Two Grandmothers, One disease, Three Stories

Two Grandmothers

I’ve begun to ask myself why I feel more inclined to tell the story of one grandmother versus the other. Where emotion and humor are concerned, I probably have more in common with the one I’m less inclined to story about.

So why does one story draw me more than the other?

They competed for our affections. Not openly, but every now and then it would slip out.

You like her chicken-n-dumplings better than mine.
Y’all spend more time at her house.
You always go there first.

Both were Mama grandmas, but pronounced differently: Mama Nick (MAH-mah Nick) and Mama Wilson (MAW-Maw Wilson). Mama Wilson was average height —maybe a little tall for her generation— and stout; Mama Nick was short and, by her 60s, hunched.

Both were excellent cooks. One favored gardening. The other sewing and crafts.

Mom learned her domestic skills (cooking and gardening) from her mother-in-law. Arguably, this is because mom was the red-headed middle child and neither parents’ favorite, and she married fresh out of high school, living the first few months of marriage in a trailer next to her in-laws’ house. Whatever the reasons, mom’s chicken-n-dumplings are more like her mother-in-law’s than her own mom’s, and, while mom can sew if she puts her mind to it, she prefers the dirt, like her mother-in-law.

Why her?

I prefer the dirt, too. So, why do I feel more inclined to write about my maternal grandmother?

Mama Wilson wasn’t the “sweet” grandmother. She was wonderful, we loved her; but she was strung between sweet and stern, between doting and “don’t-do-that!” She had a bush just outside her back door that we, the grandchildren, called the stick bush. If she became cross with one of us, in an instant, she had reached through the back door without looking, snap!, and was swishing the switch that would blister our bottoms.

I remember hiding under one of the cupboards she used for storing cloth, needles, patterns, and thread. From there she might just scold us, the switch becoming more of an exclamation point on the reprimands.

Thankfully, those switch moments didn’t define our relationships with her. Even as children, we joked about the switch bush.

Skills

August 20, 1956, my four grandparents and my parents, at their nuptials. Mom is wearing the wedding gown Mama Wilson made for her.

What I remember more about mawmaw are her amazing skills. For fun, she made wall-hangings and things like mantel clocks, using molds, plaster, and paint. To supplement their income, she sewed dresses, vests, pants, pajamas, and wedding gowns for friends and neighbors. Of course, on-the-house garments for family.

She probably didn’t realize she had extraordinary skills and creativity. I remember the year we were in town, and she found out we would be shopping for clothing. I was at the grow-an-inch-each-month age. She looked at me, head to toe, toe to head, pulled out a bolt of cloth and a pattern from the cupboard. After spreading the cloth on the floor, she opened the pattern.

In my mind, she tossed the light tissue pattern in the air and let it fall perfectly on the cloth, but that would be an exaggeration. She smoothed the used pattern on the material, then went to the kitchen and came out with a fist full of butter knives and threw them (not exaggerating here) along the edges of the pattern before cutting the material. That afternoon, I had a McCall’s skirt, knickers, and vest that would fit me for more than a mere month.

My mom and I can sew okay, but we didn’t inherit those skills. Maybe that’s one reason I’m drawn to her story.

The oak tree roots

I think mostly, though, it’s the tree incident. I wasn’t witness but heard more than one first-hand account about her fall on the roots of the oak tree. That year, I began writing about her: a short story “Divinity” and a novel. The oak-tree story inspired the opening scene of the novel, and later, of my first screenplay. The oak tree probably marks when I first really started paying attention to what was happening to my grandmothers.

One disease

Did I mention that both of my grandmothers had Alzheimer’s?

The first signs of it began in their mid to late 60s. By 80, the disease had ravaged their minds. I would come to Louisiana for disheartening holidays, stories about the meek, sweet grandmother, now in a nursing home because she was too difficult to care for, swearing like a sailor, starting two kitchen fires, and running off two caretakers; the stern grandmother, now meek, fumbling with safety pins on her sweater where she’d lost buttons she could no longer sew back on, clinging to my grandfather’s every move, and painfully pleasant to everyone around her.

