If there’s one thing I love about my Gam, it’s that she always gets me.
“Gam, when you worked at the Inquirer, did you ever have those days where everything is just a complete mess and hits all at once and crashes and you just can’t get caught up, so you cry?”
On one of her “good” days, Gam was in storytelling mode.
“When you were little, I asked you and Patty what color mashed potatoes you wanted. You said ‘yellow!’ And I asked Patty, ‘what kind of mashed potatoes would you like?’ And she looked at me like I was a crazy lady and said ‘They don’t come in colors,’ and I said ‘You wanna bet?”
I think it’s funny how our little personalities are set in little bodies, even a big long time ago. I’m a day-dreamer and a spacey creative and a little odd. Yellow mashed potatoes? Of course! Why not? Patty’s very practical; she’s an analyzer and she’s sharp and very bright. Potatoes are not supposed to come in colors.
Anyway. So she plated our potatoes and used the magic of McCormick to make blue and yellow mashers, respectively–and from their respective box of flakes. Gam always preferred the boxed brands to peeling the real stuff.
(She also used to ask us what color bath water we wanted . . . which did wonders for her towels.)
“That’s so fun,” I tell her.
She smiles. “One day I’ll make colored mashed potatoes for your babies.”
And right there at the kitchen table, I’m suddenly sad. And angry. Because the truth is she won’t be able to. And my babies won’t be able to know their Gam. Sometimes I’m feel like I’m growing more OK with not having a family of my own–it does get hard at 30. And then sometimes, like this time, I’m not so much OK. And I ask God why it’s so much trouble. I would love for my babies to have colored mashed potatoes. Moreso, I’d love for them to know their great-grandmother, even just a wee bit. Because some of the stories are hard to believe. And because every kid needs colored mashed potatoes.
If I’m ever so blessed, I’m going to make the mashed potatoes anyway. I don’t know if you know this, but they come in colors.
After Kava comes breakfast. She’s into oatmeal lately. Which is funny because as she says, “I don’t eat stuff like that; it’s too good for you.”
I bring her a bowl of Quaker oats–made with love. She used to boil oats for me when I was little in a big old pot, topped off with rainbow jimmies for gusto. It’s a special moment for me. Sort of.
“Jenny. You could hang pictures with this stuff.”
“What if I make you another bowl that doesn’t taste like spackle?”
“That’d be good.”
“Jenny, this isn’t cooked.”
“It was in the microwave for 2 minutes just like the package says.”
She gives me a look that partially asks me if I think she is stupid and mostly tells me that she thinks I am stupid.
Round 3 . Still not cooked. Still awful. I feel like I’m in a bad episode of Goldilocks.
I suggest that maybe Patty should give it a try. Of course, her attempt is perfect on the first go.
(Until the next morning, when the 2nd bowl gets microwaved within an inch of its life and still isn’t cooked.)
I think the oatmeal is something she fixates on for stability. They say that when we lose our sense of control, we hang on to what we can. Even if its the perfect bowl of oatmeal.
Funny how I’ve been eating a lot more oatmeal lately. I think I’m hanging on to some things, too.
Trip to PA was hard, and wonderful.
Aunt D’s kind enough to pick us up from the airport. “Gam’s having a tough day today,” she explains, wiper-blades sweeping away East Coast rain. “You can hang out at our place until she wakes up. Then I’ll drive you to Riddle.”
She props us up in front of the TV and feeds us Hippy Cheese and Crackers (stoned wheat thins, as she refers to them) while she cooks up dinner. My cousin and her husband drop by and we have a fun time laughing over old stories and stir-fry.
Mid-dessert the phone rings, and its Gam–she wanted to tell us that she just couldn’t stay up and had to go to back to bed. This made me sad…it was only a bit after 7. “That’s how it’s been,” my Aunt says. “Good days and bad days. The cancer takes so much out of her. She sleeps a lot.”
The apartment is quiet when we arrive. I hiss at Patty to stop banging cabinets. She reminds me that Gam can’t hear. I remind myself I’m being bitchy because it keeps me from crying. I’m fighting the urge to go wake her up and hug her.
Just as we’re thanking Aunt D for dropping us off, a figure appears in the hallway.
