When I was in grade twelve, my grandmother lived in a retirement home just four blocks away from my high school.
Our branch of the family moved four hours away from her when I was born so my time with her revolved around holidays, weekend visits, and far too often it seemed, funerals. I also happened to be her youngest grandchild and I suspect I probably knew her the least of all eight grandchildren. Add to it the whole aging process — I was just a wee thing when she was out and about in the yard gardening or up to her ears baking pies or canning vegetables in her kitchen. Most of my memories of her were registered and stored through a young child’s eyes and were made at a time when her mind was quick but her body had already begun to slow down. I spent weekends at their house – sometimes on my own and sometimes with my brother. I remember being allowed to pull the carrots out of the ground just before dinner. I remember walking through their roses, not understanding how different colour roses needed different kinds of care. I remember swimming in their neighbour’s pool and shelling peas on their back screened-in porch. I remember seeing the pictures of my dad as a kid and trying desperately hard to imagine what he must have been like as a boy. And I remember that the roast beef she would invariably serve on Sunday night would be accompanied by horseradish. My time in her house wasn’t always easy. By the time I could realize what was going on, my grandfather was fairly sick and relatively incapacitated. She worked hard to keep up with his needs and though I never realized it at the time, I was often lonely there.
Some years after my grandfather died, it was determined that she could no longer take care of herself, the house, and the garden. My dad drove down to pick her up and she moved to Belleville. I recall finding it so hard to wrap my head around this transition. She had lived for so many years in that house. She had furniture she loved, she had photographs, and blankets and Bumpa’s old radio in the spare bedroom (once upon a time my Dad’s bedroom). She had to leave her garden (the vegetables were more precious to her than the roses, I always thought!) And her spoons that hung in the dining room. She had spent a lifetime collecting those spoons yet I’m quite sure those spoons never made the move with her. All her possessions were reduced to a few boxes worth. Her clothes, her favourite photos, and her memories. I found the whole idea really disturbing. And I wondered if she did too. I didn’t know how to ask her.
Teenage angst can sometimes leave you feeling suffocated. I was no exception. There were some seriously messed up moments in high school. When gossip and envy and love and heartbreak would weigh me down, I looked for a place to be quiet, to be undisturbed, to be peaceful. But though I wanted to run away from the teenagers, I didn’t want to be alone. And so I confess that my first clandestine visit to my grandmother was for strictly selfish reasons. I ditched Calculus to go sit with her on a Thursday afternoon. On my walk over there, eyes full of tears, I thought through the implications of this act. I didn’t mind missing class but I didn’t want anyone to know where I had gone. And I knew my dad would be there to visit later on as he did every night after work. That presented several potential problems. First, would my grandmother keep my secret? Second, would he see my name in the sign-in register? Third, could I be sure to get out before he arrived? The second and third were in my control and so I signed in with a slightly modified name and made sure to keep an eye on the clock. The first dilemma, I realized as I walked into her room, was moot. She could no longer keep hours, days, nights, weeks, years straight. If she happened to remember that I had visited and mentioned something to my dad, I had little doubt that he would attribute it to her confusion.
And so the secret visits began. I’m not sure how many there were to tell the truth. More than ten, fewer than twenty. Sometimes I was ditching class. Other times I went during legitimate breaks like lunch and spares. We would sit there together, rarely saying any words at all. Sometimes she slept through the entire hour. I would sit beside her in one of the big arm chairs she had in her room. And just be quiet. Sometimes I even looked at my homework, reading the next chapter in my novel for English class. And only very rarely would she talk to me. She would speak very slowly, telling me about her boys, Kent and Doug, and what they were up to. She talked to each of them every day. Sometimes I heard the stories more than once in that same hour. Sometimes I heard only parts of stories before she fell off to sleep again. Sometimes she seemed much more interested in the weather, asking me how cold it was outside. But those hours were very precious. Beyond what I could understand at the time.
To this day, I’ve never told another living soul about these visits. And I’m not sure why I’m telling them now.