled to a stop next to me.
“Just resting, dear,” she replied sleepily with her eyes still closed.
A man standing nearby said, “Well, I saw her lying there so I called 911.”
“Thank you,” I said to him. “But she’s fine. She’s my grandmother and lives here
with us. She likes to rest here before she walks back up the hill with the mail.”
I sent the ambulance on its way, assured the onlookers that all was well and helped
Granny to her feet.
“Well, you certainly caused a stir,” I told her.
“I did?” she asked.
“Yup. Apparently these southerners aren’t used to seeing old ladies lying in ditches.”
“I wonder why,” she said as if it were a completely normal thing to do.
As we slowly walked back to the house it occurred to me that the man who had seen
Grandmother never actually went over to her to see if she was all right. My guess is that
from a distance, with her age and white hair, she probably looked quite dead to him.
He wouldn’t be the only one to find Granny in an odd position either. One morning
while I was washing her hair in the bathtub, she had another stroke. They were easy to
recognize now: a glazed look settled over her eyes and she was unable to move one side
of her body, usually the left.
This time, though, I started to panic. John wasn’t home and I couldn’t get her out of
the water by myself. I tried gripping her by the waist, but I couldn’t lift her but an inch
or two. She was completely dead weight and with the bath oil, slippery as a King
salmon. If I left her to run to the phone, she might slip under and drown. Finally, I let
the water drain out of the tub. She looked like a wet, rag doll with her head lolled
sideways and her loose limbs splayed and limp. I covered her with a bath towel to keep
“Now stay put,” I told her, believing as I always did that she could still hear me
during her strokes, “and I’ll be right back.”
Just as I got to the phone, I heard a truck pulled up in the driveway. It was our pool
“Mark!” I yelled. “Quick! I need your help. Can you help me get Grandmother out
of the tub?”
At first he laughed. “Did ah hear you raht?” he said in his sweet, Tennessee drawl.
“You need me to get yore grahnmother out of the baith tub?”
- 71 -
“Yes,” I said, completely oblivious as to what I was really asking him to do.
He clomped into the house with his big, black work boots. ‘Thank God,’ I thought to
myself, ‘He’s a big, strong man.’
However, the moment he came face-to-face with my naked grandmother, he shyly
turned his head towards me.
“Are you shore this is all raht with her?”
“Yes. Don’t worry. She doesn’t even know you’re here. She’s had a stroke.”
“Okey Dokey,” he said taking it all in stride. With one deft swoop of his arms, Mark
lifted Granny right out of the tub and stood her upright on the bath mat. I tried to put her
bathrobe on to protect her modesty, but it was futile. Getting her arms into the sleeves
was like trying to maneuver cooked, limp spaghetti strands. Patiently, Mark stood
soldier-straight and waited while I fumbled around.
“Uh. Maam. What do ah do with her naow?” he finally asked.
I hadn’t thought that far, having focused solely on getting her out of the tub. Mark
waited for my answer with his long, muscled arms still wrapped around Granny’s waist.
He looked ludicrous gripping a tall, wet, naked, comatose, old lady. Her head drooped
sideways across his chest and had already made a huge wet spot on his shirt. It was then
that I noticed that her breasts were actually hanging over his wrists. I giggled.
“I don’t suppose bath tub rescues are part of your pool service duties, huh?”
“Well, this is a furst,” Mark said with a grin. “But you all’d better think of sumpin
quick cuz she’s startin’ to slip on me here.”
“Oh dear. Can you carry her over to her bed?”
“Shore,” he replied matter-of-factly, as if he had been asked to do this kind of thing
Mark half-carried, half-dragged Granny the three yards to her bedroom. The big toes
on her limp feet drew two perfect, wet lines across the grainy, wood floor to her bed. He
laid her down. I covered her with a blanket and dried her hair with a towel.
“Is she gonna be all raht?” he worried.
“I think so. She’s had lots of these. She usually comes to in a little while.”
Sure enough, by the time Mark finished up his work on the pool, and came to get his
check, I had already dressed Granny and seated her at the table for lunch.
“Hey, Mrs. Rogers,” he said, slightly embarrassed.
“Hello,” she replied, completely oblivious as to what had just transpired.
That summer, we threw a 4th of July party at our house for the neighbors; a special
date, as it was also Granny’s 92nd birthday. She had fun meeting everyone, but kept
asking me why they were wishing her, “Happy Birthday.” It proved to be a memorable
night. Nine months later, I gave birth to our first child.
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“Never wish for what you don’t have or you’ll feel you have nothing.”
“J. J., do you ever wish you were young again?” I suddenly asked her one morning at
“Of course not.” She replied as if the question were perfectly ridiculous. “Why do
“Well, wouldn’t it be nice to have all your aches and pains gone?’’ I said, sure that
she would agree.
“Every stage of life brings its own ‘aches and pains,’ dear,” she smiled.
“Yes, but wouldn’t it be nicer not to have old age aches and pains--to be able to just
get up and run?”
“Where would I run to, dear?”
“Oh, Grandmother!” I said completely exasperated.
“I never wish for what I don’t have, dear.”
“Never? Didn’t you ever want to be rich or famous or anything, even when you were
“No. I have absolutely no desire to be famous. I wouldn’t wish fame on anyone.
Besides, I am rich, dear. I have you.”
How Granny and I were still able to have conversations like these a full ten years into
her descent into Alzheimer’s, I still don’t quite understand. However, these brief
moments of real human connection kept both John and me going on for longer than we’d
ever imagined possible.
It was also during moments like these that I cursed my innate ambition. Unlike
Granny, I had always wanted to make my mark on the world. Though I didn’t know
exactly what that mark would be, I wanted to make it. That inner peace that comes from
being completely satisfied with what you have and who you are, eluded me. It was a
peace that Granny seemed to have cultivated since the cradle; a serenity that imbued her
even now – one that I hoped to soon possess for my own impending arrival.
For the next nine months I tried to prepare Granny for our baby. Every day I lifted
my shirt above my stomach, turned sideways, and said, “Granny, do you notice
anything?” And every day, she said the same thing: “I certainly do. You’re getting
I bought a gazillion, baby-naming books and asked Granny for ideas.
“What do you think of ‘Daisy’?” I asked.
“That was my mother’s name. Don’t like it. Sounds like a flower. A person should
have a person’s name not a flower’s name.”
“How about ‘Elizabeth?’”
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“Humph, that’s certainly a mouthful.”
“Well, if it’s a girl what would you call her?”
“Gertrude’s pretty,” she said. “Or Florence.”
“Yuk on ‘Gertrude,’ I grimaced. “And ‘Florence’ is a city in Italy.”
“Oh, that’s right,” she smiled, perhaps remembering she had traveled there once.
When an ultrasound showed that we were going to have a daughter, we were thrilled.
When I told Grandmother, she didn’t believe me:
“Humph,” she scowled. “How could he possibly know it’s a girl? Your doctor
certainly must have very good eyes to be able to see through your big stomach like that!”
At this point I didn’t bother explaining ultrasound technology to a woman who still
thought all doctors were male. Mine happened to be female and that would really have
thrown her. However, I did try to include Granny in every decision and preparation that
“What else do I need for a baby?” I asked.
“Well, bottles and formula,” she replied.
“Nope. Don’t need that,” I told her. “I’m going to breastfeed her.”
She gave me a long, strange look, then finally said, “Well, I certainly can’t help you
I asked her to fold the little blankets and tiny clothes I had bought for the baby. Of
course, she folded everything inside out and poorly, but I praised her attempts. Then I
purchased a changing table, which I set up next to our bed, and also asked her to fold the
stack of cloth diapers on top of it.
“Ugh,” she grunted. “Don’t expect me to touch these when they’re dirty. I’ve had
enough of diapers for a lifetime! Just remember, you’ll have to rinse them out in the
toilet first before you wash them.”
Though I was tickled to know that she still remembered the old fashioned way of
cleaning them, I had my eye on a diaper service. Since we didn’t have an extra bedroom,
the baby would sleep next to our bed, in a little, blue bassinet that I had just purchased.
As soon as she saw it, Granny scowled:
“That was a waste of money. Just put it in the bottom dresser drawer. Babies don’t
take up that much room.”
When a friend gave us a baby swing, Granny took one look at it and said:
“What a ridiculous contraption. If the baby wants to rock you can rock it in your
arms. It’ll just get dizzy in that thing!”
Though it sounded like Granny was a little jealous of our unborn child, jealousy was
an emotion that I had never, ever seen in her. She was simply being her old, practical
Now that the house had been baby-proofed and I was feeling my little one kick often
in my belly, I began to worry: Could I handle two babies? For I treated her more like a
baby than an adult now: I bathed, wiped, dressed and fed her. At times, just to be cute, I
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even sat her on my lap and sang her lullabies. Her favorite of my many versions was:
“Rock-a-bye Granny, in the treetops. You are so old, your boobies have dropped.” It
wasn’t one of those worries that one can ever really solve, though – time just doesn’t
stand still long enough.
Besides, Granny had always been my refuge as a child and I needed to be hers now.
Having her for a parent was the most solid foundation anyone could ask for. She always
made me feel safe – even more, she accepted me exactly as I was. I knew that she
needed the same kind of acceptance from me now.
People have always reminded me a little of houses: some are cramped, with small
doors you can’t enter and tiny windows that you can’t peer into. You simply can’t move
inside them or see out of them well, so you feel trapped. Others are grand, showy affairs,
but there’s nowhere inside to get cozy and warm. Granny’s always had a room just for
me, with a window at eye-level and a door that kept you safely in or let you go as you
wished; the kind of home that I tried to make for her now.
I had begun a pregnancy journal during my first month, and as I noted things about
the baby growing inside of me, Grandmother crept into many of the lines:
Ah, she is in rare form tonight! As Granny was getting into bed, I
reminded her to brush her teeth. “Oh,” she smiled cheerfully, “I almost
forgot.” This is so unlike her. For almost ten years she has fought teeth
brushing, let alone removing them from her mouth. Of course, once she
brushed them she put them right back into her mouth. John and I both
yelled, “Take them out!” She reluctantly took them out and shuffled back
Some weeks later, we took Granny out for dinner with some friends to our favorite
restaurant. Just as we paid the check and were getting ready to leave, Granny had an odd,
contorted look on her face. As I watched, she suddenly went completely rigid. John and
I, thinking that she was having another small stroke, went to lift her out of her seat. She
had urinated on the chair and it was dripping onto the floor. As we laid her on the
ground, her eyes rolled back into her head. Immediately, I put my head to her chest,
listening for a heartbeat. As John knelt beside me, the people around us were suddenly
quiet. The din in the restaurant stilled. No one moved. All watched in silence.
“She isn’t breathing,” I said.
John put his ear to her chest, felt her wrist for a pulse, then looked at me sadly.
“Can you close her eyes?” I asked him quietly, certain that she was gone.
A crowd had begun to gather. Our friends were in shock, as much as from what
happened to Granny as our almost casual response to the crisis. She had had so many
strokes by now that we no longer bothered to call the doctor. He had already said that at
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her age, there was little they could do, “other than put her in a hospital and hook her up to
“Besides,” he told us the last time this happened, “It’s very likely that one day, she
will simply have one of her strokes and that will be it. Her heart will stop.”
Perhaps this was that day.
“Should I call an ambulance?” someone in the crowd asked tentatively.
Just at that moment, Granny began to move and her eyes fluttered open!
“No, thank you,” I said relieved. “She’s just had a stroke. I think she’ll be okay.”
Our friends helped us lift Granny into the car and we took her home. John helped me
wash and dress her and I put her to bed. I curled up next to her as I often did with my
arms around her. We usually talked a bit and said our prayers.
When I was little and she tucked me into bed, Granny often spoke of Heaven; a place
she would go after she died to be with God. I think her favorite part was that she
wouldn’t have a body there, “just a spirit.” She made it sound so wonderful, that it
seemed to me she was looking forward to going there at any moment. So, one night,
when I was six, I suddenly asked her, “Granny? Are you ready to go to Heaven now?”
She just roared: “Oh, my, no, darling. Don’t be silly. That’s a long, long way away.”
So, before I tucked her in that night, I asked her as I had all those years before:
“Granny? Are you ready to go to Heaven and be with God?”
“NO!” she replied as if I were being ridiculous. “I’m just tired. Let me sleep!”
The next morning, things were back to usual. Only ‘usual’ meant that Granny now
slept through most of the day. Somehow, despite her age and the strokes, she was still
going with her increasingly irascible yet indomitable spirit. Sometimes I called her, “My
little Energizer, Josie.” But she was on a perpetual seesaw: some days I felt that she
would go any second. Others, she was so fine that I completely took her presence for
granted and couldn’t imagine life without her. How could I? I had never known life
without her. Besides, there were still good, or rather, ‘interesting’ times to be had:
Took Jo to see a Thai Folk Dance Troupe at church last night.
Two hours of horrid, eerie, screeching, piercing music. Four minutes into
the program, Granny turned to me and said loudly, “This is awful. I’m
ready to go.” I tried to explain that this wasn’t the appropriate time to
leave. Besides, we were sitting fairly close to the front.
