When Laura returned to her hometown to recover after a difficult divorce, she assumed the role of caregiver for her ailing grandmother. Grandma was drifting into bedridden obliviousness, destined for an anonymous future in a nursing home. Then Laura set up Grandma’s old sewing machine, and something miraculous happened. Writer Eric Wallace shares Laura’s story about reconnecting with her Grandmother, and helping her make one of life’s difficult transitions.Laura was at a family reunion when she learned her grandmother was sick. A week earlier, Laura had left her husband, the final blow to a calamitous marriage. Cramming what she could into her Land Rover, she’d driven 2,800 miles across the country, and arrived on her parents’ doorstep in rural Virginia unannounced. She was 33 years old, and hadn’t seen or spoken of home in nearly eight years.
Touching down amid the bustle of family felt comforting, but one key person was missing. As Laura sat on the front lawn, watching the children play, her mother slipped up behind her. Laura turned, and asked about Grandma.
Her mother sighed.
Laura listened as her mother explained. How Grandma had fallen a few months back, shoveling snow at age 89. How she had landed just right — well, wrong — and the blow shattered her hip. The two hours she had lain there, shivering, until Laura’s dad dropped by for his daily, pre-work check-in and found her.
Then the hip replacement surgery, the full-time nurse, and the after-effects of the shock. This wasn’t the Grandma who Laura remembered, her mother warned.
This Grandma had problems recognizing friends and family. She believed her husband was still alive, and frequently called her children by the wrong names. She rarely spoke and, when she did, her words were venomous darts. She turned away visitors, rarely left the house, and, most days, wouldn’t get out of bed. Her doctors seemed to think she was just marking time.
It took a moment for Laura to realize her mom had stopped talking.
“How long?” Laura asked.
“Two months, give or take.”
Summers With Grandma
Throughout her early childhood, Laura’s parents moved 29 times in 13 years. Amid the chaos there was, however, one constant: summer vacation. Laura spent the bulk of every June and July with her grandparents.
Laura spent most days with Grandma. A passionate and talented seamstress, Grandma did a steady business mending, altering, and fabricating custom garments. Armed with her Singer sewing machine, Grandma could turn a pile of fabric into just about anything.
Laura loved the time spent shopping for material, drawing up designs for dresses, mastering this or that technique. But best of all were the ‘special projects,’ which Grandma would plan for just the two of them. One year, it was a sofa reupholstered in bold, dark-red velvet. Another, a long and elegant prom dress for Laura’s cousin. Still another, a personalized quilt for Laura’s parents.
While she stood a hair over five feet tall, and probably weighed 110 lbs soaking wet, Grandma was so strong, so fiercely independent, and laughed so fully and loudly, Laura didn’t doubt for a moment there was anything she couldn’t do.
Laura moved in with her grandmother the day after the reunion, but the farmhouse she remembered was much changed. Gone was the hand-carved heirloom furniture, replaced by a hospital bed, chamber pot, walker, blaring wall-mounted television and an array of medical supplies. Then, there was Grandma herself.
Grandma stared out the window, oblivious to the yammering television. Her breath came in short, rattling gasps. Although the thermostat was set to 80 degrees, she lay under a thick blanket. Her hands were clasped atop her stomach, the skin stretched and thin and mottled.
Laura sat down on the edge of the bed and took Grandma’s hand. Slowly, Grandma turned her face toward Laura’s, struggling to come up with a name.
Laura searched for the words to make a connection. She turned to the memory of one special sewing project – a blue snowsuit, and her pet name. Snowflake.
As she said her childhood nickname aloud, Laura saw Grandma’s eyes brighten. She smiled and mouthed Laura’s name, then stroked her hair as Laura sobbed.
Is Anybody In There?
For Laura, the following month was a rollercoaster of heartbreak. Some mornings, Grandma would give her a slow, twisted smile. She would call Laura by name, and do her best to help Laura help her to the bathroom. She might even move into the living room to watch television, or the kitchen for an early dinner.
But these instances were rare. Terribly fragile. And always fleeting.
Indeed, at the slightest reminder of her increased vulnerability, Grandma would retreat. It could be as simple as spilling some food on herself at lunch. She would become cold, distant, completely silent. Sometimes, the silences lasted for days. During that interval, she would eat little more than a few crackers here, a carrot there. She’d refuse to leave the bed, or even acknowledge Laura’s presence.
Meanwhile, not only did Grandma refuse to help choose where she would live out the final phase of her life, she seemed willfully blind to the reality that such a change was looming.
Laura’s father would visit, and read from brochures detailing the wonders of life at various assisted living communities. Then he would sigh, and ask which facility Grandma liked best. Or what furniture she wanted to take with her.
Grandma’s response was always the same. She would turn to her son and ask for her husband. The cows needed feeding, and she wasn’t feeling like herself. Would he be home soon?
