Coming of Age Creative Nonfiction

My grandmother’s breath nearly knocked me down as I pulled her into my arms, hoping that my voice and warmth would spark recognition. It was almost a dead animal smell, a smell that sent me straight back to this moment when I caught it again in the crusted fluid that had run down my fevered son’s face when his eardrum burst: rotting bacteria left to fester in a closed a body space, a reminder of how thin the membranes are that hold us back from death. But this is not a story about the frailty of bodies.

I was twenty-one. I’ll probably mention that again in this story, because for all my academic honors, I was emotionally very much my age. If I learned in school what the longing for human company does to the mind, I didn’t recall--though it seems now like information so much more pressing than the quadratic formula--and I had not looked closely enough at my own or anyone else’s feelings to draw any relevant conclusion on my own. 

I had merely stumbled upon her sitting on a bench in the hallway as I tried to figure out where her room was. I assumed that she knew I was coming, because my aunt and uncle knew, and surely they’d have told her, and though I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years, there was no reason to be prepared for her to see me as a stranger. 

She was a fixture in my life. I spent every afternoon at her house until I was old enough to stay alone. She taught me to make cornbread and made sure I knew the stories in the Bible. Her looking at me as just any friendly stranger meant the situation was much worse than my dad had suspected, and the smell of her mouth meant she couldn’t stay here anymore. 

We walked together to her room. She was willing to brush her teeth when I asked, but she did not know me even when I explained who I was and why I was there. But she was filled with joy that I was there, that was clear in her face. Gramma was much older than my parents seem as they arrive at the same years. A harder life, I suppose: she ate dandelion greens in the Depression and had yellow fever. She was bowed and walked slowly even when I was a child, her hair was wispy white, and the green veins beneath her mottled skin had fascinated me. Now she took her turn so fascinated by my youth, as I prattled on, telling her her own life story, that she sat pinching the skin of my forearms, feeling the bulk of subcutaneous fat that had long ago pulled away from her own skin, watching its lively spring back to resting position. She pinched the skin on the back of her own hands for comparison and we smiled over its slow settle back to the bones. 

For her, I was something refreshing that had blown unexpectedly into her life, like a breezy shower knocking down all the dust and heat of a long dry summer. We ate lunch together. Her tablemates talked to each other, but not to her. She answered only with bewildered smiles, so they’d likely given up some time ago. 

In her room after lunch she pulled her shirt over head without looking around for privacy. I caught an unwanted glimpse of loose flesh folds and sagging breasts that no longer filled the bra. “What are you doing, Gramma?” I’ve wondered since why I recoiled from the sight rather than reading it as useful information for my future.

“I’m going to bed,” she said, laughing at my silliness. “It’s the middle of the night.”

“No. It’s only just after lunch.” I showed her the lightness through her window. I read her Bible to her. 

“You’re so beautiful,” she said near the end of the day.

“I’m your granddaughter, Gramma. I love you.” I thought she needed to be told that I was hers, not a sculpture in a museum. 

“You’re Jonathan’s girl,” she said.

“Yes, Jonathan’s girl!” I said, cracking under the mixed joy and sorrow of the first sign of contact with her own life. She nodded, lips closed in a tight line.

Uncle David and Aunt June listened. They were lively hosts who put on a beautiful meal in a beautiful home. They seemed surprised about Gramma’s condition, borderline angry at the staff. When I had requested that she get reminders to brush her teeth, the duty nurse said that this hall was not for that level of care. She would have to be moved for that.

Uncle David looked annoyed. Aunt June changed the subject.

My boyfriend said “You Americans just throw your old people away at those places. My mother cleaned shit off her walls when my dad’s mother got to that stage.” I tepidly agreed, unsure that his father’s imposition on his wife was quite the compelling argument he thought it was.

Dad was stressed but wouldn’t add any complaints to the burden he’d already placed on me by sending me to check out the situation with his mom. He sighed deeply and reserved judgment.

I brought my book the next day. I read her Mary Shelley. Gramma would disapprove if she were following the story, but it was the book I had to read. She would not likely be reconciled to the story by the fact that the author too disapproved of Frankenstein’s playing God, his attempt to understand the concept of life without regard to the feeling, his ridiculous attempt to humanize the appearance of the creature without nurturing him as a human. But my grandmother didn’t go in for gray areas. As children, she didn’t allow us to read or watch fiction. Bedtime stories came from the Bible and the only things on TV were church and baseball. 

