The South is infamous for its strong beliefs about the importance of family, and the culture’s appreciation for our elders is mythic. Here, we read about one writer’s experiences with visiting her grandmother, who is in her nineties and battling dementia, and the memories that the visit brings back.
It Runs in the Family
by DeLane Phillips
The soap opera blaring from the floor television drowns me out. I yelled for the second time “I’m Geneva’s daughter, your granddaughter!”
There is not an ounce of recognition, no tears, or response from her. Three wheelchair companions parked by Granny stare at the young, beautiful lovers embracing on the screen.
My childhood visits to her nineteenth-century home in Loganville, Georgia always began with Granny belting, “Hey!” while beaming from the front porch as we drove up into her sand driveway.
Aren’t you Oliver Bramblett’s granddaughter?
I make a mental note to ask my mother about Oliver Bramblett and which long-lost relative Granny has mistaken me for. This is the first time she has not recognized me. Or, maybe I’ve not visited enough lately.
She has changed. Her face seems sunken, and there’s some scaly skin growing above her top lip. I suddenly think of Faulkner’s sickly matron Addie Bundren. I wince. How inappropriate of me. What causes skin to do that? I think I feel guilty over not visiting enough. Maybe some Vaseline would help her? Where is the strong woman who lined us grandchildren along the kitchen table, inspecting clean hands before our lunches of pinto beans and cornbread?
I reposition Granny’s wheelchair on the other side of the room, away from the nonsense on the television. I face her— still, no recognition. Suddenly, her trembling hand reaches out and grasps my striped canvas handbag. I place the handbag closer to her and open it, looking for something to possibly engage her.
“Let’s put your makeup on, Granny.” I announce, as if she asked. I hand Granny a turquoise Tommy Hilfiger coin purse to hold. She tries to open it. Her hands shake violently with Parkinson’s. I bring out a tube of Johnson & Johnson’s lotion and squirt a dime size bit of lotion into the palm of my hand. I talk to her as if she knows what we’re doing. I figure that is best. Act as if nothing has changed.
She waves the coin purse at me. I notice her hands and recognize our distinct similarities for the first time in my life. There’s a familiar shape of nail beds to mine: the same hand size, the delicateness. She never had arthritis in her hands or joints. It was the mini-strokes that took a toll on her mind and eventually the dementia. Here is the woman who sharecropped, birthed five children, stored cabbage in corn shucks and sand to winter in the barn, and picked cotton, all while my mother’s younger brother David slept under a tree in a playpen by the field. I apply lotion on our twin hands. Nursing home attendants behind the desk nod at us and smile. They probably wonder where I’ve been.
Rattling trays from the hallway signal lunch time.
I remember brown, opaque plastic cups of water we drank from at Granny’s table at lunch. The water from her well behind the house. None of us fathomed a Capri Sun watermelon cooler with straws or the concept of snacks. This was lunch, and we were content with our bowls of pinto beans, cups of water, and cornbread squares. The squares were cut by Granny’s hands, not a machine. She baked the cornbread in the same pan, every time. Funny, it always tasted the same. Delicious.
After lunch, we took naps. First, Granny washed our faces with a clean dish rag, not a baby wipe. My nap spot was always the same, Granddaddy’s tan vinyl chair. He died in a car accident when I was eight years old. I can remember my mother receiving the news on our rotary phone at home. She stood in the hallway holding the phone by its long, black cord as she sobbed, propping herself against the brown-paneled wall in the hallway. I remember standing there, I a little eight-year-old girl, gazing up at my mother, perplexed by grief. And yet, only a short two years later, Mother’s baby brother David would be taken from her in another accident. Funny, I don’t remember attending their funerals, being Mother probably thought I was too young at the time.
Granny boiled water on her stove to wash dishes. That’s the way it was done, even when she had running water. I guess she had hot water, but still boiled the water. I could never seem to get to sleep in that vinyl chair, but that was the routine regardless: lunch, nap, play time. There was no protesting.