It’s a tiny squeak. Like a mouse.
I knew that Gam had lost a lot of weight–another consequence of the cancer. Aunt D warned me to prep myself. Let’s just say I wasn’t exactly prepared.
She is so, so tiny. So, so fragile. Her shrinking frame makes it hard to see the strong–but it’s strongly there. She is a ninja after all.
“Who’s there?” she squeaks. “Is that you, Jenny? Patty?”
She looks confused; vulnerable. Thin. It hits my heart thick and brick-heavy.
She could barely stagger a few steps before reaching out trembling hands to embrace us. I wrap her up in my arms–the seemingly not enough-of-her and the big wonder of her–and blink back hot tears.
I look behind me and Aunt D has already left. She’s a cryer; like me. Too much to see.
Gam cups my face in her hands. Like she was grasping to see and take in and not forget. The way you’d do when you’re memorizing moments–because you don’t know if they will come again. I want to tell her that I’m not going anywhere. I want to memorize, too.
She grabs my hand and I help her down the hallway–slowly, a small step at a time. All the way to kitchen, where an unsteady hand points to a photo tacked to the refrigerator door. It’s a snapshot of her at my cousin’s wedding just a few months ago: laughing, dancing, in her element.
“What happened to me?” she whispers. It’s the second thing she says to us after ‘hello’; a question, an explanation, an apology. Proof that there was once a time, once upon a time. Just in case either one of us had forgotten.
“How does this happen,” she asks. “How did this happen in just four months?”
Cancer is a beast.
I tell her she looks beautiful and that I’m glad to see her.
She looks at me with little-girl eyes. Apologetic. No need.
“Today was a bad day.”
“That’s OK,” Patty says. She has always been the stronger one.
It takes two grandkids to help her back down the hallway and into bed.
“I’m sorry I stagger,” she says. I point out that its just one letter off from swagger, and that she’s hotter than Fergie any day of the week. I could hear her roll her eyes.
We straighten pillows and pull up sheets. She half-giggles. “Boy, being tucked in is the neatest thing! Don’t you think?” Always the optimist. “Maybe tomorrow this will all go away,” she suggests, drifting off.
Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. But I like the hopeful.
I kiss her on the cheek and tell her I love her. Sometimes that’s all you can say.
“You need a hug, friend?” Patty asks, forgiving the bitchiness. “‘Sometimes you just need a hug’.”
Sometimes you do.
I made a promise to myself that I was going to memorize this trip; these moments. Memorize the hands wrapped around coffee cups and the conversations with the cat and the talking out loud to Jesus. Memorize the comments that would annoy me and the wonderful that would make me smile. Memorize, memorize.
Partly because I forgot my camera. Mostly because there are things best not to forget.
I thought Gam was giving me a compliment.
“Jenny–[mufflemuffle]–looked so beautiful at the wedding. I mean, just gorgeous. Absolutely stunning!”
“No–I wasn’t talking about you, I was talking about me! Did you see the pictures?”
She did look stunning at the wedding. Her best friend at Riddle, Betty Trulear, (admittedly the only African American resident in the place and a sweetheart to boot) came over early to do her makeup. She really did look beautiful.
She had been feeling lousy all weekend–weak and tired. She couldn’t walk anywhere without someone’s arm to hold onto. It took two people (my mom and my aunt) to help her to the restroom. And she was grumpy.
“Do you know they’re getting married in a barn? The meal is buffet style! Are they wearing sneakers at the alter? The groom’s not even wearin’ a tux!”
I try to explain to her that weddings aren’t as formal as they used to be. People like to have fun–be themselves. Use colors they like, order in their favorite take-out, and yes, wear Chuck’s at the alter. She wasn’t impressed.
It was a ridiculously fun wedding! But Gam wasn’t feelin’ it. My mom spent the whole night steadying her so she wouldn’t stumble–helping her to the restroom, stopping half-way back to her seat to rest a while because she was so winded. Honestly, we were all pretty worried about her.
But when the DJ started up and it was time to boogie? Holy Moses! A Divine Healing! Pictures to prove it! Either that or somebody didn’t really feel that . . . Anyway. Grandma likes to dance.