By Karen Collier
“Are you going to write about this?” my ninety-eight-year-old grandmother asked as she shambled across the convenience store parking lot with her walker, and I followed with her purse in one hand and her diaper bag in the other.
“No, Granny, what happens in the restroom stays in the restroom.”
She stopped and reached over to grab my arm. “It’s okay, darlin’. You can write about whatever you want.”
A month before, I’d come up with the idea of a road trip with Granny during a visit to my uncle Doug’s home in Burkburnett where she’s been living since leaving her home in Midland two years ago. Even though Doug had a heart attack last year and his wife, June, is on her third round of chemotherapy for lymphoma, they refuse to even consider a nursing home for Granny. Doug makes a weekly trip to Walmart to buy her beloved no-name-brand cheese puffs, and June cheers for her as she makes her laps around the pool table each day. Between them, they make sure Granny has three square meals a day, and when she needs to go to the doctor, they insist that she leave the housecoat at home and put on a pair of pants and a blouse, all neatly pressed by Doug.
I arrived in the late afternoon, and Doug met me at the door.
“Get in here.” He grabbed my overnight bag out of my hand and led me though the hall and kitchen into the den, carefully avoiding the knick-knacks balancing on every surface.
“Mother! Look who’s here,” Doug yelled at Granny who was sitting on the couch, eyes glued to the television.
“Huh?” Granny turned toward Doug and scrunched her face. She’s been almost deaf for a decade, but she won’t wear a hearing aid.
“Mother, look, it’s Karen.” Doug stepped out of the way, so Granny could see me.
“Oh well, what about that, you made it!”
I knew they’d had a conversation earlier in the day about my unreliability.
“What are you watching?” I plopped down next to Granny while Doug set my bag against the wall.
“‘Family Feud.’” She turned her attention back to the television. “Do you like ‘Family Feud’?”
“I don’t watch ‘Family Feud.’”
“I DON’T WATCH ‘FAMILY FEUD,’” I yelled.
My aunt June walked in, patting her hair in place with both hands.
“You didn’t eat yet, did you?” she asked.
I glanced at the clock and saw that it said 4:30. “Nope.”
“Do you still not eat meat?” she continued.
“Still not eating meat, but don’t worry about me. I’ll make do with whatever.”
“What about chicken?” Doug asked.
“Nope, not chicken either.” We have this conversation every time I visit.
I sat on the couch with Granny, while in the kitchen Doug cut up chunks of cheese and June heated up cabbage soup. I was almost certain that she’d made the soup with chicken stock, but I wasn’t going to try to explain again that this matters to a vegetarian.
Just as the credits were rolling for “Family Feud,” June brought a plate into the den, and while balancing it in one hand, she pulled a T.V. tray in front of Granny with the other. Then June put the plate down on the tray. A frozen corndog, microwaved and cut into bite-sized pieces.
“Is that a corndog?” Granny seemed neither pleased nor disappointed.
“Yes, Mother, it’s a corndog.” June called Granny “Mother” just like Doug.
“What about my puffs?”
“Just wait a minute. Doug’s bringin’ ’em with your tea.”
“Okay then.” Granny forked a chunk of wiener covered in breading and popped it in her mouth just as Doug added the missing plastic glass of tea and bowl of cheese puffs to her tray.
“Want a puff?” Granny’s mouth was still full.
“Okay.” I took just one and felt my blood pressure rise from the infusion of salt. Where did that orange color come from? Real cheese isn’t that color.
After dinner, Doug, June, Granny, and I sat in the den and watched as June toggled between “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Voice.” During one of the rare moments when both channels were having a simultaneous commercial break, I asked about my aunt Betty. Betty is Doug’s sister and Granny’s only other living child. Betty suffers from Parkinson’s, and shortly after Granny had moved to Burkburnett, Betty’s children had moved her into a nursing home in Midland so her son—my cousin, John—and his girlfriend, Sharon, could keep an eye on her.
Doug said they hadn’t heard from Betty in a several weeks, so we decided to try to get in touch with her the following day. Around nine o’clock, June gave Granny her pills and helped her get ready for bed while Doug pulled out the sofa sleeper for me.
It was late the next afternoon when I finally got to talk to Betty on the phone. It had been two years since I’d talked to her, and the changes were staggering. I could barely hear her soft voice, and the words I did hear made no sense: Junior, Oldsmobile, Thanksgiving.
