Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Just as good the second time around

I talked to my grandmother for an hour today. I’m a bad granddaughter because my aunt was going out of town so my mother made me promise that I would call my grandma every day from Saturday through Tuesday. I only remembered to do it today…Tuesday. I come by it honestly, the forgetfulness. My grandma has been forgetting things too and that’s why she recently moved into a retirement center. I shouldn’t say that she forgets, she just never remembers in the first place. Her brain is no longer bothering with information about how many yogurts she has in the refrigerator or what movie she just watched on TV and instead is laying out her memories of growing up on a farm in Stanwood, Washington with abundant detail.

We have all been taking her…I don’t want to say decline…her shift, in very different ways. My youngest aunt, who is the only daughter living close to my grandmother is shouldering most of the responsibility and it clearly worries her. My oldest aunt gets a little frustrated and tries to jog my grandmother’s memory by telling her when a story or fact has been repeated too many times. My grandfather, who doesn’t live with my grandmother, is losing one of his oldest friends and being constantly reminded of his own age. He can rebuild Packard cars from scratch, even sew the upholstery, but he can’t fix her. Me, I have found that I appreciate my grandma in a way that I never could when we were both younger.

I called from work, while I shuffled data around on my computer. We started our conversation by talking about the weather. It was 70 degrees in Birmingham but snowing heavily in Nevada City. Then she asks me about my mother, who is currently out of the country. We talk about water aerobics and agree that it is too cold for her to walk up to the pool in her bathing suit. She tells me that the center will send a van to pick her up at her door and then asks me to forget that she told me that because she would rather have an excuse to skip the pool. “Let’s just say I don’t have a good bathing suit for the snow in case anyone asks okay?” and then she laughs at her own joke. A few days ago, or maybe more, she had dinner with my youngest Aunt in the dinning hall and they had some Very Good Salmon. The Salmon, and some meatballs she had one other time were so good that she wondered if maybe the facility had hired a new, Norwegian cook.

I know when she mentions the cook that I will get to hear something about her childhood. Both of her brothers died in WWII and when I was growing up she didn't like to talk about them very often but lately that rule has been relaxed. She tells me about going to church when she lived in Stanwood. She and her twin brother would feign sick every Sunday but their mom would never fall for it and when they made it to the church they were always glad because all the other kids were there too. Before that, they lived in a county so rural that their cousin, who was 13, was allowed to drive the car every Sunday to take them to church. She tells me about lying to people when she got to college in Seattle so that they wouldn’t know she was Norwegian. When I ask her why she lied, she says that she just wanted to be an American.
“But you are an American, you were born here.”
“Well I know that. I guess it just seemed so corny to be Norwegian” she tells me.

I tell her that I have a first date planned for Saturday. She asks what he does for a living and when I tell her that he teaches liberal arts at a university she sighs with pleasure. I tell her that I had been dating an engineer and that makes her happy too. I never used to tell her about any dating unless it was quite serious. That sort of information would too quickly become family property and pressure. I always felt somehow guilty when it inevitably didn’t work out. I’m one of only two grandkids and the only one currently old enough to have children.

“That’s great! I might forget that you are going on a date so please remember to call me and tell me all about it.”

She asks me how old he is and when I tell her she says that she doesn’t think that the age difference (four years) means anything at my age.

“At least your not 17 and he is in his 30’s!” she says. She is talking about my mother’s first boyfriend and I ask her if she wanted to rip my mom’s face off when she went out with a man that much older.

“Rip her face off? No, I never wanted to do that. It was just very worrying. But I never wanted to rip her face off. I just loved her. Boy, it is really snowing outside! You know, I was thinking of going for a walk but I’m afraid that I’ll just break something.”

And then we are back to water aerobics and the Very Good Salmon with my aunt. She asks about my mom—still out of the country. When is she coming home? Still next week. I tell her again that I’m going on a date on Saturday just because it’s nice to say out loud and if she remembers me saying it before; she is just as enthusiastic as the first time and doesn’t seem to mind my repetition. We reprise our entire conversation in a slightly different order but this time leave out the part about Stanwood and being Norwegian. We are our own chorus.

I finish compiling documents together and reluctantly end the conversation.

“I have to go Grandma. I should really get back to work.”

“Okay, well I sure love you. I still have your note on my refrigerator.”

The note she is referring to is one that I left when my mother and I visited her just before Christmas. My grandfather installed the board on her refrigerator so that he could leave her reminders about appointments. When we arrived in California it had the dates of our arrival and departure listed. Upon leaving I erased the dates and replaced it with a note of our own: ‘M—-- and M--- love you very much. You have lots of yogurt in the fridge. Look in the crisper drawers when you want apples and tangerines.’

I ask her what she’s going to do for the rest of the day and she says that she’s headed down to the lobby to see if anything is going on. It’s really snowing and she might see if they are having salmon or meatballs for dinner which can both be Very Good. She says goodbye again and tells me again that she sure does love me -- it sounds just as good the second time around.