Somewhere between fact and fiction lies this story.
My trip down memory lane this summer has sixteen lanes of traffic, on both sides. Interstate 5 stretches all the way from Canada to Southern California and it’s a road I know well. At every stop on this familiar road trip, I’ve been reading and re-reading an article written by Martha Gellhorn, about her memories of World War II. She was front and centre at some of the pivotal points in history, yet 50 years later she’s struggling to make sense of it all. With her memory fading, the coherence and purpose she once had now elude her. It’s frustrating as hell. How do we make sense of the world when we can’t make sense of ourselves anymore?
As I muscle my way across the lanes of traffic onto my exit, I try to focus on the mission at hand. This is difficult under a deluge of my own memories. I spent many blistering summers here in Eagle Rock, a relatively affluent suburb of Los Angeles. My holidays were punctuated by trips to the library, to the beach, to church, and to buy household items and underwear with Grandma at the Glendale Galleria (which sounded SO much more glamorous to my childish ears than “mall”). Occasionally, a longsuffering relative would bundle some of us kids off to Knott’s Berry Farm or, on a really good day, Disneyland.
I angle my wheels toward the curb and pull on the parking brake, before clambering out with an armful of bags and papers and empty soda cans. I once tried to roller skate down this very street with my cousin Janis. Lined with palm trees, Hermosa Drive is just as picturesque as I remember, but seems even steeper and more dangerous to my adult eyes. What were we thinking?
But today isn’t a holiday. Nor is it time to wallow in nostalgia. Today, I’m here to work, reviving an old skill set for an important man. It’s been years since I coddled, cajoled and provided personal care to several elderly clients. It wasn’t a job I loved at the time, but it feels important in hindsight. At least I know what I’m doing.
The white house halfway up the block is a poor man’s Georgian mansion. What it lacks in size, and adjoining plantation, it makes up for in sheer panache. The four towering pillars at the front would seem pretentious on any other façade, but this house has the supreme self-confidence to pull it off. No longer pristine, it maintains an air of shabby elegance. The extra wide front door has an antique brass knocker on its brow and I’m thrilled to announce my arrival with a brisk rat-a-tat-tat. “Simple pleasures for simple minds,” my husband always teases. When no one comes after several minutes, I’m forced to resort to the doorbell after all.
Shifting from one foot to the other, I juggle my packages back and forth, sagging under the weight of old insecurities. As extensively as the family has briefed me on the situation there is still so much uncertainty. I’m not sure how I’ll be received.
When the door finally opens I am surprised by the blast of heat. It’s even hotter inside than out. An industrious Mexican woman greets me before bustling past.
“I will see you next week SeñorBob,” she calls over her shoulder.
The Señor is enthroned in a frayed green armchair on the other side of the room. Straight-backed, legs planted wide, with a cane in his hand like a sceptre, he scowls over the coffee table at me.
“Well… you gonna come in, or what?”
I’ve never encountered a more intimidating stranger.
I try to ease the heavy door shut, but the hot Santa Ana wind wrestles it out of my grasp with a resounding bang. I take a deep breath and paste a smile on my face. The key to confidence is: fake it ‘til you make it. I’ll pretend he’s glad to see me.
I try to make nice; the polite chit-chat strangers use to grease the wheels of introduction. “It sure is windy. I guess they don’t call the Santa Anas “devil winds” for nothing. I thought they were going to knock me right off the road. Is it normally like this? I see they’re filming a movie in the house up the road. Do you get a lot of that around here? Have you had lunch yet?”
Smooth. Nothing says “trust me, I’m here to help” like a nervous ramble.
He’s unmoved. Not a word; just a glare.
I feel less like an intruder when I notice the food stains on his white dress shirt and catch a whiff of his scent. Unwashed Old Man will never make my top ten aromas, but today it smells like a welcome. He does need me, even if he can’t see it right now.
Putting down my things, I excuse myself to the washroom, a genteel Canadian-ism which makes him snort.
“The bathroom’s in the back. Don’t touch anything.”
The washroom’s a study in pink. Someone loved dusty rose once upon a time. Behind the toilet a faded sign, written on the cardboard sleeve salvaged from a package of pantyhose, is taped to the wall. The feminine script reads, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” Ah yes, the classy prose of drought country. Before I dare to let anything mellow I help myself to a rag and give the whole room a wipe-down. It’s what my Grandma used to call a “lick and a promise,” but at least it’s a start.
He’s right outside, when I’m done, leaning heavily on his cane, stooped nearly in half.
