Midniiiiight, Not a Sound on the Paaaavement

Carlita Fran,

Concerning the insult of being forgotten by the senex we love: could it be that, in addition to selfishness, it might just hurt that the project of family-building unravels some when its oldest members stop knitting?

In one way your grandmother and her unrecognized recipe is an old and terrible story. Everyone forgets. But the particulars just can’t be leapfrogged. Thirty questions in an hour until you answer correctly! The walks through parking lots! What scares me most about old age is how it X-rays your psyche and hands your relations the skeleton keys to your soul.

I last visited my paternal grandparents with my dad when I was fifteen years old. They were old and confused. My Depression-era grandfather had taken to washing his used Depends and stringing them up on clothesline in the house to dry and burning garbage in the living-room wood stove. He dumped the remains out front. The lawn was a mess of charred chicken-bones and ash.

My grandmother knew I wasn’t my mother. And I wasn’t quite the squeaky granddaughter she knew. She concluded that my father had smuggled his new lover into her home, and she did not approve. She never stated this outright, but she kept trying to catch the so-called “daughter” in a lie, slunk around the house at night in the dark, and peppered my poor dad with knowing looks. It was awkward.

Because of that visit I know them both better than I ever could have had they died with everything intact. It’s an icky kind of knowledge. I feel like I have seen them naked.

I will now remark (originally) that my maternal grandmother, the one who died in October, was a terrific knitter in her day. The sort who watches soap operas unblinkingly while her hands flutter the needles into surprising sweaters. (I think yours did this too.) They were wonders, and they took imagination. It was interesting, horrifically interesting, to watch her ambitions for her yarn thicken and slow as her mind deteriorated. We know that memory goes, but it seems like the same circuits that let old people recite the poems of their childhoods long after they’ve forgotten their children’s names should govern something as repetitive, as oddly and oldly elemental, as knitting.

And in a sense they do: for my grandmother those patterned membranes were still possible, but the projects were simpler. She’d knit a onesie in afternoon as an afterthought with the same purely mechanical attention she brought to a crossword puzzle or a round of canasta. She used to make not just sassy sweaters, but wool paintings of churches and trees and people. Many of them for me. Now she didn’t seem to want to knit much of anything.

It might not seem it, but this was at least as disconcerting to me as my paternal grandma’s suspicion that I was my dad’s mistress. It was personal.  Knitting had been her way of inserting herself symbolically into my life. She knitted red-and-white diamond-pattern sweaters with misshapen necks and expressed continual surprise that I wore them. But it mattered that I didn’t wear them charitably. They were a little crazy and I liked that, and them.

So when she didn’t want to knit, it surprised me that she didn’t want that validation from me anymore. I don’t know that it hurt my feelings exactly, but it was a small death. Something I had counted on growing forever had stopped and it was my turn to be the grown-up. Suddenly, her pleasure in our apparent sameness (one of my grandma’s favorite themes) had stopped mattering; she just wasn’t that interested any more in how her legacy was playing out. All she cared about now was her past. I felt a little like I’d been kicked out of the family story.

Being forgotten by a grandmother isn’t the same as being stricken out of the family Bible, but it’s not so far from that either. And the sting of your unrecognized recipe isn’t (I humbly offer) merely selfish. The Grandmothers are the closest thing to a record of our particular clutch of Buendías in Macondo, and they’re basically generative whether they’re making casseroles or cardigans. They’re why we’re even around. When they go, it falls to us to become memory-makers of a sadly yearbookish bent: we’re curators, archivists, executors. But we’re not knitters.

This weekend I will go to another city to celebrate my grandmother’s sister’s 92nd birthday. I made a recipe of hers tonight. I should probably tell her that.



Memory Part 1

Dear Millicent,

I have been thinking about my grandmother’s memory.  On a recent visit home, my mom made a famous dish in the family, one that we love to love out of reverence for joint comfort and an agreed upon proof that there were joys in their family.  When we cook this recipe, it’s to honor to my grandmother. This last visit, she didn’t recognize the dish.

She also doesn’t recognize me if I am with children (I think, because I am supposed to be one of the children).  She has waking dreams where she walks in parking lots looking for her dead husband.  She will ask you the same question 30 times in an hour.  She will stop asking the question if you tell her the answer she wants to hear.

This part of age is now encountered regularly enough that “She didn’t even know who I was,” has become part of our script (in both television melodrama and sympathetic conversation).  My father mentioned his disorientation in visiting his grandmother as a boy, with her talking to him as if he were his own father, but at his age.  There is an idea that the person has left: “she’s gone, there’s nobody home.” What I find fascinating is that the absence is about us.  They are still there, it’s us, actually, who have left the picture.   My grandmother enjoyed her meal, just not the sentiment of the family tradition.  My great grandmother pinched the cheek of a little boy who looked exactly like her son, and in that view, my father was erased.

I have noticed that I am less keen on visiting now, both because I am afraid of seeing more deterioration, and because it seems trivial if every two minutes the present is forgotten.  This sounds ugly.  It is.  It’s also because, in some stupid way, I feel like if I don’t exist in her psyche then I am released.  The epitome of the spoiled grandchild—-if you stop thinking about me, I go blind.  I don’t think this is uncommon.  It might be a small relief (a hard relief) to a family that when they move a parent to a nursing home they are out of it and not full witness to the loss and change.

It does bring up an interesting question, one that we have talked about here in regard to love, family, and friendship.  Ultimately, is our main connection and tenderness to another person rooted in the image they hold of us?



On Mute


I am visiting one of my parents this weekend, who lives in a town that I used to romanticize past the boredom of adolescence.  I figured once I could legally drink, I would eventually find the gems of the town (I was in high school in the nineties, when the coffee shop culture was burgeoning but ultimately less interesting than what must be going on in more intoxicating environs).  I figured I would become one of the adults that seemed to have it all as I viewed them from my teenage periscope (I would have tattoos, live in a house with blue bordered windows, wear men’s undershirts every day, and have acess to all cool things). Now I come back to this town and am unenchanted. 

But that is another story.  Instead, I write with a quick list of the chilling and mundane revelations that pile up with a visit home:

  • Our parents make us into the best version of ourselves, because as we watch them from our adult periscope, their foibles are immense and excruciating.  We are assured that we know better.
  • Our parents are used to not fully listening to us, mostly out of the domination that comes from parenthood.  We are their pets/infinite toddlers. We need policing, cuddles, attention, but only when convenient or in emergencies.
  • The parent child relationship might be the only relationship where it is worse to have clear communication because the power balance is so inherently off kilter that ideas of respect and understanding are counter-intuitive.
  • Jodie Foster’s mid nineties mini-masterpiece Home for the Holidays was made for our parents’ generation, but is balm for every generation. I keep thinking of the floating fish.  
  • The lurch for invisibility (if I sit in the back seat…if I give one word answers…if I can find an errand to run outside of the house).  I am texting in ways that I have never understood before (at restaurants, during family dinners).  Pockets of breath.  If we were in a smoking age, it would be that instead. 
  • I have a hard time watching any movie in a theater with my parents.  Where it used to be the sex scenes that made me squirm, now it is any perforation near what my life might be–the dreadful encapsulation of “youth culture” that is unreal, and yet cannot be explained away.
  • Cable television is a divine drug for family visits.  Easier access, less worry than alcohol, often creating long nights on the couch that will warp us back to the equally laden, though perhaps more wrought, adolescent years.
  • And from my time with the television: Keira Knightly is a hungry man’s Kate Winslet; I am only about 2 centimeters away from appearing on What Not To Wear (last night’s episode was about a 29-year-old who loved hoodies).