Wendy Hibbard – Gramma

For June 2015’s theme “What I Missed,” returning storyteller Wendy Hibbard shares of her treasured relationship with her grandmother. We could hear sniffles in the crowd. 

My dearest Gramma was about to begin the biggest transition of her life, and needed help. Everyone else was busy, but I happened to be off work, in that sweet spot between moving from one job to the next. It was a no brainer. Still, I felt woefully inadequate for the job.

She had always been my saving grace, the one who rose to my defense time and time again all throughout my childhood. “So she touches things.” She’d say. “She never breaks anything, she’s just curious.” I thought of her often as an adult when those same absent-minded habits got me into trouble, like with the touch police at the Milwaukee Art Museum. I always thought they might be amused when I’d tell them, smiling, “my Gramma says I never break anything, I’m just curious.” They never were.

Now here I was, solely entrusted with escorting this precious gem of a woman away from the home she’d single-handedly preserved for many decades. She wasn’t widowed or divorced, just married to a man who never found the way – or the want – to break free from his first love, Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Maybe that was the reason my Gramma always looked like a fighter to me. Not a lace-up-your-boots, knock-down, drag-out kind of fighter. I mean, come on – this is Gramma we’re talking about here. No. It was in her eyes. There was a steely determination in those eyes that had learned how to size up whatever life would put in front of them, and deliver the perfect knockout punch through an uncommon common sense, and sheer force of will.

And then there was her giggle. It was as if she was a schoolgirl again: eyes shining with pure joy and mischief as she coquettishly covered her mouth, while her head and shoulders shook. Ah, she was a cutie.  And a force to be reckoned with.

But as we moved down the concrete steps for the last time, her, clinging to the ties of her thin plastic bonnet, and me, doing my best to support her as she stepped, her eyes did not shine. She had recently, suddenly, lost most of her vision. After a nightmarish series of events, it was decided that she needed to move to someplace safer, where she could be receive supervised care. The “Fort Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center” sounded clinical, and lacked the dreamy imaginings of others, like “Golden Meadows”, or “Whispering Pines”, but she liked that it didn’t sound like an old peoples’ home.

She quickly shorthanded the name to simply, “The Care Center”, and I had to admit, I liked the sound of that too. “The Care Center”. This fragile treasure was going to get the special care she so deserved. I consoled myself in that thought as she talked about her soon-to-be new home.

She paused, looking back at what could only have appeared as a dark, hazy outline of her home, for the last time. Not one for self sympathy, she took it all in with a quick, deep breath, turned, and looked up at the dreary grey sky to raindrops that splashed down her face and into her eyes.

There seemed such a sad indignance to it all. This majestic, salt-of-the-earth heroine was crossing the threshold from a full, active life of meaning, into her final chapter. And I was the only one there to witness it. To appreciate it. To pay homage to the unwavering commitment of love and sacrifice she’d sown into us all. She had always been the hub that held our family together. Now, even the weather was adding insult to the occasion.

I sifted through my thoughts, searching for something meaningful to say. Something that would erase the grey from the memory of this day. Nothing. I had nothing. Really? Me, who was never at a loss for words? Nope. Still nothing.

A small wave of anguish began to sweep over me as we continued walking. Surely I could summon up even the smallest bit of inspiration to wash away the sadness with a profound, maybe even poetic statement. Nope. Still nothing.

And then she spoke.

“You know, it was raining the day we moved in to this house. It was raining the day we brought your father home. It’s no surprise that it’s raining today. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that you don’t forget the rain.”

As her words filled my ears, the anguish evaporated. She spoke with a dignified wisdom that had grown accustomed to accepting the things she couldn’t change, knowing she would more than make up for it with the things she could.

In that moment, I was reminded so powerfully of all the reasons I loved that woman, that I had to hold my breath not to cry. She wasn’t leaving without her dignity, and I was not about to allow my tears to suggest otherwise.

I tucked her into the passenger seat, fastened the belt, and climbed behind the wheel. (Exhale) Muttering silently to myself, “You can do this”, I looked over at her, just to make sure she was ok. To my surprise, there was the little schoolgirl, with the bright, shining eyes, bearing a radiance that shone through the dull film of cataracts. Giggling at something silly she’d just said.