Playtime consisted of front-yard castles I constructed with my cousins, who lived behind Granny’s house in a trailer. Our imaginary castles were located at the base of one of the two magnificent water oaks in the front yard paved with sand. In between the two water oak castles stood a crepe myrtle tree, which served as a similar fortress. If we grew tired of our Middle Ages drama, we could change and travel to beaches, rivers, or the sea through our sand yard imaginations. Most of us had never seen a beach.
In much later years, someone lacking our imagination built a fortress of cookie cutter homes across the street from Granny’s. They tore down the picturesque Americana-styled barn that had sat at the edge of the pasture. How many afternoons we stormed castles, conquered fortresses, built rivers in the sand yard within that tranquil setting of pasture and barn watching over us? Yet, some developers thought they could earn a higher yield by replacing our barn with a house. My Momma said my Granddaddy had built that barn.
Today, the crepe myrtle and fifty-year-old rose bush bloom in symphony. Conducting should be Granny, noting the progression of growth among the rose, flowering trees, and hydrangea. Missing is the phone call from Granny on the black rotary phone from the corner of her front room of the house to my mother describing the striking lavender of this year’s Rose of Sharon blossoms, giving credit to a harsh winter. Granny’s wisdom, perfected through seasons and years of observations. The tree, guarding the front corner of the house facing the water oak fortresses, was planted by my Granddaddy.
Aren’t you Oliver Bramblett’s granddaughter? Granny asks, interrupting my thoughts. We’re both puzzled.
I smile at Granny and gently, but loud enough for her, reply, “No, Granny, I’m Geneva’s daughter, DeLane, your granddaughter.”
Oh, she says. It hurts a bit less this time. I’ve finished her makeover. I even added cheek blush. The scaly skin is smoother now.
I roll Granny up to the u-shaped table as the lunch trays begin to arrive. Being that I’m the only relative in the home visiting this morning, the attendant brings Granny’s tray first. The attendant helps me snap on the apron-size towel bib and removes the cover of her institutional plate. I peruse the plate, noting something resembling a meat, mashed potatoes and gravy, pureed carrots, apple sauce, and juice.
I grab a spoon and get ready to feed her, but the attendant corrects me, Now, Mrs. Berry like to feed herself, so we just let her. She won’t let anyone feed her.
I offer the attendant a saccharin smile. I should have known that.
“It runs in the family,” I proudly boast. “My Grandfather died when my Grandmother was in her mid-fifties. She didn’t rely on any assistance, but supported herself by quilting and keeping children in her home. She never remarried. She wouldn’t even have a boyfriend. She’ll be ninety-three years old this May”.
The attendant smiles like she’s in on a secret. We know, the attendant, still smiling, she told us.
I quietly stare at the thin plastic spoon in my hand.
Granny has started to feed herself! Her hand shakes terribly with Parkinson’s, spattering carrots on the towel bib. None of the other patients feed themselves. In fact, they’re not doing much of anything. Their trays sit cooling until an attendant can get to each patient. But, my Granny, yes . . . Louisa Chandler Berry, born in the year 1918, is feeding herself! I remove the carrots from her bib with a paper napkin.
Between semi-bites of carrots, I sneak in some mashed potatoes and pureed meat. She doesn’t resist. She continues to spoon the carrots into her mouth but allows me to also feed her. I smile over at the attendant. The attendant nods her head slowly and returns my smile. I’m in on the secret now. There’s no battle.
My Granny is not dead, she’s alive! She thinks I’m Oliver Bramblett’s granddaughter, but she’s feeding herself! She is a quilter, sharecropper, cotton picker, wife and mother of five, storekeeper, grandmother, caregiver, and friend to many. She fights to the end through a spoonful of carrots.
DeLane Phillips is a southern writer, former teacher, empty nester, and parent of two dachshunds Mac and Sasha. Much of her writing is inspired by the rural life from her childhood in Monroe, Georgia and various characters of the small Southern towns she has lived in.