|I am the one in front, in the red sweater.|
Grandmother is in pink, just to my right.
We went to visit my grandmother yesterday. She turned 100 years old on the 15th of December. At 100 years, she is not as sharp as she once was. In fact, my aunts warned me that she rarely speaks anymore and gives the world only a blank stare most of the time. Her mental state has been slowly declining over the past 10 years. First to go was her short term memory.
When I last saw her, 5 years ago, she told me the same stories over and over again, not remembering that she just told me that story. But I enjoyed hearing about her life. She had grown up with one sister who she loved dearly. Her mother and grandmother we both strong women who encouraged her to attend college, something girls didn’t do in those days. As an adult she married Donald Imrie, a doctor who made many breakthroughs in medicine during his career. My grandmother was an educated woman but devoted her life to raising six children, no two alike.
However, I had never known the young vibrant mother. I had always known her as grandmother. And as I approach the nursing home where she now lives, my heart raced. I didn’t know what to expect, but all I could do was remember the woman I had once known.
My grandmother was a bright, intelligent lady with a cheerful disposition. I remember her and my grandfather visiting us in their RV. They traveled often and stayed spry late in life. As grandmother’s knees became weak in her old age, she went through knee surgery and they replaced her knee caps with metal. But the replaced knees never slowed her down. Her ankles tended to swell, so grandmother would walk down stairs backwards, which delighted us grandchildren. I would walk down the stairs backwards with her, giggling at the game. Before going on a walk she would lie down on her back and put her legs in the air to increase circulation. I often joined her and we would laugh as we lay on our backs, stretching our toes to the sky.
I remember grandmother telling me long stories or explaining how things worked. She would always end with, “Isn’t that neat!” If I told her something remarkable, which she encouraged, she would always exclaim, “Hot dog!” The joy I saw in her when she taught me new things is reflected in my eyes when I teach my students.
She was not a dull woman, but a smart, funny, and witty one. We would do jigsaw puzzles together often but without looking at the picture on the box, because that would be cheating. Sometimes she would do puzzles with all the pieces upside down so that the picture wasn’t even in consideration, only the shapes of the white pieces told her where to place them. Needless to say, she was quite the puzzle master.
Though she was born in 1911, before so much of the modern life we are inundated with today, she never casted judgment. I remember arriving at a distant cousin’s wedding with purple hair and a blue velvet dress. Though I caught certain eyes casting judgmental glares at my purple locks, my grandmother just smiled and said, “Hot dog! Your hair is purple! How did you get it that color?”
“Hair dye, grandmother.”
“Well I like it! How do you think it would look on me? Should I dye this old grey hair purple?”
“Oh definitely grandmother! It would look great on you!”
She laughed, and not at me.
However, on this day, entering the retirement home, I did not expect to hear my grandmother’s laugh. I tried not to expect much.
We located her sitting in her wheel chair in the entertainment room. Though a woman was speaking to the group, grandmother stared blankly ahead. As my aunt, Carolyn, spoke into grandmother’s ear, telling her she had visitors, I watched her face. Her blank expression did not change. Then, my aunt turned her around and she spotted my two year old son Zane. Her face lit up. Slowly she reached out towards him. She tried to speak but her words were garbled, I could only make out the word “cute.”
My aunt wheeled her out of the room and we sat together off the hallway in a visiting area. Zane had a box of raisins and was eating them feverishly while shyly hugging my legs and watching the elderly woman. Because grandmother was a stranger to him, Zane was shy, but not afraid. My grandmother, watching Zane eat raisins, tried to speak again, “Is…yum…cookie?” Her words struggled, like she couldn’t get her mouth to listen to her brain. But she smiled and tried again and again. Finally, she spoke clearly, “Is that a yummy cookie? Yes, yum, yum, yum.”
“Do you want to share a raisin with your great grandmother?” I suggested.
Zane gingerly took as raisin out of the box he was holding and reached out to grandmother’s wrinkled hand. As he placed the raisin on her palm she looking straight into Zane’s eyes and said, “Thank You!” Her words were forming with more and more ease. She moved her shaky hand to her mouth and just barely managed to eat the raisin. Zane offered her more raisins. By the third raisin grandmother’s hands were much steadier and she even picked a raisin out of Zane’s hand with her finger and thumb.
My aunt told me her behavior was remarkably good. So I retrieved a book from my purse and sat with Zane on my lap. My aunt rolled grandmother to my side.
“Oh look at that,” grandmother said in a clear voice. “What do you have there? Is that a book?”
Zane pointed to pictures, numbers, and letters, identifying everything correctly. Grandmother joined in, speaking in full sentences, identifying pictures, and smiling the whole time. If I tried to turn as page for my son, grandmother stood up for him, saying “Let him do it!”
I glanced at my aunt who seemed equally amazed at grandmother’s cognition and clear speech!
Then the two year old began playing peek-a-boo, and soon the 100 year old joined in, squealing “peek-a-boo” as she leaned forward and then back again to change her perspective on Zane’s hiding place. It was as if she were growing younger by the minutes. Her movement and speech drastically improved during our visit. And more importantly, joy filled her eyes. I even heard her laugh the same laugh I remembered!
My aunt informed me she had not seen grandmother this alive in months! The youthfully joy and delight of a baby awoke the old woman. In so many ways they were similar. Their speech was not always clear and they were both easily amused.
“We all come into the world toothless and bald,” my aunt Nan said later on. “And (hopefully) we leave this world in the same state.”