My Great-Grandmother

On Christmas Eve of 1989, my great-grandmother had a stroke. The guys at the hospital lost her teeth, and so when she was put up in a nursing home in northeastern New Hampshire for the remainder of her life, she couldn’t eat solid foods. They never got her dentures or anything; she just lay there for the next 4 years with a toothless grin.Not that it mattered very much, I suppose they thought, and I’m sure they were right. After all, she was probably completely unaware of any of this, just as she was unaware of who her family was when we went to visit her.

I had mixed feelings about visiting her. We only did it a few times a year, whenever we went up to visit my grandmother, her son, who along with his second wife lived in New Hampshire. He was from Providence and his wife was from Nova Scotia; so I guess rural New Hampshire was their compromise. Plus, my grandfather had grown up in a very different Providence than I had, and it had become too “city-fied” for him.

But, I digress. The nursing home was like any nursing home, I guess: the sour smell of the elderly and an attempt to mask it with pastel flowers and Lysol; off-white institutional walls with rugs a shade or two darker; unfriendly, unwelcoming rooms for the residents.

My great-grandmother’s room was a private one, thank god, and I always stood, because the single chair next to her bed wasn’t comfortable at all and frankly I was a little scared to be so close to her head. The family- usually 4 or 5 of us, the 3 generations beneath her represented- hovered around her. Nobody else sat, either. They talked to her, and even though she couldn’t understand or respond, she always smiled toothlessly. She looked at us all with blank stares, only the smile giving any indication of whether or not she knew who we were- and still we were unsure.

But we visited anyway, some out of obligation, some out of love, and as I got older I learned not look forward to these trips. I had initially gone into it with the sense of familial obligation and open-mindedness- or perhaps it was indifference- that any 8-year-old would, but as I became more aware of the place, I began to dread it. I can only remember feeling cynical about it- she was going to die any day now anyway, she couldn’t recognize us or talk to us or hear us, what was the bloody point? The room didn’t change, and every time I went in there I felt stifled: stifled by the smell and the walls and the hospital bed made to look comfortable and homey and failing miserably, and all I wanted was to leave, when we could clamor into my grandfather’s truck and drive happily away. When I could breathe the air of the living world. Not this stagnant, slowly decaying one.

At this point she had lost any sense of humanity in my mind. She was fading away, there was nothing about her that would get any better, only deteriorate. When she finally did die, 4 years after her stroke, I felt like it was a blessing. Both selfishly and selflessly. I think everyone felt that way; I felt a great burden, a veil of anticipation and still waiting, lifted from the collective shoulders of my family. Death had come mercifully in the night, and in this case was better than any alternative. In the photographs from her funeral, no one looked sad; only relieved.

Life continued as it always had, only the visits to the nursing home near Maine stopped. And when her son, my grandfather, died the follow year, the entire state of New Hampshire evanesced from the map I keep in my head to represent my geographical life.

Throughout the following years, talk of her would evoke only continued indifference on my part. For it was her time spent as an invalid discussed, rather than her life as a person. It took almost 10 years for her humanity to be remembered out loud. My grandmother talked about how she had lived in an apartment on the East Side of Providence after her husband died; she was independent and would ride the bus and was apparently quite an amazing woman. My mom even had a few stories, of conversations they would have. “She was cool, especially for a WASP,” she would say. Specifics fail me at the moment; I have only fanciful images evoked by words in my mind.

My mom’s middle name was Chace, and I grew up knowing that it was from an ancestor of ours, Elizabeth Buffum Chace, who was an abolitionist and suffragette in the 1800s who, I later found, had opened her home to escaped slaves from the Underground Railroad. In one of these emotional, often sentiment, and always drunken conversations with my mom and grandmother, I found out that Chace was my great-grandmother’s great-aunt. Suddenly, the humanity of and connection to these two women revealed themselves to me. Especially when, upon going to college, my mother gave me an antique suitcase I immediately fell in love with. It had on it the initials MWA- Madeline Webster Arnold- my great-grandmother.

Of course, my immediate reactions to all of this was to feel guilty- guilty for not having known who she was when she was alive, for being indifferent to or dreading our nursing home visits. But then I remembered how young I was, and knew that it was fate that had not allowed our paths to cross in any real connective way. I was too young; she, too old, during the few years we shared together on earth.

I have only one memory of her before she suffered her stroke. It is during a family gathering, and she is standing in the middle of the room, family members young and old surrounding her. Her hair is pepper brown, not the thin white it had been in the nursing home. She is radiant. She is smiling. She is laughing. She has teeth. I’d like to remember her that way if I could, please.


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