I have a picture of my Nana looking at a tree in her yard.
I love this picture of her.
She tilts her head and looks up at the tree like she’s regarding a friend. “Well hello there, big fellow!” similar to an exchange you would have with the nice man at the newspaper stand every day. You like him, but you never really get to know him. I never heard my Nana flirt, and I’m not sure she had it in her, but she flirted with that tree. It’s one of the biggest and oldest on the property, vibrant and amply branched reaching out over the bank of the pond. Everyone loved that tree.
She grew flowers, too, but they vexed her. There was always some pest, some disease, something going wrong somewhere in her flower gardens. I spent a lot of time trying to tell her how beautiful her flowers were. I did not think it was possible to mess up a flower. If I ever managed to convince her, she never let me know. But that tree never gave her a problem and lived its life looking and growing the way it should.
Visiting alone at my grandparents, my Nana would put me to bed in my Aunt Vietta’s old room. It was special to sleep there, because most times I visited with my sister, in which case, we slept in my dad and uncle’s old room in the back with the two beds. That room was unremarkable, no real sign of its former inhabitants remained. But my aunt’s room had a large, framed illustration of Goldilocks cowering under the covers surrounded by the Three Bears after she ate their porridge. There was a cool triangular inset shelf full of her old dolls, meticulously dusted and cared for all these years. I tried to play with them on visits. The double door closet was full of dresses from the 50’s & 60’s. My 5’2” tiny Nana was as close to kid size as they came, so that closet was really a treasure trove of costume fun. On the dresser was a mirror tray. I especially liked the way it reflected anything that sat on it from the underside, so you could almost see the whole thing at once like a hovering object in space.
This particular night, I knew I wasn’t going to fall asleep easily, and that my Nana’s gentle back tickles would end while I was still awake. And then I would never be able to sleep! I’d be a goner for sure with Goldilocks’ beedy eyes piercing me. But she never stopped. At least not that I remember. When I think of that, of my grandmother sitting by my side, patiently waiting for my wound up little body to give in to sleep, I understand that she had something as close to a pure love for me that one can have, and a great love wells up in my chest for her.
In the morning, a little glass of orange juice would wait for me on the kitchen counter.
I’m not sure that, like her flowers, I didn’t disappoint her love when I grew up. She saw me from a distance as we arrived at a funeral, somewhere at the onset of her Alzheimer’s in my mid-20’s. She asked my mother, “Who’s that?” My mom replied, “That’s Jenny. She has orange hair now. How do you like it?”
“Can’t say I do,” was her quick reply. My mother enjoyed passing this on to me, although we laughed for different reasons. I delighted to hear my mild-mannered grandmother speaking her mind. I couldn’t wait to hear what would come out of her mouth next.
Her Alzheimer’s was like that. The Nana I knew used to come back from the hairdressers once a month with her hair set & curled. She would maintain it darn near perfect until the next appointment. After the Alzheimer’s, she started coming home with a big grey afro. Maybe it was because my uncle started taking her to the hairdresser, maybe not. She burped out loud if she had to. She talked back to my grandfather. One evening at dinner, she shook her fist at him! The room went silent and then he laughed. And then we all laughed and she laughed, too.
One time, she came into the kitchen as my mother finished cooking artichokes. I remember my Nana drifting in, nose in the air, guided by the scent. She descended on the steaming artichokes and melted cups of butter. She asked to try. My mom dismissed her, “You hate artichokes!” But I was already lifting a leaf into my grandmother’s mouth. Her eyes grew wide. She kind of shook her head at it like the tree, in wonder. Hey big fellow! She loved the artichoke. All this time, she loved them. In this way, my Nana somewhat willfully lost what held her back from enjoying life’s most delicious parts.
It was painful to lose her, but at first, it was not so apparent. I remember finding her in the sewing room, where my sister and I used to play with the adjustable triple mirrors, not knowing why she was there. “Where was I when the lights went out?” she quipped to hide her disorientation. We laughed and went back to the kitchen. But came a time she could not hide it anymore. We always played a game of gin together, and one day she couldn’t keep track of her hand. I knew it was our last game. And I knew even if she saw me crying, she wouldn’t remember. She was drifting away and she wasn’t coming back. But I never saw her laugh and smile so much as in that last period of her life.
Near the end, sitting in the dining room together, she asked if I had given her the big, red Amaryllis blooming in her picture window. My sister had brought it to her a week earlier. I said, “No, Sarah got that for you.” Her face dropped. A minute later, she asked again. “No, Sarah got that for you, Nana.” After six or seven rounds of this, I finally said yes. Her face lit up.
She had two sewing machines. One in the sewing room, and her workhorse, her favorite, sat in front of the picture window. For the view.
When it comes to understanding her, I know a story of a lost box.
My sister tells that tale.
-Jen Taylor / February 10, 2010