A Midwest summer afternoon, the weather report promises a day hotter than yesterday and a good dose of humidity; I happily trade the breezes of southern California beaches for any time spent with my mom’s family, my family in Wisconsin.
The garage wide open, decorated with photographs, and crepe paper streamers, my sister Susy and I mill about the tables and chairs, chatting and waiting for guests to arrive. Before long, this quiet space will be filled with family and friends gathered to celebrate my maternal grandmother’s one hundredth birthday. I imagine more than fifty people will come today, seven of her eight children, sons and daughters-in-law, grandchildren and their spouses, great-grandchildren, and a few old friends, all here to honor Henrietta Jensen, also known as Opie.
The last time I saw my grandma was during a visit with my sisters nearly two years ago. Before seeing her, our aunts explained that she struggled with remembering names and faces these days, and often wished to avoid social situations. Frustrated and uncomfortable, she was aware that her memory was failing. Still, I hoped that she would remember me. In my Aunt Jackie’s home I cheerfully greeted her and thought I detected faint recollection and she certainly behaved as if she knew me. We talked for quite a while, yet I do not recall the details of our conversation, only that she interrupted me and proudly stated, I know you. You’re Orlando’s daughter. To which I smiled and replied, Yes, I am. Funny that she made the association with my dad, but did not mention my mom, her daughter.
I know that today will be different; she may not remember me at all. I am ready to accept that possibility. The first guests arrive, my Aunt Jackie and Uncle Jerry, and my grandma, riding shotgun, so tiny, peering over the dashboard with her oversized sunglasses. Susy runs to the van. I stand back watching as my grandma is helped out of the car, her walker arranged to receive her. She slowly and carefully makes her way up the driveway and into the garage. Susy directs me to clear some space so that the walker can be easily maneuvered. With my aunt’s support, my grandma gently sits in her place of honor.
Once seated, I hold her hands, gently squeezing them, I wish her a happy birthday. No sign of recognition. She doesn’t know me, but she smiles anyway and says thank you. I call her grandma and I can see the wheels turning, wondering who is she? I quickly tell her my name, and ask her what she wants to drink. She replies, without a second thought, a beer.
After delivering my grandma’s beer, I watch as guests continue to arrive and greet her one by one. Her children she sees with some regularity and can remember them by name. She struggles to remember in-laws and grandchildren. When politely prompted with a name, she quickly says; I know who they are, doing her best to preserve her dignity. While her memory fails, she is still witty, quick with a joke, and loves to playfully tease. She repeats herself quite a bit. But, shit, she’s one hundred years old.
I make my way back to her, kneeling at her side; somehow our conversation leads us to discuss her work as a nurse, my work as an educator, public service and the similarities. She asks me where I live, and I tell her California. She tells me proudly, my oldest daughter lives in California with her children, she really loves it there. She is talking about my mom, me, and my siblings. In that moment, she has no memory of her daughter’s passing. I smile and tell her, I love California too.
We talk some more and I ask if we can take a picture together. I show her my phone and the camera feature and explain to her what a selfie is. I tell her I am famous for taking selfies. She seems a bit confused about the idea, but she humors me. With my arms outstretched with phone in hand, she smiles in amusement to see our faces looking back at us as I snap a picture.
Wonderful stories are shared throughout the day. I am touched as folks recall fond and funny memories of my mom and dad. I overhear my sister Susy talking to my grandma about my parents and when they died. My grandma seems confused and as far as I can tell, she is not connecting my sister’s story to me or our conversation in any way. I imagine her day is a collection of little stories that seem completely unrelated.
In the late afternoon my uncles help my grandma move from the garage to a chair under the shade of a giant tree. I join my sisters and my aunts now gathered around her, talking and laughing. With no memory of our earlier conversation, she asks where we are from and we tell her California. Again, she says, my oldest daughter lives in California wither family. She loves it there. I want so badly for her to remember Susy telling her earlier that my parents had died, to make the connection, but she does not. My sister Mary gets a little teary, and Susy sighs. None of us correct her, or remind her that my mom has passed away.
The day ends so beautifully, each of us taking a turn to give my grandma a warm goodbye, final birthday wishes, and say I love you, said again and again. I am grateful to be a part of such a wonderful loving family.
I am comforted that my grandma does not mourn the loss of her oldest daughter. I am happy believing that in my grandma’s heart and mind my mom is alive, loving her children and her life in California.
Happy Birthday Grandma . . . from Judy and her family in California.