“Your hands are so warm,” she said, inflected like she was asking a question about the story. “I think my hands turn everything to stone.” She touched a tabletop, a pitcher: cold, hard things. She brought her cool paper-dry fingers back into mine and crinkled her eyes into her weak, watery smile, still unable to believe yesterday’s magical creature came back. “Your hands will bring things to life.” She stroked my palm open, its warm moisture pricked by the cracks of her skin. I looked down at the book. What will isolation turn you into?

I told her that she, too, brought things to life in her day. The school she opened, the children she mothered. David, Jonathan, Leah: she knows their names now. “I wish I could see them again,” she said, as if only to an evening star.

“But you see David and Leah. They come every week.”

“No,” she said. “I haven’t seen them since…” and she trailed off, searching for the memory of when she saw them, something like “since Deborah was born” or “since Matty moved to Canada” but Deborah and Matty were lost in the fog, and I was left unsure if they really hadn’t come to visit or if mist in her mind just closed over that fast.

“Since Paula died,” I offered, not because I thought it was the right answer, but because I wanted to know if she could remember anything, and her sister’s death seemed like the lowest bar.

She looked sad, moved her hand away from mine, protectively. “Yes. I saw them at her funeral. Bob was still with me then.” So it is still in there.

I suggested meeting Aunt Leah and Uncle Henry for lunch. David and June shared a sideways glance.

“You do that, honey,” Aunt June said. “Do you have her number?” She stood to busy herself at a drawer, looking for the address book. And I was left lost at the table.

“They’ve had a falling out,” I whispered to my dad on the phone, late at night in the kitchen. There was no phone in the upstairs guest room.

He had suspected it: off-hand snipes about each other’s spouses, David mentioning hearing about Leah’s surgery via email from her son. Why hadn’t they told him? He cursed his father’s stoicism, but in his own quiet, stoic way. “Can you ask about what happened?” 

I couldn’t. I’ve mentioned I was twenty-one. “What do you want me to say: so Gramma was right to always favor my dad because you guys are really screwing it up?”

“Well you’d have to play it smoother than that.” But I was one and twenty, no use to talk to me.

Gramma’s teeth and hair were brushed when I returned. Her bed was made. I’m the last person to criticize an unmade bed, but my grandmother made me start every morning I slept over at her house by making up the bed. It seemed like her again to have it tidy. 

“Good morning,” she said. I don’t know if she recognized me, the beloved granddaughter from across the table at all those hundreds of meals, the grubby kid who showed up unannounced with hands full of pecans collected from the sidewalk on the way, the companion of countless hours of washed dishes, jigsaw puzzles and spelling homework, but she at least seemed to be expecting the unicorn from yesterday. She smiled. She said my name. We continued Frankenstein. At lunch, I made a point of learning the tablemates names and saying them to her, of prompting her to say something to them. I brushed my teeth after lunch, and she followed suit without being told.

I pulled a Bible off the shelf and flipped to the middle, scanning for a favorite before I even noticed it was in Spanish. I faltered a moment, but proceeded in my learned-it-college accent, “El señor es mi pastor.” 

“Y nada me faltará,” she continued without hesitation.

In English there is only paradox, but maybe there’s a German portmanteau word for feeling ashamed of yourself for being proud of yourself when maybe you shouldn’t, or wouldn’t if you were a better a person. Like wanting to brag about giving a dollar to a beggar, when you had five. But “she remembers how to speak Spanish!” I declared triumphantly to my dad. Like I’d pulled her broken from a wrecked car and taught her to walk again. She was there today in a way she hadn’t been. 

He said, “That’s great.” But tepidly, and I realized how small a victory it was, how cold a comfort. Like hearing she could walk again when this was the first he’d even heard of the accident. How could there be a world where she can’t speak Spanish? All I’d done was show up. 

He had called Leah. He didn’t want to tell me all she’d said both because it was gossip and because he’d heard only Leah’s side, while my pressing concern was to get along with June and David as I was staying at their house. But the long and short was that they both believed they’d been promised some jewelry of Gramma’s, and when it came to confronting why, words had flown over who was and who was not taking care of her. 

