My mother's mother is being buried today. On the far side of the continent, I am filled with sadness. Yet her death -- at 93, after a decade and a half of Alzheimers -- is clearly a relief for her and everybody else.
After the first few years, the early struggles with the disease ended. No more paranoia, hiding money, or turning on the stove and forgetting to turn it off. She was in a nursing home by then, a small place not far from home, where she was cared for by relatives, but she did keep trying to run away. I think she wore a tracking ankle bracelet like a sex criminal for a while.
That phase ended too. For the past five years, or six, or eight, she has been -- absent. Alive but knowing nobody and nothing. On a good visit she might open her eyes and smile. The nursing home -- a different one, also close to home and staffed by relatives -- did everything they could to care well for her. When she gained weight on the regular food, they fed her a low-calorie diet. She still gained weight. Her metabolism hoarded calories like gold.
She was raised by her older sister Mabel, who took her in after their mother died. Aunt Mabel died of Alzheimers too, though she died younger. The last time I saw Aunt Mabel, she didn't recognize me or Grandma or anyone. But she took a new baby in her arms and crooned to him with such assurance and expertise that for a moment she seemed wholly herself. A month later she was gone.
My grandmother lived and died within a 10-mile radius of home -- "home" being a rural area populated by half a dozen families so interbred that the family tree is a thicket. She visited New York City when she was 12, but she didn't like it and never went back. She must have seen people of other races on occasional shopping trips to Wilkes-Barre, but I doubt she ever spoke to one. She didn't get a telephone installed until the 1950s. Who was there to call? Everyone she knew was within walking distance -- down the road was the stone house where she'd been born, Mabel's yellow American four-square house, and her mother-in-law's frame Victorian with one field turned into a baseball diamond.
Unlike Aunt Mabel, who loved to read and travel, Grandma was a pure homebody. She never even learned to drive. Her life was church, family, housework, cooking, sewing. She was an extraordinary seamstress and crafter, and her homemade bread was legendary. So was the ice cream she made every year for the family picnic. And the frozen strawberry jam, and so many other wonderful foods -- mostly raised at home, preserved there, and devoured with pleasure by people related by blood or marriage. Or both.
She was bright, but she wanted nothing, it seems, other than the domestic life she had with Grandpa.
I loved her, and I've been missing her for years.