I feel a sense of urgency as I write this story but I’m not sure why. The time for sharing it with Grandma is long gone; at 96 years old she has Alzheimer’s and lives in a memory care unit. These days she halfway believes the robotic stuffed cat we bought her is real, and I’ve certainly lost the opportunity to tell her what she means to me, to express the gift she’s given me, or to rest in the selfish peace that my story might mean something to her.
But Grandma might not have cared anyway; I’m not sure my stories would have held meaning in her world, plus she wasn’t one for reading anything, much less an epistle about herself. Well I take that back; she did read the sales and coupon sections of the paper every day and frequently mailed me volumes of coupons that I might need. That, however, was the extent of it.
Grandma never took a handout and if she ever got a gift of consequence, she returned it tenfold if she liked you. Her gifts were reserved for the Catholic church and her friends and family—especially us grandchildren. Her six grandkids and the Virgin Mary had carte blanche in her world, while everyone else was noted and judged.
I’m going to pause the story for a second here, because I want everyone who’s dealt with Alzheimer’s on a personal level to know that you’re the tribe I’m thinking of as I contemplate my grandma. I heard Alzheimer’s called an ambiguous goodbye. So it is. Grandma is still here but she isn’t, and I can’t help but wonder if her soul is already gone or if it’s trapped in her mottled mind, just waiting for its release. I want her to be free again, whatever that looks like, in whatever form that takes, and I don’t know if that makes me a compassionate person or a total asshole.
So forgive me if I flow between past and present tense, because these days I’m hardly sure which one is correct myself.
When I think about my early childhood, Grandma’s always there. I think about running into her arms, her tight embrace, her absolute joy at seeing my sister and me, the inflections in her voice. I remember her crackly laughter, her boxes of sugar cereal, her constant cooking from scratch. I remember her bickering with everyone except us. She and my grandfather were constantly arguing, but they’d do it in Polish.
We’d ask, “Grandma, Grandpa, why are you arguing with each other?”
They’d break for a moment, long enough to reply, “We’re not arguing.”
“Well it sure sounds like you’re arguing,” we’d say, confused by their response.
“This is how you talk Polish. It only sounds like we’re arguing because you don’t speak Polish, but this is how Polish people talk to each other,” she’d say. Grandma would then quickly say something in Polish just as growly as before, and Grandpa would scowl and give her a quick kiss. She’d smile at us and say, “See? We love each other, we’re not arguing.” And then they’d continue their hissing and spitting in Polish.
All I knew was that I never wanted to go to Poland if that’s what it took to talk to each other.
Lottie’s name is actually Władysława, pronounced sort of like Vwad-ih-SWAH-vah. She was the first American-born kid in her family, growing up in a south-side Chicago Polish neighborhood back when cows still roamed their pastures and everyone kept a barrel of fermenting sauerkraut in the basement.
She helped raise the seven children who came after her, and I think that’s why she always felt like she needed to direct the activities and perceptions of others. She was fiercely American but the older I get, the more I see a sort of Eastern European apparatchik mentality. If she said it was true, it was true, no matter how outlandish it seemed.
To me it was harmless and I never took it seriously, almost wanting her alternate universe to be the real thing because she took herself so seriously. It was like I didn’t want to break the news that she might be wrong; when I was a child, she had provided the most obvious show of love I’d ever known, so why would I chance hurting her feelings on something so trivial?
She was constantly advising people about their bad habits. As a teenager she’d tell me, “Don’t crack your knuckles or you’re going to get arthritis. The girls at the plant who cracked their knuckles had to stop working, and now they have no money and they live in a homeless shelter.”
“That doesn’t cause arthritis,” I’d respond, “it’s an old wives’ tale.”
“I’m TELLING you it’s true. And those girls, they’ve got nothing now. I stopped cracking mine a long time ago and my knuckles are fine, see? There was also a girl at the plant who put her blanket under her head, just like you do, and one morning she woke up and her head was stuck that way.” Grandma demonstrated by looking down, her chin affixed to her chest.
“That didn’t happen, Grandma. My blanket is no different than a pillow, and my head isn’t resting like that anyway.”
“It did happen, exactly as I said, and now she can only see her toes,” she replied matter-of-factly. Grandma was agitated with me as she held her ground, “I’m telling you how it is. You go and do it your way and one day you’ll come back to me and say, ‘Grandma, you were right all along.’”
The overriding theme in Grandma’s life was one of rightness, and how everyone else would eventually see the error in their ways. We heard story after story about how she was the unrecognized winner, how she turned out to be right when everyone thought she was wrong, and how she showed them in the end. And really, she wasn’t exactly wrong about that; she grew up in relative poverty and prided herself on always having an answer, always getting through the hard times. Her way wasn’t ever necessarily wrong, but it wasn’t always other people’s ways – and that was hard for her to understand.
But all those sentiments escaped us as kids because we didn’t know any different, mostly because the grandchildren held a special place in her world. We were hers alone, and we could do no wrong in the same way she found it inconceivable that she herself might be wrong. Of all the people on the planet, her six grandchildren were her clear and equal favorites.
