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Monday, September 29, 2008

The Child Inside

"The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been." ~ Madeleine L'Engle

"Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul." ~ Samuel Ullman


Sunday was a very long day. I took the train down, and my parents drove me to the rest home where my grandmother is. I tried to remember the nice things you told me from my last post, but it was difficult.

I think what scares me most about the idea of getting old is that I'll lose my mind someday. When we arrived, my grandma was in a panic that she had had a bad dream and someone had come into her room at night and stolen a shirt
from her closet, a sweatshirt with kittens on it. She was fairly beside herself and it was almost impossible to understand what she was saying. But my grandma kept going on and on about it, making herself so upset and putting herself on the brink of tears. I finally had to say to her, Grandma, you have lots of clothes at home. We can bring you another shirt. Please. Stop making yourself so upset about it. This isn't helping you at all.

And with that, she stopped entirely. Even the teary eyes dried. My mother opened her closet to see that actually a shirt was missing, and she spoke with the nurse to make sure that no one comes in to do the laundry, that my mother will take care of it instead.

The thing is, this is how my grandma's always been but now it seems so much harder to watch because she is so frail and sick. It takes a little nothing to upset her and she'll dwell on that thing forever. I felt terrible that we had all come to see her, with dim sum from the lunch we just had, and presents to share--and none of that made a difference at all.


Later, after she'd calmed down, she showed me that she's started writing down her life's story. My mother has been asking her to do this for years, and she's finally begun. On eight pages of yellow lined paper, her handwriting so shaky now compared to the perfect penmanship I remember from birthday cards not so long ago, I read the first two lines to myself. "Read it aloud," Grandma says. But I don't want to. It's sad enough already. I see Little Helen writing these words: "I was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn in June of 1918. My parents were so young and beautiful when they had me. I miss them terribly."

Right then it struck me so hard, that at 90 years old a person can still miss her parents as if she were a 6-year old orphan. What I think she misses most is the idea of them, because from what I know of her childhood, it was not a happy one in any way. But somewhere in her mind there is a happy and sunny idyll, where these beautiful parents still live, and wait for her.


Outside my grandma's door was another resident who was sitting quietly in her wheelchair, silently wrapping and unwrapping the stuffed animal she had on her lap in a little blanket. She looked in at us often, to see if we were looking at her with her toy. My mom said this lady is often asking passersby if anyone has seen her cat. Whatever kitty she is looking for is lost to time and place, but in her mind is still very much alive, and very much needing a home.


My mother asked me to come back to Grandma's house. To look at some of her things now, maybe take a few, just in case, preparing for that time in the future. I walked through her home, now so quiet, looking at her collectibles and saying, I don't know. I guess when the time comes, if I want something, I'll tell you. My mom kept saying sadly, Look at all of her little things.

My mother said it would make her happy if I found a few things to take with me, that I would like to have to remember Grandma by, even now before the end. I took some lovely hats, vintage hats
from the 40s, covered with tiny flowers made by an aunt who was a milliner. They fit me and I'll wear them. I took a pair of perfect white gloves, like the kind that ladies wore every day. And a couple of old slips and an old bottle of Estee Lauder's Youth Dew, because that is what I remember Grandma smelling like. I took some photos. And my mother gave me a beautiful ring, with a lovely diamond that was my Bubbie's, my grandma's mother--the beautiful mother from the yellow lined paper.

I wore the ring home on the train, watched the diamond sparkle in the last rays of the sun before it got dark outside and nothing could be seen of the world at all. I would have rather had my grandma be happy, just once, for me to see, than to have all of the diamonds in the world.


ps. I have had several imaginary grandmothers. My favorite one is Madeline L'Engle, which is also why I was so happy to find this quote to use for this post. I almost had an opportunity to meet Ms. L'Engle once, but poor health had caused her to cancel an event where she was to give a talk and sign books. I was to have her sign my first copy of A Wrinkle in Time, first read voraciously in the fifth grade and then regularly and often ever since, and which is probably the book I would take to a desert island with me if I could only have one. Sadly, I never got that book signed (the cover had fallen off years ago anyway), but I was so close.

From the book: "You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you."


dutchbaby September 29, 2008 at 10:10 PM  

I understand your wish for your Grandmother's happiness in favor of all the diamonds in the world. It's difficult to witness the unhappiness of a loved one and all the havoc it wreaks in its wake. I wish you, and your mother, strength during this difficult passage of life.

Anonymous September 29, 2008 at 10:10 PM  


Losing one's mind is almost everyone's greatest fear. I'm more afraid of sadness.

