When I punched in the code, the double French doors began to open. There was my mother waiting for me.
“Where is she?” I said.
“She’s on the porch.”
Before too long, my 90-year-old grandmother appeared clad in a holiday smile and a houndstooth jacket.
“I like your pearl earrings, Gami.”
“They hurt,” she said, as if someone had clipped them on her ears and she had forgotten that they were causing pain.
“Let’s take them off.”
I slipped them into my purse and escorted her to the reserved holiday table where her meal was to be served. Blissfully unaware of Christmas Past, she seemed to enjoy her meal with her firstborn child and grandchild.
Suddenly she paused and looked at my Mom, “Is Tim alive?”
The truth didn’t seem to register on a level of grief, rather information only.
Being in this place at such a tender time of year brought me back to some years before when I worked as an activities director in an Alzheimer’s wing of an assisted living center.
Back then, my little dear Mrs. Mabel greeted me at the door with her purse hanging from her forearm.
She was the elderly wife of a former bank president who had experienced her fair share of country club scenes. Still wearing a dress, pearls, and her red lipstick, she dressed to the nines in her nineties, as husband Milton made sure of every provision from fine china to her baby grand piano. He never missed a daily visit.
Mrs. Mabel and I spent each day getting to know one all over again. For activities, I brought in dancers and musicians, poets and preachers. Her aged Chinese friend Sue appreciated tea time complete with fortune cookies, and I capitalized upon their interest by teaching on the history of Chinese tea.
When a former U.S. diplomat joined the crowd, we transformed the class into the history of China. It was a hit that seemed to capture everyone’s attention and bring socialization like some swank party from the 1940s.
One October, I had the residents painting little pumpkin crafts when Mrs. Mabel looked me directly in the eye and with her pristine southern diction quietly said, “I don’t know who the jackass is that has made me pick up this paintbrush, but I sure thank God that you are here!”
We’d hug goodbye each night, only to be greeted in the morning with the comment, “You are such a nice little girl. What’s your name? Who is your Daddy?” Then we would spend an entire day getting reacquainted.
So here was I at this holiday meal, watching my own Gami become Mrs. Mabel. I had seen grandparents become children again, but this one cut to the heart.
During the meal, I marveled at how many menus Gami had put together over the course of her 90 years and with what grace! The Francophone never approached her stove without being fully decked out from head to toe, including a starched linen apron of some sort. Those wrinkled hands, once young, had so delicately stirred and tasted and creatively never wasted. They had sewn our clothes and placed countless pennies on the kitchen counter to show her daughters and granddaughters how to make a roux to perfection.
“Keep stirring until it’s the color of the penny,” she would say. I still put the penny on the counter even though I make the roux by heart.
The sting of her having forgotten her investment in us was overcome by our chit chat about the comfort of her room and whether she had made any friends. This, mostly met with answers and an infectious laugh, “I can’t remember!” She was content.
So after a little while, we made our way to the piano where the now crooked hands had also been my example as a kid. When I began to play some old hymns, a small crowd began to gather, including other families that were experiencing the same realities. Grown men were singing nursery rhymes to their mothers, trying to call them forth from a faraway place.
Before long, one lady requested some Sound of Music and we were off to the races— “Doe, a deer, a female deer….” and so on.
After yodeling about a Lonely Goatherd, I felt it only fitting that we should end with So Long Farewell, and we did, including two crowd-pleasing little red-haired girls who had joined us.
When it was all said and done, I watched my Mom parent my Grandmother back to her room in a way that I had never seen before. We had all recaptured some Christmas joy in a lonely place and it had nothing to do with the turkey. Whether or not it would be my last visit I did not know, but today had been what we, like so many, have learned to simply call a good day.