Betty Duffy

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Trying to Pay Attention

I’m remembering the summer of 1998. I’d just graduated from college and went with my family up to Northern Michigan, as we’ve done every summer for the past half century. My grandparents rented a cottage called “The Little Brown Jug” and we would stay there together for a week or two.

When we were little, my parents let my sister and I glide peacefully up to Michigan in the back seat of my grandparents’ boat-like Buick, feasting on circus peanuts and lemon drops, while my brothers remained tethered in the backseat of Mom and Dad’s Malibu station wagon with a bag of celery. By the time I graduated college, we all drove up when and however we could, and Grandma and Grandpa fit into our cars. Neither one of them did much driving anymore. Grandpa had chronic anxiety attacks related to his emphysema.

So it happened that Grandma rode that year up to the lake with me in a cute Honda Civic that my cousin, a Dominican Novice, bequeathed to me. Grandma thought it looked just like the kind of car a girl should drive: little and white with tan interior and medals of St. Christopher and Immaculate Mary hanging from the visors. I’d been in a mood to listen to heavy music at a loud volume with the windows down. School was out FOR.EVER. But with Grandma present, that wouldn’t fly, so I listened to her talk instead.

That summer might have signaled the onset of her dementia had we not all been preoccupied with Grandpa’s more imminent difficulties. Grandma was healthy as a horse, strong, hearty and cheerful, if also consumed by worry for Grandpa’s health. She spoke in repetitive patterns, telling the same stories over and over, so that it was, I’m ashamed to admit, a little annoying. But I think we all assumed that she would bounce back to herself as soon as Grandpa’s health no longer consumed her—that she might quit living in the past, and get out of the house a little more.

Her stories that summer, as always, were about her ancestors, her mother in particular. I had been hearing the stories about her mother since I was a girl when I would stay all night at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I tended to drift to the breakfast table first thing, looking for a bowl of Frosted Flakes, and Grandma, with her forever sensitive nose would tell me about how her mother always brushed her teeth twice in the morning, once before breakfast, and once after, in order to reduce halitosis. Make note.

On that trip, however, I was listening half-heartedly to Grandma tell me stories about her mother, Oma, and something clicked in my head: I need to write these down. Someday, she will not be here to repeat these stories, and I might want to remember them. I couldn’t imagine that they would ever grow dim in my memory, having heard them as often as I had, but as soon as we pulled into the driveway of the cottage at the lake, I took my journal out to the beach and wrote.

I wrote about how Oma, as a child, played hooky in order to go ice-skating. And when the principal called to tell her grandmother (her mother died in childbirth) that she was truant, Granny said, “Well it beats all how that child likes to ice-skate!” I wrote about how Oma believed in “airing the body” and that she would come out of the bedroom in the nude and say, “I’m ready to go!” just to get a laugh. And a million other stories, I wrote down over the course of the week.

It was not a remarkable vacation, otherwise. I asked Grandpa what he wanted to do one day, as he came out of the bedroom with his shoes untied and his belt unattached. “As little as possible,” he said. My little brother and I fought over the one and only recliner whenever Grandpa got out of it to go to the bathroom. One night, I pulled Grandma out on the lake for a swim as the sun cast an orange glow over the water. She floated placidly in the innertube for a few minutes before she asked to be released, then took off side-stroking with her swim cap aglow on the water’s surface. “It beats all how that girl likes to swim,” I thought.

Tonight, sitting next to my Grandma as she lies in bed, unable to speak, I am so, so glad that I had that car ride, and those weeks, those years of time with my Grandparents. At the end of that summer, they moved out of their home twenty minutes away from where I grew up, and moved in with my Aunt and Uncle a state away. Grandpa died within two years, and shortly after that, Grandma was diagnosed with cancer, and then Alzheimers. We have been losing her, very slowly, for the past ten years.

I want to imagine that she perks up when she sees me—that she has, even now, a moment of recognition when I greet her. It’s more likely that she is incapable of suppressing a smile when she meets someone new. Her good manners are that ingrained in her. It could be the baby I perpetually carry on my hip that makes her smile. Whether she knows me or not, I want to be present and pay attention to these last days of her life whether or not they are eventful or symbolic.

I have been meditating for some time now on the quality of being a witness to the lives of others—how important it is to have our lives and history validated in other people’s memories. It’s something I can do, pay attention to my family, my friends—and when called, give witness with my pen.


TheSeeker said...

How beautiful and how sad. You should tell her stories, even if she doesn't properly understand that they are your family's.

I'm glad you write, Betty.

Rebekka said...

This is so beautiful.

Megan said...

I have such fond memories of your Grandparents. I remember their house so well and I can still see them in it. I remember the room (davenport?) where Uncle Ralph had his desk and where I always remember him sitting. There were pictures of his grand kids everywhere. I was always a little nervous walking into that room. I had heard rumors that Uncle Ralph might eat me alive or something but he was always so nice to me and called me Meggy. It was my Mom he would occasionally give a hard time to about her weight or something. LOL. I remember Aunt Margaret in the kitchen. She was always so happy to see us and when she would catch us eying the cabinet where she kept the good breakfast cereals and cookies, she would always offer us something. Of course the best room in the house was the wallpapered bathroom that had all the makeup and costume jewelry in the cabinet under the sink. I would stay in there for what seemed like an eternity. The second best place in the house was the basement with the scary hunting room. Didn't it have a moose head mounted on the wall or something? I remember playing Ghost in the Graveyard in the basement because it was pitch dark and super eery down there when the lights were out. I remember going through all of Aunt Margaret's hat boxes. They looked like cakes from a distance. This isn't really a comment its more like a trip down memory lane. Anyway, I have always loved Aunt Margaret. She has always had such a sweet personality. I will always remember her laughing. Not all that long ago, I guess it was about 6 years ago(?) she told me "Im Catholic now but still mostly Methodist" and then she laughed and laughed.

Thank you for the stories of Oma. I have a picture of her holding my Grandpa when he was a baby and she was a young Mom. I will look at that picture differently now. Before it was really only my Grandpa that I noticed but now I have a personality to go with the Mom holding him. I will have to ask my Mom for more stories.
Thanks for the great post. We will see you soon.

mrsdarwin said...

Lovely, Betty. I feel like I know your grandmother through your writing.

Pentimento said...

The pain and love of this kind of goodbye is powerfully witnessed to in your beautiful writing. This is clearly what God wants you to do. I'm praying for you.

jenX said...

Are you interested in guest blogging on my blog with a Gen X theme? Maybe tying a Catholic or religious them or mom of a bunch of boys theme to it? The floor is yours if you're interested. I've invited a few people to do this over the next week or so as I have some big get-paid-to-actually-work deadlines I've been neglecting. -jen

Betty Duffy said...

Thanks everyone for your kind words and prayers.

Jen, let's email to discuss.

Megan, I can't wait to see you. So many fun memories to sort through. The hatboxes!

Lisa said...

this is so beautiful, so poignant, so true. we need to hang on to every minute -- and try to remember everything we can. what wonderful foresight you had that summer. a blessing.

Emily said...

Thanks for sharing the stories about Oma. Good job writing them down. Wish you had pulled some out to read at Mom and Dad's. I'm afraid I already have some of Grandma's dementia disease ...