Today I have been thinking about my grandmother or Maw-Maw as we call her. She’s in her seventies and has Alzheimer’s. It’s something she’s had for a long time–possibly even in her fifties, though we didn’t know it then. We just knew for a while something wasn’t right.
And I’m not talking about the fact that when I was in high-school she bought me underwear from a garage sale, a tradition she continued when I had my first child who was still a newborn when she bought him his first pair of garage sale undies.
It was more the way she would get explosively angry with my grandfather and rant on and on about everything that was wrong with the world, then after a little while she would be as calm as a kitten and slip me five dollars with the promise I wouldn’t tell Papa that she had done so.
She grew up poor as so many did in rural parts of North Georgia. Her father was an abusive alcoholic and in her childhood she worked long hours around her parents’ farm. She married my grandfather as a teenager and had my mother at twenty-one. She wanted a better life for her daughters than the one she had had so she worked whatever jobs she could to insure her kids were dressed nice and had good food to eat. I remember she always had wished that she could have gotten a proper education so she could have had her own cafe. She loved to cook. And Sunday afternoon fried chicken is still a happy memory for me.
But then things started to change. I remember not wanting to go to her house anymore when I was a teenager. It was always messy (she refused to get rid of old things); her cooking lacked the same care and flavor it had once had; and she was always angry about something. She was only in her fifties at the time, but looking back I believe she had what is called early onset Alzheimer’s. What other reason could there be for letting the Thanksgiving turkey thaw out on the back porch for two days during unseasonably warm weather, then cooking it and feeding it to your grand-daughter’s new boyfriend for lunch? Glad he married me anyway.
In my teenage ignorance I didn’t understand her though–I thought she was insensitive and didn’t care about me. That she was just angry and stubborn. I didn’t know the pain she’d endured in her early years and the stress it had put on her mind and body. I just saw the behaviors I didn’t like and the soggy, over-cooked green beans I was forced to eat at her house or the yard sale shirts she would buy me every week that I would say a grumbling thanks for, then donate them to Goodwill.
When we moved from Georgia 7 1/2 years ago I wasn’t sure I’d even see her again because she was declining quickly in both mind and body. But today she is still here–but in body only. The last time I saw her, just before we moved overseas she was calm and loved seeing my kids, but had no idea who we were. She appeared small and frail and childlike. And even though she’s been like that for a while now–I never get used to seeing her this way.
My heart feels tender towards her lately because I wish that I could have known her– had a real conversation with her as an adult. I wish she had never had Alzheimer’s and could have taught me how to make the best fried chicken I’ve ever tasted.
I am grateful I have precious memories of her buying me and my cousin frilly church dresses, keeping her freezer full of multicolored popsicles for us in the summer, and letting us help her gather new potatoes and turnip greens from her garden–that was where I think she was happiest.
So these days I pray she will have peace soon. Peace for both her mind and body and freedom from the disease that took her away from us much too early.