Each time I come home to visit, I find that Grandma’s vocabulary has shrunk a little more—like the pages of her brain’s dictionary are being ripped out one-by-one. One of the first pages to disappear held the word “grandson.” She doesn’t remember what exactly I am to her family line, but she still remembers me, which I figure is what really matters. And my memory hasn’t lost any pages. I figure, right now, that’s what really matters too.
I am seven and spending the day at Grandma’s home, forty-five minutes away from mine. It’s a small, tan-bricked single-story sitting on a street corner in Chandler, Oklahoma—one of those color-by-number houses they built in the late sixties for low-income families.
If I’m quiet, I can hear the train passing two blocks away.
I am kneeling on Grandma’s blue, floral couch in the living room and staring past her lace curtains outside, wishing for Mom and Dad to pull into the driveway. I don’t like it when they’re gone—especially when they’re all the way in Europe while my dad attends his professor conferences.
Every night I fall asleep wrapped in Mom’s robe, smelling her perfume. This time she put a note on my pillow when she left—she said she loves me very much and would be home soon. And that night I fell asleep rubbing creases into the paper, crying and praying God would protect them.
“Drew, why don’t you and I play some croquet?” Grandma says.
I smile and nod, jumping off the couch and running outside to set about building the course around Grandma’s pink rhododendrons. I squint and tilt my head in the sun while I concentrate on the way the wind is moving and the slight incline between her flower bed and the bush.
When it’s ready, Grandma spreads her legs and brings the club back—crack—the croquet ball goes flying and we both laugh. Mine the cry of a child, loud and free. Hers a cackle that comes with age, but equally loud and free.
I am eleven and the whole family—me and Mom and Dad and Taylor and Avery—are staying at Grandma’s for the night to kick off Christmas break.
“Drew, would you like to play with the blocks?” Taylor asks.
I would. Taylor and I grab the two gallon bucket full of blocks in the hall closet and play with them as the adults talk about Oklahoma and Chandler and adult things: Who’s marrying whom, whose mother passed last year from cancer, and how it’s a shame the once beautiful home in the center of town is so run down. Grandma knows everything about Chandler—she was born here at the height of the Dust Bowl, eight years after Highway 7 cut through it, officially making it a dot on the map. Even as Grandma moved from place to place, from Dallas to San Francisco to Boise to Seattle, having two kids seven years apart, Stan and DiAnn—my mom—she kept up with the happenings in Chandler.
Finally, I’m granted access to Grandma’s copper cookie jar, and I’m sent to sleep on the pull-out set up in the tiny ballet studio in my Grandma’s house.
When Mom and Grandma moved in here in the mid-Seventies, Grandma had just returned to Chandler newly single, about to begin a life for two. As you’d expect, the house didn’t have a ballet studio—just a small room with a window looking out towards the pink rhododendrons.
So when Mom grew serious about ballet, Grandma enlisted the help of her father and turned that room—the first one on the left across from the bathroom—into a studio. They ripped out the carpet and replaced it with wood-like linoleum. They installed a barre across one wall and purchased a floor-to-ceiling mirror.
It was a room worthy of New York City—only the occasional train horn placed it on a corner in Chandler, Oklahoma.
I fall asleep staring at the mirror, imagining Mom as a teenager. I imagine her toes pointed and her curly brown hair tied up tightly on the back of her head. Mom pirouettes in and out of my consciousness.
I am sixteen, and we are sitting in Grandma’s living room. I am on the blue floral couch next to Mom with my back to the lace curtains. Grandma is sitting in her gold chair with the throw blanket folded on its back. She is smiling, as usual. My eyes are drooping, as usual.
“Drew, why don't you go back there and take a nap?” Grandma says.
She is worried that I’m not getting enough sleep. The truth is, I’m getting too much sleep. My body is at war with my anxiety and I don’t know what it is doing or how to fix it.
I stand up, rub the wrinkles out of my khakis, and head to the back room to take a nap.
I think about the many times I’ve slept at Grandma’s house as a kid, anxious about Mom and Dad being across the ocean, and how each morning—way too early—I would creep out and go to Grandma’s room and find her reading her Bible in the stillness of the sunrise.
I would crack the door open and peer inside reverently. Holiness wasn’t yet a part of my vocabulary, but I could sense it.
She would look up and give a mischievous grin.
She’d whisper, “Good morning, Drew. Come up here.”
We were like two kids breaking the rules. I would tip-toe over and climb up in bed, my bare feet deemed worthy of holy ground.