“Probably both left feeling that if the other claimed to be doing more than her share, let her. And then they didn’t want to talk to organize a schedule and they didn’t want to run into each other. Leah and Henry haven’t been there in months.”

“Months?” There was a pricking in my nose as I tried to fight the quaver in my voice. Cursing the stoic grandfather doesn’t help anyone sit more comfortably with their feelings. 

“I’m working on it.” I nodded as though he could see. Of course he would bring her to him. He had the power of attorney. But could he patch the tatters of his relationship with his siblings after making such a comment on their care? When they had argued that obviously they could give her more time with all four of them in the same city? When she had done so little to mask that he was her favorite? I hung up and sobbed for real over the sacrifice he had to make: siblings for mother. Its clarity made it no easier.

“Good morning,” she greeted me brightly. I wasn’t a unicorn anymore. She remembered that I had told her I was coming. 

“How do you know it’s morning?” I asked. A test, probably a disrespectful one.

“I just got up. Look out the window.” The dread clamping the muscles at my shoulder blades released letting in a flood of relief. 

We went back to reading, and she was following now. 

“Why doesn’t he just stay with his creature and take care of him?”

“The creature’s already killed his brother by that time. He can’t move on.”

She thought, eyes darting around. “Almost anything can be forgiven. That’s his child.”

Ten hours a day of human contact for four days: it’s about the same amount of human contact as if the aunts and uncles had been coming on their regular schedules for the last three months. And it’s enough, the just showing up.

“When Charles and I were kids, we’d fight over who’s turn it was on the Nintendo until mom and dad came and put the Nintendo in timeout.” 

“Oh. That’s a good idea,” she said. She’s followed “Charles” and “Nintendo,” but not registered the abrupt change of subject. 

I go to her jewelry box. “I need to borrow your rings, Gramma.”

“You can have anything of mine, darling.” Of course. She’d given it to neither, just shown that she didn’t need to keep it for herself and trusted no one else would ever value a thing over a relationship with a person. I put the most valuable ring on my finger and slipped two others into my wallet.

“You know, we would fight like dogs, and slam doors in each other’s faces. But at dinner we’d sit together and crack jokes.”

“That’s how it is with brothers and sisters,” she said. 

“Leah and David are going to visit you this weekend, when I’m gone.”

“That’ll be so nice.” She smiles. Not as nice as a unicorn, I think, before feeling ashamed of my pride. 

“Look what Gramma gave me!” I showed June the ring. I saw the tightness in her lips. Stoicism is more contagious than measles. True story. She also knew that I’d sacrificed my last spring break to be here doing what she wasn’t willing to. She won’t say anything. 

“So I figured out why she was wearing dirty clothes and thought the neighbors were stealing her things!” I hadn’t said these things before, though there had been a mention of suspecting theft. I just kept talking as though I had. “Somehow all of her things got packed up in suitcases and boxes like she was moving! I have to ask the janitor to help me get them down from the closet shelves tomorrow. But you’ll have to go over the next day to help her unpack.” I took a few bites while they thought this over. “You go on Saturdays, right? What time?” 

They couldn’t protest without admitting they hadn’t seen her. “Ten. Ten AM,” David answered.

“Great. I’ll tell her. Also, the nurse mentioned there are usually too many visitors on the weekend, so I made a schedule for you and Aunt Leah to space your visits out. I’ll leave it on her desk so you’ll find it when you go in the morning.”

I told dad what I’d done. He snorted a mix of laughing and disappointment. We should be able to just tell them they were being childish. Getting Leah there at ten AM Saturday was his job. He ordered a chair to be delivered to her house. 

On the way to the assisted living facility, I stopped at UPS and sent the three rings to my three cousins. The ruby and pearl to David’s daughter; Leah had only sons. Let them blame me. It would probably unite them. Sacrificing rings and maybe my relationship with aunts and uncles was better than my dad doing it. I wouldn’t forgive them anyway. A passing image of them gossiping about how awful I was while they stooped over suitcases, Gramma smiling at them from her new chair, filled me with surprising satisfaction. 

