Today, my grandmother forgot my name.
I wasn’t there to hear her forget it, but my Mom was. After returning from vacation, my Mom went to visit my grandmother. They live beside each other and share a drive way. Grandmama was sitting at the dining room table where I’d started a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle. It was a killer puzzle of snow covered mountains that transitioned to steep hills covered in yellowing fall trees which opened into a gently rolling green valley. It was beautiful.
My mom asked her how the puzzle was going. Grandmama and I had joked that this puzzle would make you go crazy. It was SO hard. I had done most of the work, finishing the mountain range over the course of two weeks while she sat beside me and pondered over each little piece, wondering why a particular green piece didn’t fit with the other green piece. “I’m just fooling with it a little bit,” she said. “Just thought I’d see what I could do.” My mom asked her if she had done the mountain range, knowing I had been the one to work on that section. “No,” Grandmamma said. She stopped, perplexed, trying to find the words, trying to find the name of the person who had completed the puzzle. “Ohhhhh, she comes to help me…” she clumsily said, while gesturing with her hand. “Jenny?” my Mom offered. Relieved, Grandmama said “Yes, Jenny.”
My Grandmama was an intelligent woman. For decades, she did the accounting for my grandfather’s farm. She worked at the bank when her two sons were young. She read voraciously. She knew how to crochet and knit. She was an amazing cook. She worked all of those ridiculously difficult number puzzles. She had books of them. And I’m sure her abilities stretched far beyond what I know of her.
But I do know she loved me. She thought I was great. She was immensely proud of me. I could do no wrong. As I child, she always welcomed me at her dinner table. She and my granddaddy donated towards the purchase of my piano when I was eleven. They gave me money to move overseas after college. They bought my wedding dress. And she loved my husband—“even though” he was from Iowa.
For the last few months I have been housecleaning for her. She is 87. Recently, the family realized that someone needed to be with her more during the day. So I started staying longer, making her lunch, washing her clothes, dusting, making light conversation. She is always happy to see me, always gives me a hug, and when I leave, she’s so glad I came. But I know the instant I pull my van out of her drive way, out of her line of vision, that I was never there, that she has been alone all day, that she wonders why no one visits. She has Alzheimer’s. We don’t really like to say that, but that’s what it is.
Imagine a chalkboard. A huge chalkboard filled with every memory you have of your life. In fine white chalk you can clearly read the memory of you and your brothers riding bikes on a summer night. You can see the white letters rise up and tell you about the first time you kissed a boy. All of those memories covering the dark green background, and you can slowly move your eyes across the board and effortlessly travel through time. But for my Grandmama, something has erased those memories, starting with the most recent ones and moving through the past with silent strokes. One swipe leaves a little hint of the memory. Another stroke and there’s no trace of the writing once there. Her memories of my life were wiped away months and months ago. She has no memories of cooking. Now, only the oldest memories remain. Childhood stories, childhood homes, her mother’s movements through the house. But even those are beginning to fade. Sometimes the five or six stories she does remember start to take on an element of fiction, or they blend together with another story from another time and suddenly the years are all mixed up and people aren’t in the right place—someone has scribbled chalk through what memories she does have. But I can sense that even those are starting to fade as if rubbed away by the eraser.
So as each day comes and goes, I remind her that she’s had lunch. I remind her of my children’s names. I remind her of exactly where in Texas my brother lives. Each day I tell her “I just thought I’d come visit you for a while.” And each day she’s happy about it. But I know that one day my face will no longer be Jenny. I too will fade like her chalk memories, and I’ll become “the girl who helps her”.