She didn’t hear me, though. Granny stood straight up and turned
her chair around. Her back now faced the performers and she was
looking straight at the audience! For the rest of the show, until
intermission, she made loud, throat-clearing sounds of disgust. As we left,
John jokingly asked her if she enjoyed the performance. “Yes, very much,
dear,” she replied, sounding completely sincere!
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Our church was having its annual Talent Night and I asked Grandmother if she would
like to be in it.
“What would I do, dear?” she asked. “I have no talent.”
“Well, we could sing, “The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,” I suggested.
This was a song Granny had taught me as a child. We’d sung it on car trips for as
long as I could remember. Before I could say another word, Granny was already singing:
“In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, stood a cow on a railroad track.”
I joined in:
“‘Twas a nice old cow with eyes so fine. But you can’t expect a cow to read a
railroad sign. She stood in the middle of the track. Came a train. Hit her right on the
Then we went into the harmony:
“Now her horns are in the mountains of Virginia and her tail’s on the lonesome spine.
That’s where it is. . .Her tail’s on the lonesome spine.”
We laughed and I threw my arms around her. It was odd to still have moments like
these in the midst of the surrealness of her disease. I often felt that we were living inside
a Dali painting.
“That was great, Granny!! You haven’t forgotten a beat!”
Granny seemed quite pleased with herself. We practiced all week and John even
volunteered to sing with us. Granny took great pleasure in teaching him the words.
The night of the show as we sat waiting to perform, I knew that Granny had no idea
what we were about to do. When we went up on stage and stood in front of the
microphone, she turned to me and asked, “What are we doing here?”
“Just sing, “The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,” I whispered.
“What?” she queried with an absolutely straight and blank face.
“Sing with me,” I said louder, holding my hand over the microphone.
John and I launched into the song. At first Granny looked out at the audience then
back at us as if we were completely mad. Fortunately, as soon as she heard the opening
words, she joined in with us. We had purposely planned to drop out for the last line so
that Granny would have a solo. It worked. When we finished, the audience applauded.
From the look on Granny’s face I could tell that she had no idea why they were clapping.
For the truth was that she had already forgotten she had just sung the song! Having no
memory certainly does allow one many blissful as well as stress-less moments!
Mealtimes, too, continued to be occasions for laughter. One evening at dinner, I gave
Granny corn-on-the-cob. She kept insisting that I give her a spoon to eat it with. I
explained that corn-on-the-cob was eaten with the hands and even demonstrated this for
her several times.
“That’s too messy,” she insisted. “You’re being perfectly ridiculous. No one eats
corn like that. I’d like a spoon, please.”
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Finally, I relented and gave her a spoon. She poked at the rows for a moment or two.
Not a kernel budged. Finally she picked the cob up with both hands and ate down an
entire row. Then she stopped. It didn’t occur to her that she could roll the corn and chew
another row. So I turned it for her. She chomped down that row. I turned it again and
again until she finished. Of course, her place was a mess and so was the floor underneath
her, despite the bib and many napkins I had given her.
“Josephine,” I said, “if you insist on making this kind of mess at every meal, I am
going to start feeding you stark naked in the middle of the floor, surrounded by a big,
Granny just smiled and merely wiped her mouth off with the back of her sleeve.
Took J. J. out for cake and juice at the Slice of Life. The waitress
handed her a piece of cake, with the fork stuck in it. Instead of taking the
fork out, Granny picked up her entire piece of cake, with the fork still
protruding and proceeded to eat her way all around the edges.
“Would you like me to cut it in pieces for you?” I asked.
“No. I have it under control,” she replied.
John says that she has simply forgotten what to do with a fork. I
think she has simply decided to eliminate unnecessary steps, like a child.
Granny was really my little baby now. She was actually my first as I had no
siblings and had flatly refused to baby-sit during my teenage years. I took on any part-
time job I could get that didn’t involve children. Proudly, I became the only girl “bag
boy,” they ever had at our local grocery store. Little kids drove me crazy with their
messes and noisemaking, so I avoided them whenever possible. Even when I flew to
engagements across the country, if a child were seated next to me, I often asked to be
moved. But, as they say, when they’re your own, you don’t mind the mess, and endless
strains on your patience:
Had fun with Granny in her bathtub this morning. I was adding
hot water, but not fast enough for her, so she kept turning on the shower
instead of the hot water. She can’t distinguish between the two faucets.
She kept spraying herself in the head and sent water all over the
wallpaper and me--but it made her smile so I let her keep it up. She still
thinks shampoo is some kind of poison. The second I put it on her head
she screams “Rinse! Rinse!” I have become the fastest hairwasher in
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I was also still accomplishing my own endeavors with breakneck speed. Knowing a
performing career wouldn’t last forever, I had enrolled at Vanderbilt and finished my
Masters degree in Counseling that year. The purpose was to have, “that little something
to fall back on.” Right now, though, I had my counseling work at home cut out for me.
Although nothing in my textbooks prepared me for the next few years.
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“If you can laugh at yourself, it’s hard for others to make fun of you.”
Easier said than done – until you get the hang of it, that is. The first time that I put this
one to the test, it worked so well that it has been my modus operandi ever since. It was
1966, my freshman year in high school. Because I had skipped a grade, not only was I
younger than the rest of the girls, but puberty hadn’t hit yet. In fact, it hadn’t even
bumped against me. School was tough enough without this added deficit. I had already
received my fair share of teasing through junior high, as no one ever picks the smallest
kid for their team. Often I came home in tears to Granny.
“Well, dear. You are who you are. There’s not a thing you can do about your size, so
you’d just better learn to have a sense of humor about it. Besides, be glad you don’t have
large breasts. They’re a terrible nuisance and just get in the way.”
Right. All my girlfriends were now wearing bras and actually had something to go in
them. Wanting desperately to keep up, I purchased one of those grow-with-you bras and
stuffed it with cotton balls, socks and anything that faintly resembled breasts. I also
purchased a padded bra, but if I leaned against anything while wearing it, the cups dented
inwards and stayed that way. So, I rarely wore it.
One afternoon, the whole freshman class was lined up for lunch. Suddenly, Jason*,
the meanest boy in school, leaned over and picked up a falsie that some poor girl must
have dropped on the ground. Or maybe he brought it with him? It was huge, something
that never would have fit in my own bra. He said something to the kids around him and
suddenly everyone was laughing and looking straight at me.
“Hey, Hudson!” Hunter yelled at me from the front of the line. “Forget something?”
Then he tossed the falsie at my feet.
For a second I was almost too stunned to speak. Then the words just flew out of my
“No, thanks, Hunter.” I said with all the casual indifference I could muster, “I already
have mine on.”
As I recall, I even puffed my chest out an inch as I said it.
Not only did the laughing stop. Hunter himself was speechless. While I was pleased
that my remark had made the right effect, I still couldn’t swallow a single bite of lunch.
It was odd how teenage angst could so mirror the end stage of Alzheimer’s. Granny’s
self-consciousness had peaked and then fallen away suddenly like leaves at the end of
fall. She who had always managed to make things seem better than they were no longer
knew what things were. Simple, everyday objects were a complete mystery to her. She
could not make connections: Toothpaste didn’t go with toothbrush. A spoon was not
something you ate with, it was simply something round and silver. Even if you put the
spoon in her hand she could not make the leap to raise it to her mouth. A chair was not
something you sat in. It was simply a thing with four legs that sat there. Everything now
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for Granny was simply ‘there.’ When I hugged her, I often pulled her arms around me to
indicate that she was to hug me back. Otherwise, she would stand mutely with her arms
at her side. Nothing I said helped as I wrote in my journal:
Now that Granny sleeps constantly, we don’t worry about leaving
her alone for a few hours at a time. She simply doesn’t have the energy to
go anywhere. Still, she can’t make “connections” where she is. If Granny
is cold and sitting right next to a blanket, she will not pull it over her. I
ask her again and again to pull the blanket over her if she is cold. She
won’t do it. She cannot connect the blanket with warmth. If I am not
home, she will sit and shiver, sit on her hands or curl up in the fetal
position, clearly cold. . .all the while with a big, nice, warm blanket just
Granny had been with us now for over ten years. We had gone through too much to
give up on her now. Besides, I didn’t feel it was particularly noble to care for your own
blood. ‘Dumb’ animals did it instinctively. Friends at the time often asked, “How do
you cope?” My reply was always, “Well, how do you raise a child?” Books don’t help,
especially in the day-to-day whirl of things. You simply go step by step, making it up as
you go. Hoping that at the end of the day, after the relentless routines, they’re healthy,
clean, well-fed, still in one piece and know they’re loved.
Lucky for us, there was still laughter to be had. As usual, it was John who provided
it. Though now, instead of laughing with Grandmother, our laughter was usually
between ourselves at her expense. It was the kind of thing she would have deplored
under normal circumstances--laughing at someone else. But these were not normal
circumstances and these lighthearted moments helped us bear the sadness:
Could not get Granny out of bed this morning. “It’s too cold!” she
kept insisting. So, John played a little trick on her. He told her that it was
his birthday and she had to get up for his party. That worked. The second
we promised her cake and ice cream, she was on her feet.
The hysterical part was that he kept it up ALL day. Every hour or
so he said, “Jo? Do you know what day it is?” “No,” she replied.
“Well, it’s my birthday and you have to sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ to me.”
So she did sing it – about twelve times in all. Not only did she remember
all the words, she can still carry a tune! Wacky. She has no memory that
she has just sung the song – yet she remembers the song itself, over and
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And, just like her behavior during her first days with us, she continued to have
moments of absolute, stark clarity:
Yesterday, Grandmother suddenly seemed alert. She commented
on the weather, asked for her glasses, and then read her mail and
Christmas cards out loud! When it was time for bed, though, she put on
her best silk dress over her pajamas. John asked her to take it off. She
had a fit. Finally she yelled, “Helen. Help me in here. John is being
Using my best, newly-acquired, counseling skills, I finally got the
dress off of her and put her to bed. But apparently my skills weren’t that
good: she was still mad. As I was leaving her room, she threw both of her
pillows at me and they landed on the floor! Fortunately she has lousy
The only thing I can attribute her alertness to was the fact she had
two bowel movements yesterday. Sounds weird, but she is always more
herself after one. I love her being aware but it also makes her harder to
When I gave her a bath this morning, she demanded to see her
towel five, separate times before she would get into the tub. It took forever
to get the water “just right” and she threw a hissy fit when I washed her
She still pretends to use the soap by palming it in her hand and
making a motion over it with her washcloth. Granny must think the soap
is some kind of deadly maggot. It took me awhile to be on to her little
ploy, so now I soap her myself and she acts as if she’s being tortured.
I kept Granny as clean and well-groomed as I did my own body. It had nothing to do
with “cleanliness” being next to “Godliness.” For some reason I hoped that if the outside
of her were spotless and impeccable, her inner world would be forced to mirror it. It
didn’t happen, of course, but I never gave up trying. Besides, I didn’t want her to have
that ‘old person smell;’ the one that has the odor of sour, moldy bread left in a worn,
cowboy boot. I figured it was a good thing that old people lost their sense of smell, like
Granny had, otherwise they’d want out of their skin.
By January, Grandma had steadily improved since her stroke at the restaurant. She
regained the feeling in her arm and leg, was able to walk and talk again, and even began
to smile a little. Though she still slept long stretches, she was more alert and the pink had
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returned to her cheeks. She also seemed to realize that I was really pregnant and would
soon have a baby.
But just as she seemed whole and ‘herself’ again, she’d have another little stroke and
the whole process would start over. These setbacks reminded me of Sisyphus in Greek
mythology. His curse was to begin each day by rolling a large stone up a hill. At the end
of each day, however, the stone always rolled back down, and he had to push it up again--
And now a new problem began for Granny: she had trouble getting to the bathroom
at night. Because she couldn’t quite make it in time, she left a little trail of pee from her
bed to the toilet. Often, I slipped on it in the morning, once landing on my backside
trying to protect my six-months, pregnant belly. If she wet the bottom of her nightie,
though, she was still aware enough to take it off and leave it on the sink so that I could
I purchased her first set of Depends, which I discovered on the diaper aisle while
searching for baby things, and began putting one on her before she went to bed. She
fought me hard on this – so hard that I made her a deal:
“You only have to wear them at night, not during the day. If you have three dry
nights in a row you don’t have to wear them again.”
Unfortunately, on the days when she was alert, she simply slipped the diaper off after
I had tucked her in. I usually found it on the floor in the morning, along with wet sheets
on her bed. Finally, I bought the same vinyl mattress cover for her bed that I purchased
for the baby’s crib.
We are sending Granny to the mailbox four or five times a day now
just to get her moving. I feel badly every time she comes back empty
handed, but fortunately she doesn’t seem to remember that she has
already been there before.
I can always tell now what kind of day she is going to have by her
behavior first thing in the morning. When I give Granny her heart pill, if
she asks what it is and drinks it right down it will be a good day. If she
hides it in her hand, pretends to swallow and refuses to drink, it will be a
bad one. Usually in the morning she is grumpy, but by the end of the day
becomes giggly and affectionate. One minute she is darling and lucid; the
next almost completely catatonic.
One morning, while admiring my huge belly hanging over the kitchen counter, John
suddenly turned to Granny and said, “Pretty soon I’m gonna be surrounded by three girls!