“Tell me a story about mom as a little girl,” I would say.
“Well, let me think.”
As she began to talk, I would burrow deep into her side.
She talked about the big meals on the farm on Sundays with my great-grandparents and how Mom would eat a whole bunch and then eat even more, sitting with her grandad in the living room with a plate of cookies between them. She told me about the time the family dog, Pugsy, got angry at Mom and peed on her pillow. Grandma would cackle, and I would too—plastered into her side, our ribs and shoulders would shake together.
Sometimes instead of stories about Mom as a girl, Grandma would talk about what it was like when she was little. How she would creep out of bed and go to the big radio in the living room, turning it on as low as possible to listen to the Saturday morning serials and not wake her parents. She told me of a Chandler without the Sonic Drive-In or the big Ford dealership. She talked about the drug store her father owned on Main Street, Wright Drug—the same place she would first work when returning with Mom—and what it was like to sit at a soda fountain and drink an old-fashioned float.
I would close my eyes and imagine being with her back then, walking on Main Street bricks embroidered with “Do Not Spit” and “No Littering.” Talking about school or church or Oklahoma Summers. Watching the sun scorch the weeds reaching up through the cracks and towards our toes.
Then I would open my eyes and lean further into her warmth, looking at the picture frames lining the shelves around her room. Mom’s eighth-grade school photo, Stan’s wedding picture, my little league picture.
God put Moses in the cleft of the rock while he passed by. I think he put me in Grandma’s side.
I am nineteen and in my first year of college in California—far from Oklahoma. Grandma’s voice cuts through the air and I imagine her at her counter, the receiver to her old dial phone in her hand.
“Drew, you know what the Bible says? It says that we are to cast all our cares on him, for he careth for us.” She always punctuates each word at the end of a sentence with a gentle staccato when she makes a point.
I am desperately missing home. After a semester spent studying at a college outside Los Angeles, I decide to escape to Yosemite for fresh air and maybe a train whistle two blocks away. The anxiety that swarmed my seven-year-old body waiting for Mom and Dad and my sixteen-year-old body craving sleep has dressed up and put on a suit—donning the disguise of grown-up worries.
I fold inside my jacket as I talk to Grandma.
“I just miss you and the family a lot. I don’t know if I can do this much longer.”
“You know, Drew, worry is a sin. God doesn’t want us to worry because he wants to hold all of our worries. Every last one. He looks after the sparrows and the lilies. And he loves you more than them. I know he watches over you.”
Her words feel out of place. I live surrounded by books emblazoned with big names making big claims in the shadow of the Los Angeles skyline. They tell me I need to shed simplicity, that I need to become one of them: erudite, self-assured, bombastic. “Cast your cares on him” is an endangered species.
My panic attacks are growing more regular, and I don’t feel strong at all.
How far removed am I from her side?
She mentions turning seventy-five in a few months.
“Grandma, seventy-five is the new fifty.”
She cackles. “Oh is that so? Well I am feeling older.”
“Don’t say that! You are young and lively!”
“Well, Drew, I am ready for heaven. I am ready to meet Jesus and be with him.”
Suddenly, the night is punctured and the stars drain. The darkness folds in on itself as I fold further into my jacket.
Her words blur together.
I know she means it.
She finishes talking, and I say between silent sobs, “No, Grandma, don’t say that. I need you to be around for my college graduation and my wedding and to meet your great-grandchildren.”
“Oh, Drew, I want to be here for that too, but I’m also looking forward to heaven and Jesus.”
I begin to cry harder, but I don’t want her to know I’m upset. I can’t keep talking—she’ll be able to tell—my breaths are too staggered.
“Hey Grandma, I gotta go, okay?”
I hang up, sucking in Yosemite air, my soul stripped to the stars’ and heaven’s whims. All the fancy theologians and philosophers fade to black, immaterial in the brightness of my grief, in the grip of my only thought: She can’t leave.
She, the woman who got up before the sun every morning to spend time with Jesus.
She, the woman who lost a lifestyle and a husband in one swipe but raised a daughter to be a full human and wonderful mother.
She, whose sides were worn by survival and made strong by love.
She can’t leave because it is her faith I long for. It is her pace I want to match. It is her kind eyes I want to emulate. The world can have its philosophy and its success. It can craft great towers to the sky, built on four-syllable words and vain promises. It can keep my bookshelf and my upward mobility and my monuments of erudition as ransom. May they be burnt up for the sake of a faith like Grandma’s.
