I headed for my parents’ house on a rainy June evening, anxious for the tastes and aromas of home. Savory beef stew, bubbling on the stove. Spicy lavender, growing by the porch door. I even anticipated the musky smell of wet dog, having missed owning pets while on assignment in Germany.
I’d settled my wife and daughters back in our house in the country after a grueling flight from Stuttgart to Logan. After getting the place back in shape—the larder stocked, the lawn mowed, and the cobwebs whisked clean—my roots called to me. I needed to see my parents and grandmother. It had been far too long.
I parked in the driveway and soaked in the sight of the old cedar-shingled colonial, nestled between towering blue spruces and flanked by an overgrown Bartlett pear. Flashes of my childhood raced across my mind’s eye: my chestnut gelding grazing on the back field; family feasts on the redwood picnic table under the plum tree; devouring my mother’s cooking, and toiling in my father’s sumptuous gardens. I was finally home, where family had patiently waited as the one-year post overseas had stretched to four.
After long embraces and reunion tears, we gathered around the supper table, just as I’d envisioned so many times in the throes of homesickness. Ginny, my father’s beagle, sat at my feet, begging for morsels. I surreptitiously dropped a piece of cornbread under the table, and heard her satisfied snuffling as she sought and devoured the tidbit.
“When do we see Gram?” I asked between spoonfuls of Chicken Paprikash.
My parents exchanged uncomfortable glances. Mom shifted in her ladderback chair.
“We have something to tell you about Grandma,” she began. Her fingers tapped a tango on the table beside her linen napkin, and she tossed my father a nervous half-smile.
My heartbeat quickened and I imagined the worst. She’s dead. My grandmother’s dead.
“What is it?” I set down my spoon and pushed back my seat. Ginny scooted to the side, then laid her head on my lap, her big brown eyes rolling up to mine. I stroked her soft ears and waited.
My mother nodded to my father, who took over.
“Gram’s in a home now,” he said. “She got sick, son. Alzheimer’s.”
I stared across the table. My jaw dropped. Indignation welled in my chest.
“You put her in a home?” My voice cracked on the last word. “I thought you said you’d never do that? We were going to take care of her. Amy and I would’ve taken her in, if you couldn’t. What happened to the plan?” I conveniently ignored the fact that I hadn’t been around for the past four years.
My mother began to explain. They’d tried to care for her at home. The dining room had been transformed into a bedroom for Gram, so she could avoid climbing stairs. They'd brought in her pictures, her Lincoln rocker, her quilts, and the display case with her miniature Hummel figurines and collector’s plates. Her two bedroom cape cod had sold for a mere sixty-five thousand dollars.
“She thought I was a stranger, John. She kept calling 911.” My mother’s eyes brimmed with tears; she dabbed at them with her napkin. “We found her outdoors, in the middle of winter, wandering around in her nightgown. She nearly froze to death, looking for the ‘hen house’ She thought she was a young woman again, and kept trying to do her chores. She wouldn’t take her pills, kept thinking I was trying to poison her.” My mother stopped to collect herself, pressing the napkin to her eyes. Her chest hitched a few times.
“She turned into a different person,” my father added. “She wasn’t herself, yelling at your mother all the time, really getting hysterical. Of course we didn’t blame her. She was frightened and didn’t recognize anyone.” He paused for a moment.
Ginny’s tail thumped the braided rug. I leaned down to hug her, and she quivered with excitement, lapping my cheek.
“With the new medicine, she’s a little calmer. It was a hard decision, son, but the right one.” My mother tried to smile, but her face crumpled. She breathed deeply and stood. “Dad’s going to take you to see her tomorrow, so you can check out the place for yourself. It’s a homey place, has a nice feeling to it. Not too fancy, mind you, just comfortable. And… she’s safe now.”
Numb, I nodded and leaned down to pat Ginny’s smooth flanks. I didn’t want to lose it in front of them.
“Just one more thing. She probably won’t know you. You should be prepared,” my mother said in a voice that trailed off to a whisper.
Not know me? My grandmother and I had shared an exceptional bond. I'd written dozens of letters from Germany over the past four years, assuming she'd read them, and not expecting an answer. With her arthritis, she had a hard time holding a pen steady, and we'd agreed on the one sided letter writing campaign before I'd left the country.
Impossible. She’ll know me.
The next day, we entered a modest gray clapboard house and climbed a wooden stairway to the second floor. Several elderly patients peeked from their doorways. Dad greeted most of them by name, stopping to chat with a few along the way. When we reached Gram’s room, a stranger sat on the edge of the bed. Dressed in a loose, faded housedress, she looked fifty pounds lighter than the grandmother I remembered. Her short blond hair, so carefully coifed throughout her life, had transformed into wispy gray locks that lay flat and lifeless, framing her thin face. She wore no jewelry, no lipstick, and no shoes. I approached slowly and sat beside her on the narrow bed.
“How are you, Gram?” I took her small hand in mine.
Her eyes widened with indecision and she carefully inched away from me. She smiled as if she were entertaining a guest and gently drew her hand from my grasp.
“I’m fine,” she said. Her wary eyes darted to my father. She looked down at her hands.
"Would you like to see pictures of my girls?” I asked.
“All right.” She spoke with forced politeness.
I pulled out a packet of photos.