I can see your Little Helen, even though I've never met her. And even though it is very difficult when you see the real one, try to remember the one that had beautiful handwriting and smelled of Youth Dew.

Anonymous September 29, 2008 at 10:55 PM  

Tangobaby, what a beautiful, beautiful post. Yet somewhat sad, I can feel the love just flowing through this post for Little Helen.


julochka September 29, 2008 at 11:09 PM  

wonderful and poignant stories...i feel your sadness at your grandmother. and it is hard to think about facing that one day ourselves. but i'm sure that it helps to share these stories. thank you for that. :-)

Red Shoes September 30, 2008 at 12:36 AM  

Oh, TB. Thank you so much for telling us about her. You're so lovely, and I'm certain I know where you inherited it from...

My Castle in Spain September 30, 2008 at 3:18 AM  

I feel so moved. You write so beautifully and I love the quotes you used. Thinking of you and I hope your grandmother can write more on her life...
A hug to you

smith kaich jones September 30, 2008 at 8:05 AM  

Oh, I was there with you. Beautifully written. PERFECTLY written.

And how scared she must be. The little Helen in MY life - Mary Mary quite contrary :) - was shaking Sunday night, with fear & anxiety & wanted to know was it always going to be this way?

My thoughts are with you. Nothing makes this easy, and perhaps it shouldn't be. But the just-there yesterdays that WEREN'T just yesterday broke my heart.

Take care.

Christina September 30, 2008 at 11:04 AM  

Maybe I shouldn't have listened to the above post's Bach, while reading this post about your beloved Bubbie. My tears flowed more easily but it's okay, I really enjoyed feeling the love you have for sweet Helen.

Be grateful of this time with her, no more, no less my friend.. just be grateful.

; )

tangobaby September 30, 2008 at 12:38 PM  

Hi all,

I think what I keep realizing more and more is that blogging is such a helpful way to organize thoughts, work out feelings and try to keep perspective. The action of writing down words is very powerful and cathartic.

But then having a community of sweet souls such as yourself is the other part of the equation. It's not like walking out into the woods alone. I feel like wherever I am, in reality or in my head, I am surrounded by friends.

Thank you so much for your care and concern. I truly hope you all know how helpful and important and perfect it all is. I am so lucky lucky lucky. I send you all kisses and thanks for you being out there in the world.

paris parfait September 30, 2008 at 2:46 PM  

You've made me cry again, TB. Big hugs to you, my beautiful friend. I'm glad you have these mementoes that have been precious to your grandmother. They will be of some measure of comfort to you. I know what you've been going through with these visits. I went through something similar with my beloved grandmother. It is so hard to watch all this and accept the changes. No matter what age we are, we all want to feel safe and secure and we don't want a cornerstone of our world altered. xoxox

Relyn September 30, 2008 at 8:56 PM  

I love this post for so many reasons. One of them is the idea of imaginary grandmas. I have them too. I've never talked to anyone about them. So, I extra love that we both had the same need.

You've reminded me of my Mamaw (maternal grandmother). She died three years ago this coming March. She loved to tell jokes and always had more dates than I did. Even when she was 70 and I was a hot little 17 year old. It's good to think about her.

The sadness does fade, and you will be left with a beautiful ring, a few vintage hats, a shakily written life story, and some happier memories. Cling to them and let the rest go.

Love and joy to you.

robin bird October 1, 2008 at 8:55 AM  

i so love getting to know you. the more i read, the more you write, the more your complex and dear self is revealed for me to know. i can't help but cry reading this. a blogging friendship is so hard to explain or to even understand myself! i feel sooo close to you and so would like to sit with you and hear these things you describe. i can see it. i would take your hand i know that. i would be quiet and make soft clucking noises i know that. i know i would quietly cry. the thing you said that struck deepest in my heart is that no matter how old, 90, 100, whatever we can still want our mothers and fathers. oh dear. i know that to be true, god we are so fragile and yet so strong! i think about getting old as i watch the generation ahead of me become so different. in not a very good way for the most part.. and i try to imagine what i might do so that i can experience old age differently. so much of it is not in my control. i'm glad i have a happy heart at least to take along...i also have a very sad heart that weighs me down. i need those two hearts to meld into one that is peaceful. that seems to be an important part of being old. to feel at peace. oh julie, i am taking up the entire page here. i am loving you more each time i come. pats and hugs and clucks to you my dear. take heart that you are so very young. i am really glad you have come into my life.

tangobaby October 2, 2008 at 3:56 PM  

Hi paris parfait, relyn and robin bird,

It's knowing that loving, sweet people like you are in the world that make all things better and easier. I wish I could reach out and hug you all right now!