I’d heard her talking, now that I thought about it, but I’d been too distracted by the gravity of my heart, to listen. Quickly pasting on my best smile, I joined in, playfully teasing her, and hoping I could pull it off.

I had to take one final look. There was the garage where my grandfather had hung out a shingle to repair neighborhood lawnmowers. The interior walls had been covered with turtle shells, from the unfortunate creatures he’d captured as they slowly made their way from the lake across the street, and into his beloved Turtleneck Soup. There was the outhouse adjacent to the garage, long ago retired from its original purpose. It had been repurposed as the recycling center for Grampa’s empty aluminum PBR cans way back in the 70s. Next were my Gramma’s flower beds, with the gladiolas she would grow and sell every year in the little homemade roadside stand in the front yard, along with all the harvest from the huge garden behind the house, and the pear and apple orchard lining it.

I mentally said goodbye to my favorite climbing trees, and eventually, forced myself to take one more look at the tiny little house. It had held such an important place in my life. Once inside, my body would immediately begin to relax, comforted by the familiar aroma of her gritty, freshly brewed coffee. But it didn’t matter anymore, because she was no longer behind that door. It was time to go.

As I drove she chattered away, marveling at all the new sights she was discovering. She had seldom left the house in recent years, so most everywhere she looked she found something new. There was so much to talk about. But I found myself too mesmerized by the words she had spoken earlier to fully pay attention. They echoed in the space all around me, like the ripples of a skipping stone upon a lake. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that you don’t forget the rain.”  

She deserved my full attention. But this was weighing heavily on my spirit. As I did my best to camouflage my distraction, I determined that she would have that attention, once we arrived at her new home. And for a while, she did. I would visit her regularly. I got to see that little schoolgirl more, and more, and more. I began recording the story of her life, asking question after question that would summon up glorious accounts of the days before we met, sending her back to a time when she was young, and wild, and free.

She spoke with giddy excitement as we dared to track down the unrequited love of her youth. Her eyes took on a new “saucy” sparkle when the “stud” of the whole Care Center, a handsome, younger German man everyone called “Shatzi”, took a shine to her over all the other ladies competing for his attention. When a new medication caused uncontrollable, explosive gas as we walked through the corridors, she shocked me, proclaiming, “there I go, shooting rabbits again!” covering her mouth and giggling like a naughty, gleeful child. And when I accidentally rammed her wheelchair into a pothole on the sidewalk, sending her hurtling into the street, and me into a panic (trying to figure out how I was going to tell my family that I broke Gramma), she exploded into squeals of delight, saying it was the most fun she’d had in years.

But then, something happened. I got “busy”. I allowed myself to get distracted, and then chose distraction, adopting the inarguable explanation, at least according to my family’s values, that I was “working a lot”. And then she started making that excuse for me, apologizing in advance if she wanted to see me, and explaining to other residents and staff there. It was really something to be proud of. “She works so hard….” But then her voice would trail off, and the sadness would give her away. We both knew it was a lie.

It’s not that I wasn’t working, at least not some or even most of the time that I used that excuse. It was that I now used an excuse. I’d allowed my priorities to shift. Tragically. And now, my sweet, spunky, precious Gramma, who had meant so much to me all of my life, was no longer a priority. She was an obligation I made excuses to avoid.

You see, Gramma had a roommate who was all alone, and suffering from severe depression. We  tried to be kind and inclusive with her, but she just wanted her suffering to end. She wanted to die. The facility fought her, but ultimately, she chose to starve herself to death.

It was a very dark time. The period during which she refused food and meds lasted for several months. It compounded with other health problems to cause a deep stench to set in as her body literally began to rot away. It smelled like death, and hung heavily in my Grandmother’s room for well over a month. We tried to have my Grandmother moved, but to no avail. We were told the facility was short on beds, and they believed she was the only one there strong enough to be able to handle the situation.

But I wasn’t. Eventually, I came to visit Gramma, and her roommate’s bed was empty. I didn’t realize it at the time, but subconsciously, I’d shifted into a paralysis over the realization that now seemed impossible to ignore: eventually, I would lose Gramma too. Looking back at what I missed in those priceless last months of her life is hard. Most of all, I hate that by choice, I missed being there for her, the way she needed me to be. The way she’d always been there for me.