On one such occasion, Laura’s father lost it. In a fury of frustration, he’d stormed out of the house, threatening to sell everything and choose a facility himself.
Unlike her father, Laura believed that Grandma was actually still there. Laura felt instinctively that her grandmother’s symptoms had more to do with depression than the onset of a cognitive disease like Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Fueling her hypothesis was the fact that no matter how far Grandma retreated, with enough coaxing, she would eventually creep back out of her shell.
Grandma’s Special Project
Laura soon noticed a pattern. As with the initial visit — when she’d referred to herself using Grandma’s pet name, Snowflake — Grandma’s ‘returns’ appeared to coincide with powerful memory triggers. Particularly ones shared by the two of them.
By her fifth week home, Laura decided to take radical measures. She found a cache of family photo albums in an upstairs closet. In the basement, she rifled through chests, pulling out quilts, costumes, and dresses the two of them had made together. From the garage, she retrieved Grandma’s sewing machine, two plastic chest-of-drawers filled with buttons and frills, and three storage bins full of Granddaddy’s clothes.
In Grandma’s bedroom, Laura installed a downsized version of Grandma’s old sewing studio. From the many albums, she plucked photos of happy moments involving herself and Grandma, and compiled them into a single book. Enlisting her mother’s assistance, she gathered current images of Grandma’s 3 children, 9 grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren. These she pasted onto poster boards, and hung them all over the bedroom.
With the help of her mother and her aunts, Laura convinced her cousins to each write a couple of emails detailing favorite memories with Grandma. Each morning, Laura would sit by the bed and read a new email, pointing out its author in the pictures on the wall. At lunch, she’d open the special photo album and reminisce about a page of memories.
Look Grandma, here’s when we went to the zoo. Here’s when you and Granddaddy took all of us grandkids camping in the Great Smoky Mountains. I remember this. Do you remember that?
For several days, Grandma watched without comment, with the same vacant stare she gave the television. Then Laura started removing Granddaddy’s clothing from the containers. As she sifted through flannel shirts, ranger uniforms, suits, blue-jeans and t-shirts, something changed. Laura noticed Grandma’s eyes take on a new focus. Somewhere deep in her mind, machines were firing — long-neglected circuitry was struggling to come back to life. Grandma watched transfixed as Laura selected the best pieces and from them cut the squares for a quilt.
“We’re going to make you a proper blanket,” Laura said. “Consider it our latest special project.”
Within days, Laura noticed a marked change in Grandma. Her appetite improved dramatically. A semblance of color was returning to her face, and the ever-present scowl seemed to be loosening its hold.
Five days into the experiment, Laura draped a frog costume over her grandmother’s lap. The two had made it when Laura was eight and obsessed with collecting frogs from the farm pond.
Laura watched as Grandma ran her fingertips over the costume, feeling the faded green felt. “You wanted to know what it was like to be a frog,” said Grandma, a smile spreading across her face. “And we made this magic costume, so you could find out.”
Laura gently placed the shears on the fabric and explained about how it would become part of the quilt. So that every time Grandma touched it, she would remember Laura’s love. The quilt, Laura explained, would remind Grandma of all she had done and how much she mattered.
With shaky hands, Grandma took up the shears. After staring at them a moment, she turned to Laura and said, “I may need a bit of help. My hands aren’t as strong as they used to be.”
The Strength to Move On
Over the course of the final three weeks they spent together at the farmhouse, Laura and Grandma completed their special project. Each day, Laura watched Grandma grow stronger, and become more involved in the quilt making. Slowly, while they worked, she began to talk. At first, it was mostly remembrances of their mutual past. But then she talked about Granddaddy’s death, her loneliness, the fall, the house, and eventually, even the move.
It happened one evening after dinner. Grandma asked if Laura might help her out onto the porch to watch the sunset. The request to cross the doorway was unprecedented – the entire time they’d been living together, Grandma had panicked at the mere mention of leaving the house.
Settled into the porch swing, the two of them gazed at the fiery late-August sunset. It was a cool evening, and there was a soft breeze. With a sigh, Grandma pulled one of Laura’s father’s brochures from her shawl.
She had made her choice, she explained. She wanted to live in this facility because they had live music and dances. Residents taught classes, and there was even a class on quilting.
“I was thinking I might teach a class,” she said. “And who knows, maybe I’ll find someone to dance with.”
Dancing? Teaching a class? Laura thought about how Grandma could barely manage to get out of bed, much less dance. Was she setting herself up for failure? But that didn’t matter. “I’ll come dance with you,” Laura blurted. “And I’ll help you teach a class. I think it’s —”
But Grandma interrupted.
Life had offered some unexpected twists for both of them, hadn’t it? Granddaddy’s death, Grandma’s fall, Laura’s divorce.
“The trick, it seems, is to be brave enough to change, and never stop planning your next special project. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Laura nodded. Grandma was right: She too would have to be brave enough to change, to resolve herself to making the most of it, and simply carry on.