“Might as well show you around,” he snarls.
Waving his hand dismissively toward the stairs, “Bedrooms,” then nodding toward the front room, “Keep the curtains closed; we don’t want the furniture to fade.” As we inch our way through the dining room, “Fer company” is all he says. Apparently the kitchen is self-explanatory.
He lights up as he hobbles into the backyard. Rendered speechless, I’m impressed by its beauty: the charming nooks, the hidden paths to benches and bird feeders, the dramatic blooms and rustic gazebo. Then he starts talking. He shows me the system he’s rigged to open the back gate with the touch of a button. He explains the construction of each sprinkler. He points out the fruit trees and names each type of flower. Even the grass receives an extensive lecture. “St. Augustine’s the way to go. It’s not like most grass around here, but it’s tougher, better, needs less water. No weeds dare grow when it’s taken root. Ya see how low to the ground it is. It don’t grow much higher than that; it don’t need much fussin’.”
Sure enough, the grass is unlike any I’m used to. It’s prickly and barely gives way under my feet. It suits him.
He settles himself on the back patio; waiting, I assume, for his lunch. He barks out an order: “sardines and crackers.” I try not to gag as I put a tray together. Whether that’s the rather pungent main course, or my deep seated aversion to submission, I can’t tell. I don’t generally take orders well.
We sit in silence. Chewing. Eyeing each other suspiciously.
“Used to have a dog around here, a stray. Just showed up one day begging for food and wouldn’t leave. Huge slobbering mountain of a beast. Not a lick of sense. No use to no one, that mutt.”
“What did you do?” I wondered.
“Spent a fortune on him, got his shots, took him to the vet, fed him here on the patio.”
“So what did you name him?”
“Didn’t name him. He weren’t my dog. We just called him ‘Dawg.’ This one time he got hisself tangled up in some barbed wire the neighbour left out. Howled bloody murder; most awful racket I ever heard. I was in the shower at the time, but I hoofed it out here fast as I could to save ‘im. There I was, buck nekkid, trying to unravel that dumb Dawg, ‘til Doris comes screeching out, ‘Grab a towel, Pa.’”
The floodgates have opened. Suddenly, he’s talking about anything, about everything. About his wife Doris and how she was always the smart one. About “The Meeting” and serving the Good Lord and walking the straight and narrow. About his son and grandson, who lived in an RV on the driveway for more than a year. About the doctors who told them to put their daughter in an institution when she was born, and were surprised by their vehement refusal. About the time they got into the car to go on a drive and didn’t stop until Michigan.
With each mumbled story the picture of a different man emerges. He’s an old school patriarch living “in the world, but not of it;” rough around the edges, with an unexpected marshmallow center. Listening to him feels like coming home.
Sometimes he finishes a story before moving on to the next one, but not often. Sometimes he simply trails away, then jumps in with a new thought from yet another decade. His memory seems to wax and wane without conscious control.
Out of the blue, he turns to me, tapping his fingers against his brow, “I’m losing my mind, ya know.”
There’s an edge of panic to his voice, but the statement is made with complete resignation. This man, who proudly pointed out his workshop and many homemade inventions throughout the house, who spent years building his own equipment, who was the go-to handyman in every sphere, cannot fix himself. And neither can I.
Without the mask of hostility, his confusion is more pronounced. Even as he reminisced, his memories seemed to slip through his fingers no matter how tightly he grasped for them; not just what he had done, but who he was and why he was here. Gellhorn once asked, “What is the use in having lived so long, travelled so widely, listened and looked so hard, if at the end you don’t know what you know?” It’s frightening, and worst of all, so very pointless.
I came here hoping he would recognize me. I imagined a few meals and a good cleaning and a friendly face could hold back the tide of dementia a little longer. I thought that was the job. But I was wrong.
At the end, when memory fails and we can no longer make sense of our lives, it’s up to our loved ones to do it for us. That is how memory, and meaning, lasts forever. This is the job. I am here to catch those memories as they slip away and make them mean something in the world, to make HIM mean something. It’s all I can do.
I put my hand on his arm and leaned close. “Don’t worry Grandpa, I’ll remember for you.”
This piece was published in the literary magazine “Louden Singletree” under creative non-fiction.
What began as a composite character of all the clients I once worked with who suffered from dementia, evolved into a picture of my own Grandpa, as seen through the lens of my mom and sisters, my aunts and cousins, and those last few visits we had on the back porch of the Hermosa Drive house.