One of my childhood memories, that stands out to me most, is a visit to my grandparents’ home when I was probably somewhere between four and six years old. We were there for Thanksgiving, I believe, so it would have been fall and the sun would have been setting early so we arrived after dark. I remember taking a paper bag full of toys out of the car and attempting to walk into the house with it only to be stopped short by my grandma who was blocking the entrance to the house with her body. We called her Grandma but you’d think she would have insisted on being called Grandmother. She was that kind of stern. She promptly told me that there was no way I was bringing those toys into her home and informed me that we would actually be sleeping in the barn. Ouch.
Sleeping in the barn isn’t as terrible as it sounds. Or maybe it was. We weren’t sleeping on hay or anything. It’s a huge barn with a finished floor and normal beds but open to the natural barn ceiling where bats flew back and forth all night. At this stage in my life, I mostly played with one of my older brothers so I was of the mindset that I was much tougher than I actually was (you have to be if you want to hang with older brothers). So I convinced myself that I was not afraid of the bats, or the dark. . . and that I was totally okay without my mom, who was sleeping in the main house with one of my sisters, still a baby at the time.
I wasn’t alone. I had four of my siblings with me. But more than the bats, the thing that haunted me the most was how unkind my grandma seemed to be, even to me, a little kid. I thought grandmas were supposed to LOVE little kids. My best friend had the perfect grandma. She was short and stocky which made her an excellent hugger. She was a great cook and always cooked huge breakfasts with tons of choices. She smiled a lot and made you feel welcome. She even sent my best friend money in a card for her birthday! How come I couldn’t have gotten a grandma like THAT?!
My grandma was standoffish and private. She seemed to speak only directly to my mom. If she did speak to us, it was to enlist us to help with chores. That was about the extent of our interaction. Even though we only lived a couple hours away, we didn’t visit very often and, when we did, I made it a point to spend most of my time outdoors where I wouldn’t have to encounter her. I spent my entire childhood calling my grandma “Mean Grandma” to my friends. It seems that mean grandmas are indeed pretty rare as I have yet to meet anyone who shared this experience.
As an adult, looking back, I see that my grandma is just kind of reserved and not necessarily a great communicator with children or adults. And that’s totally okay. Everyone communicates differently and not everyone is in tune with the needs of children.
A few years ago, my grandma had a stroke and lost most of the mobility on her left side. My parents take care of her in her home so that she doesn’t have to stay in a facility with strangers. Although the few times she has had to stay when recovering from an injury, the people that take care of her in the facility are really great, loving people. I’m not convinced it would be that terrible but she misses home when she’s there. The home she lives in is the home she spent most of her growing-up years in. It’s also the home she took care of her own mother in, until her mother’s death. It’s been in the family for over 70 years. She feels safe there. Which is extra important because she also has dementia. That feeling of security is vital for those living with dementia because so much of their world can seem out of place and confusing at times.
Just a few months ago, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. She is going through treatments and doing well. She’s tired sometimes but her spirits are always high. The cancer did attack her bones in her hip area so, while the bone strengthening treatments are working and enabling her to walk without support, she is still not quite able to do everything she was able to do before. Which is why, and how, I have come to be the one that showers my grandma.
If you would have asked me even five years ago, I would not have been able to predict that showering my mean grandma would be on my to-do list.
Almost exactly four years ago, I was fortunate enough that the company I work for agreed to allow me to work from home. I was living in Austin, TX at the time, as I had followed my job there but, since I was now able to work from home, I was also able to move anywhere in the U.S. that I desired. I had been living in Austin for five years and felt I was missing out on time with my parents, now in their 60’s, so I decided to move about ten minutes away from where my parents (and grandma) live. When I first moved back, Grandma was a little more mobile than she is now so we were able to, not so easily, take her out to eat and on little adventures in the area, like to one of the local historical homes that they treat as a museum. I’m pretty sure my grandma actually KNEW the people that had lived there when it was still occupied. Through these adventures, I was able to connect with my grandma, not as who she had been, but who she was right now. While those who had been close to her most of their life felt they were losing her to dementia, I, on the other hand, was developing a relationship with her for the first time.
Over time though, of course, our bodies decline and Grandma, almost 88 years old now, is not as able as she was even four years ago so our adventures are now turned more toward watching old movies, coloring and reading books about Thomas Jefferson establishing the world (according to Grandma). Our newest adventure, of course, being shower time.
Shower time is not easy. Shower time involves lots of bending, scrubbing, lifting, sweating and splashing water on the wood floor (to both my parents’ and Grandma’s dismay – Maybe you shouldn’t put wood floors in a bathroom, just sayin’).
But there’s also something really special about shower time. It’s our quiet bonding time. We talk very little but communicate so much. It’s gentle and safe and, right now, it’s just ours.
No one jumps for joy when selected to be the one to give their elderly loved one a shower but experiences like this can often be great revealers of truth and I’ve found that I’m learning quite a bit. I’m learning about caring, selflessly, for another person. About helping that person feel supported and safe. About feeling closeness without words. About doing something for someone else with absolutely no expectation of receiving some kind of award or acknowledgement. My grandma does acknowledge me though. She simply looks me in the eyes and whispers, “thank you,” when it’s just me and her. It brings tears to my eyes every time. I can see what this means to her.
One of the best things I’ve learned through spending this time with my grandma, I learned through repetition. I started noticing that she was calling me her “little baby granddaughter” to all of the hospital staff during her appointments. At first I didn’t think much of it. She’s old, she has dementia, this is probably just something she says. Besides, I have two sisters. They are also her little baby granddaughters, surely. But then eventually she expanded on it. She went on to tell me about the first time my mom brought me to visit after I was born. How my great grandma, her mother, had made a special dress for me. She even described the dress. She described how excited she was to meet me and how tiny I was. So when she was describing me to the hospital staff, she was describing me as a literal baby. The baby she remembers meeting, vividly it seems, for the first time. Then it hit me, that I am the eldest granddaughter and what a treat that must have been for her and her mother, as it was for my own parents. This is not something she is saying without meaning. This is a special moment in her life that she is looking back on and cherishing. She’s cherishing ME. And she’s been cherishing me since that day, back in 1981, when we first met.