My nose was simultaneously bombarded with the competing fragrance of bleach and bowels. The halls of nursing homes often smelled this way. As the human body ages, it sometimes looses the ability to control its own bowels. I couldn’t judge the sick and elderly. Sickness and aging were only facts of life. Once a man, twice a child. I think that was in the Bible.
I rounded a corner to walk down another hallway. That one smelled less. Grandmother’s room was at the end. I had to see her before I left. I knocked before slowly entering her room. She sat on her bed, rummaging through her purse, trying to get to something that was wrapped inside a paper towel.
“Hey, Grandmother,” I said.
She looked up, noticing someone entering her room.
She stopped going through her purse and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. I made my way over to hug her neck. She hugged me back with all her strength, as always.
“What are you doing?”
“Well, I was looking for my keys.”
“Yes, my car keys. You seen ‘em?”
“No ma’am, where did you get some keys from? You don’t have a car.”
It came slowly. Misplacing things here and there, forgetting names and faces. As I entered high school, it began to progress. She spoke of James, my grandfather, whom i affectionately called Paw Paw, as if he were still in the house with her and she often spoke of a baby that she was attending to.
“Whose baby?” My mother would ask her.
“One of Annie’s grands, I think.”
Ms. Annie had been her neighbor when she lived on Otis Lane in Foxworth, Mississippi. Though she never kept Ms. Annie’s kids or grandchildren to my knowledge. My mother later surmised that she was probably talking about either me or my brother when we were babies. Grandmother would keep us during the summer when we were younger so that mom could work a second job at the Dialysis Unit in Hattiesburg. Grandmother happily obliged.
“How’d you get here?” she asked.
“I drove,” I responded.
“Oh, you’re driving now?”
“Hmmmmmm,” she squealed in disbelief.
“Yes ma’am, I am. What have you been up to?”
“Oh a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”
I’m sure she was telling the truth. She always found ways to keep herself busy. By the time her grandchildren came along, she’d long been retired but when we stayed at her house with our cousins during the summer, there was no such thing as taking it easy. Mr. Roy Lee’s rooster crowed every morning around 7 o’ clock. We would share her bed and though I could only faintly hear it from down the lane, Grandmother got up every morning around the time that the rooster crowed and made everyone else in the house get up with her.
“Come on, get up. I got to make the bed. Can’t lay around all day.”
Like clockwork, she made the bed every morning. Arranging the pillows the same way they had been before she climbed between the sheets. She would make us breakfast and let us watch television for a spell but around 9 or 10, it was time to get things done around the house. She set us to dusting and polishing the china cabinet or helping rake leaves outside. There was nothing particularly impressive about her small abode but she kept it spick and span, always, inside and out. There was always grass to mow, hedges to trim, the garden to attend to, trash to burn, floors to sweep or mop, cans to crush for recycling, or anything else she thought needed doing.
These days “a little bit of this, a little bit of that” probably meant getting into other people’s things, thinking they were hers, and wandering the halls of the home wondering why all these strange people were in “her house.” In her decaying mind, if she stayed in a space long enough, it was her house.
“You know I graduated?”
“Yes ma’am. I did. And I’m going to grad school in New York City.”
“Oh! Sha now!”
“Well, that’s alright, baby. That sounds real good.”
“Have you ever been?”
“To New York City.”
“No. I heard of it but never got to go, but I’m glad you’re getting an education so you can go out in the world get a good job and take care of yourself.”
“Yes ma’am, that’s the plan.”
“If I could have took up and left, I think I would have too.”
I felt a pang of sadness when she said that. Not having higher education made it difficult for Grandmother to enjoy much upward mobility and she stayed in Mississippi for most of her life. But her sister Frances had been able to enjoy a different kind of life. In her later years, she’d had a stroke. As a result, when she spoke, it seemed as if it took a few seconds for the words to make it from her brain to her lips. She spoke slowly and sometimes lost her train of thought mid sentence. But in the years before old age had taken its tole, Aunt Frances lived quite the life. After graduating from college, she moved out to California to teach school. She made more money teaching school out in California than she ever could have in Mississippi and was a very frugal woman. She loved shopping but never spent her money in department stores. She mastered the art of thrifting and bargain hunting and was always dressed in the most elegant of fineries. She moved back to Mississippi after twenty years or so and retired. Being her only niece, she would take me school shopping in the summer and gave me her credit card to let me buy whatever I wanted.
I remember picking up two pairs of jeans and a few new shirts, trying not to abuse her kindness, and her looking down at me, smiling and asking me, “Are you sure that’s all you want?”
I didn’t know the extent of her wealth at the time but as I got older I realized that I probably could’ve cleared entire shelves at JCPenny without putting a dent in her credit limit.
The story goes that Grandmother did go to college for a spell at Alcorn University. But she was only able to stay for a term because when winter came her parents couldn’t afford a winter coat. The fucked up part was that she was the baby and her older brothers and sister did get to attend college and graduate. Perhaps it was just luck of the draw or just one of those things but grandmother did the best she could with the hand she was dealt and managed to make a pretty good go of things.
