My Grandmother’s House
by Kelly Warburton
I can still feel the solid weight of her feet pressed heavily against my stomach. Separated carefully, positioned just beneath my ribcage, the heels of her feet had dug deeply into my hip bones. I can sense the strength of her arms, muscles flexing, holding mine as she made rapid whooshing noises. The wide rims of her glasses had slid down her nose, resting at an obscure angle.
“Where to?” She would shout. My little cousin would stand to the side, waiting impatiently for her turn to play helicopter.
“To the moon,” had always been my reply.
“To the moon Nan.”
Toni would hop from one foot to another, her flannel pyjamas askew on her tiny frame.
“My turn! It has to be my turn!” I can hear my Nan’s laugh. The throaty cough that made its presence known even in our childhood, a warning sign of what was to come. Gently, she would bend her knees, bringing you down to the softness of the carpet. A wink from her, aimed just at you as she prepared herself for the next captain. Those moments, arms clasped tightly by my grandmother’s, legs flailing outwards are ones I cannot afford to forget. If I could close the door and preserve them forever in a moment of stillness, I would have done so gladly. If I had taken a snap shot of that moment, I would be able to see it clearly. Thinking of it now, I feel a delicious tenderness tingle all the way from my knees into my chest. In the picture, I can hear Toni giggling.
These are the things I remember in the dead of the night. The things that come back to me as I stand in her front room, breathing in her house. Wishing it back in time. The house had not heard of the death. The clocks still ticked and the refrigerator still whirred. Looking about the room, I no longer feel at home here. It had once been so full of life and children’s laughter. The boom of Max’s bark, Dean Martin crooning in the background, the sound of racing blaring from the television, these are all just a memory now. Looking at it in this moment, my grandmother’s house seems so small. I stand by the window and feel the waves of tiredness beat the remaining strength from my body. The floor seems to be undulating beneath my feet. How can everything change so drastically in such a short period of time? I am not where I thought I would be in my late twenties. I do not have a family or the career I thought I would have. I am not rich. I am in constant turmoil, scrambling to find the right path. My family have somehow become separate to one another. Unravelled like long pieces of rope. Once, not that long ago, we were very much together. We were a knot of people. Now, after disagreements over wills, a distance and awkwardness have settled amongst us all. I touch the windowpane, pressing my palm flat against the glass. The imprint of my fingers begins to fade almost immediately once I pull my hand away. I think, how is it possible that we turned into these people? We are like strangers to one another now.
“She looks like you I think,” my aunt had said to me one day as I glanced at the old photo album. Dusting off its Egyptian style jacket I was careful not to smudge the delicate photos inside. My younger cousin had waved his fingers to point at a particular picture and my hand had clasped his buttery fingers within my own.
“Careful now,” I had told him. “Be very gentle.”
“Oh,” he said matter-of-factly. “These are the black and white days.” We had laughed at his innocence.
“Do you think Kim? That I look like her?” I had asked. Kim had nodded, placing her hand on my grandmother’s shoulder.
“Yes, what do you think? Don’t you think she looks like you in this one Mum?” My grandmother had glanced at the photo and smiled.
“We have the same shape eyes I think,” she had said as she had winked back at me. My heart had swelled with pride. When all the family had been distracted, I had used the time to examine the photograph. I can remember now, how I had longed to hover invisibly back in time beside the woman in the photograph. The smile on her face was one of pure, unadulterated joy. I had longed to grasp her fingers within my own. I had felt almost ashamed, as if I had witnessed an incredibly intimate moment between two people. I had wondered who had taken the photo? My grandfather? A sister? Her friend? The girl in the photograph had been laughing. Someone had told a joke and she had responded. Her fingers had clasped around the handles of her handbag and her eyes had sparkled. It was a face I had recognized but the skin had been smooth and soft. The lines and wrinkles I had traced in my babyhood had yet to come. Her body was young and neat and the suit she had worn was tightly fitted and snug about her hips. A few years, I had supposed, before those hips would hold my fathers body inside.
“Who took the photograph Nan?” I had asked. She had glanced back at me and shook her head.
“I’m not sure darling. It was such a long time ago now. It’s like looking at a different person.” She had tilted her head down and the noise of the kitchen had crept back in around us, my young cousin playing with his toy, my aunt on the phone and my uncle laughing with his brother. Placing the photos carefully back inside the album, I had stood ready to place them back in the drawer. Leaning down to place them in the cabinet, I had noticed out of the corner of my eye, my grandmother’s hands clasping and unclasping. I had placed my hand on top of her own and she had looked at me directly.