After I hung up the phone, I realized that Betty and Granny might never see each other again unless someone stepped up and offered to drive Granny the two hundred miles from Burkburnett to Midland. June volunteered Doug to go with me.
“Granny,” I yelled to get her attention.
“Whaaat?” She was annoyed. I’d interrupted “Wheel of Fortune,” her favorite.
“Want to go to Midland?”
“I would like to see my house one last time.” She perked up and lost all interest in the dinging that was blaring from the television as one of the contestants bought the right vowel. “I lived in that house for fifty-six years.”
“Okay, then.” I went in the kitchen to look at the calendar with June, and we found a couple of days that would work the following month.
“Do I need to put on my clothes?” Granny yelled from the den.
“You’re not going today,” June yelled back.
June went into the den, sat next to Granny, and explained that I would come back in a few weeks, then Doug and I would take her.
“Okay.” Granny sat back against the couch, her gaze returning to the television.
The next day, I returned to Austin, and over the next four weeks, I told all my friends about my plan to take my grandmother to see her old home and her daughter, probably for the last time.
“Wow, what an adventure,” my friends said, and I’d teared up a little and shook my head. Yes, I was doing such a wonderful thing for Granny.
Four weeks later, we were on our way to Midland when we stopped for a restroom break, and I found myself following Granny and her walker across the asphalt parking lot of a convenience store while Doug grabbed a quick smoke.
When we finally arrived in Midland two hours and two restroom breaks later, we checked into the Hampton Inn and headed to Rockwood Manor to see Betty. When we walked in the front door, the comingled smells of iodine and boiling potatoes hit me and turned my stomach. I looked at Granny, thinking how lucky she was not to have to live in a place like this. When we found Betty’s room, John’s girlfriend, Sharon, was already there. John is Betty’s youngest son, and even though he and Sharon have been together for years, he’s spent most of them in prison. When it was time to move Betty into a nursing home, Sharon stepped up and offered to help John see after Betty, but I was pretty sure she was the one doing most of the work. She was definitely the one directing the campaign to convince us all that John had become an outstanding son.
“Look at her pretty finger nails! John paints them for her every week.” Sharon dragged a vinyl-cushioned chair next to Betty’s recliner, so Granny could sit close. Granny grabbed Betty’s hand and pulled it into her lap, while Betty stared down at their clasped hands, expressionless. Granny couldn’t hear, and Betty rarely makes sense, so everyone else did the talking.
“And this is where I put her snacks.” Sharon opened a drawer in Betty’s bedside table and pointed to a bag of Cheetos. I thought for a moment about retrieving Granny’s puff from the car so they could have a taste test but then decided against it.
“Hey, Sharon,” I said, “before I forget, can we come out to your house tomorrow and get Granny’s personal stuff out of your shed?”
“Uh, yeah, okay.” Sharon looked nervously over my head.
A little over a year before, when Doug had his hands full taking care of Granny and needed to sell her house, he’d made a deal with Sharon. If she would empty the house, she could have the money from anything she could sell. He’d told me that Sharon was keeping Granny’s personal items, like her photographs, in a storage shed until someone could pick them up.
“The thing I really want is the framed photograph of my mother as a child. It was hanging in Granny’s bedroom.” I thought the location of it might spur Sharon’s memory.
Sharon didn’t respond, so I continued. “It was in a beautiful silver frame with a blue velvet mat.”
“I don’t remember it, but I’ll look when I get home.” Sharon looked at her feet.
“It was the only photograph of my mother as a child.” Even I could hear the whine and the hope in my voice.
“Granny!” I raised my voice to get her attention. “If we leave now, we can drive by the house before we meet John for dinner.”
“Okay.” She squeezed Betty’s hand before letting go.
“I want to see the house, too,” Betty said softly.
“Then come with us.” I saw a glimpse of the aunt I adored.
“I’m not sure you want to do that,” Sharon warned. “She can be a handful in the car.”
“I was the one she was with the first time she tried to jump out of a car.” I smiled at Betty again. “We got this, right?”
Sharon protested for a few more minutes about Betty’s anxiety and then the size of her wheelchair. I didn’t know if Sharon was being protective or controlling, but it didn’t matter. I dug in my heels until she realized this was an argument I’d never let her win.
I drove to the house, with Doug in the passenger seat and Betty and Granny in the back. I’d engaged the child locks, as I didn’t entirely trust either of them not to jump out.
