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Happy Birthday to a Great-Grandma

On our recent trip to Ohio I got to spend time with my grandma.  My mom’s mom is my last living grandparent.  She turned 91 this summer and I’m glad we were able to be there for her birthday.

Visits with my grandma are complicated anymore.  She moved into a nursing home just over two years ago and she’s not the same woman I’ve known for so long.  Her memory started falling apart a few years back, and now she repeats the same questions many times during a conversation.  I feel fortunate that she recognizes me whenever I call or visit, and that she remembers my husband and my kids when I talk about them, but I miss my grandma.  We never really get past the initial parts of a conversation because she needs to keep resetting it.  We can only safely spend time with her in the mornings before the true depths of her dementia surface.

My grandma has always been important to me.  As a child we went to Columbus for Christmas every year, and to this day it doesn’t feel like the holiday season without her spritz cookies in the shapes of trees and wreathes.  Nowadays I’m the one who makes them, but it remains an unbroken tradition and one I’m pleased to involve my kids in.

Grandma’s home was always welcoming and clean.  Whenever there was a plate of brownies or cookies on the counter and I asked if I could have one she always said, “That’s what they’re there for!”  I don’t remember her ever seeming disappointed in me or mad.  She loved me in a way I look forward to loving my own grandchildren one day.

I got to know her best while I was in college.  I moved from Michigan to Ohio to attend school just a couple of years after my grandfather died.  My grandpa was strong and kind and very funny and I don’t think gram will ever get over losing him.  That pain has always been closer to the surface than I think most people realize.  With grandpa gone there were many things for her to adjust to; she was living alone after a lifetime of sharing a house, and I was just venturing out in the world on my own.  We were able to help each other out and connect in a way that wouldn’t have been the same at any other time in our lives.  I could set digital clocks and change hard to reach light bulbs, she taught me how to do laundry, and nearly every Sunday for more than five years I went to her house for dinner.  She always let me bring a friend along if I thought someone was in need of a home cooked meal.  She was the first person in my family to meet and get to know the man I eventually married.

Grandma did social work in her community and for decades did work in adoption for the Methodist Children’s Home.  Her stories were always interesting about how adoptions and opinions about them had changed so much over the years and I begged her to write a book but was never able to convince her to do it.  I’m sure she was good at her job because she was such an excellent listener.  You could talk to gram without feeling judged or dismissed.

I depended a great deal on her listening abilities during Ian’s first deployment.  She was the only one in the family who truly understood.  My grandfather was in the navy during World War Two, and gram was left in Milwaukee, pregnant with my uncle and caring for my mother.  When I said I was scared for my husband’s safety she knew what that felt like, and when I told her how hard it was to watch my son growing each day in the absence of his dad, she knew what that was like, too.  She even knew what it meant to stare down a grey Milwaukee day in February while folding laundry and wondering if her husband would ever make it home.  My grandma knew, and she loved me, and those two things together helped get me through some very rough days.

It breaks my heart that my children won’t get to know my grandma the way I did.  I think Aden remembers the house that was sold not that long ago, but it probably doesn’t contain much meaning.  To me it was an entire childhood of Christmases and Easter baskets, walnuts in the yard and a hill to roll down next door.  I can still conjure instantly the smell of the basement during a ping pong game, or the way the breeze felt on the screened in porch out back.  It was the house my parents were married in.  I still can’t believe it’s a house I will never visit again.

When grandma first moved into the nursing home it was very difficult.  It’s a very nice facility and the staff is remarkable at what they do.  They are patient and respectful and I’ve never seen anything short of excellent care there, but a nursing home is not where my grandma ever wanted to be.  For a long time she couldn’t remember where she was or why she was there and it was frightening for her, but she needs care beyond what any of us could provide ourselves so even while it was upsetting for everyone I think she was in the best possible place.  This year on her birthday I felt as if she were finally settled.  She still doesn’t understand where she is, but it’s familiar, and that’s enough.  She has a routine that’s comfortable and faces she recognizes every day, and she seemed serene for the first time in a long time.

If we weren’t so far away I would bring my kids to the nursing home regularly.  It wasn’t just good for my grandma, it seemed to brighten the spirits of everyone we passed to see such young bright faces.  Mona in particular made an interesting connection.  My cousin, Tony, lives in town and visits gram often and knows many people at the home by name.  He said the woman who sits on the couch outside of gram’s room was sweet but loopy.  He’d had many conversations with her, none of which made any sense, and he was fascinated watching her talk with Mona.  Mona is direct, and can be blunt in her questions about why someone is in a wheelchair, etc., so I worry about her in situations that require any form of tact, but more often than not it serves her well.  In this case, she was able to carry on the most coherent conversation with this woman that my cousin had ever seen.  Tony said the lady lit up when she saw Mona and asked her her age, Mona responded, asked her own questions, and he said for a little while it was just a nice normal moment between an old woman and a little girl, and he found it very moving.

The party was lovely.  My uncle and aunt were there, and two of my cousins.  We ate lunch outside on a patio by the dining room.  She thought she was in someone’s backyard and the thought made her happy.  Aden played Long Long Ago on the violin, both girls made her cards.  Quinn was his sweet self which is enough to charm anyone for a good hour or two.  We had homemade chicken salad and cake like her mother used to make that my mom had prepared.  It was a nice party and one I’m sure she forgot took place by the time the sun had set.  I feel responsible for remembering the moment since she no longer can.

Happy Birthday, gram.  I love you.

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