She got married to my Paw Paw, James, and they had four kids – three girls and one boy. The responsibilities of the land – tending to the hogs and cattle, mowing the grass – fell to the boy, Jimmy. Of the three girls, Jerryl, my mother, was the middle child. Because Brigettia was the oldest and Loletha the baby, my mother found herself in the peculiar predicament of being the middle child and found herself afflicted with a case of MCS, middle child syndrome. Neither of her sisters were bakers but grandmother had a sweet tooth and entrusted her middle child with the task of making the occasional pound cake to satisfy it. To this day, no-one makes a pound cake like hers east of the Mississippi.
Surpassing their parents before them, Mable and James were able to send all four of their children to college. It was only expected that they graduate and they all did. My mom had always wanted to be a nurse and so she became one, completing her nursing degree at the University of Southern Mississippi. Brigettia and Jimmy went to Alcorn. Lo, as she’s affectionately nicknamed, finished at USM too.
Going to college was never a question, always an absolute, a given, for my brother and I. Grandmother and Paw Paw James fought tooth and nail to send their kids to school. My mom said grandmother used to say to go get an education so that she’d never have to rely on a man to provide for them. My mother still believes Grandmother would’ve left Paw Paw, if she hadn’t needed his help in keeping the family afloat. She wasn’t fond of his drinking habit, but they loved each other still and stayed together for the good of the children. Years later, my mother would do what Grandmother could not and divorced my father.
“How’s your daddy?”
That was odd. She never asked about him. I don’t even think she really cared for him, even when he and my mom were married.
“He’s alright, I guess. I haven’t talked to him in a while.”
“Oh, yeah?” She sounded concerned, but whatever follow up question was lost when one of the nurses came in.
“Ms. Mable, are you ready to eat?”
“Yes, ma’am. I got your dinner right here.”
The nurse pulled a tray from a cart and brought it in. She sat it on the bed table in the corner.
“I’ll leave it right here for you. Is that alright?”
“Okay, that’ll be just fine.”
I got up and pulled the bed table from the corner to the edge of the bed where Grandmother sat.
“No, I don’t believe I am,” she said, sounding almost as if she were asking a question.
“You eat this morning?”
“What you eat?”
She did not respond for a moment.
“I had some cereal.”
“Well, that still doesn’t sound like much. Let’s see what they have for you so you can eat a couple bites,” I goaded.
Taking the lid off the tray, a cloud of steam floated into the air. On the lunch tray, there were some pathetic looking green beans, mashed potatoes, cabbage, and two pieces of chicken.
This too caused a bit of sadness in me. Grandmother was not the natural baker that my mom was but she could cook. In years prior, her garden thrived and she snapped and prepared her own green beans, peeled and boiled her own potatoes, and rang the necks of her own chickens. Eating food from a can, as most of that tray undoubtedly was, was not something she did regularly.
Putting her mother in a nursing home was not an easy decision for my mom. My mom knew that Grandmother was happiest in the home that she and Paw Paw built and grew their family, even though she was alone it. The house was situated at the end of a shady lane and sat at the edge of the 80 acre plot that they owned. But as Grandmother’s state worsened, mom worried about her safety. She’d read stories of people with dementia wandering away from their home and not remembering the way back. Grandmother had three brothers who all lived within a five mile radius of one another in Foxworth. At least one would check on her everyday, but even they could not provide 24 hour surveillance for their sister and my mom grew uneasy knowing that her own mother could hurt herself or worse by no fault of her own.
Grandmother came to live with us in Hattiesburg my senior year of high school. My mother, still reluctant to put her in a home, but too afraid to leave her in her own home by herself, took her into our home.
In the midst of working two jobs, going to school part time for her Ph.D, Grandmother proved to be another full-time job. In the night, Grandmother would wake my mother.
“Who are you? Why are you in my house?”
Grandmother had always kept the doors of her own home locked at all times. Her wariness of intruders bordered on paranoia and she did not take well to waking in to find someone lying next to her in “her” bed.
“Momma, this is my house…”
I could hear them going back and forth at any hour of the night from my bedroom, my mother trying to talk her mother down, some nights having less luck than others. One night, Grandmother’s combativeness was too much and my mother could not convince her to go back to sleep so she gave up and turned over, having to get up early the next morning for work, and left grandmother to wander the house in the dark. I could hear her making laps around the house, checking every door to see what was behind it and turning the locks any any door that had one. Derek, my brother, and I slept with our bedroom doors closed, but Grandmother welcomed herself to opening them to poke her head in and make sure nothing out of the ordinary was going on. When she saw that both of us were just sleeping lumps under the covers, she closed our doors back. When she’d finally made sure that the house was secure, she finally went to bed.