In the very end, the doctors gave her only a few hours to live. She was no longer responsive, but I was able to kneel beside her, and whisper the confessions weighing so heavily on my heart into her ear. My parents and I had been distant, not speaking for nearly 9 months after a deep disagreement. As I spoke to her, I could see she was troubled, she was wrestling with something. The night passed, and so did the next day. And the next day. And, really? Gramma was still holding on. Still troubled. It was clearly written on her face. I decided to try to understand, to talk with her about it.

By sheer force of will, she pressed her lips together and began to form words. She was trying to tell me that she wasn’t going anywhere until our family was back together again. I talked with my brother and her doctors. Was it possible, in her weakened state, that she was refusing to let go until the family was restored? It was clearly her body’s time to go. Watching her hang on was agonizing for us. Still, the question: was it possible?

The doctor said physically, there was no reason to explain how she’d held on this long. However, he had seen it before. There is something about an indomitable spirit. Realistically thinking, it made more sense than anything. After all, she’d spent her entire life committed to sacrificing for her family. Why on earth would now be any different?

I knew what I had to do. I grabbed my brother, and drove to meet my parents. I couldn’t do it for me. I wouldn’t do it for them. But I could do anything for Gramma. So we talked. My brother helped me explain what I thought was happening. And we reconciled.

One full week after the doctor told us she would be leaving us within a couple hours, I crouched down again next to Gramma’s side. I told her what had just occurred. I told her that she didn’t have to hang on for us anymore, that we’d be ok. Leaning over the bed, I kissed her forehead as I took her hands and told her I loved her, but I wanted her to go. I needed her to be free.

One final time, through sheer force of will, she pressed her lips together. Audibly, she whispered twice through their quivering that she loved me too. My brother and parents joined us, everyone sharing their I-love-yous and encouragement as Gramma’s face began to soften and glow. Her joy at the knowledge of her family’s restoration faded into a sweet beautiful peace as she released her grip on this world to step into the next. I so look forward to seeing her there one day, when I’ll no longer be saddened by the grief and regret of the time that I missed.

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Joe Tropeano – “Finding Grandma Martha in Chile”

For Tenx9’s “Travel” theme, first-timer Joe Tropeano ended the night with a beautiful story of remembering his late Grandma Martha while traveling on a farm in Chile. 

“Mari Mari!”

I squinted my eyes, strained my ears, and tried again to understand.  I knew Chilean Spanish was tough, but I had absolutely no idea what my new host mother was telling me.

“Mari Mari!” she said again, her lips curled into a proud smile.

“Si, gracias,” I tried, hoping that was an appropriate response to whatever she was telling me.  After all, I was two months into my semester abroad in Chile, and I had gotten used to struggling to understand.  Chilean Spanish is famous for its out-there slang and rapid-fire pronunciation.  But this was different, I soon realized.  Nora was speaking a different language.

That week, I had bid farewell to the high-rises and hills of Valparaíso to spend a week living on a Mapuche farm in Chile’s Araucanía region.  The Mapuche people were the original inhabitants of most of Chile, but now live mostly in the country’s green southern regions, between the snowcapped Andes and the deep blue Pacific.

When I stepped onto my new Mapuche host family’s property, I had never before felt so out of place.  The bathroom was outside, livestock roamed freely around the yard, and the nearest town was an hour away.  The vast, open fields only reminded me of how many thousands of miles I was from my home in suburban New Jersey.  Walking towards the door to the house, I was tempted to make a run for it and head back to the van.

But Nora was already at the doorstep.  “Mari mari!”  she said, greeting me in what I later learned was her native tongue, Mapudungun.   Beckoning me into the kitchen, Nora invited me to sit as she explained the meaning of the common salutation.  All of a sudden, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d somehow been here before.  That’s impossible, I thought, pinching myself.   Nora’s kitchen had a large hearth with a fire brimming inside, a sight you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere in New Jersey.  The chili peppers and squash on the shelf were nothing like the Italian fare I’d grown up on.

Why, then, did things seem so oddly familiar?

And then I remembered my Grandma Martha’s voice: “Chiacchierone!

I could still see her, bent over a boiling pot of spaghetti as she pointed an accusing finger at me.  “It means someone who talks a lot,” she explained with a wink. I had no time to defend myself before she started on her next story—recounting how she had spent her summers learning Italian, singing songs, and swapping tall tales with her Sicilian grandparents.  Though I was only six, I got her point. The chiacchierone genes run pretty deep in my family, a badge I ought to wear with pride.

