On Conversations with my Grandmother

Sometimes, conversations with my grandmother are amusing. Sometimes, the conversations are frustrating.

Today, the conversations have been the frustrating ones.

It began this morning over coffee.

“I’m going home today,” she said.

“Home?” I said. “You are home.”

“I know that,” she hissed. “I’m going home.”

I changed the subject quickly. It seemed prudent.

I have an office upstairs. It needs some work; it’s piled full of boxes filled with my grandmother’s things. A lot of the things are junk, pure and simple — she had a habit of buying every last thing Readers Digest sent her an offer for. I’ve never figured out what to do with the stuff.

She wanted to come upstairs and inspect the stuff. What stuff? I wanted to know. She’d let me know when she found it, I said.

I tried using “I’m naked!” in the hopes that she would have stayed downstairs. Instead, she stood for minutes in stony silence at the bottom of the steps, until she realized that I was not, in fact, naked.

She inspected my things, and she ascribed histories to my things that I found I couldn’t let pass.

My poster of Gandalf, she said, belonged to her son. My Superman lightswitch cover, she said, was a valuable antique.

She started talking about how the chests were full of her dead children’s things. I asked what their names were, but the infants died so long ago, she said, that she couldn’t remember them.

She started to dig into the boxes of her Readers Digest junk. She found a book — Tales of the Arabian Nights — and she described it as her favorite Christmas book. There was a coin gift set, and she talked about her father sent her the money to buy it.

I looked at the gift set. The coins were stamped 1996. “How could he?” I asked. “He died before I was born.”

“No, he didn’t! He died when [your mother] was a child.”

“No,” I said firmly, “he died a few months before I was born. My mother would have been twenty-five.”

“No,” she said, “Papi” — my grandmother’s nickname, apparently, for my grandfather’s father, the one whose name I bear — “died before you were born.”

“Yes,” I said, “he did die before I was born. But he died a good while before your father. Your father died in 1973.”

“He did not!” she screeched. “He died, just a few years ago!” She calmed slightly. “We’ll go to the cemetary. You’ll see.”

“Why would we drive to North Carolina to look at his tombstone, when I can tell you that he died in 1973?”

“No, he’s buried here.”

“He lived in Rocky Mount. He’s buried there, not here.”

“He is not! He died there, but we buried him here.”

“Okay, fine,” I said with a resigned sigh.

“He died when [your mother] was five. She was just a little girl.” She brought this back up, for some inexplicable reason. It was, I supposed, an idea she had fixed in her mind, something she could grasp. Even if it was terribly wrong.

And thus, we had the conversation all over again. I wanted no part of it, really. I wasn’t angry with her, yet I argued with her, that her father passed away thirty-five years ago, despite the realization on my part that she would never, could never understand that.

My grandmother idolizes her father. It’s inexplicable, to me anyway — she was the black sheep of her family, and she was thrown out, basically left to her own devices, when she was in her late teens. Some facts of the past — like the fact that he was a North Carolina tobacco farmer — she recalls with frightening clarity; other facts — like the ones above — she mangles in strange ways. My great-grandmother, who died when my grandmother was about ten as I recall, my grandmother will sometimes talk about in the present tense. My great-grandfather, too, she sometimes talks about as though he’s still alive.

It’s tricky the way memory works. As the neural pathways break down, connections are made to the wrong things. My grandmother’s perception of the past differs from anyone else’s sense of the past, because my grandmother has no sense of the time that’s passed; the memories are fragmentary and jumbled, which means that she can’t place the past into its proper context. And as yawning gaps form in her mind, she fills in the gaps with things that defy reason and sense. Thus, she has memories, like trips to the ocean when I was a child, that have no factual basis — my grandmother hated the out-of-doors and she hated the beach — yet, those false memories are more real and more relevant to her than anything else in her life.

She has no conception of where she is. Her desire to go “home,” as though she’s visiting someplace other than where she lives, is the surest sign of that. She has no conception that North Carolina is a hard eight hours drive, and any attempt at explanation results in angry denunciations.

She eventually took some things with her. The coin set. A couple of books. Probably some of my things — she’s been coming upstairs and taking my Winnie-the-Pooh beanies.

With any sort of luck, she’s forgotten about our conversation already.

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