One evening around Christmas, Grandmother was being especially rowdy. Being a teacher, my mom was out for holiday with my brother and I and she’d dropped her time working at Dialysis to only during the summer. We were all home and had just eaten dinner. We settled around the television in the living room to watch a Christmas movie that was playing on ABC Family that night. Though she’d already had her nightly dose of melatonin earlier that evening, Grandmother wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down. She got up to open and close the blinds, make sure all the lights were off in the house. Every few minutes, she’d go through her purse and ask “You seen my keys,” to no particular person.
“You didn’t drive momma, you rode here with me.”
This is the story my mom gave instead of trying to remind her mother that she hadn’t driven in years and that her car was still parked under the car port at her house in Foxworth.
“MOMMA, SIT DOWN! I AM SICK OF YOU MISBEHAVING LIKE THIS. WHY DON’T YOU SIT DOWN AND WATCH THE MOVIE WITH US?” I had never heard my mom raise her voice at her mom like that. Clearly, she’d had enough.
“I don’t want to watch the movie,” Grandmother responded curtly.
During the winter months, my mom kept a razor on the fireplace mantle to scrape the soot from the glass on the fireplace door. She’d never thought to replace it, even as it rusted over the years, because it still performed the job she placed it there to do and everyone in the house knew not to use it for anything else. Unbeknownst to any of us, Grandmother had picked it up.
The phenomenon is called sundowning. In dementia patients, the symptoms of the illness become more pronounced in the late evening, usually correlating with the time that the sun sets, hence the name. It doesn’t happen every evening but its a common occurrence in the late stages of Alzheimer’s.
Grandmother had pulled the drawer completely from the end table and was going through the papers that had accumulated there over the years. My mother got up from the couch to take the drawer from her.
“Give me this!”
She took the drawer and set it on the table. She went to grab Grandmother’s right arm to pull her to the couch. Just then, Grandmother brought her left hand down on my mom’s arm.
My mom yelped in pain and let go of Grandmother’s arm.
“MOMMA! WHERE’D YOU GET THAT RAZOR FROM?”
Seeing the blood coming from mom’s arm, Derek lept from the couch to get between them. Grandmother had dropped the rusty razor on the floor and Derek grabbed her arm and successfully pulled her to the couch and sat on her lap to restrain her.
“Go get a towel and the peroxide,” my mom ordered, her nursing instincts kicking in. I ran down the hall to the linen closet and grabbed the bottle of peroxide from under the sink.
“Momma, you alright,” Derek asked in panicked concern. I returned with the towel soaked in peroxide. Mom took the towel from me and winced as she placed it on her arm.
“Yea, I’m fine. It doesn’t look deep. I’ll just have to go get a tetanus shot tomorrow.”
My mom wore a bandage around her arm the next day. Grandmother saw it the next morning at breakfast and asked, “What happened to your arm?”
My mom just made eye contact with Derek and I and smiled at each other. “Oh, I just hurt my arm out in the yard yesterday.”
“Well, you’ll have to be more careful next time,” Grandmother responded.
My mom told the story several times over to the rest of the family. It was hilarious in hindsight and she could never harbor any malice towards her mother.
“Well, grandmother. I’m going to get ready to head out.”
“You drove here?”
“Yes ma’am,” I replied, excusing her forgetfulness.
Leaving the home was always a touchy affair. Sometimes, when my mom visited, she’d ask her to drop her back off at her house, talking about her actual house in Foxworth. She would have random moments of lucidness and want to leave because she recognized that the nursing home was not the home that she remembered.
“Well you get back safe.”
I breathed a sigh relief, glad that she wasn’t going to be difficult.
“Yes ma’am, you be good now.”
“You do the same.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too, baby. Love all y’all. Tell ya mamma and all I say hey.”
That made me laugh.
“Yes ma’am,” I said shutting the door behind me, my eyes welling up a bit.
It was about a two hour drive back to Hattiesburg from Pascagoula and I wanted to get back home before dark. I still had a lot of packing to do. I wiped my tears before the ran down my cheeks as I walked back down the halls that smelled less like shit and more like bleach, now. I never liked nursing homes but I loved seeing my Grandmother.
My mom has an old black and white photo of Grandmother when she was my age. I look just like her and we even have the same tone and pitch in voice. Most children probably would’ve resented not being able to kick back and watch television during their summer breaks but even as a child, I loved working in the yard with my grandmother. Next to my mother, she was the hardest working woman I knew.
As most young women do, I’m realizing that I’m becoming more and more like my mom and grandmother on a daily basis. Things out of place, I must put back in place immediately. Things that my roommates say they’ve cleaned, I often go behind them and clean some more. Though I don’t have a rooster to signal the start of my day, I wake up around the same time most mornings to drink my coffee and prepare to do what needs to be done for the day.
Having to leave her there in the nursing home always made me sad. It is a reminder that everybody must grow old one day. Though not everybody will develop dementia, memories may fade and the way we go about our lives will one day be drastically different than what is happening in the present. But there is joy in those tears too because time also brings progress. Less than one hundred years ago, my great grandparents could not afford a winter coat to keep their youngest daughter warm while she was off at school. Now, I have the strength of all the women before me to work and go to school and buy a whole winter wardrobe to sustain me through even the coldest winters.