And I will be the only boy, so I will be really special!”
Granny scowled at him and shook her head.
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“I thought you were already special,” she scolded. “What do you need another wife
Another “on” day for Grandma. She became indignant when I
asked her to finish her banana. Lately she only peels it down partially
then stops eating where the peel ends. This is not because she is full, but
because she doesn’t realize that there is more banana under the peel. As
a result, she leaves half eaten bananas all over the kitchen. I told her this
was “wasteful,” and she became indignant. She refused to eat it and
started to throw it in the garbage. When I told her not to, she raised her
hand as if to hit me and had a nasty look in her eye. I gave up.
A few minutes later I asked her to get the mail again). “Haven’t I
already done that?” she frowned. I couldn’t lie: “Yes, I guess you have.”
I discovered a way to use up those bananas, though. Every night after dinner, I
heaped them on a plate, covered them with a swath of peanut butter and set them on our
back porch. We turned the lights on and waited for dark. Then the three of us stood by
the sliding glass door and watched.
“Here they come,” I yelled.
An entire family of raccoons scurried across the wood decking and tore at once into
those old, squished bananas. They clawed and fought among themselves down to the last
bite. Granny loved watching them, but of course she had no idea that they were
“What beautiful cats,” she exclaimed each night, as if she had never seen them
before. “I wonder what kind they are with those huge, ringed tails. And such big eyes.”
“All the better to see you with,” I cackled like the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Children’s stories were oft on my lips now as I was beginning to read them to Granny
for practice. One of her favorites was an Aesop’s Fable, “The Fox and The Grapes.” On
the days she was alert, she said the “fox was very foolish and should know better.” On
the days she wasn’t, she might say, “Why all the fuss over grapes?” I was doing
everything I could to prepare her and me for our new baby.
Whenever I knew the baby was going to kick, I placed Granny’s hands on my tummy.
Each time she kicked, Grandma looked up at me completely wide-eyed as if she had
never felt anything like this before.
“That’s our little girl in there,” I said.
“Oh. I can feel her,” Granny replied with awe.
She kicked again.
“There she goes again,” Granny said beginning to smile.
“Talk to her,” I said.
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“She can’t hear me,” Granny scowled.
“Yes, babies recognize voices even in the womb.”
“Oh, well, what should I say?”
“Tell her who you are.”
“Oh. . .who am I?”
“You’re her great-grandmother.”
“Oh. I’m your great-grandmother. . .hello.”
A year ago we thought we were losing her. Now it looked as if Grandmother would
be alive when our baby was born and we were thrilled. I couldn’t wait to see how a little
baby in the house would affect her – if it did at all.
Our church threw us a baby shower yesterday and Granny had a
ball. As John and I opened the beautiful packages bearing tiny, precious
outfits, blankets and stuffed animals, Granny helped herself to the dessert
table. We were not keeping our eyes on her. The next thing we knew, she
stumbled down the dining room steps and splashed her glass of purple
punch and chocolate cake across our hostess’s elegant, chintz sofa and
The guests were worried, but Granny seemed just fine. So fine,
that while she lay sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, she continued
eating the chocolate cake and icing right out of the carpet fibers with her
fingers! Now they seemed more horrified by her behavior than her fall.
Indeed, one asked if I was “feeding her at home.” After we cleaned her
and as much of the carpet as we could), we stood her up only to find that
Granny had sprained her ankle.
As soon as we arrived home, she said she felt sick. No wonder,
with all the sweets she ate. I took her immediately into the bathroom, but
before I could get her to the toilet, she fainted in my arms. John helped
me undress her and put her to bed.
About 3 am, I got up to check on her and smelled something awful.
I pulled back the sheets and found she had gone to the bathroom in her
sleep. There was diarrhea everywhere. John got up, helped me get her
out of bed and into the bathroom. I cleaned her up. He stripped the bed
and helped me remake it. She used to be able to step into the diaper, but
now it takes both of us to get her into one: He has to lift her rear end up
by raising both of her knees while I slide the diaper on underneath.
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Late one afternoon, a week before our daughter was born, Granny lay napping on her
bed. As I stood at her doorway feeling exhausted and huge, I wished that I could turn her
room into a nursery. ‘It would be so much easier,’ I thought to myself, ‘if I only had the
baby to think of and not Granny.’
For at that moment I didn’t want her there – but just as strongly – I didn’t want her
gone either. It was a strange juxtaposition of desires that didn’t enter my mind again for
some time. Once our, little Grace arrived, all of my energy and aspirations went towards
The first time that Granny held her, I wept, in between taking a whole roll of photos.
She had no idea just who she was holding, but I did. The woman who had held me as a
baby forty years ago, was actually holding my own child. It was a moment that I had
never imagined or wished for, yet when it happened I was transfixed. As her old,
wrinkled arms encircled the fresh, pink newness of our little Grace, the world had made a
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“There is something good about everyone. Find it.”
This saying of Granny’s went hand-in-hand with, “Everything happens for a reason.” As
a result, I was never allowed to say, “I don’t like” so and so, or “I hate” something.
Instead I had to say, “I haven’t learned to like Sally,” or “I haven’t learned to like
cabbage, yet.” According to Granny, both of these evils were in my life “for a reason.”
When my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Speiser, whom we nicknamed ‘Mr. Despiser,’
paddled me in front of the whole class one day, I was humiliated. It was an Air Force
base school and in those days, spanking was allowed. When I told Granny, “I hate him,”
she listened patiently until I ran out of tears. “That poor man,” she finally said. “He
must feel very badly about himself to have to hit a little girl in order to feel more
She then told me to find something I liked about him, “no matter how small.” For
weeks I glowered in the back of the classroom until I found it: he looked just like Fred
Flintstone on “The Flintstones,” and that was one of my favorite cartoons! From that day
on I thought of him as “Fred Flintstone,” not “Mr. Despiser.” Granny’s motto eventually
became a habit with me: ever since, I have always looked for that ‘something good’ in
both the people I meet and the experiences I have.
These days, I was looking for it in Granny and it was getting harder to find. She had
so little to offer now, aside from an occasional remark or smile. Everything had to be
done for her. She had absolutely no initiative on her own for anything and would have
simply lain in bed if we didn’t force her up. Not only did we have to physically get her
out of bed, dress her and walk her to breakfast. Once there, she just sat and stared.
“Eat,” I commanded.
She just sat and stared at her dish. I put the spoon in her hand, dipped it into the
cereal bowl, and lifted it to her lips. Slowly, she opened them. I pushed the spoon inside.
Sometimes she chewed and swallowed right away. Other times she just sat and let the
food run out of her mouth. Some days, she refused to open her mouth at all.
The same was true when going to the bathroom: I took her every few hours and had
to pull down her pants first. Otherwise, she merely sat down in them and went. Once on
the toilet she often didn’t go. She just sat there oblivious as to what to do. After a few
times with no results, I filled a glass with warm water and poured it between her legs.
This worked so well that I did it every time. Every now and then, though, she was lucid:
“Hey! Why are you pouring water on me?” she blurted suddenly one afternoon.
“So you’ll pee,” I said.
“Well I can pee perfectly well by myself, thank you very much. Get me a towel,” she
demanded. “You’ve gotten me all wet!”
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ll she really wanted to do was sleep. I still tried to engage her in conversation, but
her responses were either terse or nonexistent. Every few months, I posed the same
question, “Granny? Are you ready to go to Heaven?” This query had become my best
way of really gauging how she felt at any given moment. She always used to say, “No.
Don’t be ridiculous!” Or, “Well, when it’s my time,” as she clearly had no fear of death.
But now, she merely shook her head and said a simple, quiet, “No.”
Grace’s arrival was thrilling but all-consuming. I was up all night with her the first
several months, both because I was nursing, and so overcome with her presence that I
could barely sleep. When I wasn’t nursing, changing, rocking, playing or simply staring
at my baby, Granny needed my attention.
I now let her stay in bed longer in the morning until I had nursed and changed Grace.
Then I woke her, walked her to the bathroom, took care of her hygiene, dressed her and
led her to breakfast. By the time I had fed her, Grace usually needed me. So, I took
Granny to the sofa, put her down for a nap and picked up the baby.
Through the exhaustion there were still tender moments. When Granny was alert,
usually by late afternoon, I would bring Grace to her to hold. Though we went through
this same routine every single day, Granny still had no idea who the baby was or that she
“What a beautiful baby,” she said each time she held her. “Who does she belong to?”
“She’s our baby, Granny, and she’s your great-granddaughter.”
“Oh,” Granny replied with the edge of a smile that faded as fast it came. “She’s a
beautiful baby. Who does she belong to?”
One afternoon I had them both down for naps at the same time – a feat! I stood over
Grace’s crib and watched her sleep. I was in awe of her perfect little face, so innocent
and sweet. Granny, too, had a sweet look of innocence as she lay sleeping. As I went to
pull a blanket over her, I realized her pants were soaking wet. She had urinated right
through them and onto the couch.
“Granny, get up!” I said shaking her. “You’ve wet your pants.”
Groggily she sat up, looked around and said, “I did not.”
“Yes, you did. You’re soaking wet!”
She felt her pants and didn’t notice anything unusual. I began pulling off her clothes
and toweling off the couch. I took her into the bathroom, washed her with a cloth and re-
“Where’s the diaper you were supposed to be wearing?” I asked. She looked at me
blankly. I went into her bedroom. There it was, shoved under her bed.
“Let’s put this on,” I said.
“I don’t need that thing,” she scolded. “That’s for babies. I’m perfectly dry.”
“No, you wet your pants. Feel them.” I handed her the wet underwear.
“Well,” she said, “I’ll have to take responsibility because they’re my pants, but I
didn’t wet them!”
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“Can’t you tell when you go to the bathroom in your clothes? Can’t you feel it?” I
asked her incredulously?
She gave me a straightforward look and said, “Well, obviously not!”
Granny now spent the majority of the day just sitting and staring into space or
napping. She hadn’t been in the pool for almost a year. Aside from her trip to the
mailbox, the only time she moved was to find a sunnier spot in the house in which to sit.
She reminded me of a cat, constantly curling up and napping where it was warmest.
Though I was glad that she was in a place she knew with people who loved her, I was
also sad. Granny was gone. Completely gone. She looked much the same on the
outside, but the inner heart of her which used to hum and thrive with character and vigor
had simply evaporated. I tried to remind myself that there was still a person inside that
shell of a body that breathed, but it was often difficult.
Though she had recovered from her many strokes, each one seemed to take a little
part of her away. At first her face drooped more, her skin was saggier and her step had
lost its oomph. Her naked, loose skin hung in minuscule, elephant-like folds from her
neck to her ankles. The natural curl of her hair had laxed and now drooped limply at the
sides of her face. It had become so thin that I could see pink scalp through the white,
listless strands. Her posture was now so constantly slumped that I often pulled her
shoulders back and held them as if reminding her muscles where they should be, but they
fell forward the moment I let go.
I could not take her out with us anymore. She moved too slowly to get around, or fell
asleep in the car and couldn’t be budged. So, I almost never left the house unless it was
important and she was sleeping, or John was there. As confining as this seems in
hindsight, it didn’t really appear that way to us at the time. Not only were we used to
caring for Granny, but our new daughter absorbed us rather completely.
One morning, while Granny was napping and Grace was playing on the floor next to
her, I went into the kitchen to clean up. Suddenly, Granny was standing at my elbow:
“Do you know there’s a baby in here?” she asked in complete shock.
“Yes, I do,” I laughed.
“Well where did she come from?” Granny asked as if flabbergasted.
I thought about this for a moment. It no longer did any good to tell her the truth.
“I found her in the mailbox,” I replied.
“You did?” said Granny only mildly surprised.
“Yup. Right in the mailbox.”
“Well, should we keep her?” Granny asked me seriously.
“Oh, I think so,” I smiled. “It was our mailbox.”
“Oh. Okay, ” Granny said as if the answer satisfied her. Then she walked right back
to the couch and promptly fell asleep.
Having finished my counseling internship, the YWCA hired me part-time as a clinical
therapist for a girl’s shelter in southwest Nashville. My job was six days a week which
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meant I was usually gone no more than three or four hours at a time. During my shift, I
hired a young girl, Shana, to look after both Grace and Granny.
This arrangement went surprisingly well: Before Shana arrived, I nursed Grace and
put her down in her crib for a nap. Then I fed and toileted Granny and put her down to
nap on the sofa. Grace usually woke up just before I got home and was ready to nurse
again. Granny was almost always still asleep.
“How were my girls today?” I asked Shana one afternoon.
“Gracie was adorable,” she said. “But your grandmother hit me.”
“She what?” I exclaimed.
“Well, I woke her up to drink her water just like you told me, but I think it made her
mad. She didn’t want to get up. So she hit me. But don’t worry, it didn’t hurt.”
“I’m so sorry, Shana. That is so unlike her.”
“I know. She’s always been so sweet.”
Granny’s thoughtful qualities were still in evidence, especially when it came to
Grace. When she was six months old and just beginning to eat some solid foods, Granny
decided to feed her. Unfortunately, she usually did this when I wasn’t looking. Mostly
she gave the baby things that she did not want to eat herself.
