When I met you for the first time in the summer of 1995 I had no idea what our relationship would come to mean to me. I was only five years old and new to the neighborhood.
We had just left the house I spent my first five years in; when the owner of our house decided to sell, we only had a month to move out. Mom and Dad said moving was a new beginning and I was happy because I only had to share a room with one of my sisters, but still I felt I was leaving a lot behind. Since I was so young distance seemed so much farther and leaving my friends caused a deep sense of loss within me. Although I am one of five children, I found it challenging to not feel alone. Slowly we settled into our new home, one that was finally ours. Days passed before I felt comfortable enough leaving the house and finding my way back. I decided to bike the mountain of a hill that our new home sat upon. My tiny legs pressed the pedals to the ground and my body pushed ahead. By the time I made it to the top I was out of breath. I sat on the sidewalk, looking down the street wondering if I would ever find my place. Then I noticed you, out of the corner of my eye chuckling at the amount of effort it took me to bike up the hill. I smiled back and knew from that moment on, I would not be alone there.
You were outside relaxing on that rickety wooden bench; I imagine that it was laden with splinters. The type of bench I can’t imagine anyone would enjoy sitting on. In one hand you held a cold coke with a bendy straw and in your other hand a book, one of those romantic novels you used to buy at the grocery store. You looked old, like most grownups did when I was five. Your curly black hair reminded me of my mother’s that time she got a perm; it was horrible and beautiful at the same time. Your glasses sat heavily upon your face. My sisters and I used to call them “bug glasses” because they made your eyes look huge in comparison to your head. I wondered what you saw out of them. Everything must have been so magnified. You smiled at me and said “Hello.” I smiled and wandered off down the street. I started to ride by more often feeling something about you was so inviting. Days passed and I saw you outside, you were picking the stems off of the green beans and dropping them into a large white bucket. You told me to come over.
“I’m Gail, what’s your name?”
And so our journey began. Most days when I rode by you were doing something particular: plucking beans, pickling peppers, or shucking corn; there was something involved with vegetables and I never understood why. One day I asked, “Why do you have all of this?” You stood up; I looked past your dirty Reebok sneakers that used to be white, but were now a brownish black. You brushed off your acid washed, elastic waist “mom jeans” and told me you wanted me to see something. I trusted you completely. You guided me to the back yard and opened the white picket fence. Your husband Joe was in the back yard tilling the soil. This was no normal backyard. I walked into a vast and extensive garden. You brought me through each row: peppers, onions, tomatoes, kale, zucchini, and cucumbers. I had never seen anything like this, not even at the grocery store. Many of the plants hovered over me. I felt overwhelmed, but satisfied. I stood in an immense wilderness of vegetables with a woman who only days before was a stranger, but in that moment already meant so much more to me. You made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Moving wasn’t the end of something wonderful, but the beginning of something better. Each day we spent together I grew closer to you. You were becoming a grandmother to me; something I never had. My mother’s mom had died before I was born and my father’s mother was what I like to call a “holiday grandma,” she was only around for special occasions. You were different, our relationship was different, and I yearned to be closer to you.
Over weeks and months we developed a bond. Each Friday was our family pizza night at your house. I looked forward to this day every week. My sisters and I would come up after school and the house would smell like fresh dough. You would have your purple apron on; dusty with flour all over like a calm blanket of snow. I remember you being so gentle in the kitchen, every meal made with such patience and love. I was the one to help you put everything together. Making pizza is so ingrained in my memory because it was so precise. You would roll out the dough and bake it for a couple of minutes, then take it out and let it rest for a few more. You would hand me a coke and a bag of shredded cheese and watch me carefully place it on. “That’s too much.” you would say or, “Put the peppers here and the onions there.” It was meticulous; pizza making was an art form and you were the artist. Things were done a certain way with you and that is the way I learned to do most things, the correct way, Gail’s way. The way you would fold the laundry and iron the sheets, the way you would cook and never miss a step, the way you created crafts that were better than toys at the store, the way you cared for me.
There were days I would stay home sick. My mother and father could not afford to take off work or afford a sitter, but there was never a need for one. My Mom would pack me a bag in the morning and drop me off at your house. I walked into an overwhelming wave of heat. The wood stove was roaring and the temperature was at a comfortable 80°F, it was oppressive, but comfortable. Whatever illness I had would be sweat out of me throughout the day. You would place me on the couch, and with your soft, wrinkled hands, you would caress my forehead, and tell me to sleep. I would wake to a bowl of Portuguese soup. It looked similar to vegetable soup with alphabet pasta, but it was spicy as hell. Most of the time I would sweat and cry as if it pained me to eat, but it was the best soup I have ever had and I loved that you made it for me. After I ate I would watch you read your book and listen to Joe try to figure out the daily crossword, you subtly, but not-so-subtly shouting out the word he was looking for. I could tell sometimes you got frustrated when he disagreed with you and that’s when we would go make a craft.