There’s something about going to your grandparents’ house and having the world at your feet. Home with my parents was good but just like it is for nearly every kid, it seemed like an undeclared Zone of No. Can I have a piece of candy? No. Can we go to the beach today? No. Can I have a puppy? No. Can we go to the movies? When you get a job and can pay for it yourself.
If Grandma caught Mom or Dad in the act of saying no to us, she immediately intervened. She was our UN.
My sister and I were born in Illinois but we grew up in Minnesota, 412 miles from our door to hers. We drove there every eight weeks or so, eight hours when you account for various pit-stops along the way, assuming good weather across Wisconsin and adherence to a 55 MPH speed limit. We’d arrive late Friday night to Johnny Carson or Hee Haw on the TV, Grandpa in his Archie Bunker La-Z-Boy chair, Grandma in hers. Tracy and I would rush to ring the doorbell, waiting for the footsteps, the hall light, the squeak of the door opening and the rush of warm, scented Home.
She wrapped us in her arms, her body heaving with laughter, imploring us to come in, and so it began. Tracy and I dove into the fridge, looking for real mayonnaise and the Buddig lunchmeat she’d probably packed herself. We tore into the potato chips and Little Debbie cakes until we were delirious, while the adults settled into the living room and finished out their TV shows. By midnight we were out cold, curled up on our cots with the familiar blankets and pillows we’d always known, tucked away in the extra bedroom where Grandma’s square-dancing hoop dresses always hung, pressed and perfect, from the closet doors.
She was always up by 5am, a habit forged through a lifetime of getting up in time to make a king’s breakfast before heading off for her ride share with The Girls, greeting the sunrise on their way to the Buddig plant. What she did there was a mystery to us, because we didn’t know what it meant to pack lunchmeat into tiny bags. I always figured she was something like Laverne and Shirley, watching the bottles float by, but I’m still not completely sure.
I do know that Grandma never missed work, and she didn’t suffer those who might shirk their responsibilities; although she never mentioned it, we all knew there must a special place in her version of Catholic hell for lazy people.
She was as old school Catholic as they come. She wasn’t puritanical, and like all good Catholics, she never talked about her faith with others, but she definitely towed the line. When Vatican II abolished purgatory, she wouldn’t hear of it. When they said you didn’t have to be Catholic to go to Heaven, she wasn’t so sure. She had lots of non-Catholic friends whom she adored, whom she travelled all over the world with, and she even went to church services with them at their church on rare occasions, but when I tried to take her to a Baptist church I was trying on for size she wouldn’t hear of it. She wouldn’t even discuss it with me; she just stood there in my living room with her lips pursed shut, her head quivering a distinctive No. And that’s when I realized I was an adult in her eyes, and she was part mule in mine.
It must have been hard for her to be around us as adults sometimes. I’m nearly certain that she couldn’t relate to the ideas Tracy and I expressed about the world we lived in. She barely had an education, and what schooling she did have was from the 1920s and 30s. She worked in factories her entire life and all the dogma she understood and happily complied with was her way of staying safe. If we pushed her too hard she got squirrely; one time, during an impromptu family game along the lines of tell me something about you that I don’t already know, she became so flustered that she burst out shouting, “I don’t understand! What are you trying to do to me? What do you want from me?” And we just sat there, stunned at her response and helpless to calm her nerves.
We took it down a notch or two then and met her where she was at. A simple woman who only wanted to love and be loved, to be right in the world’s eyes, and to spoil her middle-aged grandchildren still.
I see her a lot, but not as much as I should. Maybe that’s how everyone feels when a loved one lives far away, or when you know with absolute certainty that your time together is limited. As her memory fades, she becomes someone new every time I see her and I have to adjust. She probably feels the same; I’m someone new until I remind her who I am, and we’re forced to begin our relationship from another starting point, somewhere else.
Few things interest her for very long now, but Dunkin’ Donuts can still command her attention—she must have bought us thousands when we were kids. Ever since a store popped up nearby, I try to bring her a box of ten for old time’s sake. The last time Jim and I went to visit, we decided to bring a hundred so we could share them with everyone. Of course Alzheimer’s reared its ugly head, and Grandma tried to hoard them all once again, shoving them in my purse, grabbing them off others’ plates and insisting that we take them home for our kids, but she was overwhelmed by the sheer number—as planned.
When she angrily asked why I was letting others eat them, I told her it’s what Jesus taught us to do. She screwed up her face as though I’d just sprouted another head, because who was I to mess with her precious, now fragile dogma, and after a barely audible pshaw, she went back to drinking her coffee.
Grandma doesn’t like to share these days. Her depression-era mindset rises higher with the inexorable march of Alzheimer’s and her filters have gone the way of her memory. But she’s still my grandma and her unrivaled and boundless love for her grandchildren has made a profound impression on me. I don’t have any grandkids, but Grandma taught me what it means to give that gift of boundless love to those special people in my life, even if we don’t always see eye to eye.
May we all strive to offer each other a little grace, and to show our love while we can. And may everyone know what it is to feel as cherished as my grandma made me feel.
Lottie B, my grandma, passed away on October 11, 2020, aged 96 and 3 days. That’s about 10 months after Grandpa left. I’m grateful that she couldn’t comprehend his passing, and rarely remembered that he wasn’t by her side.
But suddenly, to me, it feels like they’re both gone.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.