Grace’s highchair sat right next to Granny’s red stool in the kitchen. It was the same
stool I had sat on the day that I told her I would care for her when she got old. If I turned
my back, Granny simply dumped her food into the baby’s dish. Often I had to rescue
Gracie from mouthfuls of salad, granola and green beans. Once Granny handed her an
entire, unpeeled banana, but she was unable to chew the peel and simply gummed it into
When Grace began crawling, it was both fun and scary. Her absolute favorite thing to
do was crawl over to Granny and undo her shoelaces. Her Velcro shoes had worn out
and I had reluctantly replaced them with a better-fitting pair that had laces. If Granny
was asleep on the couch, Gracie pulled herself up to a standing position just to get at
those laces. She grabbed hold of Granny’s leg and pulled trying to get hold of her foot.
Sometimes, she yanked it so hard that Granny’s foot flew right off the sofa and woke her
Granny couldn’t see the baby, especially on the floor. So I had to be doubly diligent
about watching them both. Every now and then I’d hear an, “Uh Oh” from the hall and
off I’d run. This usually meant that Gracie had crawled in front of Granny when she was
on her way to the bathroom. I separated them, then sent them both off, toddling in
By the time Grace began to take her first steps, Granny was taking some of her last.
The two of them teetered and tottered about the house, unsteady as newborn fillies.
Whenever Grace got in Granny’s way, she often bent over to reach her and lost her own
balance. Despite these daily stumbles, her forays into ditches, and sometimes outright
falls, Granny never hurt herself seriously. Her ‘slowness’ was now a blessing.
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Though I had “baby-proofed” all the light sockets in the house with plastic covers and
moved appliances back away from the edges of counters, things were still not as safe as I
thought. None of the “childproofing suggestions” in my baby books ever broached the
hazards of grandmothers with Alzheimer’s.
One morning, I discovered Gracie sitting on the bathroom floor looking somewhat
dazed. Her lips were bright blue and foam was bubbling at the edge of her mouth. Had I
not also seen the blue, Polident wrapper clenched in her hand, I would have dialed 911.
After I found the tablet intact and cleaned her up, I took the wrapper and went into
“Granny?” I asked, holding up the wrapper. “How did the baby get hold of this?”
“I gave it to her,” she replied.
“It’s a poison, Granny. You can’t give a baby something like this.”
“Well, she wanted it.”
“How do you know?”
“She reached for it so I gave it to her,” she said calmly, as if that were the obvious
thing to do.
“Granny, babies reach for everything they see. Please, don’t ever give her anything
again unless you ask me first.”
“Okay,” Granny said looking somewhat discouraged, but I knew she’d forget.
Whenever Granny entered the room now, Grace always waved and said, “Ba Ba,” her
name for ‘Grandma.’ She toddled at once to her side. Granny didn’t notice either her
wave or her enthusiasm, so she mostly ignored her. This didn’t phase Gracie one bit.
Immediately, she set to work untying Granny’s shoes. If Granny was alert, she said, “No.
No. Don’t do that,” and tied them again. It amazed me that she could do this again after
so many years, although it did take her forever to do it! Grace, undaunted, untied them
“You rascal,” Granny scolded.
After retying her laces several times, Granny got smarter and tucked the ends of the
laces back into her shoes; an act which requires both projecting into the future and
following through an action. Moments like these are the great puzzle for scientists
researching Alzheimer’s. They flabbergasted me. How could a woman who couldn’t
pull a blanket over her for warmth, didn’t know what a toothbrush was for, and believed a
baby actually came out of a mailbox, be able to suddenly outwit a toddler?
Grace loved having Mom and Dad read her stories. If we weren’t handy, she simply
brought a book to Granny. Granny handed it right back to her. Gracie thought it was a
game and gave it right back to Granny. Finally, Granny would tire of this and lay the
book on the floor. This ‘game’ went on for weeks until the day that I found Gracie
‘reading’ to Granny. She was in her lap, patiently turning the pages, pointing out pictures
and babbling up a stream. Granny was sound asleep.
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It occurred to me then that though Grandmother was no longer a “real person” to me,
she was quite a special one to Grace. A toddler had no preconception of what she should
be. As a result, whatever she was, was just fine by Gracie. Truth was she adored her.
By the time she was sixteen months, I could say, “Take Grandma to the bathroom,” and
“Up, Ba Ba,” Gracie said taking Granny’s hands. She led her to the bathroom and I
followed. She helped Granny sit on the toilet, and then used her own potty right next to
her. After Gracie finished, she unrolled a big, wad of toilet paper and pushed it into
Granny’s hand. Sometimes she said, “Thank you, dear,” but she never used it. She had
forgotten what it was for. She just sat mutely and held it until I came to the rescue.
I treated the two of them so equally that it was like having twins--ninety years apart.
I read them the same books, fed them the same food, and sang them the same songs.
They were now so evenly matched both mentally and physically, that they were each
others’ best company. One afternoon, Grace returned home from a birthday party
carrying a bright, pink, helium balloon. The moment she saw it, Jo’s eyes suddenly lit
“A balloon!” she said with the most wonderment I’d seen in her face in months.
I took the ribbon that hung from the balloon and tied it to a clump of Granny’s white
hair. As the balloon began to rise to the ceiling, so did her hair. Gracie squealed with
laughter at the sight. Granny had no idea what was getting such a reaction, but she
smiled upon seeing Gracie’s smile. So, I left it in her hair the rest of the day. Whenever
she stood up and walked anywhere, the balloon went with her. When John came home
for dinner, there was Granny: slumped glumly over her squash, with a tuft of her white
hair standing straight on end and the pink balloon bobbing at the ceiling whenever she
turned her head.
After dinner, I often gave Granny a baby cookie to share with Grace.
“Give some to Gracie,” I said, breaking it into pieces in her hand.
Granny held her hand out to Grace who promptly grabbed a piece and squished it into
her mouth palm first. Granny watched her a moment, then popped a piece into her mouth
exactly the same way. It was as if she were learning how to eat by simply imitating
someone more experienced. They both ate just like toddlers and they both ended up in a
mess. By the time Grace could feed herself with a spoon, though, Granny had almost
completely lost that ability.
As my resentment in caring for her began to surface, the easiest way to put it out of
my mind was to pretend that she was me; the thought of my own mortality was sobering.
If I were like Granny was now, I hoped that whoever might care for me wouldn’t be
completely repulsed. So while changing her diapers, when the smell and mess of it got to
me, I told myself, ‘It’s just a diaper. It’ll be over soon and then she’ll smell good when I
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I also enlisted Grace’s help whenever possible, figuring that learning how to care for
someone else was good for her development--and looking back now, it was. One
afternoon, having washed Granny’s sheets, blankets and clothes for the third time in three
days, I just didn’t feel like lugging the laundry basket to her room.
“Gracie?” I asked, “Do you think you could push this to Granny’s room by yourself?”
Grace gave me a big smile and began to push the basket through the kitchen, past the
living room, and all the way down the hall into Granny’s room. Proudly I followed her.
“Good girl,” I said. “Thank you.”
Gracie gave me another big grin, turned right around and pushed the entire basket all
the way back to the laundry room!
Considering they were together constantly, you would think that Granny could have
remembered there was a baby in the house. Grace crawled into her lap at every
opportunity, read to her, talked to her, and if I put on music, even danced with her.
Though now, Granny just kind of sat on the sofa and held Grace’s hands while she
wiggled. But every time that Grace cried, Granny said the same thing to me:
“There’s a cat somewhere in the house. It’s yowling.”
“It’s not a cat, Grandma. It’s the baby.”
“The baby?” she asked bewildered.
I no longer bothered to explain. The stark contrast between Granny’s decline and
Grace’s accomplishments made our own daughter seem even more marvelous to us than
we already thought she was. By nineteen months, Grace could take care of herself better
than Granny could, even when it came to dressing:
“Put these on, honey,” I said, handing her a T-short and some shorts.
She giggled and ran down the hall. Moments later I found Grace in Granny’s room.
They were sitting next to each other getting dressed. Though they both had managed to
put their own shirts on, Granny’s was backwards and inside out. However, neither was
“Where are your pants, Gracie?”
She smiled and pointed to “Ba Ba.”
Sure enough, Granny had pulled Grace’s tiny, pink shorts halfway up her own leg.
“You rascals!” I laughed. “I can’t leave either of you alone for a minute!”
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“Remember, Dear, I was young once, too.”
Yeah, right. ‘Tell that to the Marines,’ as Granny used to say whenever she heard some
far-fetched tale. From my very first memory of her face, the thought that Granny was
ever young was inconceivable to me. Not only was she always gray-haired and wrinkled,
but she also had that certain, sensible, slowness that comes with age; a slightly, hesitant
step as if her feet might be sinking into a hole at any moment. She was 53 when I was
born. Growing up with your grandmother means she is always the oldest person in the
Whenever she took me somewhere in the car, she even drove tremulously: her bony,
white knuckles always gripping the wheel hard, as if any brief relaxation of her fingers
might send her suddenly flying madly off into space; pressing her size 9 right shoe
delicately atop the accelerator pedal, lest too hard a push might explode the engine at any
moment. It seemed to me that she was living around the edges of Life, not stepping
square into it.
It didn’t help that every night she removed her entire set of upper teeth and put them
to soak in a green, plastic dish by the bathroom sink. Those alone made me stare in
wonderment, especially when the Polident bubbles began swirling around her molars like
piranha. She did everything in slow motion. Wiping a single dinner dish in the time it
took me to dry the whole rack; gathering the mail from the mailbox letter by letter instead
of seizing the whole stack; or fastening her blouse button by button as if each needed the
same, exact careful attention when being pulled through the hole. I could chalk up her
hideous, polyester outfits and matching, sensible shoes and handbags to the fashions of
the times. But what I couldn’t do was ever imagine my grandmother as a young, carefree
She often told the story of sneaking one of her uncle’s cigars to smoke when she was
twelve: “It made me turn green and almost throw up,” she confided. However, each time
that I heard the story, I always saw Granny with gray hair and wrinkles smoking that
cigar, not a young girl. Whenever she reminisced about her first beau and her first kiss, it
was as if she were recounting some scene from a movie, not real life, and certainly not
her real life. And the many times she recounted riding her horse, Duke, I never saw long,
lean, young legs astride that mount. I never imagined a girl galloping wild and free
across the meadow. All I ever really SAW was the horse.
It takes a great leap of faith to visually recreate something in your mind that you will
never actually see. It’s like believing in God. The difference is, I don’t try to actually
SEE Him. I just imagine that He is there: faceless, ageless and endless. At fifty-seven, I
am now old enough to have forgotten that even I was young once. In the scrapbook, I
can see my toothless smile at six and recognize the picture is me. However, connecting
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that face to the one I saw this morning in the mirror is ludicrous--and slightly frightening
come to think of it. I didn’t ‘earn’ these wrinkles and age spots. They are as inevitable
as the mottled skin that will cover a banana left to ripen too long in the fruit bowl.
Had Granny not saved so many of my letters, I would have little recall of the
frightened, young child I once was; the one who wrote her constantly in the midst of my
mothers’ many marriages and bizarre liaisons. But it was these very letters that showed
me why I was so desperate to care for Grandmother as we were doing now. She had been
my constant anchor in a turbulent, childhood sea; the one who held me with her arms
when we were close and continued to hold me with her words even when my mother took
me to New York and there were 3,000 miles between us:
In 1970, when I first went off to college, Granny wrote me this letter about those
“It is hard to believe that the very active person who pushes
herself into all her interests with such zest and discipline was once the
delicate, little, slow, observant creature you were when your mother first
brought you to me. I was attending college to finish my MA so that I could
get a job, and was living in a small, second floor one-bedroom apartment
near the Vet hospital in Phoenix.
Your mother had found a man, a Mormon, whom was already
married for the second time. He actually borrowed money from his wife to
marry your mother. They left you with me and went off to Dallas. You
were eleven months old and had no objection whatsoever to being thrust
instantly into my arms where you were so welcome.
Eventually, your mother returned to Phoenix, but I did not let her
live with us. Instead, I took her to the YWCA and found a room for her
there. When she found a job waiting tables at the Camelback Inn, I finally
let her take you back. You then moved to the Western Park Apartments,
where she locked you in while she was away working.
After several court proceedings, I was given custody of you when
you were two. However, your mother challenged that ruling three years
later and regained custody when you were five. All the while, you went
back and forth between us. Sometimes I wonder what of this you
remember, if anything at all?
Well, Granny dear, I am finally answering your letter of almost forty years ago. The
big picture, of course, eluded me then. What has stayed with me still were those
welcoming arms. That you saved my letters from age six through twelve, also helped.
