Friday, January 19, 2007

Misty Water-Colored Memories

Today is my grandmother’s 95th birthday. All things considered, she’s in pretty good shape, physically. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s is the Drum Major leading her Mental Parade and, on many days, she can’t remember who the people around her are. Mercifully, she has no problem remembering who she is although; she does have a slight problem remembering when she is.

For example, in her mind today, she may be ten years old and living on the family farm in Kansas. She might tell you about her daily activities, what chores she has done and what work has yet to be accomplished. And you? Why you are one of her five sisters-Mary, Fronie, Monie, Tillie or Lucy, of course. Unless you are male in which case, you are obviously one of her three brothers, Joe, John, or Sal.

They are all gone now but, not in her mind.

Or perhaps, today, she is a twenty-one year old bride, wondering where “that man has gotten himself off to, now? Ach vollidiot!” (that man, of course, being my grandpa Nick who apparently didn’t wander off too far considering she was still his bride when he passed away sixty-three years later).

And tomorrow, she could be twenty-two, rocking her first child in the rocking chair. Or, she could be forty-five and rocking her last.

Ninety-five years is a lot of ground to cover; she could be anywhere. Or, anytime, I guess and, assuming you are given a role, you might as well play along.

The fact that she doesn’t always recognize them is understandably upsetting for my mother and her siblings. I grew up under the care of my grandparents during summer vacations and breaks from school and I find the fact that she has forgotten me to be upsetting as well but, I take solace in the fact that, most of the time, my grandmother seems calm and comfortable living in the past.

Her memories appear to be, in the majority, happy ones. And, as hard as it is to let go of a woman I love so dearly, I could never deny her the opportunity to relive the happier moments of her life. I mean; to really live them again. It comforts me, this idea that perhaps, she feels once again, the heady rush of falling in love with my grandfather.

That, maybe, she once more feels the soft weight of a newborn in her arms.

That she might again experience the euphoria of dancing the polka with my grandfather , whirling around and around on the dance floor in a floor-length powder blue dress, the hem flaring out as their feet fly in tandem (my memory more than hers maybe but, honest and true).

I also think it speaks volumes about the resilience of her spirit that, while her life was not without painful memories, it is the moments of joy that my grandmother seems most drawn to. I like to think that the inherent strength which pulled her through tragic or sad times in her life now serves as sentry, denying the Alzheimer’s access to her innermost demons and guarding her heart from further pain.

Is that wishful thinking on my part? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I’ve learned things about my grandmother that I did not know before. I’ve learned that working in the sugar beet fields was, well, not very pleasant. I’ve learned that my innocent grandmother actually does know how to curse and, that although she grew up to observe a strict attendance policy; she didn’t always want to go to Mass as a child. She fought with her sisters and sometimes, she was naughty. Not surprisingly, I’ve learned that, not only did she love my grandfather but, she was in love with him; with his blue eyes and his lanky frame. With his hands that were so much bigger than her own. I was also not surprised to learn that, the first thing she loved about him was how well he could dance; how well they danced together; because, Grace seeks its equal. Learning these things due to the Alzheimer’s has been unexpected; a blessing out of a disease.

But still, a disease.

One that even now works on my grandmother’s memory like water running over a pebble in a stream. Eventually, the pebble will erode away to sand, shifting on the bed of the stream and settling into a fine layer of softness, unrecognizable as the pebble yet still, pieces unto itself.

We will miss the pebble but, will glean from it the sand.

Happy 95th birthday Grandma Molly.


  1. So touching and heartfelt. Thank you for sharing that.

  2. I guess at least, like you said, she is happy in her memories. My grandmother doesn't have Alzheimers, but is just grumpy and likes to yell at my mom. That was a wonderfully written post.