She can’t leave.
I am her grandson.
I am twenty-five, and it is the Thursday before Easter, 2018.
Grandma is sitting in her reading chair covered in throw blankets. I resume my place on her blue floral couch.
I am struck with how much this new home feels like Grandma’s old one. If I squint my eyes and tilt my head, I can momentarily believe it is her small, tan, brick home on the corner in Chandler, Oklahoma.
Perhaps if I’m quiet enough I’ll hear the train go by two blocks away.
But I am not a fool. I know the train whistle will not come.
The conversation begins and leads to her old silk curtains hanging to my left instead of at my back. Sidewalk and grass greet me on the other side of the window, not pink rhododendrons.
“Your dad put up that . . . that . . .” Grandma’s voice trails off as she searches her brain for the word.
“Curtain rod,” Mom helps.
“Yes, yes that’s the word. Curtain rod.”
There are twelve library books stacked up on the counter of her kitchenette. She says she has gone through all but two in three days. Mom and I aren’t sure how much she is able to actually retain.
Mom takes over the conversation, “Mom, you got a letter in the mail.”
She passes Grandma a neatly written card.
Grandma opens it, reads it, and shakes her head, confused.
“Oh, it’s that couple from that one church writing me again. I don’t know why they keep sending me letters. It’s very nice of them, but I only visited that church three or four times.”
I look at Mom, and she shakes her head slightly.
Grandma is talking about First Baptist Chandler. The church she attended for fifteen years before moving closer to Mom and Dad.
That’s a new loss with this visit. The page with “First Baptist Chandler” has been ripped out.
It seems, along with the pages of the dictionary, the furniture and picture frames of her brain are being removed one-by-one. I always assumed they were fixed and immovable, but I blink and find someone has taken her chair. I blink again and it is her couch missing. Again and it’s her curtains.
Eventually it will be Mom’s eighth-grade photo, Stan’s wedding day picture, my little-league picture.
Someone is looting the place and leaving her behind, confused and unable to call her grandson because she doesn’t remember that word.
Damn the looters.
We finish talking with Grandma and get up to go. She hugs me tight and says softly, “Oh, I wish you lived closer.”
My heart sinks.
“I wish I lived closer too, Grandma. But I feel like God wants me where I’m at right now.”
We pull away from the hug, and she looks me in the eyes, her hands holding my shoulders.
“Now, Drew, that is the most important thing. Follow what God wants for you. That’s what I want.”
She doesn’t remember that phone call in Yosemite, and she doesn’t remember where I went to college or why I live in California. But she knows I love God. And she knows he loves me more than the sparrows or the lilies. And she’s content with that.
I pray I am content knowing God watches over her too.
She says she wants to walk us out, so I put my arm around her shoulder, and she puts her head onto my chest. We are back on her bed, but this time she is the one burrowing into my side.
She was always strong enough, though. I am afraid I am not.
We walk out her front door and into the hallway. A portable nurse’s station sits two doors down as a reminder of where we are, her new home. We pass by a nurse who smiles and says hello to Grandma.
“This is my grandson,” Grandma proudly tells him.
This time she remembered the word.
I am twenty-five, and it is Easter, 2018. I am standing in Grandma’s empty living room. Her house must have been broken into, ransacked, looted.
Tiny craters in the carpet stare up at me where the feet of her blue, floral couch once stood. The lace curtains are down, her reading chair covered in throw blankets is gone, and all that is left are a few paintings, an old record player, the dial phone on the counter, and the pink rhododendrons outside.
The ballet studio still has the floor and the bar, but the mirror is no longer there, no longer reflecting ballet slippers practicing fourth position. The pull-out couch has survived, but the bed is folded underneath the cushions. The closet with the blocks is empty but for mothballs.
The looters grabbed from every corner.
I move toward my old napping room.
The bed is still there, but it’s stripped. The blue and pink quilt is gone, and the closet is empty—Grandma’s Sunday dresses aren’t hanging neatly inside anymore.
The door is still splintering at the bottom.
Finally, I go to Grandma’s room.
The pictures and frames are gone—Mom’s eighth-grade school photo, Stan’s wedding picture, my little league picture. Her daughter, her son, her grandson—me—removed from the wall. The bed that used to face it is stripped too. Everything is stripped. Her memories too.
My memory hasn’t lost any pages. I figure, right now, that’s what really matters.
Looters be damned.
Cover image by Hans Eiskonen