You will note I have kept my original poor grammar and spelling intact, in honor of your
admonition to use integrity about, “all things large or small:”
- 95 -
Did you like my card? Today is January 2, 1960. I started back to
school. My birthday is coming up soon. Mother took me to the Hobby
Shop. There were many interesting things such as Modeld, long, thin cats
with there structure. They were made out of clay. All I am hoping for my
Birthday is some oil paints, 2 bottles of thinner, and a skate Key.
your Grandaughter, Helen (age six)
Thank you for the Valentine you sent me it was very pretty. I am
getting good marks in my studies and have started a club as you already
know. Today, February 13, 1961, we had a Valentine’s party. We had
lots of fun. We played lots of games and there were prizes. (We ate
choclate marshmellow hearts, candy and 2 Valentines cupcakes. One of
the prizes was a china plate and it was pretty. Love, Helen (age seven)
I love you. Thank you very, very much for my very nice spring
vacation. It was the best time of my life, even if I did have the measles. I
love you so much and you took such good care of me. And my Easter day
was fun too. You are the greatest grandmother in the whole world and I
love you to pieces so don’t forget it. Have sweet dreams tonight and know
that I’ll be thinking of you all the time. All my love, Helen (age ten)
P.s. Thank you for letting me dye easter eggs.
Among the letters she saved were also scrawled notes on tiny sheets; notes that I
recall sneaking to mail her when Mother wasn’t looking:
I love you. Come to my house often, please. Mother said she is
going to take me to New York. Whenever you call she never lets me talk to
you. So I can only send these notes. When you offered to do all that about
the apple and cranberry Mother wouldn’t let you but she never did it.
I love you. I want to come over to your house sometime but
Mother always says NO! We are going to move to the east because
Mothers doctor told her to. Daddy does not want to go but mother says he
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wants to. Friday when you called me, mother made me listen and talk to
you on HER phone because she wants to hear. I don’t want to go to the
East Coast. But when we do, when im age enough to leave home I will
and come to live with you. I was so GLAD to hear you on the phone when
you said you would be over to see me. I love you alot. Keep this note.
Mother did take me to New York, when I was 11. We left in the middle of the night,
without telling anyone. Her husband, the only father I had ever known, divorced her on
the grounds of desertion and I would not see my stepsiblings again. For the next two
years, I wrote Granny more than a hundred letters:
It’s Sunday and I am very unhappy today and I am crying now.
The reason I haven’t written for so long is because I always cry when I
write you a letter. But so much for unhappiness. What are you doing
now? I can’t wait to see you. I wish I were home. That’s all for now.
Very much love, Helen
I had an interview with Miss Colbron, Headmistress of the Spence
School where I was to be enrolled), today. I had to take and exam. In
fact, I took three. The English one was pretty tough, but the history one
was a cinch. I will call you when I am going to be on The Doctors. It
won’t be for a couple of weeks yet. To listen to TV here you have to turn it
down so low that you can’t even here it. I don’t know if I am in Spence
School yet. It doesn’t seem too pleasant. I got your magizine but I didn’t
get my record yet. Sure do wish I was home. I miss you very much.
Mother is awfully hard to live with. She isn’t at all pleasent like you said
she would be. Write soon, Love, Love, Kiss, Kiss, Helen, Helen
Dear Grandmother Rogers,
You can write me freely because I am in charge of the mailbox and
I have the key to our box pinned to me. I even asked the superintendent
and he said I have the only one. So you can write me freely. I love you
very much and will try and write you all the time. Please don’t send me
any more money. I do all the shopping.
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Love, love, love and kisses, kisses, kisses. Your devoted grandaughter,
I got your 3 letters all at once which made me feel very happy. TV
is the same over here as it is in Arizona, but just at different times. At
nights here, I just sit in a chair because there is nothing else to do. There
is noone to play with that’s my age and the girls that I met at Spence won’t
be able to come over to my house because I am too far away from the
school. Miss Colbron is so proper it makes you feel dumb to sit next to
her. You have to be a perfect lady. The girls I met are stuck up snobs.
It’s no fun when there isn’t anyone your age to play with. All I do all day
is just sit because there is nothing else to do. Mother is no fun to live with
and she is unreasonable. She lies all the time and tells about 14 lies a
day. I know your suppose to honor thy father and thy mother but have you
ever tried to honor mother. I cry every night because I miss you so much.
Well time to go to bed now. Good night. Pleasent dreams.
Love and kisses, Your Devoted Little Wiggle Wart, Helen
You asked what we have for school lunch. You can have either a
big salad with tuna fish OR egg salad in the center and tomatoes or BLT
sandwich or peanut butter and jelly, with a choice of soup OR hot lunch
with potato and vegetable and a fish or roast beef, etc. Then you go to the
desert line! Cake, ice cream, applesauce, pineapple, peaches, pies,
pastries, etc. Then tomato juice or fruit juice then you HAVE to have milk
and then at your table there is a little salad and some rolls. Good,
HUH??? But that is the only thing that’s good about Spence. They have
the most uncoordinated girls I have ever seen in my WHOLE LIFE!
Thank you for your beautiful letters. They cheer me up very much.
Love and kisses always,
Your little devoted Wiggle Wart, Helen
We just got a piano. Mother only lets me watch 2 hours of TV per
week which is 1 hour Monday and 1 hour Wednesday. Well what am I
supposed to do on weekends? Whenever somebody asks me to go
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somewhere Mother won’t let me go so therefore I have to stay home all the
time. Now she’s making bargains, saying if I practice at the piano for 1
hour solid I get one hour of free TV. But with my hours I never have time
to play piano and watch TV, too. Pretty unfair isn’t it? She makes New
York worse and worse for me everyday. Very much love, your little
grandaughter xoxoxoxoo Helen
I can’t wait till I get to see you. There are many dark alleys in
New York and you have to be careful where vous-allez. I went trick or
treating. Here you get more money than candy. I got $1.75.
I work for a grocery store on 64th st. And I pack groceries and
deliver them. Once I got a 31 cent tip and another 50 cents. Then I got 50
cents for packing groceries. I used the money to buy butter and school
supplies. Mother says she will pay for me to come home Christmas but
NOT this summer. Maybe you could pay for me to come home by train?
There is nothing for an 11 year-old girl to do on weekends or after
school. Spence is really a stuck up school. I haven’t met any nice girls
yet. Caroline Kennedy goes to school next door. I can stand on my hands
go over and land in a backbend and get up. Tell Pam. I hope I haven’t
been too long-winded.
Love and Kisses,more love and kisses,xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxooxoxxooxoxo
Your devoted grandaughter, Helen
I can’t wait till I see you this summer. I miss you so much. I cried
on the plane alot. Because I was so sad. It’s Sunday night. Mother is
going out tonight to El Morocco with some man. I am very unhappy and I
don’t feel good. Kisses and Hugs, Love, Helen
I can’t wait till I am twelve. I am getting to be very grown up now.
Will you please analyze my handwriting? I still hate Spence and nothing
will ever change that. Every morning I greet your picture on the dresser
and kiss it and say good morning grandmother. I love you.
Very, very much love, Your little devoted, Helen
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Thank you for all the nice vitamin C pills. I can’t wait till I talk to
you Tuesday, the day when I will be 12 years old. It’s Sunday night 9:30.
I talked to you a little while ago on the phone. I miss you VERY, VERY,
much and I want to come home NOW. I’m very unhappy, and because you
aren’t with me I can’t study. I miss you very much and can’t wait till
summer. That’s all for now.
Very, very much Love, your little grandaughter. I love you, xoxoxo Helen
Dear wonderful grandmother,
I am sorry I haven’t written but I have been busy with very many
school studies as I told you. I am almost finished with it. Thank
Goodness. How are you? I went to the supposedly best library in the
world, the New York Public Library and boy is it bad. I went to the adult
section and found some good books. I then went to the desk to get a
library card and the man said what grade are you in and I said 7th and he
said well to get a card in this section you have to be in 8th. So I had to go
to the children’s section. I looked for 20 minutes and couldn’t find
anything good. So I went back to the adult library and told them the
situation and the man said I can’t do a thing about it. The books in the
children’s section are very childish. If you want to know why my
typewriting just slipped it’s because Mother just came over and grabbed
my letter and said well, I just want to be sure I don’t duplicate anything to
mother that you’ve said in your letter. So back to the library story. I
never did get a library card and I got very angry. And in the whole thing,
I blew 2 dollars for cab fare.
Very, very, much, much, love, your little grandaughter.
Dear Cute, Giggly, Beautiful, Wiggle Wart, Granny,
I have alot to tell you! My boots and snow suit are Wonderful!
It’s snowing here, and I played in the snow Sunday afternoon. I had fun
for the first time in New York in my whole stay but now the snow is turning
to a dirty brown slush. It’s 7:00 and it’s still snowing. I go to prison
Spence tomorrow so I will write you when I come home. There is a girl in
the 8th grade, Kathy Cronkite. Her father talked to us for one hour. As
you know, his name is Walter Cronkite, the famous newsman. He told us
all about everything in the news office and all that is going on in the news
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world. You would have loved the talk. We are reading Midsummer
Night’s Dream aloud in class. No one but me reads their part with
feeling. I thought New York girls were supposed to be talented! They
must be kidding! My grades are improving. Hope your school is going
well and you get enough sleep. And please don’t stay up late nights in
order to write me letters. Very much love, Helen
Comment-allez vous? You made a mistake in your French that I
forgot about and I will show it to you in 18 days when I get HOME! You
don’t have to write me so many letters but I will try to get one to you
everyday. Here is some money. Will you please exchange it for some 5
cent stamps? Mother won’t give me any. All of your letters are full of all
sorts of surprises. Merci Beaucoup for all of them. Mother makes me go
to bed at 8:00 and I don’t even get my studies finished. That’s why I am
getting lousy grades. I dislike her very much and want to come home. She
is a real hag and she’s mean. I’m very unhappy here and I wish I were
home. In French we are doing a play, “Le Proffeseur de Phonetiques.” I
am Lucille and in the play, my mouth is too big. Isn’t that funny? Your
devoted little grandaughter, Love & Kisses, Helen
P S. For a Valentine’s present from mother, I got a teeny, little, red, love
puppy that is so cute. He’s darling. He reminds me of you, and I sleep
with it and treat it just as if it was you and you were here.
Very, very, very, very, very much love,
Your little devoted grandaughter,
Helen, alias: Helen Rogers I’ve changed my name)
I miss you very much. I will be home to you in two months. Will
you have your chili waiting? I hope so. I HATE NEW YORK. That’s the
understatement of the day). I can never write to you on the weekends
because mother always wants to see the letters. I am keeping myself busy,
like you said, so I won’t be sad. I have a very nice friend. Her name is
Nancy Whitney. Have you been sick? Are you keeping yourself well? Eat
plenty of fruits and vegetables and drink plenty of carrot juice. Get plenty
of sleep and get alots of water in your system. Very much love, Your little
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How are you? I miss you very very much and I wish I were home.
Mother is really unreasonable. She puts a dirty, stuck with food pan in the
sink when she knows I am going to take out the ice tray and then she
comes in and says, “You know you can’t use the sink without doing all the
dishes in it first”. I have breakfast at 10 on Saturday and Mother tries to
force me to eat lunch at 10:30. I can’t give her a good time unless I am
having one myself and I am having a lousy time. I never get my homework
done because mother makes me go to bed at 8:00 and I get home at 4:00
and she makes me sit for 2 hours at the diner table and makes me run
errands too so you see I don’t have enough time for homework. She says
she doesn’t have any money and then she buys all sorts of stuff that we
don’t need. I am going to get lousy grades. I miss you so much. I don’t
feel good. PLEASE WRITE SOON. LOVE AND KISSES, HELEN
Exams start in 4 days so I am studying hard. I weigh 90 pounds.
Phew! I am overweight but this summer I hope I lose a little. Write me
about your school. I know you are awfully busy. Do you know what you
are going to do next year? I am worried about you. I can’t wait to see
you. Will I find you’ve grown? You are so wonderful. When I come we
can go swimming together. I’m staying with you this summer aren’t I?
My best friend at school is Jewish. She’s nice and she likes you, though
she’s only seen your picture. Her name is Jane Bookstaver and she calls
me 6 times practically every night but she is sweet. Stay happy. I love you
more than anyone else in the whole, wide world.
All my love,
tons of kisses, your little Helen
I can only call you early Saturday or Sunday when the rates are
on. Mother says she has enough money to pay for me to come home
Christmas but she isn’t really going to send me home. I don’t like Spence.
It’s no fun at all. I get all your beautiful letters, one each day and
sometimes two a day. I decided to write this letter by hand and hope you
can read it. I don’t like to share a room with mother and I don’t like to
live with her but I do as you say and I pray every night. I love you very,
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very, very much and I hope I can come home soon. I am very unhappy but
don’t worry about me. I love you very much. Your little grandaughter,
Comment allez-vous? Mother says that I have to have a dentist
appointment with Dr. Jones and she would like to know if you will take me
to the dentist. Mother says I can’t go back to Arizona if I have a snarling
look on my face, and I never have a snarling look on my face though she
says I do. Ho Ho.) She really means it, too. She is very mean and I can’t
wait to get back to Arizona. How do you like this new stationery? It will
be 58 whole days till I will be home. Love and kisses, your devoted
grandaughter, Helen xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxx
Je miss vous very beaucoup. Spence is very boring. You know the
red dress that you and I made? Well the girls don’t believe we made it
and they don’t believe I was in the “Miracle Worker” either. They don’t
believe anything because they can’t do any of those things here and none
of them can even cook. Love and kisses, your grandaughter, Helen
December 28, 1965
I will be home in 21 days and in 20 days, five hours, 40 minutes
and 3 seconds I will leave for home. I can’t wait and if I don’t see you
right away by the plane I will go and wait in the waiting room but I hope
you will be right there because I can’t wait to see you. I’m about to run
there right now. Very, Very, Very, Much, Much, Love, Your little devoted
How is ma petite cherie? I don’t have much to say because
nothing much happens here. I love you very, very much. Mrs. Moore, a
person I knew when I was at the Western Park Apartments takes me to all
sorts of museums. She may take me to Washington and then I may be able
to call you. Mother has a Spanish bullfighter friend that showed us all his
newspaper clippings. He gave me a dollar for my piggybank. Bribery!