We didn't finish the book. I had to spend time packing all her things into suitcases to be unpacked tomorrow. But she sat on the little loveseat, as upright as she could manage, ankles crossed, and told me where she got some of the things in the room. This lamp from her mother. This blouse Bob picked out. That cup has to go back to the cafeteria. 

She was different from the Gramma I grew up with. She spoke less, tolerated more that she would have thought unholy. She washed her hands only after the bathroom. She even criticized my grandfather’s taste in clothes. But these were the ordinary wears and tears of time, not the weeping wounds of neglect. I kissed her goodbye. 

It didn’t work, of course. Reconciliation would need a person with some emotional maturity helping them negotiate their grievances: a human touch. It did get my grandmother some visits in the months that dad was bogged down at work before he could come to move her into his house and redirect the payments to a live-in companion. In that time, Leah decided to move away closer to her sons and the care facility demanded a move anyway, so my dad’s relationship with his siblings was spared. 

She came to him somewhere on the spectrum between where I found her and where I left her. My dad received her knowing as I had not that she could be pulled back from the cliff’s edge, and not only by a unicorn. Just by whoever showed up.  

August 28, 2023 11:55

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Amanda Lieser
15:33 Sep 23, 2023

Hi Anne! Oh my goodness, what a breathtaking approach to the prompt! I appreciate the way that this story talked about the way that we care for elderly, and I loved that you chose to incorporate so many vivid memories. I think that adults who are older than us are often times puzzles that we don’t always get to have all the pieces to because they’ve lived in entire life before we came along. I appreciated that there’s a journey was about unraveling the puzzle that was the grandmother character. It was beautiful work!!


18:19 Sep 23, 2023

Thank you for reading, Amanda! I’m so glad you liked it!


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Marty B
05:29 Sep 04, 2023

A touching story about being close to a Grandma. My mom also has dementia, but is always so happy to see family or friends. Thanks for the great story and reminder that contact matters!


20:31 Sep 04, 2023

Thanks for reading. Wishing comfort to your mom.


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Rebecca Miles
19:55 Sep 03, 2023

It should come as no surprise that a complete sucker for imagery loves the imagery in this piece. Here are some of my favourites: breezy shower knocking down all the dust and heat of a long dry summer. - love the nature imagery to juxtapose the ages and characteristics “You’re so beautiful,” she said near the end of the day. “I’m your granddaughter, Gramma. I love you.” I thought she needed to be told that I was hers, not a sculpture in a museum. - so beautiful; to the eldery the young, whatever their features, are impossibly beautiful a...


20:17 Sep 03, 2023

Having you for a reader is a real gift to me! Thank you for giving me things to think about for what possibilities this tale has left. It’s one of the most personal things I’ve ever written but trying to bend it to explore the themes is the target, as with all stories. When you ask about portmanteau words, don’t forget to tell them that people go crazy when they’re lonely and to call their grammas


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Michał Przywara
01:50 Aug 30, 2023

A difficult set of topics to deal with. Aging is bad enough, and dementia makes everything worse. But that doesn't mean that everyone else's life goes on pause, does it? Grudges remain, rifts deepen. Still, the story demonstrates just how important contact is. Just being present can have a significant effect.


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Mary Bendickson
21:12 Aug 29, 2023

So difficult to deal with and the simplicity is so often ignored.


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Éan Bird
01:06 Sep 15, 2023

AH! Your imagery is absolutely divine! Breathtaking (TBH, it sparked jealousy 😉). You craft a touching story full of texture and sound, and it pulls the reader through by the heart all the way to the end. Oh, and that end-- "My dad received her knowing as I had not that she could be pulled back from the cliff’s edge, and not only by a unicorn. Just by whoever showed up." It will stick with readers long after the piece has been read. Thank you for sharing this part of yourself.


06:56 Sep 16, 2023

Thank you for reading! You are sort of the master of narrative nonfiction around here, so I’m really honored by your praise! And glad it home even though it was a little preachier than I meant it to be.


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Mary Richards
12:58 Sep 13, 2023

What a beautiful story. Dementia is so sad.


06:00 Sep 14, 2023

Thank you, Mary. I’m glad you found it moving.


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11:57 Aug 28, 2023

There's a bit of fiction to this, but I've labeled it creative no-fiction to hammer home the main point: Human contact is literally a matter of life and death, and people go literally crazy without the human touch.


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