I slowed the car in front of the red brick ranch at 4012 Monty Drive, the house where Santa sometimes left our gifts before dark on Christmas Eve so my grandfather could see us open them before he had to report for his shift as a policeman. The house where my girl cousins and I had once collected all our parents’ change, placed it in a special plastic Easter egg, and then naively entrusted their older brother to hide it. The house where my grandmother, Joy Green, had spent over half of her life.
As I stopped the car at the curb, Granny looked excitedly out the window.
“They planted a tree.” She pointed towards a sapling staked in the middle of the long-dead grass in the front yard.
“My American Beauty is still there.” Her eyesight was sometimes perfect.
After Granny completed a full inventory of the plants, both old and new, we had a few more minutes to kill before meeting John and Sharon at the restaurant, so I decided to drive by Dennis the Menace Park—the park where Granny had taken us to play when we were kids and Dennis the Menace was a popular cartoon. Doug jumped out for a quick smoke while I pointed out what was left of the original park—a faded sign and a 1960s-era water fountain that looked like a rhinoceros.
We eventually made it to the restaurant, one of those family places that serve catfish and fried okra, dipped in the same batter and fried in the same grease so that the taste is indistinguishable. As our food was served, John blurted from the other end of the table, “Sharon told me about that picture you’re looking for. I’m pretty sure we don’t have it anymore.”
I blinked hard. What?
“We kept that stuff for a couple of years, but no one ever came to get it, so we finally threw it out.”
I bit my lip. Granny had barely left her house a couple of years ago, and it’s only been a year since the house was cleaned out and sold.
“What’s wrong?” Granny hadn’t heard a word.
“Nothing, Granny.” I stared down at my plate as I choked down the rest of my catfish or okra, I’m not sure which, and thought about the day Granny had given me the only picture she had of my mother as a child. In the photo, my mother, who was probably three or four, had a few wispy curls pulled back with a barrette, and her smile revealed her dimples. When Granny offered it to me, I protested—this was her memory, not mine—but she insisted, so I accepted the photograph and took it to be framed so I could give it back to her for Christmas. She asked me to hang it on the wall of her bedroom and made me promise that I’d get it back when she was no longer there to remember.
When we finished our dinner, Sharon and John offered to take Betty back to the nursing home. Granny wanted to drive by her house one more time. This time, Doug rang the bell of one of her neighbors, and the woman and her husband came out to visit with Granny in the backseat of the car. Their dogs tried to lick Granny as they talked about the couple’s impending move to the Northeast and how the Texas Rangers were playing. I stayed in the driver’s seat and stared out the windshield, fuming about the lost photo.
As we drove back to the hotel, I finally spoke.
“That photograph of my mother is gone.” I said it low so only Doug could hear.
“I’m afraid you might be right,” he said.
I was determined to say no more about it. Doug had taken on all the responsibility for Granny, and I didn’t want him to feel guilty about anything. When we got back to the hotel, Granny and I wished Doug a good night and closed our door. It was almost nine o’clock, and I was anxious for her to go to bed, so I could call my husband.
Unfortunately Granny had other ideas. Her old neighbor had mentioned that the Rangers were playing that night, and now she wanted to watch the game. I sat down next to her on the couch.
“Karen, tomorrow we need to go to John and Sharon’s and get my pictures.”
“Granny, there aren’t any pictures to get.”
“Never mind. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” I wanted to vent to my husband instead.
When Granny was finally ready for bed, I tucked her in and crept out to the lobby to call home. At first, I sobbed so hard, I couldn’t get the words out, and when I finally did, they erupted in a stream.
“What kind of person throws away someone else’s photographs? Why didn’t I go get it as soon as Granny said she was staying in Burkburnett? Why didn’t Doug tell me before he had Sharon clean out the house? Why did I trust someone I didn’t know to take care of it for me?”
“I don’t know,” my husband said softly over and over again. He usually jumps at the chance to solve a problem, but even he knew there was no solution for this.
I returned to the room and climbed into bed, exhausted. I’d lost my mother all over again.
At some point during the night, Granny came awake.
“Remember we have to get those pictures tomorrow.”
I pretended to be asleep.
The next morning, we had breakfast in the hotel lobby where they offered one of those free breakfast buffets. I chose the Fruit Loops like I always do when I travel because I love them but wouldn’t be caught dead buying them in the grocery store. Doug made Granny a waffle and then headed back to his room to shave.
“Karen.” Granny stopped her fork midway between the table and her mouth. “Don’t forget, we have to go out to Sharon’s and get my pictures.”
