By Karin Spirn
Things my grandma doesn’t know: My name. That I am her granddaughter. That her other granddaughter in New York just had a baby. That her dream of becoming a great-grandmother has come true. That she had lunch already, or what she ate. Which was pureed fish, and she also doesn’t know that fish isn’t something that should be pureed. No matter what is served for lunch at the nursing home, she gets a pureed version of it, and she never complains.
Things my grandmother does know: That I love her. That she loves me. I can tell, because when I say, “Grandma, do you love me?” she nods her head and says, “Yeah.” That she is terribly lonely. That sometimes she just wants to die. She told me last year. “Why won’t they let me sleep?” she said, closing her eyes as I spoon-fed her pureed lasagna. “Why won’t they let me die?”
She knows her name, though she couldn’t always tell it to you. She smiles when the nurses say it. “Mah-li,” so much prettier in their Filipino accents than the New Yorky pronunciation I grew up hearing, “Mawly.” She knows the tunes of the songs from Fiddler on the Roof, hums along when I sing them. Sometimes she knows the date of her birthday. This bit of trivia is such a stretch for her that she laughs in surprise when she remembers it: “The fourteenth?” Yes, Grandma, and do you remember the month? “…April?” Yes, right, good job! She laughs again, happy she’s made me happy.
She knows that she loves fresh blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. She reaches for the basket every time I bring them, before I’ve even had a chance to rinse them off. Another lady in the nursing home asks for some, tastes one, hides the rest under her napkin. She wants real treats, cookies, chocolate. For my grandma, the one-time health nut, berries are the best.
No one put her in here. It was her own decision, over a decade ago, to give up cleaning and cooking and keeping up an apartment and move to the Jewish Nursing home in San Francisco. It’s a beautiful space. She spends afternoons in the atrium outside her room, under a giant skylight and an indoor tree that stretches up three floors. She used to be so busy with activities that it was hard to schedule a good time for a visit. She made friends, took art classes, joined the book club. She wrote poems about Jewish holidays, the seasons, meeting her husband at Coney Island, growing old with him.
Now he’s gone, and the friends are gone, too. She’s too withdrawn to make new friends. My longest-lived grandparent, the one who put wheat germ in the cookies, raisins instead of chocolate chips, who took her vitamins and got plenty of exercise, spends her afternoons staring at the top of the empty table or at a newspaper someone kindly left open for her. She picks pill-balls off her sweater, rolls them between her sticky fingers. Traces of pureed foods are smeared on her sleeve cuffs, her cheek, under her fingernails. Sometimes in her hair. I wipe off what I find, but she’s like a toddler, seeming to pull dirt out of secret hiding places. She doesn’t speak unless spoken to, and then she needs to warm up, starting out with monosyllables and working her way to to a couple short sentences on a good day. Someone needs to coax her out, to croon at her like a baby, someone young with a lot of energy. So now I visit her every week. You’re a good granddaughter, people tell me, but once a week isn’t enough. I wish I could come more, stay longer.
“Grand-ma.” I put on a big smile, get right in front of her. “Grand-ma.”
She studies her sweater, finds a bit of stuck napkin, gets very involved in removing it. Fatigued from all that work, she drops her chin to doze.
I rub her slumped shoulders, her neck.
Her head rises in slow motion. She looks at me with wide eyes like I am part of a very strange dream. She falls asleep again.
“Grandma!” I use her shoulder as a lever, rock her lightly, forward and back.
Her eyes open again, connect with mine. She smiles. There’s the pretty grandma, the photogenic one with the high cheekbones and smooth skin, the one who passed for a Shiksa when she worked for the company that didn’t hire Jews. Her nose is petite and surgically crafted. Her hair is soft and white, making her pale cheeks rosier, her brown eyes darker and bigger.
“Oh,” she says. She searches for some other words. “Oh.”
She takes my hand, holds it against her mouth. I rub her shoulder, kiss her cheek, pull up the crocheted blanket that has fallen from her lap down to the bottom of the wheelchair.
I spread blueberries on a napkin in front of her, make a little picnic. She takes one between finger and thumb, places it between her lips. Chews carefully, like it’s a lot of food. Then another one, just the same way.
“They’re yummy, right?” I ask.
She nods, sucks at her gums, pulls a blueberry skin from her tongue. It sticks over her finger like a tiny cap before she places it on the napkin next to the other berries. Her own skin is thin like crinkly pastry.
“And they’re so pretty.” I point at the indigo-black berries on the white napkin. “Do you think they’re pretty?”
“Yeah,” she sighs, a soft child’s voice.
When I show her a picture of her new great-granddaughter, she takes my phone in both hands, stares at it hard.
“Do you like the baby?” I ask.
She wrinkles her forehead, stares at the air in front of her, looks back down at the phone. “I,” she says. “I want to tell you…”
I wait, listen, just in case. This happens a lot. When she gets excited, she wants to tell me about it but doesn’t have the words. She exhales heavily, puts her hand back down on the table.
“Yeah,” she says, giving up, sad.
A few minutes later, I show her the picture again. This time she laughs, opens her eyes wide, puts her hand to her chest. Exclaims, “How nice!” So yes, she does like the baby. The baby is a lot like her, sweet, helpless, needy. Frustrated, unable to tell us her thoughts. If only the two of them could meet, if my grandma wasn’t too old to fly to New York or my niece too young to fly to California, I think they’d really get along. Until then we look at pictures.
These are the few stingy hours I allot for my grandmother, the woman who rode the bus home with chicken dinners from the Jewish Community Center for me and my sister, who took me to sample sales and insisted on buying anything I even moderately liked, who purchased a library’s worth of science books for me the week I was born. She could be annoying, naggy or coddling, but there was never any doubt that her grandchildren mattered most to her. Nobody owes anything to their grandparents just for being their grandparents, but I owe something to her, for always loving me and letting me know I was loved, for making me feel wanted and special. I owe her a lot more than I can give. But also I like seeing her, the big smile when she looks at baby pictures, the way she kisses my hand over and over. So I make my weekly visit, spoon-feed her baby food in the dining room, bring her berries for dessert. We read Martha Stewart Magazine together, point at the pictures, giant and colorful. I like the ones with vegetables best, olives or tomatoes in green, pink, purple. Grandma likes flowers: a lavender-colored country garden, or pink Echinacea blooms in an antique water pitcher.
When it’s time for me to go, her bottom eyelids pool with tears. “So soon?” she says, no matter how long I’ve stayed. I say, “I’ll come back next week.” I hug her, kiss the top of her head, her soft, snowy hair. She leans into me, says, “That feels nice,” asks me to kiss her again and again. And I do, even though she hasn’t had a bath in a few days, even though her pale, wrinkled cheek is stained with pureed broccoli.
Karin Spirn is a writer, community college instructor and martial artist living in Oakland, California. She has recently completed a novel, The Divine Sharpness in the Heart of God, available at divinesharpness.blogspot.com. She blogs about writing and teaching at karinspirn.com. Her grandmother, Mollie Spirn, passed away on November 21, 2014.