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He is married though, I know. I have $27. Devoted Always, love and
We are putting on Caesar and Cleopatra by Bernard Shaw at
school and I am the asst. Stage manager and understudy for Cleopatra. I
put a bird design on the throne for Cleopatra. It’s great if I do say so
myself. The other day I stopped in at the health food store and had a glass
of carrot juice. It sure hit the spot. I was trying to make maple sugar this
morning and burned my thumb. Now it’s a white blister. Oodles, heaps,
tons and gobs of love to you, Helen
How is school? Mine starts Monday, the 20th. I drank 10 glasses
of water on Saturday. Is that good? One glass had lemon juice in it. I
took one calcium pills and one Vitamin C. I found another round pill--
what do I do with it?
Very much love,
Your little Helen
Dear Sweet, Kind, Generous Grandmother,
Enclosed you will find a poem that I wrote and some pictures of me
that were taken to make my composite for modelling. Please tell me
whether or not you think Gram Jenks would like them or not. Because if I
send her one like those with the bangs I may never hear the end of it.
Here is my schedule: Monday: School till 3:00. Poster Committe till
4:00. Tuesday: Cheerleading till 4:30. Wed: Advanced Gym till 4:00.
Thursday: Drama Club till 5:00. Friday: School till 12:40 then I do
what I like. Saturday: American Academy of Dramatic Arts from 2:00-
5:00. Sunday: Church from 9:30-1:30, Watch TV. I love you lots, Your
Don’t worry!! I will never make modelling a career. I do it just
for fun, and the extra money it brings is a big help. I have been taking
picture of New York but am not sure if they will turn out. I say my prayers
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for you every night and ask God to keep you well and happy because you
don’t sound too happy to me on the phone when I call. I am going to call
you Wednesday night. O.K.! Be waiting for me then we can have a fun
talk. I love you so much, Helen
It’s been such a long time since I’ve written you a letter so this one
will be long. We have a two week vacation now. It’s our spring break and
there is nothing much to do. Do you get a vacation? I was accepted into
Bishops but I do not know if I am going there yet. What’s new with you? I
received the material on India you sent me. It surely is helpful. I didn’t
hear from you last Sunday. Where were you? Did you realize that in less
than 3 months I will be kissing you hello? It’s already the end of March. I
can’t wait I’m so excited and I miss you so much. Lots and lots of love
from me to you. My art is going well in school. We are doing prints. This
certainly is a mixed up letter, isn’t it? Oh, you don’t know how much I
miss you, granny. I am always thinking of your sweet smile and your kind
voice and I wish that I could be with you always. How is everything with
you? This letter should get to you by Friday. So, Saturday night at 9
o’clock my time, and 7 o’clock your time, let’s each stop and say hello to
each other and send each other a kiss and a prayer. Okay?: And we’ll
both do it at the same time and will think about each other. Don’t forget!
Bundles and gorges and heaps of love from your little Helen.
Mother is seriously considering letting me stay in Arizona from
now on. She does not care to spend out of her own money “tremendous
amounts of money for a superior education when it is not being
appreciated.” I have told mother how I hate New York and she says she is
“tired of hearing it.” She told me what to say just now. How do you like
this stationery? Love and kisses, your devoted grandaughter, Helen
Each night I go to bed I always see your wonderful, kind face
smiling at me and I say a prayer for you. I love you so much. Do you
realize that in 2 months and 10 days I will be with you and your beautiful,
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shining, blue eyes. How is your school? Write me about some of its
interesting items. I can’t wait to see you you. If you’ve grown, I won’t
notice it because I’ve grown, too. You make me so happy and proud of
you. To my vivacious, granny whom I love, Helen
I can hardly wait to see you. I can taste your chili right now. I
practically jump out of my seat at school I’m so excited. I have a horrid
cold. I can’t wait to get some goood food. I took a French mid-term and
got a C which was the 2nd highest grade in the class. Isn’t that great?
Lots and Lots and Lots of love, Your Little Wiggle Wart, Helen
Granny’s nickname for me had long been, “Wiggle Wart,” because she said that I
never stood still for very long. After my early years with Mother, I must have decided
that a moving target was harder to hit – and I didn’t want to be hit – so I kept moving.
With Granny, I was moving still. Though now it was solely to motivate her.
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“Butterflies are like people. If you really love them, you have to be willing to let them
If only I had listened the first time she said this. But I was eight and the butterflies were
so pretty! All afternoon I had been in Granny’s garden catching little Monarchs. I had
two jars: one to catch them with and the other to gather them in. There were about ten in
all when I had finished--a flurry of fluttering, wild, orange wings, dashing about the
glass. They were magical. The more they flapped, the more golden dust gathered on the
inside of the jar. I was transfixed.
“You can’t keep them shut up like that. They need air to breathe and they’ll die
without food and water,” Granny warned.
“What do they eat?” I asked.
“Oh, mostly the nectar from flowers. It’s very sweet, like honey.”
I took a screwdriver and pounded holes in the top of the jar so that they could breathe,
then teaspooned a few drops of water through the holes. Now, how to get them food? I
went back into the garden and picked several of the flowers they had been feeding from
to get the ‘nectar.’ I crushed the insides of the buds with my fingers, but there wasn’t
enough liquid to drip into the jar.
I had an idea: there was ‘honey’ in the cupboard! I poured a swirly, golden strand of
it through the hole in the top of the jar. It coiled neatly at the glass bottom. One little
butterfly immediately dropped down to the honey, uncurling her proboscis to eat it. Now
they would be fine, I thought.
But as I stood and watched, a horrible sight unfolded before my eyes. Within
seconds, the first butterfly became stuck to the honey. Another flew down and she, too,
became caught. As they struggled to free themselves, their wings brushed the sweet goo
and held even faster. The harder they flapped, the more their wings shredded, leaving
only shard fragments of their beautiful capes in the amber mire.
One managed to wrest herself free with only half a wing, but immediately stuck at the
abdomen to two others. The three of them were now one convulsing insect; a strange,
deformed one, with six wings, all vainly trying to flap. Within seconds, all of my
beautiful butterflies were arched and wriggling like torn flags in a harsh wind. Before I
could even unscrew the top of the jar, all had ripped into stillness.
That act had taken only seconds. There was no time for me to let them go. But
Granny had been mine for years. I thought that I was ready to free her now from my
paltry hold, but she was more a part of me than I realized even then. I could no more
separate myself from her than cut away my thoughts, so I soldiered on and so did John.
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Granny would sleep all day now if we didn’t get her up. Her
personal habits have degenerated so completely that she wipes her nose
on her clothes, or anything else handy, including the living room curtains.
She wets her diaper every night and never wipes herself when going to the
bathroom. She has to be fed or will simply stare at the food.
For the first time in our life together I am beginning to feel her
death would be a blessing. Her “life” is really non-existent, unless we
create pieces of it for her and force her to be part of them. I love her but
am really losing patience.
I had first begun walking with Granny to the mailbox, carrying Grace in a sling
around my shoulder. Now our one-year-old could walk on her own, but Granny could
only go a few feet without stopping – not because she was tired, but because she didn’t
know quite where or how to step next. The last time she had gone alone, she actually
passed our mailbox and walked another fifty feet to the stop sign at the end of the street.
Once there, she wrapped her arms so tightly around the signpost that I had to pry them
Through the countless hours that I watched her sleep now, I often wondered if
before her life had left her – and it left her while she was still living – she had
accomplished the things she had hoped for. It was difficult to tell because she made the
best out of every situation no matter how bleak. So it always seemed to me that she had
led a satisfied life. I began reading back through her journals, looking for “What if’s”
and “What might have been’s.” I found only this one:
At 88, I still don’t know why I have had no real art incentive but it
occurs to me that if someone had led me to clothes design for “people,” I
might have been tempted. Art in school was easy so I enjoyed it. Math and
history bothered me no end. “Why bother with all those dead people!”
Much to the distress of family and friends I am able to live in a
room constantly displaying a distressing combination of design and color.
My attitude is: my needs are adequately met for the moment and who
knows how soon again we’ll be moving? My room is geared to my needs.
One cannot expect everything one wants in a life of many changes.
Indeed. Even at 88, despite the dementia of Alzheimer’s, she had written lines that
made me pause and reflect on their sagacity: One cannot expect everything one wants. . .
and yet. . .I was. . .still expecting “it.” My own journals paled in comparison. I was
writing to my daughter now:
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Gracie: You are now so devoted to grandma you insist on helping
me get her up every morning. Basically, you jump on her bed and pull her
arms. You hand Granny her clothes, item by item, shaking your head
when she merely holds her socks, bewildered. You take a sock and vainly
try to get it on her foot. I help. You lead her personally to her seat in the
kitchen, or her seat in the bathroom. You hand her a napkin, a bib, a
banana. Wipe her mouth, or what you can reach of it. Later, you lead her
by the hand to the sofa. Watch as she lies down. Wait until she is still.
You help me cover her with a blanket when she naps. While she sleeps,
you pile all of your toys on top of her and give her kisses; precious, tiny
kisses. You have become her little caretaker, playmate and friend.
While reading her journals, I came upon a letter Granny had written to John years
earlier. Now that we had a child of our own, her words took on even more significance.
Without realizing it, her presence had caused us both to “level off” over time:
Since I have come to live with you and Helen, we have often talked
about when you will have children someday and what you want them to
know. Big subjects really! Seldom do new parents realize that infants
pick up impressions of their surroundings from the minute they are born.
Marvelous little creatures! But for a full life they must have parents who
know that children thrive best and learn most if they are in a harmonious
atmosphere. . . when emotions rise, both should separate until they cool
off. . Real love finds a way to level off and look at things in a less intense
way. . . Emotions evolve like smoke and need to be fanned away
One morning on our walk to the mailbox, I stopped to let Gracie smell the flowers
that were blooming at the edge of the driveway. Granny was just a few yards ahead of us
and as I watched, she fell into our neighbor’s ditch on the right side of the driveway. It
was several feet deeper than the one by our mailbox and she went down as if in slow
motion. Her descent was so smooth and graceful, that I knew she was okay. As I hurried
to reach her, she tried to get herself up but couldn’t. I grabbed her by the hand and
“Wait here, Granny,” I told her. “I’ll be right back.”
Fortunately, I knew that our neighbor was home and ran up the hill to his house.
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“Larry, my Grandmother is in your ditch. Do you think you could help me lift her
He rushed back with me to Granny. With me pushing her from the rear, and Larry
lifting her from the front we were able to stand her up.
“Are you all right?” he asked Granny.
“Yes, thank you,” she replied.
As we walked back towards our house, I kept expecting Larry to leave and return
home, but he stayed right with us. It wasn’t until we reached the porch that I finally
noticed that Granny had a very tight grip on his forearm. Apparently, he was too shy to
“Let go of Larry,” I said to Granny, “so that he can go home now.”
“Yes,” she smiled, “I know I should let him go but I really don’t want to.”
Age had made my Victorian grandmother rather coquettish.
“Well,” I said, unclenching her fingers from his arm, “we should let him get back to
“All right,” she said with and edge of disappointment in her voice.
Once home, Granny immediately went to the sofa for a nap. Grace, as usual, covered
her with a blanket and began piling books and stuffed animals on top of her. After she
had played there for awhile, she suddenly pulled the blanket off of Granny and said,
“Up!” This was her favorite word beginning at thirteen months. Granny didn’t budge.
“Up!” commanded Grace again, pulling the blanket completely to the floor.
Still Granny didn’t move. So, Gracie crawled up on top of her and began giving her
little kisses. Granny, with her eyes still closed, began brushing her away with one hand.
Finally, she opened her eyes and said, “Will someone please get this cat off me!”
A few days later, Granny began to complain of pain in her abdomen. At first I
worried that the slip into the ditch had done something to her back. We took her to the
doctor. He said that all of her vitals were “just fine, excellent, in fact, considering her
age.” Her blood pressure was exactly the same as mine: 110/80. But she still
complained of pain, so he took some x-rays. They showed that her bowels were
He suggested putting her in the hospital overnight so that they could give her enemas
more efficiently than we could at home. We drove her to the hospital, but the moment
we stepped inside I felt a pang of remorse. What if something should happen to her here?
I had promised Granny that I would never to let her die in a hospital.
When the nurse entered with the IV apparatus, a look of sheer terror came over
Granny’s face. The second she felt the poke of the needle, she began to fight off the
nurse. It took both John and me to hold her down. Unfortunately, the nurse had trouble
finding a vein. As she probed, Granny became more upset and so did I. Once the IV was
in and taped up though, she seemed to relax, and promptly dozed off.
