presence prevails when memories fade
We were always moving when I was a kid. I hated it. And yet now, in my twenties, it seems like that’s all I ever do. I came up with 21 places I’ve taken up residence in during 26 years of life. On one hand, this has formed me into someone who adapts to change and makes new friends like a champ. On the other hand, it has created an inner turmoil to figure out what “home” means to me. Or what I want it to mean. Part of me is jealous of people who have this one home with a bedroom that serves as time warp, untouched since high school and their heights scribbled on a post. There’s something nostalgic and romantic about a place that contains memories of your entire life within it’s walls. Breeding grounds for real and intense personification.
I ever increasingly recognise home as a feeling associated with people rather than an address. This affords me the opportunity to create or have pieces of home in different states, countries, and continents. Some people are particularly exceptional at making me feel at home. My Grandma Jeanne has always been one of these people. For this reason, I wanted what I wrote about her to center around home.
After lunch, we kiss grandpa goodbye and head for the car. I watch her walk to the driver’s side. I wonder if she’s actually forgotten that she hasn’t driven in over a year, or if she knows and just wants to see if I’ll hand her the keys. “Oh, it’s okay! I’ll drive us, grandma.” I said that so sweetly, it makes my stomach sick. Speaking of stomachs, I can’t help but notice that her’s vanishes more and more every time I see her. Her wrap sundress clings to her body, accentuating the teeniest, tiniest waistline I ever did see. She comments on how we’re both wearing purple. “Did you wear purple just for me? You must know that’s grandma’s favourite colour.” She caught me.
She asks what we’re doing today. I tell her we’re going on a trip down memory lane. I mean this quite literally because I’m driving to nearly all the homes she’s lived in. I could technically call this a reminiscence activity like the ones I would do with patients in the dementia centre. But my emotions behind this gesture to engage her memory make it feel less like a fun game and more like a desperate plea. This time it’s personal. This time it’s my grandma.
We drive to 3107 Madison Ave. I know from many stories told around dinner tables that this is the house my dad and his siblings grew up in. My grandparents didn’t move from this house until about the time I was born, which means this is the house Jeanne Kay Vander Well spent her mothering years. Twenty of them, to be precise. This is where she would’ve welcomed her four babies home from school, bandaged scraped knees, attended swim meets, took prom photos, moved kids into college dorms, and welcomed fiancees into the family. This is where a slew of VW Beetles were parked over the years. Most notably, the infamous sand grey coloured one with wiper blades that didn’t work. My twin uncles tied together long strings of rubber bands and attached them to each blade, pulling them alternately when it rained. Classic. It should be easy to get her to tell me about this house, right? There’s a family piling into their car in the driveway. Grandma waves and asks them if it’s okay if we take a picture here. “I used to live here a long time ago,” she says with a beaming smile. I snap a photo. “Grandma, isn’t this the house where your kids grew up?”
Whenever I get close to one of our destinations, my cup overfloweth with hope as she exclaims, “This street looks familiar.” When we get out of the car and stand in front of a house my heart beats please remember, please remember, please remember.
Standing in the driveway of their house at 4001 43rd St, grandma stares up at a giant tree that shades the steps leading to the front door. In my mind I see photographs taken on these steps: my sister and I in our 90’s floral print Easter dresses. Cousins eating popsicles, knees covered with sidewalk chalk dust. Family members bundled in winter coats playing in the Christmas snow. I cried when my grandparents moved out of this house. I felt attached to it for many reasons, but one being that it’s where I fell in love with the lady standing in front of me. As a kid, grandma’s house was one of the greatest places on earth. It is where I was enveloped in the sweetest, most nurturing spirit and drowned in bowls of Apple Jacks. It is where I was taught important life lessons in faith, breaking bread, and sharing. It is where I ran circles until rocked asleep. It is where my imagination flourished and my first relationships were built. Standing here now I’m flooded with visions of mauve and dusty blue, the smell of coffee and cinnamon rolls, and the sound of cuckoo clock chimes and high-pitched squeals of laughter. I wonder what floods grandma's mind.
“So many memories here,” she says.
“Yes, for me, too. Some of my most favourite ever. What are you thinking about, grandma?”
“Oh, I don’t know. We used to host a lot of people here. I think it’s probably my favourite house we ever had."
She’s still looking up at that tree. I watch her as she puts her hands on her hips, as if she’s trying to work out something in her head. I wish I could crawl inside her brain and reconnect whatever wires are frayed at the edges. It’s almost as if she’s staring at a faded picture. She knows what the image is because she’s stared at it so many times, but now she can’t make out any of the details. The stories aren’t there anymore. Not like they used to be. A part of me wants to poke, prod, and push further, but I don’t. I’m not sure if this is because I’m accepting reality with ease or because I’m afraid of what will happen if I do.
The last place we visit is her childhood home. Since the longest amount of time has passed since she lived there, I find it ironic that this is where she ends up talking the most.
She mentions the ice cream parlour and the skating rink up the street that she frequented growing up. She laughs as she tells me about the time she was riding in the backseat of the car with the windows rolled down and her dad spit his chewing tobacco out, only for it to fly back and hit her in the face. Turning towards the house she says, “Up there in the right hand corner is where my bedroom was. And right below is where Grandma Daisy stayed when she lived with us.”
Ah, Grandma Daisy. Maybe that is why she is recalling so much. Grandma Daisy is the known matriarch of my family and a woman Grandma Jeanne adored. Daisy divorced her alcoholic husband during a time when it was taboo and eventually lived with her daughter and son-in-law, helping raise their only child, Jeanne. She was poor, but not in spirit or sewing skills. She had tags that read, 'Made with love, Grandma Daisy' adorning all her tailoring. She was incredibly kind and possessed a strong faith, which has become a legacy that lives on to this day. I think Grandma Daisy was one of those people who made Jeanne feel at home. I imagine this place is where she fell in love with that lady. Perhaps that is why standing in front of 1215 Guthrie Ave., she feels it.
Although Grandma Daisy died long before I was even dreamt of, I have felt her presence through my own grandma because she was a part of “home” for her. If I’m fortunate enough to have grandchildren one day, I suspect they will know the presence of Grandma Jeanne through me for the same reason.
Dementia in all it’s cruelty may erase memories and stories. It might take away what someone remembers about where they lived, played, slept, celebrated, ate, or parented. But if home can be the feeling you experience in someone’s presence and not just an address, dementia can’t erase that. Not really. The Grandma Jeanne that I know so well is a former version of the woman I behold now. I wonder if she felt this about herself as she stood in front of the homes she once lived in, each representing a different chapter in her own life. Perhaps she’s reached a point where it all blurs together as distinct memories are lost. This leads me to question: if you don’t remember who you were, how well do you know who you are? If you don’t remember who you are, are you still you? I obviously don’t have answers to these questions, but they turn over and over in my mind. All I know is that for as long as Grandma Jeanne is here, she holds a bit of home whether she’s aware of it or not. There’s a good chance one day she won’t remember who I am. Just the thought that I won’t always be greeted with a “Hi, Taylor-Roo!” and a tiny smear of pink lipstick on my cheek causes a lump to form in the back of my throat . But I can live without the recognition knowing this bit of home will live on in me, to be felt by those who will grow up in the wake of this wonderful, wonderful woman.
If this story tugged on your heartstrings and you want to send Jeanne good vibes...