Instead of grandma, we called her Nanny. Summers were spent in Tennessee, as well as Alabama in later years. As a little girl I spent summers in a small brick house, nestled behind some trees on the same road where my mother was born and raised. Days were spent hiking hay fields and discovering old barns. Four-year-old me could be found in the creek wearing a pink floral bikini, giggling as my tiny ringlets bounced back and forth while brother and Nan splashed water all around. We were always baking, rolling sugar cookie dough and using Nan’s large collection of tin cookie cutters. Evenings were spent catching lightning bugs. They sat in a jar on her dresser acting as my own little night light. On happy days the rooms were full of her laughter as she danced around the house. Brother and I would drift to sleep as she read us our favorite book- Soda Pop Goat.
She made the move to Arizona and regretted it. When she lived out west things were different. We bickered and she’d leave letters in my room, complaining about the silliest of things. She once got upset over a lemon. I watched as she went through several relationships over the years. Some were abusive. She always had the worst taste in men. One was a clown who came to my birthday party. I’ve feared clowns ever since. On the days she watched brother and I, she’d drive us to Water & Ice where we’d order two scoops each of Superman ice cream. One night during monsoon season I was at her house, lying on my stomach while staring at all her trinkets she spread out across the living room floor—glass farm animals, jewelry boxes and the like. The storm blew her wooden gate off it’s hinges and I begged my mom to pick me up, afraid of the wind and rain that blew outside the window. Nan didn’t want me to go, more afraid than I.
A few years before I became a teenager, Nan had already moved back to the South in another small house. I spent an entire summer with her helping with a yard sale, cleaning the house and putting up with her terrible driving. I’d repeat prayers until we’d finally arrive at our destination. From time to time I’d speak out loud, “Oh Lord, we’re going to die.” This always made her upset. Days were spent picking grapes from the vines, ordering takeout from Cracker Barrel and watching old westerns.
When I wasn’t visiting in the summer, she sent me letters. I never wrote as often as I should. But when I did, I included stickers of cats, flowers and birds—three of her favorite things. She had a garden and lived with two cats, Tiny and Blackie. Both are still alive and at this rate will outlive our entire family. Nan was a lonely women, often depressed with mountains of journals. She loved to write and once sent a book to brother and I about our dog Misty. I promise to one day type it all up and send it somewhere to get published. The idea was to have the money go toward Alzheimers research. She had few friends and was always a bit different. But a smart woman. Every summer after mother, brother and I said our goodbyes to Nan I would watch as she stood crying and waving goodbye in her yard.
In 2006 we visited Nan a month or so after she had flown out for my high school graduation. Day one and we knew something was wrong. My guess was Alzheimers and I was right. What else could explain the following scenario?
She frantically searched the house for her cat Tiny. Her cats were shy and often in hiding whenever we’d visit. Mom and I stood in the hallway padded with green carpet as we watched her shout “AHA!” and dive for Tiny who appeared out of nowhere. A second later there she was on her stomach, wearing nothing but jeans and a bra, arms stretched out grabbing Tiny’s hind legs as it desperately tried to escape and dug it’s claws into the carpet. The next thing we knew Tiny was wrapped in a towel and was being forced to drink milk from a dropper. “It’s not eating anything! He’s sick! Something’s wrong!” Nan exclaimed. I don’t think any cat could have consumed that milk any faster than Tiny was at that moment. A minute later Nan threw Tiny in the closet and shouted, “You’re not coming out until you go pee!” When mother questioned this, Nan responded, “I’ll have you know I’ve had that cat locked in the closet for a week at a time.” I suddenly understood why the cats were always in hiding. To this day, as disturbing as the whole scenario was at the time, it makes our family laugh.
After Nan was diagnosed with Alzheimers she lived with us in Arizona—my freshmen year of college. We were told there are two kinds of Alzheimer patients: those who are nice and those who are mean. She was the latter. She went downhill fast. It didn’t take long for her to forget who we were. She remembered dad longer than the rest of us. Mom, with her heart condition, couldn’t take the stress. It was difficult watching her and dad, who used to be mellow. He’s not anymore. It killed mom knowing that Nan hated her. Nan often threw arguments, yelling and cursing at us all. I can remember sitting at the kitchen counter trying to study for exams after my parents had gone to bed. Nan walked in the room and stared. When I tried to leave she blocked the upstairs and in a threatening tone said, “You’re not getting pass me, young lady.”
Most days she absolutely terrified me. One midnight I went downstairs for a glass of water. I turned the corner and there in the dark, standing in front of the open refrigerator, was Nan staring off into space. No response to the fact that I’d just jumped halfway out of my skin. She’d often stay up late at night having conversations with all her stuffed animals. Her favorite was a red and white dog she’d received for Valentine’s Day. Action flicks or any film with violence was banned in our household after she yelled at the screen for one film, “Help him! Stop him!” The film was Black Dog where a character rolled off the side of a mountain during a car chase scene. She told my father, “You let that man die.”