Of all the things that Grandma Martha taught me, the Italian sticks out the most.  Grandma Martha’s Italian was as seasoned as her eggplant parmesan – it was an asset, a tool and a weapon.  When Grandma’s puppy went crazy begging for treats, running around the house and knocking into her china, Grandma Martha would throw her hands up, open her mouth, and shout “come le pazze! Like the crazies!”  When my grandfather forgot to get the Italian breadcrumbs from the grocery store, Grandma Martha would shout “stonato! You’re stupid!And in my grandma’s house, Rita DiLorenzo from down the block was known solely as la faccia brutta, the ugly face.

Grandma Martha’s Italian had the color and movement of the busy Brooklyn streets she grew up on.  It was as brutally honest, as full of life, and as spectacular as she was.

When I was 13, everything changed.

Though the diagnosis surprised no one, we still whispered when we first heard it: “Alzheimer’s.”  To me, it meant empty glances, uncombed hair, and painful silence from a woman few could have quieted in her prime.  It meant memories unshared, stories untold, and words unspoken.

I decided that I couldn’t leave my chiacchierone heritage behind, that if Grandma Martha couldn’t teach me Italian anymore, someone else could.  I started taking after-school Italian lessons, filling the gaps in my Italian so that I could not only insult others, but soon hold entire conversations in the language.  For me, learning Italian was what cooking eggplant parmesan was for my father, or what collecting old family photos was for my aunt.  We remembered so that Grandma could forget.

When my Grandma Martha died, I felt so profoundly out of place.  I had just started my first semester at Vanderbilt, in a city Grandma Martha had never visited, surrounded by people I had only just met.  I remember angrily thinking, “Have these people ever even heard of a cannoli?”  I tried my best to keep myself calm, but inside I felt empty.  Grandma Martha was my Italian teacher, my personal cheering squad, and my best friend.  Although I continued to learn Italian, I couldn’t help but think that I had lost Grandma Martha forever.

Years later, as I learned Mapudungun words in Nora’s kitchen in Chile, memories came back that I thought had died long ago.  Nora also faced oblivion.  Her sons could barely speak Mapudungun, two of the many Mapuche youths in Chile affected by the quickening pace of assimilation.  They had iPhones and laptops and TVs.  They worked all day in the city while their parents tended to the fields.  I couldn’t help but shudder at the memories being lost, at the traditional Mapuche way of life that was being abandoned.

But there were reasons for hope.  Nora’s sons loved the traditional music of the Andes, and performed songs for us in the family’s ruka around the campfire.  They connected with fellow Mapuche friends and family on Facebook and WhatsApp, and they started learning Mapudungun words with me as the week progressed on the farm.   With each word came a story – of rolling hills and rumbling volcanoes, of a time before the Spanish conquest, of a people negotiating their traditional upbringing with today’s modern world.

Newen was one of the words we learned my last weekend on the farm.  It has many meanings in Mapudungun, but most importantly refers to the inner energy that the Mapuche people believe all beings share.

Mapudungun was still a completely foreign language to me, but I had never encountered a word that so perfectly described the way I was feeling.  I thought about Grandma Martha and the words she taught me.  I thought about her learning Italian from her grandparents, just as I had learned Italian from her.  I thought about my past week on the farm and our Mapudungun lessons, the countless cups of mate and conversations that lasted the whole afternoon long.  Just a week before, I had felt so miserably far from home as I stepped onto my Mapuche host family’s property.  Now I felt that the world was incredibly small.

Flash forward one year and I found myself in another unfamiliar place – Italy.  As I walked through Palermo, taking in the colors of the street markets and the chit-chatter of the locals, I couldn’t help but feel, yet again, that I had been here before.  After all, I was in Sicily – a place Grandma Martha had always traveled to in her heart.

I took a seat on a bench and took a bite of the cannoli I had picked up for lunch.  “Pretty good,” I said to the chiacchierone sitting next to me.  Even though the seat was empty, I knew, just as sure as Nora was of newen, that Grandma Martha was sitting there next to me.

Our conversations continue.