“Here’s Meredith in our house in Germany. She just turned ten. You should see her play the piano. She sure loves music. She’s just started on the Chopin Preludes now.”
She seemed to relax a little, and accepted the photo, running her fingers lightly across the glossy surface. A small sigh escaped her lips. “So sweet,” she said. “She’ll be a heartbreaker.”
Encouraged, I continued through the pack.
“Here we are at the Christmas Market in Stuttgart. There’s my wife, Miriam. And that’s Alice, and there’s little Micki. Alice is seven and Micki just turned five.”
She carefully took the photo, gazing at it. “They look a lot alike. Such pretty curls. What’s that building in the background?”
I warmed to her question. “It’s the Stiftkirche spire, right in the middle of the city. There are old castles intermingled with new buildings. This one street, called the Koenigstrasse, bans cars; it’s filled with shops and pedestrians. You’d love the Christmas Market. Glass blown ornaments, outdoor vendors in the old cobblestone square, hot mulled wine served from copper kettles... The present I sent you last year was bought right there—”
“Ben?” she asked, looking at my father. Her eyes danced between us and she played with the buttons on her housedress with one frail hand. “Do I know this handsome young man?”
Dad hesitated, looking at my crestfallen face, then patiently answered. “Yes, Mother. It’s your grandson, John. He’s my son. Your grandson,” he prodded gently. “He’s been gone for a few years on assignment in Germany.”
She looked up at him and nodded vacantly.
I sat up straighter, looking into her confused eyes, pleading. “Gram? It’s Johnny. Remember? Don’t you remember me?” My voice caught and I choked out the last few words.
She smiled and put a trembling hand on my shoulder. “I’m sure I would’ve been very proud of you,” she said.
I sat still, grateful for her empathy, but crushed. A leaden sensation played around my heart.
My father changed the subject. “Are you hungry, Mother?” he asked. “John and I are taking you to lunch today.”
She brightened. “Yes, I am. I’m tired of the old-people-food they force on me here. They tell me I eat like a bird, but it’s because there’s nothing good to eat. And they won’t give me any beer. Can you imagine that? The Prohibition is over! What kind of a hotel is this, anyway?”
I smiled involuntarily as I recognized traits of my familiar, feisty grandmother. She was still in there, somewhere.
Dad pushed her shoes to the side of the bed and helped her put them on. Her forehead crinkled and she stood unsteadily, looking around the room for something.
“Gram? Can I help?” I asked.
“My pocketbook. I can’t go out without my pocketbook.” Dad laid his hand on her arm and flashed me a melancholy look.
“It’s okay, Mother. I’m buying today. No need for your purse.” He helped her into a worn blue cardigan and we shuffled down the hall. When we passed the bedroom of an elderly man, she leaned over and whispered in my father’s ear.
“You have to do something about that Mr. Timothy, son. He keeps hitting on me. My stars, he must be at least eighty.”
“Okay, Mother. Will do. I’ll have a talk with the old coot.” Dad smiled. Gram would be ninety next April.
We drove to the restaurant that specialized in her favorites: golden fried scallops and Narragansett beer. We slid into an empty booth across cracked red vinyl seats, and picked up the sticky menus. Dad and I shared one side, facing Grandma. She held the menu, but didn’t read it. Instead, she looked back and forth between us.
“You know,” she said, “you look like him!” She nodded toward my father.
I smiled. “I should, Gram. I’m his son.”
“Oh…” she said. She still didn’t get it.
I tried another tact. “Do you remember camp? On Great Pond?” I touched on a few of my favorite childhood memories.
Her eyes lit up. “Of course I remember camp. What do you think I am, addlepated?” She began to reminisce about people I hadn’t known, who had been her guests at the fishing resort before I was born. Although she didn’t remember me, we discovered a common ground. The tall pines. The cool, sparkling lake. The lonely tremolo of the loons. I took a long pull on my beer. A bead of sweat rolled down the green glass surface and pooled on the Formica. We sat in contented silence, sifting through sweet memories.
“Gram?” She looked at me expectantly, a pink blush spreading over her soft cheeks. “Yes?” “I remember when you and Po-pa used to bring me a slice of pizza from the café, always late at night. You’d wake me up for it. It was cold, and wrapped in a paper napkin. Best darned pizza I ever had.”
“I’m sorry,” she murmured with downcast eyes. “I don’t remember anything these days.”
“It’s okay. It doesn’t matter.” I patted the back of her cold hand and warmed to the childhood memory. “You also sang to me. Every night, before I fell to sleep.”
I began to sing—softly—so as not to arouse stares from the other patrons.
“Bon Soir Mes Amis, Bon Soir.
Bon Soir Mes Amis, Bon Soir.
We had such a good time together,
But now we must say Bon Soir.”
Before I reached the second stanza, my grandmother’s eyes lit up and she joined me, singing in a wavering soprano. My heart swelled. Her eyes sparkled and her face crinkled with joy. She popped the last scallop in her mouth, and laughed with a tinkling wind-chime sound, reaching across the table to lay her hand on mine.
“Oh, my. I love that song. I used to sing it to you when you were a boy.” Warmth filled her eyes. “Isn’t it nice to be with family?”
** Bon Soir, Mes Amis is dedicated to my grandmother and based on a true story. **