Coming Back Early to See My Grandma and Finding a Map

We sat out on a covered balcony on Sunday evening. It was around 5pm, one of those summer evenings that was hot but could have been hotter. In the shade it felt nice: a sit-outside-and-drink-iced-tea kind of evening fading into night. Fading into night.

I sat as close as I could to my grandmother, all 82 pounds of her. So light, 82 pounds – the weight of a growing child. She seemed so small in the wheelchair, like a little one sitting in her daddy’s office chair. Her feet were clad in teal blue slippers with those non-slip bumps all around them, but the rest of her clothes were the clothes she had always worn: a plain skirt with a button-up sweater over some sort of blouse.

“Someone needs to water my flowers,” she said quietly, motioning towards the dying plant on the patio table, the plants that are not hers to water. “I would do it, but I’m just so tired.”

I leaned in closer, and she dropped her ear towards me, happy to receive.

“We came back early to see you,” I whisper-shouted into her ear.

“That’s okay,” she said, her weak voice coming out in a mumbling stream. “You can see me for a while yet.”

* * * * *

My dad feeds her ice cream. It is hard to speak to her, when my throat is one of those miserable lumps and my eyes keep welling up, so I let her squeeze my hand and I feel her fragile skin. She used to treat my hand when I was a sick child and she’d rub the bones so hard I eventually pulled them away with a yelp. But the power in her hands is gone, and I find myself wishing for the pain.

My voice still doesn’t want to work so I hold a cup of water up to her mouth and she drinks it like a bird. Then I move Chap-stick over her dry lips. I finally manage to speak, ask her if she would like something to eat. Some soup? Some applesauce? Some coffee? I try the coffee as a testament to its goodness. It’s sweet, I tell her, just as she always liked it.

She leans towards me.

“I don’t drink coffee anymore – they put my pills in it.”

I look questioningly at the mug. My dad laughs.

* * * * *

My dad talks to her in Pennsylvania Dutch, and she responds in brighter tones, as if something buried was coming alive. He asks her about her recent dreams, and she responds. I do not know this language. It is a strange combination of foreign and familiar to me.

Later my dad tells me what she said, that she has been dreaming a lot about her parents.

“I just get so tired of missing them,” she had said wistfully.

* * * * *

My dad had told me of their previous visit, how she took a small part of her skirt and folded it and moved it and folded it, over and over again. Finally my mom realized what she was doing: grandma was binding a quilt. She had done that practically her whole life, and in these days when her mind seems absent a fair amount of the time, it’s almost like her body goes back to what it remembers. So my mom handed her a piece of fabric, and she folded it and creased it and smoothed it, refolded it and creased it and smoothed it again. And again.

Her hands moved in a slow rhythm of life – there were years of history in those movements. She was a small girl, learning to quilt. She was a newly-wed, quilting for extra money. She was a new mom, a baby on the floor beside her. She was in her middle age, quilting for her business. She was a recent widow, quilting through her grief.

In that moment of imaginary quilting, she was not 92: she was 9 and 18 and 23 and 45 and 60. She was an entire life.

Perhaps this is why it is so important that we do not overlook the older ones among us: they are the embodiment of an entire life, and every age they have ever been is there for us to see, for us to bear witness to. They are years within years within years, layers of wisdom and experience, heartache and hope, death and life.

The veins and wrinkled skin and whispered memories form a topography, a stunning landscape, a map by which we who are so lost can hope to find our way.

30 Replies to “Coming Back Early to See My Grandma and Finding a Map”

  1. I want to leave a comment but no words are coming. I wish you could have seen my face as I read this about your Grandmother. You would have seen knowing smiles, appreciative smiles, several nods in agreement and a couple of sad smiles. If you could have seen inside of me, you would have seen my heart glowing with warmth as I read each word. This entry is very poignant. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Beautiful expression of a beautiful life. Thank you so much for sharing. Thinking of you and your family. Your grandmother is a precious woman and she has a precious family.

  3. I love the relationship all you Smucker cousins have with her. It’s really something special.

  4. I’m sorry that you’re going through this Shawn… Your grandmother is a special person.

  5. Tears…happy, wistful, full of memories tears. Thanks for sharing and bringing it back to me….different circumstances many years ago but the feelings were the same. :) Have a wonderful day …..

  6. Shawn, I am so happy that you and your precious family got back in time to spend some time with this wonderful Grandma. God Bless all of you, and your extended family She knows her time left here is short, she said so, and is sounds like although she has enjoyed her time with you, she is ready, even anxious to move on. I pray you are ready to let her go.

  7. Oh, Shawn. This brings me back to memories of my own loved ones and pieces of interactions with former hospice patients. I know the lump in the throat, scooting a little bit closer to soak up someone’s presence, the helpless waiting, contrasting who they were to who they are and then again to what’s next. Beautifully written. I’m glad you made it back in time. And I’m glad you recognize the many facets of your grandmother.

  8. She still remembers quilting stories. I was over on Saturday and she told me all about giving a quilt to President Reagan. She asked the President where Nancy was going to sleep, and he said on the left side. She then asked him where he was going to sleep and he said down by the bushes.

  9. Thank you for sharing this Shawn, this took me back to my Grandmother though she was crocheting with nothing in her hands. Some wonderful beautiful memories thanks for allowing us to feel these with you. God’s blessing’s for you and your family.

  10. Omigosh, Shawn. This is simply exquisite. There is no other word for it. Exquisitely painful and exquisitely beautiful and exquisitely real. Thank you so, so much. Really – this one needs publishing somewhere else besides your blog. Really, truly.

  11. Thank you for sharing, Shawn. We just love your Grandma. Always so kind to us and our daughter. Praying for her and your family.

  12. Your post touched me in so many ways. I sat here on the couch and gazed at my grandmother’s table in the entryway. Grandmother had collapsed with a massive brain hemorrhage. When I visited with her in ICU she couldn’t talk, but I knew she was there. I told her how I was working with refinishing this sideboard that she and granddaddy purchased after they married, and that I couldn’t wait to put the finishing coat at about the same time our house was finished. I know she heard me and was so proud that I cared. Just as your grandmother was proud that you cut your trip short to make it home to share moments you treasured. And the quilts, oh my gosh, the quilts. What joys! Thank you for sharing these sweet, private moments so that others can remember and share with the families that surround them. I think your grandmother would have been one who sewed shoelaces back together to save a dime. May you and your wife and children celebrate each moment together. How much fun you must be having in telling the tales of your trip. Years ago I read a Family Circle cartoon. The grandmother was sitting on the couch sharing pictures with all the kids. She said she wished grandaddy was there to share the pictures. In outline the grandfather was sitting there beside her enjoying it all.

  13. So beautiful, thank you for sharing! When I get back to Orlando from Gabon in 6 weeks, my grandma will be the first person I visit . She’s 98, and has always been the primary force behind the family. I miss her!

  14. I have no words, only silent prayers for all of you.e May your faith and your words, Shawn, comfort all of you as your grandmother slips into the arms of our Lord.

  15. Oh, Shawn. There is such enormous love here – for her, from you, your family. Such beauty and quiet dignity. How lucky you all are, to have known it, felt it, shared it.

    Thank you.

  16. Читала с переводчиком, очень грустная и радостная история. Тепло становится на сердце когда думаешь, что эта бабушка была окружена любящими родными. Написано с такой добротой и любовью.Дай вам всем Бог здоровья и счастья!!! СПАСИБО!!!

  17. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book
    in it or something. I think that you could do with a few
    pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this is excellent blog.

    A fantastic read. I will certainly be back.

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