You were an avid crafter. You had an extra bedroom to create whatever you could want. The yarn was color coded in large storage containers. Spools of thread dangled from hooks on a peg board. Different size scissors lay in drawer according to their purpose. It was magical. That day we made a bird. You loved birds. Joe built you a colony of bird houses just so you could watch them from the deck; I called them the “bird hotels.” They looked like miniature versions of your house and sat upon the shed in the backyard. They brought you peace and happiness. Before threading the needle I would hear you whisper: “Shit.” I’d ask, “What’s wrong?” You’d say “That was the trick to get the thread through the tiny hole in the needle.” We laughed together and you told me not to tell my mom. To this day I still swear when I can’t get the thread through, it always works. You allowed me to pick two colors of felt and piece by piece we would cut and you would guide my hands with the rhythm of the sewing machine. I was amazed at what you were able to create with your hands, it was beautiful. The first bird we ever made together still hangs next to my bed and I recall that day like it was yesterday. That day, like most, ended quickly. My mom came to get me, but I didn’t want to go. When I was young I took those days for granted, I never our time together would end.
You would let me come over after school to swim. Sometimes you would swim with me, other times you would just watch me. You never went under and I never asked you why, but always assumed it was because you didn’t want to ruin your hair. I vividly remember your one-piece floral bathing suits. They were hideous, but you managed to do each and every one of them justice. Sometimes we would rest on the edge of the pool and watch the birds in their houses. It was moments like this where nothing really needed to be said. I would spend hours in that pool and when I got out we would sit on the hammock together as I dried off. I was never allowed in the house wet. I spent most of my adolescent summers being with you and I remember feeling there was no other place I would rather be. Those days and nights that we went swimming, ate ice cream on the deck, and played Scrabble on the porch, those days made my childhood so memorable.
Over the years we grew closer. We shared birthdays, holidays, and any special occasion that called for a get-together. You watched me grow older and I watched you grow old. Your hair turned lighter and got longer, your body thinner, and your clothes less put together. You were getting tired, but you never showed it. I went from seeing you every day, to never seeing you at all. I carry a great burden for not being there during your time of need. The year I left for college and saw you at my high school graduation party, I noticed I was already starting to lose you.
Years flew by. I didn’t feel I had changed much at all, but when I came home I recognized that you had. These were the last few months I was able to see you, at least the person who looked like you. It was the middle of winter and I was home on break. There was a knock at our door in the middle of the night and I remember being afraid someone was breaking in. My dad opened the door and realized it was you. You were in our kitchen with no memory of who we were, or where you were. You were frail, your hair frazzled; you didn’t have gloves on or a coat. We were scared. Somehow you found your way to us, you didn’t know why and we will never know how, but there you were. I found out shortly after that you had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I didn’t recognize you and it saddened me. Here was this person who always nursed me back to health and I could do nothing for her. Every day you were getting worse. You started coming to our house more often because you didn’t recognize your own husband, you were afraid. We had to contact your daughter and voice our trepidations; we didn’t want anything to happen to you. After that night I never came to visit you. They placed you in a home to keep you under close care. I know this is what you needed, but I hated it. I was afraid to see you. A part of me wanted to keep the memory I had of you the same. I wanted to remember the Gail who taught me, who loved me, who gave me a place in her life when I needed to know I wasn’t alone. It was six years of losing you, six years of you slowly losing yourself. It was spring 2015 and it was the last time I saw you, but I knew it would not be the last time we met.
* * *
It has been almost a month since I lost you; I miss you. I struggle most with putting these memories of you first and my last image of you to rest. It is so difficult. I hate to remember your lifeless body sitting so stiffly in the casket; your pale lifeless face and your cold skin. I didn’t want to remember you that way. I cry most about that; seeing you this way. It is not fair, but it is life. Every day I try more to remember what we had; every day I laugh at little things that I will never forget, but still it is hard to accept you’re gone, especially when I still know you’re with me in many ways.
I have been noticing many things that remind me of you. I play Scrabble on my phone and reminisce about the times we used to play on the porch. Last night the letters in my play list spelt out “Gail”, whether a coincidence or not, I feel you with me. I hear you laughing. I recall that when we played together you would always “challenge my word;” you would tell me it didn’t exist. I told you that I was a writer and that gave me the authority to make up my own word. You took my tiles off the board and said “Try again.” I would try again, Gail’s way, the right way. The bird we made still hangs by my bed; I notice it is always turned in a different direction. I know you are telling me that you remember that day too. It is humbling to know you are still by my side and watching over me. When I hold the bird in my hand and the felt gets caught on my rough skin I am brought back to that day. I feel the needle pricking my childish finger, I hear you saying. “Shit,” I smell soup and a hint of moth balls; that room always smelled like moth balls. I see you sitting by my side, I want to tell you how much I love you, but I never find the words. I never did find those words. I’m sorry.
I know someday I will have a garden like yours, but for now I can only have potted plants on my patio. I keep them in memory of you; to feel closer to you. One year you gave me a Christmas cactus that has since grown out of control, but I am so thankful to have a piece of you that lives on and continues to grow. Sometimes I find cactus stems around the house. Having not moved it in days, I know it couldn’t have been from me. I pick them up and double check that I haven’t forgotten to water it. Thank you for reminding me.
To Gail, my nana,
I hope you knew how much you changed my life. I hope you knew how much those little things we shared were the things that mattered. I hope you knew I saw how much you cared for me and loved me. I know how much you did to make sure I was safe, healthy, and happy. I know you provided for me as if I were your own granddaughter. I am thankful for you. I am thankful to have been given the chance to have a nana, to have a relationship that has changed my life forever.
For all the memories you lost, please know that I have found them.