The stern-to-meek grandmother had developed a tendency to wander at night. On one of her wee-hour excursions, the roots of the old oak tree tripped her up, an incident that prompted the installation of door alarms.

That oak tree and the timing draw me to Mama Wilson’s story. Mama Nick died before I moved back to Louisiana. My visits with her were brief and heart-breaking, often spent trying to figure out where her dentures were and what happened to that new slip mom had brought her last time. I knew less about the day-to-day of her relationship with the disease. She had fallen while I was away.

The falls

I was around enough to watch some of Mama Wilson’s fall. Her fall wasn’t any less heart-breaking, but I was able to catch glimpses of the grandmother I remembered. We helped her with her safety pins, she fussed with my daughters’ hair, and we answered when she asked “Where’s Norman?” Before she slipped away, she held all three of my babies. She didn’t always realize they were her great-grandchildren, but that she held them was a blessing.

As Mama Wilson declined, mom wasn’t always patient. She watched her with dismay and started to say things like, “I hope you can be more patient than me . . . ” and “If I get like that . . . ” Then, mom got like that.

This time, I’m here for the whole fall. We’re blessed that mom’s fall started much later, in her late 70s, and that mom is an exemplary and compliant patient.

I started this essay years ago, before mom stumbled across the rough roots of Alzheimer’s. Some of the beginning of the essay is no longer accurate in the present tense. Mom cooked her last pot of chicken-n-dumplings on her own two or three years ago, she’s no longer able to put her mind to complex tasks like sewing, and her gardening is limited to weed-pulling now. She can’t hoe a row or organize the planting of it. This year, she wasn’t able to make any of the Christmas cookies on her own.

Three stories

I never finished writing about Mama Wilson’s fall before mom tripped on her own diseased roots. I haven’t even begun the forensic work to write about Mama Nick’s fall into the disease. I’m drawn to Mama Wilson’s story first because it was the first time I witnessed alertness spilling from the eyes, awareness and stories slowly draining until finally the gaze is vacant.

All three stories —Mama Wilson’s, Mama Nicks, and mom’s— inform my own as I stare down the triple-barreled Alzheimer’s rifle. All three stories challenge me. Like stubborn weeds, they break above the root and require more than the casual tug to be released.

My intention this year is to dig a bit deeper, to finish Mama Wilson’s story, explore Mama Nick’s, and continue to be part of mom’s. Turning over their stories with my words, my heart will break a little more, but I’ll learn more about these women I cherish, the disease I dread, and myself.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020

Eulogies for living

I did a thing. I wrote five eulogies for living friends.

Why I speak

This eulogy thing started in 1994, the year my son was born and my grandmother died.

In April, my grandmother went down quickly and unexpectedly. For many in our family, the timing was awkward. Awkward for me because my parents were out of the country; my husband out of state; and I was alone with three young children. We were all caught off-guard. Unready.

Just like that, we were all gathered for my grandmother’s funeral. The minister, who had never met her, stumbled through some niceties (good Christian woman), maybe one other speaker read her very traditional obit: survived by all these people sitting here. I felt a strong desire to bolt to the podium : “I have a few things to say . . . ” but I sat, stewing between my daughters on the pew, holding my baby.

How did we let this happen? The service didn’t honor her memory. No one talked about her mad sewing skills. Not a peep about her chicken and dumplings or biscuits and gravy. No reference to her heart-warming smile. Not a single story about her terrifying switch bush. No one who spoke at her service knew her, ate her food, wore an outfit she had made, or lurched in a circle around her as she gripped an arm with one hand and swatted a switch with the other. I was furious, I was sad, and I walked out of that experience determined.

Feeling determined: Part 1

Less than a decade later, my grandfather died. I asked my family who would speak at his service and answered my own question: I will.

At his service, I shared tiny memories: the coins he rattled in his pockets, the rubber bands he kept handy to snap playfully at a grandchild, the VO5 hairstyle, and the long-sleeved shirts.

Nine months later, my cousin died. I spoke again, reading memories and messages from all the cousins. We remembered our youngest cousin well, with sad but warmed hearts.

Giving voice to the memories felt right, necessary, so I continued to speak at services of family, especially if no one else was delivering a personal message.

