The other day, I realized I don’t remember what I wore to my grandmother’s funeral last August. It’s not important; I’m sure it was appropriate, but I can’t remember.
Dolly died a few months short of her 91st birthday, at the beach, on vacation with all but one of her children there, my mother. Mom and my dad–with whom my grandmother had lived for several years–had driven home that day to pick up my nephew from the airport. My grandmother died in the night. My sister said, quite rightly and most obliquely, that it was a very literary way to die.
I think–because it is a pleasant way to think of it–that forgetting what my I wore to my grandmother’s funeral is a way of forgetting how much we had lost of her in the last few years of her life. Dolly was not ill, but her mental decline has been rapid and sobering.
There was no particular disease explanation for it–just age–and I tried not to notice, because it upset her to be caught forgetting ordinary details about her life, and because it led to those common absurdities, tragic ones, like her forgetting that her brother had died. And comic ones. One night, when I stopped at my parents’ on the way to a wedding, Dolly asked me where I was going and I told her “My friends’ wedding.” She smiled and said, “Well, you look lovely. It’s not a conventional dress to get married in, but you look lovely.”
Mostly, of course, it frustrating or sad. Shortly after she moved into my parents’ house, she stopped talking about my Grandfather. I never knew my Grandfather, but I always knew my Grandmother to refer to him. One day, she just stopped.
Dolly was a ghost in my parents’ house. Vexatious and fretful. In search of a task or a purpose, but incapable of all of them. We laughed at the dirty dishes, carefully put away in the wrong cupboards, at the laundry run without soap.
It was impossible trying to be patient and compassionate, while constantly confronting the ghost with Dolly’s voice and Dolly’s body. Looking at a vexing stranger with your grandmother’s face, it was was especially hard to remember who she had been.
Dolly was a woman who flirted and twinkled her eyes and sometimes did little dance steps for no reason. She sang somewhat pleasantly, with a broken voice nonetheless sometimes catching the right notes, usually finding lyrics to riff on what you’d just said. My mother always did the same thing and when my sister and I were in high school, we were unbeatable in a game our friends played in the queues at Disneyland, where you’d try to stump one another with words that appeared in no song lyrics.
Dolly was haphazard and impatient. Dementia or no, she would have lost her wedding ring and broken the tips off all Mom’s kitchen knives and called us all by our sister’s names. Even when she was young and lively, she repeated herself, endlessly.
She told me a story, a thousand times over my lifetime, of me, sitting in her lap as a very small child, rattling off my assessments of family resemblances. I have this like my daddy and that like my mommy and I do this like my sister and that like my mother. . . . Apparently, I looked Dolly straight in the face and discovered “And I have eyes just like you!” It seems quite likely that is the only conversation I had had with her in several years. At least it was a happy conversation.
Josephine was a wonderful woman. I loved her and I miss her, even after missing her while she was still here.
By the way, I know it’s hard to tell, but my mother is neither sneering nor shushing her mother in that picture from her wedding, she’s just talking.