Saturday, October 9, 2010

The last time I saw Grandma Betty

Growing up, my dad was in touch with both of his parents but actually lived with his mother's parents most of the time. And so my "Grandma Betty" was not only great-grandmother, but also sort a grandmother to me. We used to go down to visit her every summer (and sometimes in the winter) at the "Beach House" in California--Elisabeth wrote about some of her memories of there.

The last time I saw grandma Betty was in the summer of 2005, not long before she died. I knew that her memory had been going for some time (as I recall, she was able to stay home only thanks to an in-house nurse and frequent visits from one of her daughters), so I wasn't surprised when she didn't recognize me. What did surprise me was the poise and humor she had retained: she might not know how I was, but a lifetime of entertaining made her a lovely conversationalist even after some of her most basic security was gone.

She made a few jokes I have forgotten. She may have quoted me a few lines of Ogden Nash: at least, in hearing about him always makes me think of her.

When I mentioned that my father was David, she asked the nurse to get out his picture. It was a large framed photo of my dad when he was maybe ten...the nurse told me Betty would get it out often just to look at him. And then she started to tell me about when he was just a baby with a serious case of spinabifida, and the doctors didn't think he'd live. "But what they didn't know," she said, "is that he'd been blessed by men who held the priesthood." And the natural logic of the miracle she'd believed in then seemed so close still so many years later.

"You have a sister," she said to me all at once, looking at the photo of my dad.

"Yes," I said, "Elisabeth." Elisabeth, the oldest, who had spent the longest with Betty, seemed to make sense as the one of us she'd remember.

"No," she said. "It was something else...Judith?"

"Yes" I said, "yes, she's the youngest of us." Betty smiled, seemed pleased with herself and the memory.

Judith was born just before we'd moved east and hadn't seen much of Betty. I never would have guessed that Betty would have thought about her enough through the years to have remembered her so close to the end.

I'd stayed at Betty's house countless times, sometimes it seems for over a week on a summer trip, though I can't remember for sure. I'd talked to her again and again: been told about this travel, this friend, this moment from her childhood. Been told how to stand against a wall to check my posture, how to wash my feet off coming in from the beach, how to eat this food or where that shell had come from. And yet it was only the last time I saw her, I think, that she told me in such direct terms about her first memories of my dad.

What, I wonder, do our elders not tell them because we never ask? What are they thinking about in the core of their memories which we would never have imagined?

1 comment:

  1. On one of my visits I tried to tape-record Grandma Betty telling stories. But whenever I had the recorder out, she didn't want to talk. I am sad to think of all the stories that I only half-remember. Although I need to remember to ask Dad to see if he remembers them.


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