Almost nine years ago, I eulogized a friend. My friend Dela was dear, complicated, brave. She was a beautiful mess. Her brothers and some friends judged her for the mess: the piles of interests in her home, the messy relationship, the untidy career. But as I watched her battle leukemia for ten years, I grew to appreciate her messes and spoke about it at her service.

. . . there was beauty, openness, acceptance, and love in her chaos. The mess, really, was reverence for the moment. There was presence when she was present.

After the service, another friend approached me.

That was beautiful. I want you to write my eulogy when I die.

Feeling determined: Part 2

That request haunted me for several years. Losing friends is hard, sorting through who might go first is unpleasant, but the notion that haunted me most was why do we wait until the person is gone to find those beautiful memory crystals?

After gnawing on the question for a few years, I decided to write pre-eulogies (I call them preulogies) for a handful of friends and give them as birthday presents. These were unannounced and I asked each recipient not to say anything to future recipients until I made the cycle through the birthdays, closing the circle with the friend who initially requested: write my eulogy.

Writing a regular eulogy can be challenging, not only because the moment is packed with emotion and loss, but also, the eulogist struggles to capture a lifetime, a personality, the giant journey of a person in a few well-strung words. I discovered that preulogies are no less challenging.

Crystals remembered

To find the words, I dragged my mind into the grief of the friend’s absence, across the experiences we shared, and also through the myriad of ways she may have touched others as a parent, friend, child, or co-worker. I struggled to crystalize a friendship in three or four sentences.

Here are a few of the crystals I dug up in this process:

Kathy: I felt a peace wash over me every time I watched her draw in a deep breath after listening to me, lift her hands out and forward as if opening a giant instruction manual, “Here’s what you need to do . . . “

Patti: Sometimes it seemed she was drifting, but she always seemed anchored. [. . .] Wishy washy? An anchored drifter? Hardly. All along, she’s been the anchor. The glue. The strength of the bonds.

Mim: Mim is to blame for many joyful occasions. Girl Scout trips to transplant sea grasses and dance around in medieval attire. Krewe meetings, workdays, and parades. Excursions to hear live music, splash around in shallow streams, explore the flip side, dig our toes in the sand, and paddle across a lake. Latke parties, dinner parties, and girls’ gatherings . . . my house at 6!

Jackie: That act of friendship, that model of taking control of chaos, changed me. It wasn’t about the furniture. She also modeled this for me as an artist, as a scorned lover, and as an explorer. But moving the furniture drove it home for me: take what’s before you, make it yours, make your peace in it, make it work for you.

Betsy: I always felt small next to Betsy. Not in a bad way, in fact, I loved being next to her because I felt complicit, like maybe I could get a little cred when she made the room roar with laughter or when the audience joyfully rattled and shook along as she played her music.

The crystals that capture the friend as I know her are only half of the story with preulogies. I also needed to project: where would my friend go from today, how would she die, who would she be.

Crystals imagined

This might be the trickiest part for me. What if I imagine it wrong, that is, what if she has a totally different outlook for her future? Will this made-up death upset her? What if she hates me for this?

Thankfully, I’m still friends with all of them. Maybe their futures were full of the plausible joys and rewards. Kathy went up in flames in the elbow of the effigy at Burning Man. Patti passed at her beach home, draped across her favorite beach towel, head resting on a thick novel. Mim took her final slumber at a campsite by a lake, Scrappy nearby, a photo of Skip in her hand. Jackie took her last breath drifting through the bayou on her paddle board. And Betsy . . . I didn’t include the details of her death in the preulogy. Maybe because she’ll actually outlive me? Or maybe because we’re so focused on her three long overdue Grammies.

Find the words

Not everyone wants to stand in the absence of a friend to find the words. And not everyone needs to. I certainly couldn’t do this for everyone in my life because the process can be gut-wrenching. But I move forward from this experience mindful of what my family and friends mean to me and open to opportunities to share that with them.

Your friend should know why you’re drawn to her company, why you feel inclined to call and catch up, what memory of her makes you giggle. Maybe stand for a moment in these questions: What will I most miss about her? What well of sorrow will her absence leave?