“It was such a long time ago now. I can’t seem to remember. I can’t remember.” I had said nothing only rubbed her fingers with my own, over and over until it was dinnertime and the upset of not knowing was forgotten.
Alzheimer’s took her from us, along with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. We grew old as she grew into a child again. It came on in stealthy and measured glides like the moves of a chess player. Now, as I move upstairs away from my family I am reminded of the times I had spent with her during her illness. Once, as I had washed her in the bath she had grabbed my hand, suddenly forceful.
“I washed you as a baby and now you are washing me.”
“That’s right Nan. That’s right.” She had held the shampoo for what had seemed like an eternity.
“You know what it’s for. Just think about it.” She had glanced at me blankly.
“It’s for washing?” she had hazarded a guess. Remembering this now I feel once more the indescribable frustration, swallowed immediately with guilt. This had not been her fault. Thinking back to that moment I can remember the heavy feel of my heart beating against my chest, flashing heart to stone, heart to stone.
As I had washed her, my hands had run over the body I had known so well in my childhood. It had been so strong. Its curves had been soft but athletic. Those legs had held us up in the air as we flew to the moon and back. They had carried us when we were sick. Picked us out of a bath. Chased us in hide and seek. They had folded heavily over ours in bed. As I had washed them, I could see them clearly running around the garden in the heat of the summer. I remember them, jumping as she had hit the tennis ball over the washing line. My Uncle Tom had kept score, the shocking white of her calves and the freckles scattered over her shin. But her legs had forgotten. I had washed them with the care of a mother of a new-born. They were so fragile. I can remember thinking, how did they become so fragile without me noticing?
As the Alzheimer’s progressed she had grown angry and frustrated. She had wanted to go home. She didn’t know who we were. Her father would be expecting her home any minute she had shouted, storming up the stairs like a spoiled brat. She had cried like a child for her mother.
“I want my mom, where’s my mom?” One day in the middle of the winter she had managed to slip out the front door without my uncle noticing. She had hopped on a bus and got off three stops from a motorway. My aunt had got a frantic call from my uncle unsure what to do. The police had dropped her home.
“Says she was looking for Bramwell Road. Nothing but a duel carriage way there now. That road no longer exists.”
“Mom, you frightened us to death. What were you thinking? Where were you going?” My aunt had clutched at my nans' cold hands, rubbing them up and down furiously, trying to warm them.
“I want to go home,” she had stated simply.
“You are home,” my aunt’s voice had wavered slightly.
“I’m your daughter and this is your granddaughter and your son Tom?”
“Tom? Who would name a child Tom? What a silly name.” My aunt had sighed. Tom had cleared his throat. We didn’t look at each other. Half an hour later she had turned to me.
“Did your friend get that job in the hospital? The one who stayed the night?” I had struggled with my words. Tom had looked at me.
“No, she didn’t, but she got another job at home Nan.”
“Oh, that’s good. That’s nice for her … Tom? Be a good boy and put the heat on will you?” Her mind had come back to us now. It was no longer lost in childhood. For now the child within her had gone to sleep.
I can hardly breathe when I think about her. Now, in this moment, feet dangling over the edge of her bed, contemplating the emptiness, I feel the grief coming. Tears like a small relentless army approaches the front lines of my eyes and overcoming the barrier of my eyelashes dribble slowly down my cheeks. There was a time when we would have all lain in this bed. Me, Toni and Nan. Legs wrapped over one another, cuddled into each other’s warmth. I drift into memories of us.
“Tell us a story Nan. Tell us about when everyone was only small.” And so she would tell us about our aunts and uncles when they were only babies. How Dean had slept in a drawer because they could not afford a cot. How Mark would crawl along the floor and get in to the bed next to my nan so as not to wake my grandfather, who had wanted him in his own bed. How my aunt Kim had taken my father as only a new-born baby and placed him on the doorstep, hoping someone would take him back. The stories went on and we would listen until our eyes grew heavy and sleep would inevitably claim us. I think now, that this was comfort, this was joy. No one had worn a watch, this story time had been not planned, not pencilled in. I lay back on the bed wishing my body back in time. I want to lie like that again, to float unstructured without ambition or anxiety. Closing my eyes I can almost smell my grandmother and my small cousin. The smells are older than any thought. This is the internal vial of perfume I carry with me everywhere I go.