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The nurse told us to, “Come back in the morning” and all would be well. I warned
her in parting that Granny was, “very mentally confused and would need close
“Don’t worry, dear,” she said. “Your grandmother will be fine. I know how to
handle these old gals.”
I was restless all night. It was a discomfiting feeling not to have Granny nearby in the
house. The next morning, John and I woke early and rushed right to the hospital. Her
door was wide open. Granny was standing bare-breasted in the middle of the room, with
her dressing gown hanging around her hips. She was pulling the IV on a rolling, steel
pole behind her. However, the wheel of it was caught at the edge of the bed and she
didn’t realize it. She had been pulling against it so long that the IV had ripped half way
out of her arm and blood was dripping onto the floor.
“Help me,” she called out when she saw us. “I have to go to the bathroom!”
I unstuck the wheels from the bed and tried to get her to the bathroom, but I was too
late. We called for the nurse but no one came. After we cleaned Granny up, John helped
me get the IV the rest of the way out and I put pressure on her arm to stop the bleeding.
“I want to go home,” she said firmly. “I don’t like it here.”
“Oh, Granny,” I assured her, “We’re taking you home right now.”
And we did. I couldn’t get her home fast enough. Her arm was black and blue for
weeks where the IV had been. Not until the last bruise disappeared did I put the thought
of that hospital out of my mind. ‘She will die at home,’ I told myself constantly. ‘Not
among strangers with a look of terror on her face.’ In the same breath, I also prayed, ‘I
hope I don’t linger like this. Please, God, let me go quickly, with my exuberant spirit still
We were now to give Granny an herbal laxative every day, along with prune juice.
Though she was once again ‘regular’ it was both blessing and curse. Blessing, because
she seemed healthier and more alert; curse because she never got to the bathroom in time,
no matter how diligent and attentive we tried to be.
Every few days, she either went in her pants or the diaper. Each time we had to strip
her down and put her into the shower. It always took the two of us to handle her now
because she was so frail. John helped me get her into the shower. While I cleaned and
soaped her, he washed out her clothes and put them in the washer. I think I got the better
end of the deal. Although, later he confessed that he simply threw her clothes away. We
worked as quickly as we could because the smell was gagging. On ‘a good day,’ the
whole process took about fifteen minutes.
I learned then that Love is a powerful narcotic, but unlike a drug, its effects don’t
wear off. The opiate is always there, waiting in the bloodstream, and rushes in when
needed. Had anyone told me that I would ever do these things for my grandmother, it
would have been unimaginable. Had anyone told me that one day five years from now,
my own child would throw up 27 times in a single day – and that not only would I not
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gag, but catch some of that vomit in my hands, and wipe it fast on my shirt so that I could
catch her head, soothe her brow and whisper, “It’s okay. Mommy’s here,” I would not
have believed them. Not a word.
Afterwards, I sat with my arms around Granny, holding her close by the fire. We
usually had an hour or so where she was alert enough to enjoy our toddler and all her
antics. Gracie immediately crawled up on her wide lap to snuggle. Granny smiled; the
highlight of my day. It didn’t last long, but just that little upturn of her lips for a moment
or two made every ordeal worth it.
“You’re a dear,” she said to Grace.
“Ba Ba,” Gracie replied with a smile, settling into her arms.
“I’m gonna kiss both of your tomatoes,” I said, popping kisses on their cheeks.
Grace giggled and kissed me back but Granny no longer understood our greeting.
“Granny, are you ready to go to Heaven?” I asked.
She looked at me, said nothing, and shook her head ‘No.’
“Are you happy with us?” I continued.
“Mm Hmm,” she said almost smiling.
On an impulse, I went to the wall and took down an old photograph. It showed
Granny, at age thirty, holding my mother on her lap.
“Do you know who this is, Granny?” I asked, pointing to her in the picture.
“That’s you,” she said.
“No, Granny. That’s you when you were thirty.”
“Hmm,” she replied without recognition.
“So, if that’s you, then do you know who this is?” I said pointing to her daughter at
the age of four.
“Never seen her before,” she said.
Since she was somewhat alert, I stood her up and walked her over to some of the
other photographs that were hanging on the wall. In the center, was a large a picture of
her parents; a photograph which had hung in her own home all of her life. There were
several other photos on either side of it.
“Can you point to the picture of your mom and dad?” I asked her.
She looked across the wall at all of the photos for several minutes. Finally she
pointed to one.
“There’s my mother,” she said definitively, pointing to a picture of me at thirty.
“And that’s my father,” she said equally decisively, pointing to a picture of John.
There was some truth to that now, I supposed. John and I had become her father and
mother in a way. Not knowing who people were didn’t bother her at all anymore. So I
didn’t let it bother me. Though she now appeared to others to inhabit a slumped,
expressionless, deserted shell, I still saw my Granny and Gracie saw her ‘Ba Ba.’
So it was all right that the woman who had taught me how to pray, could not say a
single prayer by herself anymore. I didn’t stop trying to stir her memory, though. Every
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night before bed, I still said the 23rd Psalm to her. Now, of course, I said it very slowly,
because despite her seeming absence of consciousness she still tried to say the few words
that she remembered with me: “Yea, though I walk . . . shadow of death. . .Thou art with
me. . .my cup runneth over. . .dwell in the house of the Lord. . .Amen.”
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“Always leave a place while you’re still having a good time.”
I wish I could have kept this one for Granny, but you can’t put death on the calendar. It
has a random, patternless rhythm of its own. She held fast to this philosophy while I was
growing up, though. Her reasoning was that if you stayed too long anywhere or labored
too hard over a task, you lost your enthusiasm for it. So, we always left a party exactly
when the invitation said it ended, and rarely lingered anywhere, even when on vacations:
many an afternoon at the beach, while I was right in the middle of gathering seashells or
building sand castles, she would suddenly call, “Time to go!”
“Oh, Granny. Can’t we stay a little longer, please?” I begged.
“Nope. You’ve had enough sun and we’ll come again another day.”
“But Granny, can’t I at least jump in the water once more, please?”
“Oh, all right,” she sometimes said. “But make it quick.”
I could make a, ‘make it quick,’ last for another half an hour if I was clever. Ever so
slowly I dragged my feet back to the waves. I dove under and held my breath for as long
as I could, then slowly backstroked to the shore. Toweling off and de-sanding my feet
would take another several minutes. But Granny was wise to me. As she patiently stood
waiting, with the beach bag slung over her arm, there was always a clever, half-smile on
her lips. Even now, there was a knowingness to her that belied her rapid spiral into a
“Granny, do you know who I am?” I asked one afternoon.
“Yes,” she replied looking confused.
“Then who am I?”
She looked at me hard, her eyes almost wrinkling to her nose. Then, her face relaxed
and she stared blankly into space again. I knew she had already forgotten the question. I
“GRANDMOTHER, do you know who I am?”
She looked hard at my face as if it were a word that she had no definition for.
“The maid?” she replied timidly.
“Well,” I laughed, “that’s close. But I’m your granddaughter, Helen.”
“Oh, yes, Helen,” she smiled.
“And WHO am I,” I asked again.
“I just told you: the maid.”
Well, she was no dummy, my grandmother, and clearly still observant. Of course she
thought I was the maid: who else cleaned up her messes, washed her clothes, and made
her meals? What struck me as strange, though, was that she knew John until almost the
very end. When he came home from work that afternoon, I repeated the drill.
“GRANNY, do you know who I am?” I asked.
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“Well, I should know,” she said. “But I can’t think of it.”
“What’s my name?”
“Well, I’m sure it’s a pretty one,” she replied.
“It’s Helen. I’m your granddaughter, Helen.”
“Oh, yes.” She said. “Helen.”
“And who’s that?” I asked, pointing to John, certain she’d be clueless.
She concentrated hard, then suddenly said, “John. That’s John!”
Though I was pleased that she still remembered him, I could not fathom why she no
longer knew me. Perhaps I belonged to an early chapter that had now closed. Her own
days, like the winter that was now beginning, were growing shorter. There was little I
could do to make them last.
Granny had always told me that when she had children, she “never felt that they
belonged to” her.
“I never felt they were mine,” Granny often said.
“But Granny,” I protested, “they came right out of your body.”
“Oh, yes dear,” she smiled. “But a body is just a vessel. I grew them but I didn’t
create them. I always believed that they were God’s, not my possessions. My duty was
to care for them as best I could until they were old enough to be on their own.”
I never fully understood what she meant until I gave birth to Grace; that precious, tiny
life that had just come from me, had so much more than ‘me’ inside of her. It was a
humbling experience. I finally knew what Granny meant. Neither Granny nor Grace
were really ‘mine.’ I was to love and care for them until they were ready to leave me.
And, if I had done my job well, I would be ready to let them go when that time came.
Granny almost never smiled now. Her face bore a perpetual scowl; not an unpleasant
one but rather a look that said, ‘I am simply too tired to lift my lips anymore.’ Her
moments with Grace were the only ones that seemed to garner a weak smile. Grace still
loved untying her shoelaces. They were an easy target for Granny spent almost the entire
As she sat on the couch ready to doze off any minute, little Grace began pulling at her
laces. Some days, when Granny had energy, she would wiggle her shoes away, but she
could no longer get them out of Grace’s grasp entirely. So, as Granny watched her untie
the laces, a hint of a smile would gather at her lips. If she were having a good day, she
might scold Grace and say, “You little rascal. Leave my shoes alone.” Mostly she dozed
John and I continued to force Grandmother out of bed each morning, despite her
weak protestations. He helped me walk her to the toilet and I pulled her pants down.
“Go to the bathroom,” I commanded, standing over her so she would not fall or leave
the toilet without having gone.
When she finished, I wiped her, pulled her diaper and pants back up and led her to the
sink. I brushed her teeth, put them back in her mouth and led her to breakfast. I now had
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two ‘little’ ones to feed and I gave them the same food; mushed bananas with cereal and
milk. They both wore bibs and they both made a mess. However, Grace was now adept
with a spoon. Granny didn’t know what a spoon was.
After breakfast, I took Gracie out of the highchair and she scurried off to play. I
wiped Grandma’s chin with her bib, lifted her feet off the stool and led her to the sofa.
She shuffled slowly and obediently as if drugged. I eased her down to a sitting position
on the couch. I didn’t lay her down, though that’s what she would have liked. For some
reason, it was important to me that she be as upright as possible during the day. I knew it
wouldn’t last, though. Within minutes, she would lay her head on the pillow, pull her
feet up on the couch and fall asleep – for hours.
By Christmas of 1994, John and I were too tired to make any fuss. Grace was almost
two and Granny, beyond age. We bought a small tree, though, and let Gracie hang the
ornaments. She hung most of them on the same few branches about two feet off the
floor. As soon as she put them on, though, she took off her favorites: a fuzzy sheep, a
yarn-haired angel and a wooden soldier, wrapped them in a blanket and carried them with
her around the house. Often they ended up stuffed under Granny’s chin while she slept
on the sofa.
Instead of buying presents, attending festivities like the Messiah and fixing the
traditional meals, we decided to take “our girls” to Florida instead. It would be warmer
and the sun would do us all some good. Unfortunately, on the day we left, Granny and
Grace both came down with colds. We spent a rather miserable eight-hour drive to
Destin where we had rented a two-bedroom house on the ocean.
The sun was bright and warm but neither Grace nor Granny were well enough to
enjoy it. Their colds progressed into coughs. So, each night, I took Grace into our bed
and John slept in the extra bed in Granny’s room. Both of us were up all night long with
our charges, blowing their noses, taking them to the bathroom, dispensing Tylenol and
listening to their coughing.
By the time we returned home, Gracie was almost better. Granny hadn’t changed. It
took her almost another month to get over what turned out to be pneumonia, but she
recovered. One afternoon as I was trying to feed her a cup of warm, chicken broth, it
seemed to take forever. Every sip was an effort, a struggle and in the long time that I had
to think between her swallows, I recalled her caring for me when I had the mumps:
I was twelve and had been invited to the birthday party of the year, thrown by the
most popular girl in school; a girl who rarely gave me the time of day. The morning of
the party I awoke unable to swallow. Granny, without even taking my temperature, took
one look at me and said, “You have the mumps.”
“But can I still go to the party?” I said between sobs.
“No, darling. You’re contagious and very sick. You’ll have to stay home today.”
All day, she brought me warm, chicken broth and Jell-O, which she handfed me with
a spoon. Every few hours, she dampened a washcloth and draped it over my forehead to
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cool my fever. Though it felt good, I was so sad that tears kept forming in my eyes.
When the clock by my bed showed that it was time for the party to start, I began crying
“Now, darling,” she said. “Crying is only going to make you feel worse. Let’s get
your mind on something else. How about if I read to you?”
“Okay, I guess,” I said thinking that was a pretty poor substitute for the party of the
A few minutes later, Granny brought in an old, weathered book: The Wind in The
I fell asleep somewhere between the adventures of Toad and Rat but have no memory
of the tale at all. Her voice was so smooth and even that I barely heard the story, only
that somewhere in between the words, she loved me. By the time I woke up I didn’t care
a whit about that party. I was totally content to be where I was: with Granny.