One winter night, my two best friends, mom, Nan and I went to Target. It was the same week I’d ended a bad relationship with my first boyfriend. My friends were going to sleep over. Halfway through our shopping trip, Nan turned down an aisle and was gone. We searched Target. Nothing. One friend and I went to the car and drove around the shopping center full of several shops and restaurants. She uttered a prayer and a minute later we found Nan standing outside Quiznos, clear on the opposite side of the shopping center. “I just wanted a cold drink,” she said in a sad voice. Once she was safe in the car, I turned into the Wendy’s drive-thru and ordered her a Coke.
As many bad stories as I could tell, there are those—like the Tiny story—that we still laugh about. One day we were shopping at American Eagle and Nan started dancing to the music. She received the attention of every person in the store and was upset when we left. That was when she could still go places. Another day mom went somewhere and was going to swing back by the house to pick me up to go shopping. During this time Nan would stand near the front door or stare out the front windows whenever someone tried to leave the house. So in order to meet up with mother at the end of the driveway, I had to go out back and jump the fence. Cellphone in hand, I called dad who went out back and created a distraction. He stood at the back window and tapped on the glass, causing Nan to move away from the front window. If she would have seen me leaving it would have caused hours of yelling and anger—the reason for this ridiculous Mission-Impossible-type thing. “Go, go, go!” my dad said into the phone once the coast was clear enough for me to run across the front yard. If we’d known any walkie talkie lingo, I’m sure it would have been used. Another time Nan was dancing and kicking her legs above her head and never understood why the next day she was so sore. Some days she was full of energy, other days you would think she was 105 years old.
It reached the point where mom and dad couldn’t take care of her anymore. She went downhill very fast. Mom’s condition made it impossible for her to watch her mother any longer. I swore each day that my parents were going to drop dead from the stress. Not optimistic, but seriously the truth. So Nan was transferred back to Tennessee where she stayed in an assisted living home. This would have been impossible had it not been for my saint of an aunt who works at a lawyers office in the town where Nan stayed and worked everything out. I visited Nan that summer in June. By August she was gone. She stopped eating and her children made the decision to not put her on life support. This was because my mom had been lectured as a child by her retired-nurse mother who said she never wanted her life extended by any artificial means. Mom was in the room with her as she took her last breathe, weighing a mere 70-something pounds.
Dad, brother and I—along with my brother’s girlfriend and my nephew—made the long drive to Tennessee for the funeral. There was no open casket. I can remember sitting in the chapel listening to “In the Arms of the Angels” as mom cried hysterically, my dad with his arms wrapped lovingly around his heart-broken wife. He did the same as we walked out of the chapel. I cried not only because the death of my grandmother, but because I’d never seen my mom in this condition. Ever since the funeral one of my biggest fears has been the thought of ever losing my mom. My mom is my best friend and in so many ways like a sister.
We went through Nans things after her house was sold. Diaries were found and revealed horrible things—things that led us to believe she’d been sick longer than we thought. Written in tiny handwriting near the fold of one journal read, “Why are you reading this? Am I dead?” Something I thought would only exist in a disturbing horror movie.
Nan was a troubled individual. Her life was terrible—poor, abusive parents, abusive relationships. A life depressed and alone in a small house. But in some strange way I feel we had some things in common. Mom always said I had the best parts of my Nan and I take that as a compliment. She turned to her writing in her lowest moments, and so do I. Somehow I feel we felt things in the same way. It’s one of those things I can’t really explain it, but in ways I understood how she was feeling and a lot of things that people thought were crazy about her. Other things, though, I’ll never understand. On the days she was sane, her writing was really quite lovely.
From all my memories of Nan, I think most about one of the last days I saw her. She’d just got her hair all fixed up—she always had a thick head of brown hair. She was dressed in pajama pants, a floral pink and green buttoned tank top and the prettiest pink slippers. A tiny little thing. She walked slowly, her arm linked through mine. She’d stare up at me, her eyes full of childish, nervous fear behind her glasses. She smiled and kept patting my arm. One hand was holding onto the same old red and white Valentine’s dog. She was the cutest little thing and I’ll never forget her looking up at me with that tiny grin. She called me “mama” that day. I like to think of that day instead of the days where you could tell she knew she was sick but couldn’t voice it. As if for just a moment she knew about her condition. She’d just stare at you with tears in her eyes. It was those moments that were far worse than the yelling, the hate or the cursing. Sad, little Nan. ★