Nichole Perkins – Once

Here’s Nichole Perkins’ story about her grandmother from our June theme “Once.” Enjoy. 

 

Muh’Deah With Her Hair Down

Muh’Deah, my great-grandmother, ate onions and tomatoes like apples.  She pressed money, wrapped in aluminum foil or Kleenex, into your hand as you were leaving her home. She kept candy in the trunk of her car, and if you were good in church, she’d walk you to that treasure chest and let you pick a few pieces. Muh’Deah would comb my hair, using a pink Goody brush with white bristles. She had old people’s strength, the kind that came from years of raising six children plus farm work then domestic work. She’d pull my hair into a ponytail so tight, I’d have a look of constant surprise for at least a day.

Muh’Deah’s favorite color was red, and it became mine, too. We’d sit in front of her large floor model tv—the kind with the knobs that thunked thunked when you turned them—and she’d brush my hair into that death mask ponytail while reruns of Gunsmoke or Bonanza, Big Valley or The RifleMan ran in the background. I had a book of fill-it-in word puzzles. She’d give me a red-ink pen, slim and striped like a piece of peppermint candy, and keep half an eye on me as I connected words together. I’d show her my completed puzzles and she’d say, “That’s good, baby,” before she touched my shoulder to signify she was done with my hair. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned Muh’Deah couldn’t read. I like to imagine that seeing me work those puzzles made her proud.

My memories of what Muh’Deah looked like are cloudy. My mother says that by the time I was born, Muh’Deah wore her hair short, just under her ears, but I remember something different. Once I saw Muh’Deah with long hair- a braid that rested curled on her chest.

Muh’Deah lived in one of those senior citizen complexes that looked like a tropical vacation resort. It was late evening, and I was in the living room, fresh from a bath, smelling like Camay. Or maybe Irish Spring. I can’t remember that exactly but I know I smelled good and had a belly full of biscuit and jelly. I was waiting on Muh’Deah to finish getting ready so I could use the mini-steps that led to her four-poster bed, so thick and fluffy. Even though Muh’Deah would warm the bed with her onion-and-tomato fueled gas, floating on the cloud-like mattress made it worth it. So there I was, fidgeting, trying not to ask if she was ready yet when someone knocked on the door. I froze in place. I knew I couldn’t answer the door. It was night time and no one visited Muh’Deah except family.

She came from the back of her apartment, wearing a long, white cotton gown. She didn’t have her glasses on. And her hair… an unfinished braid lay against her right shoulder. If my eyes hadn’t fallen out of my sockets from a too-tight ponytail, surely they would fall out now. I think I even stopped fidgeting, and I know I stared in that open-mouthed, uncaring child’s way.

Muh’Deah answered the door, and it was one of her neighbors. A man. His glasses were so thick, I couldn’t really see his eyes clearly, but they were watery and shiny. He smelled like mouthwash but… more. Muh’Deah’s mouth pulled into a tight line that I would see on my own mother in later years. She invited the man in and let him sit on the couch, closest to the lamp with the bright, bright bulb. She sat in a chair and would occasionally give me The Look that meant I better behave, but she didn’t send me to her room, out of the way, which is what usually happened when grown folks talked. When I look back, I think I must’ve been insurance that Mr. Neighbor Man didn’t try to get fresh.

I have no sense for how long they talked. Muh’Deah touched her braid and finished it. I watched, fascinated. Then I noticed that Mr. Neighbor Man was also staring. Muh’Deah’s lean fingers, taut with age and strength, moved quickly, working her hair into a simple braid, while she tried to remain polite. Suddenly she dropped the completed work and made moves to stand. Mr. Neighbor Man struggled to be gentlemanly, despite his arrival without notice, despite his more-than-mouthwash smell, and helped her. Again, I can’t remember what Muh’Deah said but she ushered him out and made sure to put the locks on the door.

After wiping my face free of any more biscuit and jelly crumbs, Muh’Deah pushed me down the hallway to her bedroom, hand on my shoulder. She made me say my prayers then held on to my arm as I climbed into her bed. It was a child’s heaven—all white sheets, a thick cushy mattress, with equally fluffy pillows and comforter, and love. The kind of love that leaves you with your eyes wide, that shares colors with you, encourages you to be more than she could, and the kind of love that lets you protect her as she protects you.