Remembering Betsy, I wrote:

What I wouldn’t give to hear her tell one more Marie and Boudreaux joke. Right? I’m sure everyone has a favorite. Mine? Marie, the coffee, the oatmeal, and the hot flashes. Ha! You’ve all heard it. Your laughter, that joy that just rose up in you as you remembered her tell that joke, that’s the gift, that’s what we take with us today. That’s the joy in this well of tears.

Friendship is a gift. Take a moment while your friend is living and find that joy, share the words.

©Pennie Nichols All Rights Reserved 2019

Daily Blog Challenge: Three Things I Learned

This is the final post of my October daily blog challenge.

Writing a blog post each day for a month was harder than I expected, but easier than I imagined. I missed one day but I gave myself a deserved pass after energy well and fully spent selling jelly. On at least fifteen other days, I clicked “New Post” feeling doubtful. I can’t do this today. But I did, mostly because it was easier than I imagined.

The Daily Blog Calendar Challenge

I expected this to be the most challenging of my challenges so far, but it easily lags behind healthy daily movement. The goal was to make writing for myself like muscle memory, a good daily habit, a practiced craft. Although I write boat loads of words every day, I was not taking time to write for myself.

In general, the calendar challenges have made me more mindful of how I spend my time, what I make time for. The challenge to make time for and be mindful about writing drove home some specific, unexpected lessons. These are not new thoughts, but the process helped me embrace and trust them.

  • Small things can be profound. Woven into the minutia of our days are subtly rich threads of wisdom and emotion. When we reflect on our rainbow dances, frustrations, or walks through the field, we wrap ourselves in them.
  • It’s a crooked path. Nearly every post I wrote was retitled once if not a half-dozen times. The observations I led with unfailingly took me somewhere else. Seizures might end up being a post about embracing strength in the face of vulnerability, working through the frustration of a botched appointment might become about the culture of blame.
  • Trust myself. If not myself, at least trust my words or thought patterns. This is in part authenticity: being myself. It’s also mindfulness, which is seminal to the calendar challenge I took on. A chunk of it, maybe the most important for writing, is letting go and allowing, letting words lead me, trusting them, even through the crooked jaunts along the way.

Tomorrow I’ll start a new calendar challenge. I haven’t decided on it yet, but I may make it a little less up hill. Especially since tomorrow is also the kick-off of NaNoWritMo. But I’m ready! I have this writing habit!

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

The Quiet Work

Recently, work became a frenzied flurry of files and folders as we made final tweaks to a project, trying to keep the files flying at a pace that would guarantee meeting the big deadline. My teammates and I received comments like:

Wow! You’re on fire!

That felt nice. But the feeling was a little iced when I realized:

This is normal for me. I always work this fast and furious.

Although this truth is annoying, it will never change the “visibility” of the quiet work I do during most of any project.

In Praise of Quiet Work

What is the quiet work? For “job” work, it’s excel spreadsheets, PhotoFixes, file sorting, data logging, or whatever drudgery your job includes. You might be on fire, getting it done at a sharp clip, catching and resolving the slipperiest of problems, but few see that fire. Not because it’s unworthy, but because it lacks the flashy that excites. You’ll miss out on the dopamine that comes with praise and a sense of accomplishment, but the quiet work is arguably the more important part of a project, and makes those Wow! You’re on fire! moments possible. The quiet work is the ground work.

For creators, the quiet work begins with staring at your screen, canvas, wheel, loom, or whatever tool you use to create. It includes organizing your workspace, sorting your beads or yarn, sitting alone with your words, tubes of paint, or tubs of clay. The quiet might be interrupted by flurries of discomfort and restlessness. Before I’m truly quiet, I get up to grab a handful of nuts or water the plants. I pace around the room, rearrange the furniture. I might even do a little housework (gads!). But then I sit down and I sink into the quiet work of creating. The attention (yes, we’re vain, but that makes for better creations) will come later.

Remuneration for work and the satisfaction of finishing will do most days, but, I won’t lie, that little dopaminic shot of appreciation (Wow! You’re on fire!) is delightful. It makes the quiet work less lonely.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

Nanowrimo: Stop Thinking and Write

Next month I’ll participate in Nanowrimo for a second time. Last year was touch-and-go, especially since I was only home for eleven of the thirty days of November. My biggest challenge, however, was not the writing days I lost to the road, but rather shutting myself up. I’m an editor by trade, so it’s not surprising that I have trouble turning that off. Maybe the best way to shut up the editor is to stop thinking.

