My ninety-year-old grandmother is a time traveler now.
She wakes up one day and thinks she’s needed at her aunt’s old house in Jamestown, New York, because the top floor of the farmhouse has to be fixed up to rent. Another day, she might speak of wrangling children in my grandparents’ first house in Cleveland; making Swedish apple pie in Everett, Washington with her Aunt Jenny; or sitting at her dying sister’s bedside in Redding, California. She regales people who visit her with tales about her “recent” cross-country train trip, the one she made right after the end of the Second World War, to escape her crazy mother and sister and marry my grandfather in Ohio; her first-ever trip to Europe, well into her sixties, to visit my aunt stationed in Germany; and her cruise to Alaska, in 1990, from which she returned with a tiny carved bear and an Inuit hood for me, her closest grandchild.
When her third, awful husband checked out of their marriage following her dementia diagnosis, and she stopped taking her medication for my mother and my aunt, the family decided it was time to see if others might be able to provide her with better, round-the-clock care. In the Alzheimer’s treatment facility where she lives now, Grandma flits from room to room visiting her fellow residents, who are also living in their own times and worlds. My mother and father and aunt, who visit her several times a week, say without surprise that she is popular, even happy there. She especially enjoys the community garden, where she grows vegetables that go to the nursing home kitchen. When her third husband passed away about a year ago, she took all the flowers from his funeral and arranged them into smaller bouquets to decorate her friends’ rooms at the home.
She was well enough to travel with my mother to Washington state for her elder brother’s funeral a couple of years ago. Other than that, she only leaves the home to go out to lunch or shopping with family, or stay with my parents during the holidays. Her world has become rather small, she admits.
Yet, in some ways, it is also larger than it has been in years. I don’t mean to gloss over the sadness, the difficulties of the disease she has, for her or for my family watching it progress. Still, I can see why her mind’s slow decline might well be harder on her children than it is on my grandmother herself. She cannot lay her hands on all of the experiences she has accumulated over the course of her life, and she will continue to lose some of them. But for now, she seems quite content with the ones she is still able to call to mind. Perhaps that’s because most of them seem to be good ones—somehow the worst times, the hardest times, are not the times she finds herself dwelling in now.
When we talk on the phone, she tells me that she is having “forgetful spells.” But these forgetful spells of hers contain so many memories. They are scattered all around her, and when one takes hold of her, it is so close now, so immediate. The basic fact of linear time, chronological experience following experience, doesn’t hold true for my grandmother any longer.
One moment, she sits quietly, as if she doesn’t know where she is or what memory may come to her. The next moment, she finds herself with a person, a place, a time that she hasn’t beheld in years. She doesn’t have to wrack her brain in frustration to recall it; the memory just comes to her easily, like an old friend. She greets it, talks of it to whoever happens to be with her, grasps it tight for a moment, or an hour, or a day, and then, just as easily, lets it go.
Like so many people fortunate enough to have a grandparent close by, my childhood was made brighter and infinitely more fun thanks to my grandmother’s influence. Both my parents worked full-time, so I spent many afternoons at her house, along with holidays, weekends, and patches of summer vacation. She taught me things my parents either didn’t know how or didn’t have time to do—like how to plant a vegetable garden, weed a flower bed, sew a buttonhole, can green beans and peaches, make the perfect chocolate-chip cookies, and figure out whodunit on any crime procedural. Thanks to her, I can read a tide book, bait a hook, and (theoretically) sweet-talk my way out of a ticket from Fish & Wildlife if, say, my nonexistent fishing license ever expires, or I ever happen to find myself fishing in a part of the river marked for “conservation only,” or I maybe, just maybe catch over my limit of rainbow trout.
Grandma always made me take a long bath every night, which I hated, but the task was somewhat redeemed when I would emerge to stand on her fuzzy dark green bath mat and cover myself in Johnson’s baby powder until my skin was almost as pale as hers. She held my hands and prayed over every crop of green beans we ever planted, even though she was the exact opposite of religious, and year after year we ended up with an enormous green bean harvest—so many beans we couldn’t can or give them all away. She collected kites, music boxes, china teacups, Swarovski crystal figurines, classic movie musicals. She took me roller-skating for the first time at the age of three, had my palm read at the fair when I was nine, and taught me how to play two-, three-, and four-handed pinochle when we were stuck inside on rainy days. Her TV got all the good channels (all 24 of them), and she pretended not to notice when I jumped on her guest bed, sampled all of her perfumes at once, or nicked her trashy novels and failed to return them. She insisted on buying me my first birth control when I was in high school—a package of condoms that went entirely unused—and I was so mortified by the experience that it was no trouble keeping my promise not to tell my very Catholic parents.
She and her second husband, Ralph, the only one of her three husbands I ever knew as “Grandpa,” took me on vacations so long we lost count of the days. We spent endless summer weeks together on the Oregon coast, where we slept in my grandparents’ RV, rode around on garage-sale vintage bicycles, dug for clams on muddy banks, and caught crabs in pots in the choppy waters of the bay. Grandma never failed to walk me to the nearest pay phone every night, so I could call my parents collect and tell them about our adventures.
Once, she and I were walking on the beach together at sunset and saw two teenaged boys chest-deep in the Pacific waves, fishing crabs right out of the crashing high-tide surf. If they can do it, we can do it, Nicole, Grandma declared. And even though I was scared at first, she grabbed my hand and hauled me into the waves up to my waist, then up to my chest—and I never thought it would work, I thought I would freeze or be swept under first—but her hand shot into the waves time and again, reaching for wriggling things I couldn’t even see in the near-dark, and soon we had a plastic grocery sack filled with regulation-size Dungeness crabs that she had plucked right out of the ocean. As we walked back up the beach, shivering and fighting the undertow, she pointed up at the sky and said, her voice rich with satisfaction, I knew it would work. You have to know about the phases of the moon, you see? The tides were on our side tonight.
Nicole Chung is the Managing Editor of The Toast.