I hoped that she felt that way with me now. I dressed her in her pajamas and tucked
her into bed with Gracie, as usual, by my side. She always brought little, stuffed animals
and tucked them in with Granny. Granny, though, picked them out of her covers and
gave them right back to her. Undaunted, Gracie tucked them back in again next to
Granny, and kissed her, “Good-night.” And so, our little, ninety-four year-old, often fell
asleep with a teddy bear or lamb pressed to her cheek.
Several weeks after Christmas, John and I were thrilled to discover that I was
pregnant again! Unfortunately, a few weeks later, I threw my back out while trying to lift
Granny up off of the couch. John now had double-duty with the girls. A few days later,
he threw his own back out while trying to lift Granny out of bed. We were both
immobile and in pain. Out of desperation, I contacted a nursing service that we had
recently discovered was available with Granny’s insurance.
The next day, two lovely nurses arrived to help us out. They knew just what to do:
They cleaned and diapered her. Made the bed. Checked her vital statistics and fed her.
When they finished, the head nurse came out and said:
“My goodness. How long have you two been caring for her?”
“Um, well, about thirteen years,” I replied.
“With no help?” she asked.
“Well,” I laughed, “now we have you!”
They were an immense relief. Two nurses now came twice a day. Though they were
only in the house a few hours, they lessened our workload immensely. Even more, John
and I felt liberated from a deep, internal stress we didn’t even know we had.
“I never realized just how much we really do until we hired those nurses,” I said to
“I didn’t either,” he replied. “They were great!”
Towards the end of their first week, John and I felt like new people. Our backs were
better, and I was filled with more energy than I’d had since before Grace was born. But
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the last few nights, Granny had been moaning in her sleep. At times, there was a deep
gurgle in her throat as she struggled to breathe. John and I listened to her from our bed.
“That sounds like the death rattle,” I said. “I’ve never heard one but it sounds like
what you read about in books.”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” he confided.
The last two days we had been unable to get her out of bed at all and she ate nothing.
I could barely get her to drink water. She didn’t speak to me or respond to my kisses.
Granny wasn’t just weary. It seemed to me that she had simply lost interest, as if the
ordinary things of the world held nothing for her anymore. For the first time in our life
together, I began to feel like an intrusion.
By the end of the nurses’ first week, we had all settled into a new routine. As soon as
they arrived, Gracie scampered after them trying to help. Sometimes they let her hold the
stethoscope as they took Granny’s blood pressure. Then they undressed her and washed
her vigorously from face to feet with washcloths. After she was re-dressed in her diaper
and pajamas, they put her on the chair while they stripped and remade her bed. Gracie
and I sometimes brushed her hair while she waited. But on the seventh morning, the head
nurse called me out of the room.
“Your grandmother should be in a hospital now,” she said seriously. “She has some
fluid in her lungs and her blood pressure has fallen. She hasn’t eaten a thing in two days,
and we are not allowed to give her any medication. We’re not allowed to care for
someone this ill and can’t be responsible for her like this.”
“But she’s going to die, isn’t she?” I stated more than I asked. “If I put her in a
hospital now, she’ll just die there and I promised her that she would be at home with us.”
“That’s your choice,” she said. “But we can’t come back anymore. We’re not
allowed to. . .and don’t tell anyone I said this,” she added lowering her voice to a
whisper. “But if I were you, I would do exactly what you’re doing.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You go ahead and go then. I don’t want to get you in any
trouble. Thank you for everything you’ve done. You’ve been a wonderful help to us.”
She called to the other nurse and as they left, she suddenly stopped and turned back to
me. Reaching for my hand, she said, “She’s a very lucky woman to have had you for a
“Oh, I was the lucky one,” I assured her. “But thank you.”
I went into Granny’s room. Her eyes were closed. She looked beautiful and almost
peaceful, except that her breath was halting in little stops and starts. I crawled up onto
her bed and put my arms around her.
“I love you so much.” I said, kissing her cheek. “You are so beautiful.”
Slowly, she opened her eyes just halfway but she wasn’t looking at me.
“Granny?” I asked gently. “Are you ready to go to Heaven and be with God?”
Suddenly, her eyes flew wide open as if startled by an intense light and she looked
straight up at the ceiling. Her mouth gaped open as if she were trying to drink something
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from the air. Then, just as quickly, her eyes closed and her whole body stilled. Just
stillness. She was there and yet somehow she wasn’t.
I put my ear to her chest. It didn’t move. That wasn’t right. The countless times I
had laid my cheek there, it had always pushed me up with an inhale then exhaled me
down closer to her heart. Her heart! For a moment I thought I heard that familiar
“Thumph,” but it was only the memory of the sound that echoed in my ear. I took her
wrist in my hand, pressed my fingers hard against it, waiting for that tiny throb. Nothing.
Time had stopped. Yet, I vainly tried to stretch these seconds as if by my constant
movement it would start again. But it didn’t and I grew still--as still and silent as I have
ever been--and stared hard at this woman; my grandmother by birth, my mother by sweat,
my beloved and best friend by time. Her body so close to my own and yet so far away
now that I could not reach her. I thought that I was so ready for this moment but tears
were already dripping from my cheeks onto her face.
“Oh, Granny,” I sobbed. “I love you . . .loved you so much.”
I smoothed her hair again and again. Kissed her soft and papery cheek, until it was
wet with my tears. Pressing my head into her neck, I held her tight one last time and let
go. I laid her hands gently across her chest, and called out, “John!” He was at the door.
“She’s . . gone,” I said choking between sobs.
But I needn’t have said a word. He later said that he knew from the sound of my
voice when I called his name. His own eyes were already tearing as he walked towards
the bed. Grace scampered to his side.
“Ba Ba?” she called out.
“Oh, honey. Grandma has gone to Heaven now.” I told her. “Come and kiss her,
Gently, I lifted her onto the bed. Immediately, Gracie flung her arms around
Granny’s neck and gave her her usual big smack on the nose. Receiving no response, she
began to giggle and jump up and down on the bed, as she always did when trying to wake
her up. I didn’t stop her. She couldn’t understand why Granny didn’t stir. Usually her
antics at least garnered a scowl or a, “You little rascal.”
I gathered Grace in my arms and together we went to the kitchen to phone the
coroner. It took him almost three hours to arrive. For some strange reason, while I
waited, I kept returning to Granny, plumping the covers around her shoulders as if to
keep her warm. I kissed her again and again, as much to let her know that I loved her as
to re-etch into my memory the feel of her cheeks--cheeks that could no longer feel my
lips. By the time the coroner came, Granny’s body had grown quite cold, but she still
radiated a beatific warmth.
“She was a handsome woman,” he said as he soberly entered. I supposed he said that
about all of the women he carried away.
“Yes, she was,” I replied, crying anew.
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As he and his partner struggled to get Granny’s long legs to stay put on the gurney, he
added, “And a big girl at that!”
“Yes,” I laughed, “a very, big girl.”
“How old is – was, she?” he continued.
“Almost ninety-five,” I said. “She would have been ninety-five in four months.”
“Well, she had a very, long life,” he said pushing her through the hallway.
“Yes,” I agreed. “But no matter how long it is, it’s never quite long enough, is it?”
“No. I suppose you’re right. It never is.”
The next morning, Gracie ran to Granny’s room as usual. She pulled back the covers
then looked under the bed, quite distressed.
“Oh, no!” She said with a sad face. “No, Ba Ba!”
“No, honey. Grandma won’t be with us anymore. She’s gone to Heaven now.”
The day after Granny’s memorial service I didn’t feel well. Even though I was
thrilled to be pregnant, I just didn’t feel right inside; all hollow and empty. John thought
my depression was simply grief, but I went to see my doctor. When she put the
stethoscope against my belly she looked worried.
“There’s no heartbeat,” she finally said sadly. “It’s a blighted ovum. If you like, I
can do a D & C.”
A few days later, Gracie was pretending to talk on the portable phone as she often
did. Usually, she called her daddy or had imaginary conversations with me.
“Who are you calling now, sweetheart?” I asked her, wondering which one of us I
would soon be imitating.
“Ba Ba,” she said matter-of-factly.
It would take some time before Grace finally forgot about her Great-granny. One
night several weeks later, as I was tucking her into bed, she suddenly asked to go outside.
We went out onto the back deck in our pajamas. I thought she was hoping to see the
raccoons. But as we looked up at the stars, Grace suddenly began to blow kisses up to
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
“Ba Ba,” she replied. “Kiss Ba Ba.”
“Oh, are you sending Granny kisses in Heaven?”
“Yes,” she smiled, sending up another blown kiss.
“Well, I’m sure she’ll get them,” I told her – and I was.
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“A good leader must first learn how to be a good follower. Otherwise he is trying
to negotiate others through a path that he hasn’t yet walked and doesn’t understand.”
Alzheimer’s was a path that Granny had to lead me through. It was new territory for both
of us. One would think that after our thirteen-year journey together, I would be
exceedingly knowledgeable about the disease. Imagine my shock when I recently took
an Alzheimer’s quiz on the Internet – and flunked. Here is what I didn’t know:
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of ‘dementia.’ 250,000 people each year are
diagnosed with the disease. The average age at diagnosis is 80. Half of all people have
some symptoms by the age of 90. The annual financial burden, including cost of care and
loss of productivity, in the US due to Alzheimer’s is 100 billion dollars a year.
However, even in families with several people who’ve had Alzheimer’s, most people
don’t get the disease. This was quite comforting to me the day that I discovered I had
inadvertently put the electric bill in the freezer and panicked: Am I next? If I am, I hope
that someone loves me enough to care for me, too. Who knows, maybe nursing homes
will be so great by then, that you just can’t wait to go to one!
John and I have two daughters now: Grace, 16, and Amy Josephine, 13. They know
all about their great-granny, Jo, and not just from her pictures or the stories that we tell.
Her spirit has imbued their lives already, though they don’t realize it yet. Even now,
Granny sifts into their words and laughter and I catch a glimmer of her now and then. At
dinner tonight, when Amy Jo saw broccoli on her plate, she frowned at me and said,
“Mommy, I don’t like. . .I mean. . .I haven’t learned to like broccoli yet.” Indeed.
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THE ‘SWEET SIXTEEN’ SUGGESTIONS FOR CAREGIVERS
1. Try and keep your loved ones in their own surroundings as long as possible.
Change confuses them.
2. When they can no longer care for themselves alone safely, move them in with
you. Try and recreate the bedroom they knew. The more familiar you can keep
their environment, the less confused they will be.
3. Keep their lives simple but organized. Even their clothing should be easy to put
on and take off.
4. Give them chores to do that they can handle at each stage. In the beginning,
Granny’s chores were to fold the laundry and retrieve the mail from the mailbox.
At the end, she had only to get out of bed and dress—with our help of course.
5. Watch their diet closely, being sure they get small amounts of protein throughout
the day. Many elderly people, especially those who eat alone, gravitate toward
soft, sweet foods that are easy to consume but not always healthy. Too much
sugar can exacerbate already confused thoughts.
6. Encourage them to participate in some form of exercise daily, even if it is simply
walking to the mailbox. It will set the tone both for both their physical stamina
and their mental outlook.
7. Remember that people with Alzheimer’s grow more childlike and helpless as time
passes. Treat them as the person they are NOW, not the one you remember.
8. Just as you would not park a child in front of the TV set all day, do not let your
elderly loved one do so either. They will soon become part of the furniture and
have little to offer.
9. Take them everywhere you go as often as you can for as long as you can. Even if
they have no clue as to where they are going, it keeps them connected to both you
and the world. I would add that it is also good for others to see our elderly
included as opposed to excluded.
10. Sing with them often. There is nothing wrong with a chorus of “Jingle Bells in
July. Surprisingly, many Alzheimer patients who can’t tell you their own names,
can still sing entire verses from songs they learned as children.
11. Engage them in conversation as often as possible. Encourage them to talk, and
express themselves even if you have to hear the same story over and over, every
day for years. It is their story.
12. Offer them something new whenever possible: whether it is to try a new food, or
read a new book, take up painting or piano lessons, or perhaps, if they’re
physically able, even tennis. Remember that it does not matter how well they do
something as long as they are doing something. Do not let them vegetate if you
can help it!! Nothing kills the mind and spirit faster.
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13. Remember that every Alzheimer patient, like every person, is different. They can
run the gamut from docile to violent. If at anytime they become more than you
can handle, don’t be a martyr. GET HELP! There is no shame in asking for help.
Most people like to be of service, but you need to ask. In the beginning, I enlisted
teenage baby sitters, our next-door neighbors, the pool man, the mailman, our
minister, and complete and total strangers.
14. There will come a time, though, when you will need real, professional help.
Whether it is a respite care, live-in facility, or hospice, there will be a time when
you need it. Fortunately, with the advent of the Internet, there are countless
organizations at your fingertips now. Some of these include: The Alzheimer
Association, AARP, Alzheimer Foundation of America, The National Family
Caregivers Assoc., The National Respite Locator Service, The Family Caregiver
Alliance, Eldercare Advocates, and Aging With Dignity: 5 Wishes. These are
only some and by the time this is published there will likely be many more.
15. Keep them warm because one day they will not even know that they are cold.
Even if they shiver and a blanket is nearby, they will not make the connection and
16. Love them often. Hugs and kisses are better medicine than anything you will
ever buy in a bottle.
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