I’ll stop thinking . . . soon.

In nine more days, I’ll stop thinking for a few roaring writing minutes a day. In the meantime, I’ll obsess! What to write? A tortured love story?

Just before Terry and Pat forked paths to their cars, they turned to each other, as they had done for 935 days on their way to work: peck on the lips, Have a great day! / You, too! I love you. / Love you too! Today, Pat’s eyes lingered on Terry a little longer, realizing, I don’t, really. I don’t love you. That was the last kiss, the last time they would see each other.

Or maybe a child in a suspense/horror story?

Ophera sat quietly in the back, the mumble of her parents’ conversation indistinguishably mingled with the roar of the engine. Ophera wasn’t sure how she knew, but she knew. She didn’t feel sad. It was the textbook knowing. The first element on the periodic table is hydrogen. Hydrogen and oxygen are the two elements that make water. Her mother’s heart beat 113,889 times a day, but her dad’s 100,352 (on average). The car would veer as it entered the bridge. Moments after plunging into the icy water of the roaring river, her parents’ hearts would stop. Ophera knew hers wouldn’t.

Maybe I should go with SciFi?

Darian shut down thoughts as she pushed her ship to warp speed. No one ever said it, but they all understood. She wouldn’t be back. Even if she managed to find her way back, she wouldn’t find anything or anyone she knew at this station. She closed her eyes through the hum of the changing pressure. Darian knew it was an impossible mission. No one believed she could find the crew that shot through this hole twenty years ago. Darian’s proposal and plea were strong and compelling, finally convincing the commissioners to grant her this last-ditch mission.

Nine more days until Nanowrimo and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Maybe I’ll write about that!

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

I know nothing.

The stories I want to tell are inevitably intermingled with other lives, lives I don’t truly understand. Honestly, I know nothing I need to know to tell the story well.

The more I know the more I know I know nothing.

I’ve been reading. I’ve been listening. But the more I know, the more I realize I know nothing. Nothing about black lives. Nothing about brown lives. And honestly, not enough about white lives economically, religiously, and politically removed from my experience. The little bit I almost had right is just enough off center to be misleading at best, but mostly, just wrong.

I want to be an advocate and an ally. I want to tell a story. But how to do it well? How do I do it in a way that honors my experience and their truth?

I felt dismay then just as quickly hope when I listened to Justina Ireland weigh in on the controversy surrounding the young adult novel American Heart

Dismay because at first her words seemed to convey that I could never tell a story that included color. But then that nugget of hope:

“If your good intentions fall short of the reality the first time and that just kind of puts you off the sauce, then why were you here in the first place? I mean, if I’m trying to run a marathon, I’m not going to stop because I had one bad run day. It’s a lifetime.”

I’m here in the first place because I want to stand up and use my privilege and voice to connect and encourage empathy. I’m here for the lifetime, for the marathon. I’ll listen harder, lean in deeper. I’ll see myself. I’ll see you. I want to tell our story well.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

 

Prep Work

—I have to do what first?
—The prep work.
—Ugh.

Why is prep work important?

When I finally decide to do something, I just want to jump in and get down to . . .

painting the bedroom.
tiling the floor.
planting the garden.

Yet, almost always, just jumping in is not prudent. Sometimes it’s not possible.

prep work

Before painting, clear and wash down the walls, fill the holes, tape the edges and windows, and, unless you’re also replacing the it, protect the floor.
Before tiling, remove the old flooring (even if the last owners didn’t!), then clean, clean, and clean. Over there, clean a little more.
Before planting the garden, pull the weeds, turn the soil, make the rows, and feed the soil.

In school, prep work is attending class, studying for the test, reading before writing a research paper. At work, similar.

But what’s the prep work for creative work?

Sometimes it’s just staring into the space before you. Sometimes it’s getting a good night’s sleep.

Just do it. It nourishes the work you’re about to take on.

Good night! I have prep work to do.

prep work

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.