Thursday, December 2, 2010

The hardwood floor

My parents divorced when I was eight, which split up an already fragmented family. I was the youngest of five children, and yet an only child between my parents. That first summer after their separation, they did a smart thing. They let my grandmother take me. Grandma had certain ideas about the care and management of children, and they involved a combination of absolutely impenetrable boundaries, close supervision, and high levels of indulgence. What made it different from the approach that suffocated my mother was the addition of that last element. Indulgence was not a part of my grandmother’s parental repertoire, to say the least. But it was very much a part of her grandparental repertoire, and the combination was magic for me.

My parents’ divorce pulled the proverbial rug out from under me, but my grandmother replaced it with a hardwood floor. It was always there, waiting for me, every summer. Even during my teen years, when I was interested in no one over the age of twenty-one, I still returned to that suburban citrus patch in south Florida. The last summer I spent there was the one just before my seventeenth birthday. During the month I spent there, I devoted myself to learning the classics of all varieties. I read Buck’s The Good Earth and listened to Strauss waltzes. From that impossibly weird combination, I progressed to jazz and A Moveable Feast. The Florida house was the natural place for doing such things. My grandmother had been a proponent of my intellectual development for as long as I could remember. When she graduated from high school in 1938, she was offered a full scholarship to the state university – an extraordinary feat for a young woman at the time – but had to turn it down to care for her sick father. She was always quite clear that it was the big loss of her life, one from which she never fully recovered, and never completely stopped being angry about.

This was another area in which her parenting sharply differed from her grandparenting. She didn’t encourage, nor did she particularly acknowledge, her daughters’ academic lives. But she was relentless in promoting mine. I can’t account for that, and have mostly stopped trying. All I know is I’m grateful for it.

But more importantly, she created a space in which I was free from the burdens of anxiety or concern, and I used it to build a life of imagination. There was often a book in my hand when I was there. But if there wasn't, I would simply spend glorious amounts of time doing nothing at all, a privilege denied to so many children today. I'd lie on the porch among the orchids, picking apart hibiscus flowers, daydreaming and watching the chameleons skitter about, their red throats pulsating as we stared at each other. Or I would hold their cockatiel, Woodstock, on one finger and feed him peanut butter with another. Then I'd lift him up to my face, let him lightly peck my nose, and declare that he had peanut butter breath. Which he did, if you can imagine that of a bird.

It was there, in those tiny moments in the heat of a tropical July, that I learned the richness of experience and sensation.

And so there is a thread about to be pulled, and it feels like it must be connected to my viscera. But I know it isn't, because she never would have made it that way.

Last days

I used to hold my grandmother’s hands, usually when crossing the street. But last night she held mine, both of them, as I leaned awkwardly over the hospital bed. Her grip was surprisingly strong. I looked down at the nearly translucent skin on her hands, which are bruised and scabbed from a fall, and remembered them tanned and covered in mango juice. My grandmother’s hands always bring the same image. She is standing in front of her sink with a freshly picked mango cradled in her hand, and a paring knife in the other. Ribbons of yellow-orange mango peel are curling into the sink, and juice is streaming down her hands. I could be anywhere, perhaps standing behind her, or maybe watching from the screened porch, a skinny kid lying on a yellow chaise lounge, surrounded by tropical flowers and writing the memoirs of a ten-year-old in her head.

Mangoes don’t grow in Indiana, where I grew up, and where Grandma was born a few days before women belatedly secured their right to vote. But they were abundant on the trees in her Florida backyard. It was there I learned to eat them, usually plucked straight off the tree, because Grandma disdained any non-local mango. “They pick them green,” she said of the fruit shipped from elsewhere. “And the flavor is awful.” She’s right, of course. I can buy them at an international market ten minutes from my house these days, but the taste and texture isn’t the same.

The mango juice has long since been washed from her hands, and they intermittently squeeze mine when the pain comes. Her face is a mess, her lips a jumble of scabs, dried blood and bruising. This is what happens when you have dementia, and you forget that you’re recovering from a hip replacement, and you try to walk without assistance. You fall down. And that fall cascades into a stroke – or perhaps vice versa, the doctors are not entirely sure – and you end up gripping your granddaughter’s hands in a hospital bed.

I visit her again the next night, and she doesn’t know who I am. At first she thinks she’s back at her assisted living facility and I’m the lady who takes her dinner order. I’ve heard about this, about what a bruising experience it is for the formerly familiar not to be recognized by their loved one. But it doesn’t feel that way to me. Because the truth is, I don’t recognize her, either. I still smile. I still speak gently. But I know it sounds stilted and inauthentic, because for the life of me, there is nothing about the lady in the bed that seems familiar to me. And this feels like a terrible betrayal of everything she gave me, which was generous beyond measure. But I can’t change it. All I can do is continue to pretend. And so I do.