Focusing on the Good: Memories of My Grandmother on Her 104th Birthday
Cinnamon sugar toast. Steaming cups of tea. Homework read aloud. Long walks to the library. Bus trips to the grocery store. Train rides downtown to buy a toy from Woolworth’s. Lunch at McDonald’s. First-run TV: The Cosby Show, Family Ties. Her laugh — loud, exuberant, almost barking — filling the entirety of her tiny living room.
My grandmother would have been 104 today. She’s been dead for nearly 11 years. Usually this date brings just a simple moment of reflection, but today it’s hitting me harder. I’m missing her more. I don’t know why, but she’s at the forefront of my mind.
I have so many memories of our times together. Happy memories from my earlier years, that carefree time when she and my mother were my entire world.
Mom was a single parent who worked long hours, so Nana helped raise me. Before school, after school, during school vacations, when I was sick for a week with the chickenpox, I was at Nana’s apartment. She always did her grandmotherly duty, showering me with treats and sweets and toys, and in my mind, she was the Best Cook Ever. Her fried steak and boiled potatoes were the ideal foods for a girl with a limited palette.
I don’t like to think about the later years. When I was 15 we —me, mom, and Nana— moved into an apartment together. It was around this time that my stubbornness crashed head-on with my grandmother’s obstination, which is to say we argued over every goddamn thing possible.
What wasn’t clear to me at the time was that her mood swings, her anger, her ability to snap at me out of the blue, might have been less to do with our inflexible personalities and more with her dwindling cognitive abilities.
It was a few years later, when we left the apartment and moved into a house, that my grandmother’s dementia became too hard to ignore.
"Can you please talk to Nana?"my mother cried to me one day over the phone. “She keeps telling me she owns this house and Dad will be home from work any minute.”
“Please tell me it isn’t true,” Nana sobbed when my mother handed her the telephone.
“Nana, Grandpa died in 1980,” I said. “That was 20 years ago.”
Her voice turned cold and hard. “Oh, now I know you’re all just lying to me.”
I always thought dementia implied loss of memory, a slow decline where names are forgotten, and time is erased. But the reality is much harsher. The brain twists timelines and subverts reality. Basics are forgotten, sure, but what is lost is replaced by a new identity. My Nana became, at times, angry, racist, and mean. She accused my mother of trying to hurt her. She locked the home health aide out of the house and spewed vile derogatory remarks about her skin color.
It was hard to love her.
But then, there would be a break. She’d be herself, for just a moment. The light would come back. And that is when it was truly sad, because it was obvious just how frustrated she was with her own mind.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her when I found her one day sitting on her bed and sobbing uncontrollably.
“I don’t know who I am!” she cried.
I put my arms around her shoulders and hugged her for a moment because, well, what else could I do? Within minutes she stopped crying abruptly and suggested we get a “cuppa tea.” The light was out again, and her reality shifted once more.
I always tell my husband that he met my grandmother, but he didn’t really meet Nana. The woman he met was not the Nana I knew. She wasn’t the one who baked cookies and read mystery novels. She didn’t spend hours helping me with dioramas and art projects for school. She couldn’t remember every precise detail of her childhood — one of 11 children, so poor, with a drunk for a father, only kept together as a family thanks to the generosity of a grandfather who kept the kids fed and clothed.
The grandmother my husband met was confused, quiet. She contributed little to the conversation and chuckled quietly when others laughed, not really understanding who or what or where she was.
The last time I saw her, she was in a nursing home. It had become too hard for my mother to care for her. The stairs in the house were a danger and between working all day and caring for her mother all night, my mom wasn’t getting any sleep. It wasn’t a healthy environment for either of them.
During my visit, in February 2007, Nana was in rare form. She was funny, full of quips and one-liners, and I’ll never forget the smile she gave me when I walked into the home’s common room. She knew who I was and she was happy to see me.
A little over six months later she died, my mother at her side. I was living on the opposite coast at the time and wasn’t able to see her before she passed, though by the end she wasn’t communicating or aware of her surroundings.
Alzheimer’s is an infuriating disease that robs an individual of their entire self. It strips away all the person knows, and jumbles memory, language, and time, so what’s left is an unmade puzzle where the pieces don’t fit back together.
I hate that it took away the person I loved. I hate that my husband never met Nana. I hate that it caused my mother so much stress and anguish.
So today, on her birthday, I choose to think of the person as I knew her. Gertrude English Keating. Mother of four. Wife. Grandmother. Great-grandmother. Bibliophile. Cook. Hummer of songs like “Put Your Shoes On, Lucy” and “Let’s Put Out the Lights (and Go to Sleep).” Lover of peppermint Lifesavers.
Cinnamon sugar toast. Steaming cups of tea. So many memories.
Thank you, Nana. Happy birthday.