I weep like a child for the past. I long for her soft fingers on my back. Drawing ‘I love you’ in silent long sweeps of her index finger. The L a long line down and across, the O an easy guess. The V, sometimes confused by a U and the E the hardest of the numbers to know when traced. I knew the shapes of the letters of love long before I was old enough to recognize them on a page. Whenever I feel lost or alone, I come back to these moments. The feel of her hot breath on the back of my neck. The rasp of her chest as she had cuddled me close. In that moment, all the neurons within her, the inner workings of her mind and body had been fully alive and functioning. I wanted to kiss every cell. This is how I remember her. I wonder now in my late twenties, if I will ever reclaim that intimacy. That feeling of absolute love. Nothing expected or wanted in return.
“And are you one of ours?” she had asked me one day, quite out of the blue as she sat next to me on the sofa. How is it possible to describe to someone all that you felt in that moment? The absolute horror. Forgotten again in five minutes for her, unremitting for you as you sit silently, your entire body flooded with waves of undulating shock. The sound of the television droning in the background and the loud tick of the clock begin to drown your senses.
“I’ll do your feet if you like?” I had nodded. I could not think of anything to say, my words had been swallowed, lost in the great hole that had formed deep within me. Skilfully, she had lifted the towel and the cream set to the side of her and began the task of rubbing my feet and my hands. This was our ritual. She had not lost that yet. In that moment, she had come back to me. She smiled up at me as she had rubbed my fingers as only she knew how. I don’t know why, but as I looked at her I knew this would be the last time our ritual was performed. This was the last time her fingers would rub my fingers. The final time her hands would softly sweep over my feet. The hurt was in the knowing. Even now, it smarts to think about that moment. I had fought back the tears, as I had willed my body to remember each precious touch.
Two years later, a girl at work, a former beauty therapist, had rubbed my hands with cream to demonstrate a technique. Suddenly, I became a child again. All life, all history happens in the body and I was flooded with memories and turned away, grief, a hard nut in my chest.
How is it possible, to go on with so much missing? How is possible that a person can be here and then not here? That you can be loved and then you are not loved? I want to know why? I want to shout:
“Come back to me. Come back to me. You promised you’d never leave me. You swore it.” It is an awful thing to realise, as you grow older that only you can experience the pain you feel in your own body. No one can share your pain or take it away. Taking one last look around my grandmother’s house I take my leave. My mother chats to my uncle in the hall and I feel a hollow cave begin to form in my stomach. I find a yellow sticky note attached to her old nebulizer. A reminder for her. It reads: Turn me on with the red button. I don’t pull it off or even pick it up. My finger traces the edges of it and I hover over the red switch. There is nothing here for me now. It is time to go home.
You sit on the large sofa in the corner. You feel its worn edges, yellow tassels hang from the sofa corners and you flick them in between your fingers. They are soft and silky and you revel in the ritual of it. Your feet begin to trace the large red circles on the carpeted floor. It has large red roses and burnt orange leaves. You smile to yourself. The red circles are lava pools and you must not touch them or you’ll burn. Hot, hot, you think. Don’t touch the black parts of the carpet either or you’re out! This is the game you and Nan play. Then, you are hopping. You hop past Granddad from one orange circle to the next. You start to giggle. Then, with your hands outstretched, you almost stumble.
“Careful! You don’t want the snakes to get you,” Nan laughs. You negotiate the carpet like hopscotch. The orange leaves safe amongst a sea of black swirls and red-hot lava. You’re getting closer to Nan now. Your pink socks are a garish contrast against the orange leaves. The big wooden clock on the wall behind Nan chimes and you almost fall.
Suddenly, you are outside.
“Close your eyes” You can hear the smile in your Nan’s voice.
“They’re closed” you reply.
“No peeking,” you giggle. Your small hand is wrapped tightly in hers. Her palm is slightly clammy but the skin is soft like velvet. You breathe in the smell of her coat; fresh washing and Pond’s cream with the faintest hint of cigarettes. The cold wind blows fiercely against your cheeks. You hear the familiar chug of a bus engine in the distance and the loud furore of the traffic.
“Guess where we are now?” Her voice is smiling.
“Near the bus stop?” You ask.
“Close,” she replies.
“Give me a clue Nan?” You smile as she leads you forward. Eyes still closed, you can feel grass under your feet. Suddenly, you trip. You feel the sure strength of your Nan’s arm catch you.
“I’ve got you … Nanny’s got you.”
I wake at a start and I reach out. My boyfriend rolls over in his sleep. I would sleep forever if it would give me dreams like this.