Writing Assignment - Black and White Photograph

I found the photograph in a box after her funeral. It lay there amidst a stack of old, curling, sepia-toned pictures, silent testimonies of another time. I had only recently grown to appreciate my grandmother, but my coming-of-age desire to know her came too late. There were stories still to be told, conversations left unsaid, and now I only possessed photographs by which to study her, as well as regret that I had not taken the time to listen to her stories while she was still alive.

She was put into a retirement home against her will, her husband, my grandfather, no longer having the mental faculties to live without constant supervision, and she no longer able to give it. A proud woman, she insisted that they were fine, that she could handle him. "But he keeps wandering off," we said. They found him a few weeks earlier across town, confused, lost, apparently on some forgotten errand. "He can't keep doing this," we said. "It just isn't safe."

So my mother flew up to Ohio to help them pack up their things. My grandmother was beside herself. Her car! Her house! Her dishes! Her things! All gone. All given away, or sold, to distant family and strangers. She had already lost so much in recent years: my father, her only child and the light of her life, was cruelly taken by AIDS a few years before. This move away from everything she had ever known was, in my mind, so unfair. So wrong. She took it gracefully, because she was a lady. But she was angry.

Once in the retirement home, they separated my grandparents soon after; grandpa was in need of the nursing facilities, his Alzheimer's rapidly sucking away his mind. Grandma kept on, but we soon discovered that she, too, was slipping into the darkness. It had started to manifest while they still lived at home, but she covered it well. My brother and I, while playing in the basement one day, discovered that she left the iron turned on. It had been left on for days, and had we not found it when we did, God only knows what would have happened. In the nursing home, she kept a good front, but she had begun to repeat stories over and over, she became forgetful, and the nurses told us that the scourge of Alzheimer's was upon her as well.

We didn't see my grandparents often: once a year at Christmas when we came up to visit from Texas, and maybe in the summer. I remember going for a visit when I was fifteen. Grandma and Grandpa planned to meet my mother, my brother, and I for dinner in the retirement home dining room. We all walked together down the hospital-smelling halls, which they had tried to disguise as a grand hotel, the florescent institutional lights betraying the illusion. Before we entered the dining room, my grandmother, proud and particular about her appearance, reached into her purse and pulled out a lipstick. I remember how she carefully took off the lid, rolled up the color, and in her trademark way dabbed ever so gingerly the red stain on her thin lips. This small gesture was profound to me, for it spoke volumes about my Grandmother that day. It told me that she still cared, she still had her pride, she was still a lady, and though we may have taken away her things, we could not take away her essence.

Over the next two years, my grandmother began to quietly slip away, deteriorating more rapidly than my grandfather, who seemed to be in Alzheimer's limbo, stuck somewhere between World War II and 1978. I didn't see my grandmother again until I was seventeen and about to graduate. We were visiting Ohio in the summer, and my mother told me that my grandmother was essentially a vegetable and probably would not know us. I was shocked at how quickly she had fallen into the darkness; apparently she had given up. We went to the nursing home, dreading the visit, dreading the long, awkward silence, dreading that horrid discomfort of sitting uncomfortably silent with a catatonic loved one and not knowing what to say.

We entered the lobby and sat down to wait. "Sarah, just remember, she didn't know who I was. Don't expect much. She probably won't recognize you," my mother reiterated. I braced myself.

Soon a wheelchair bearing my grandmother's frail form appeared in the doorway behind us, a nurse pushing her, clucking and cooing to her -- as if to a baby -- as they walked. Though prepared to see her, I crumbled at the sight of her once-perfect posture now slumped over sideways in the chair, her head lolling to the side, her thin black curls matted on one side from her pillow. My heart broke in half at the realization that someone -- a thoughtful nurse, likely -- had applied the familiar red stain to her lips. Someone knew Helen Hoover well enough to know that she didn't go out without her lipstick.

The nurse wheeled her to my side and said, "Helen, your grandkids are here to see you." I held my breath. The tears began to pool in my eyes as I looked at her face. Slowly, shakily, she lifted her face, looked straight into my eyes, and immediately broke into an enormous grin. Her entire face lit up with recognition, and she reached out her feeble hand and grabbed mine. She was trembling. I began to cry, and she just sat there, gripping my hand, smiling her giant smile at me.

She knew me. She remembered. And I knew in that moment that I was loved fiercely by this woman. Alzheimer's had stolen her life and her mind, but it had not taken away her love. She still possessed what was most precious to her. And then I sobbed as I came to understand the unconditional love which still lived within her: despite my absence, despite my lack of correspondence over the years, she was very, very proud of me. Her face said it all, and I will never forget how she looked in that moment. I said nothing, because there were no words necessary. She knew. I knew. It was enough.

I said goodbye, knowing it would be the last time I would see her. She passed away a year later. From what I am told, my grandfather, who lived in a separate wing of the hospital, woke up suddenly the night she died and asked for her.

At her funeral, my aunt Faye gave me my grandmother's red coat and some of her jewelry. "She would have wanted you to have it," she said. "Your grandma was so proud of you."

Later that day, my mother and I went through photographs that my mother found in my grandmother's attic. My mother had never looked at them, and neither had I, and we passed them to each other and smiled at the various snapshots from my grandparents' life together. They were high school sweethearts, and the photos chronicled their growing up together. I looked at the photos, regretting that I would never hear the stories behind those pictures, regretting that I had not taken more time to write or to call.

We found in the stack of photos a series of pictures of my grandmother as a young woman, probably around my age, taken on a summer day. She is sitting in a rowboat, posing for the camera, trying to look as grown up as possible. I smiled, wondering what she was thinking, wondering what her life was like in 1934. And then I came to a photo that shocked me: it was a side profile shot, and my breath caught as I realized I was seeing myself in that picture. The resemblance was astounding. My family always told me that I look like her. I had never seen it until now. It almost frightened me -- it was like looking at myself in a previous life. I knew that look in her eye; I could almost feel what she was feeling. She was me.

The black and white rowboat picture of my grandmother still hangs on my wall. It is a poor representation of her; the red lipstick does not show through the two-dimensional shades of grey that captured her likeness on that summer day. But there is life in her eyes, and pride. It is the same pride I saw as I looked into her eyes that last day in the nursing home, and it is the same expression that I see every now and then in my own eyes. I hope I can wear it well.


michele said...

great blog. Enjoyed it. I sometimes forget what a great writer you are. Enjoyed the few pages I could read of your novel. thanks

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