I tried not to yell. “There are no pictures to get. They’re gone.”
“Where are they?” She dropped her fork, her voice was rising.
“Who threw them away?” Now people were staring.
“John or Sharon, I don’t know. All I know is they’re gone.”
“Well, they better not be or I’m gonna scream.” She was already screaming.
I shrugged in apology to the woman who watched from a nearby table.
“It’s okay,” she said, “She can scream if she wants.”
It never fails to amaze me the allowances people make for the elderly.
“Screaming won’t change anything. What’s done is done.” I tried to calm Granny down.
She shook her head and finished her waffle.
We loaded the car and headed back to the nursing home for one last visit with Betty. As I pulled into a parking spot, I braced myself for the moment I had been dreading, the moment when Granny said her last goodbye to Betty.
“Ya’ll run in and tell Betty I said ‘goodbye.’” Granny stared out the window of the back seat.
“What?” I looked at her in the rearview mirror.
“I’ll stay in the car.” She continued looking out the window.
“Uh uh.” I shook my head. “You’re coming in with us.”
“It’s too much trouble to get my wheelchair out of the trunk. You can say goodbye for me.”
“Mother,” Doug finally chimed in, “you need to go in and tell Betty goodbye yourself.”
“It’s just too hard on me getting in and out of the car.” She was holding firm.
“It’s all about you, isn’t it?” I blurted out and immediately realized this was one of those incidents she would recount to every friend and family member.
“Well, okay then.” She returned my stare in the rearview mirror.
Doug wheeled Granny into Betty’s room. John and Sharon and a couple of family friends were already there, waiting for us.
“I wanted to stay in the car.” Granny told them the whole story and ended, of course, by mimicking me in a tone much more hateful than the one I used. Then she laughed while the others shook their heads at me in disappointment.
We were ready to head home when John suggested that we all go across the road to a Mexican restaurant for lunch.
“Mother, you want to go have some enchiladas, right?” John leaned down in front of Betty.
“Okay.” Her eyes lit up, and I thought maybe there was hope for John after all.
Granny, Doug, and I had finished breakfast only an hour before, so we looked at the menu for something small. Granny asked me to order her some nachos, and then when I brought them to the table, said she didn’t want nachos and sent Doug back to order an enchilada. She was getting revenge for our insistence that she get out of the car earlier.
After lunch, as I was loading Granny into the back seat, she suddenly yelled, “Bye, Betty,” and gave a little wave. I realized Betty was already settled in the front seat of John’s car. They hadn’t had a chance to say a final goodbye.
Betty smiled and gave a wave in return. No one shed a tear, not even me. The reality of our road trip turned out to be nothing like what I imagined, except for the restroom breaks at gas stations along the way. Those turned out exactly like I expected.
I deposited Doug and Granny in Burkburnett where they belonged and headed back to Austin late that night. As I was leaving Wichita Falls, I started crying all over again. I’d remembered it clearly the night before, but now I was unsure. Did she have a barrette in her hair or was I confusing it with a photo of me as a little girl? Was she smiling or did she have her chin oh so shyly tucked?
When I arrived home that night, my husband asked me if the trip was worth it.
“Absolutely not,” I answered.
I thought I was giving my grandmother the opportunity to say a final goodbye to her daughter, but Granny and Betty parted as if one of them was simply running up to Walmart to buy a gallon of milk. How was it that I’d been the one who ended up devastated?
In the days that followed, I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother, not as a little girl in a photograph but as a dying woman in a hospital bed. She spent the last four days of her life unconscious in intensive care while I slept on a couch in the waiting room. When the doctor finally turned off the ventilator, my stepsiblings and their spouses gathered with me and my husband around her bed while Granny stayed in the waiting room with our children. I had been so surprised that she chose not to be with her daughter as she died. Granny was the one who’d brought my mother into the world. Why was I now surprised that Granny hadn’t wanted to say a final goodbye to her other daughter either?
Then I remembered the way my conversations with Granny always end.
“I miss your mother.” She always says it first.
“She was my baby, and you were her baby.”
Granny is the only person in the world who misses my mother as much as I do.
Today I can still feel the heaving of my chest and taste the salty tears running into my mouth as I drive home from Burkburnett, just as clearly as I can hear Granny yelling across the parking lot, “Bye, Betty” and see her cheerful wave. My grandmother’s heart and mine are broken in different ways, but broken just the same.
KAREN COLLIER is a native Texan. She spent twenty long years in high tech before becoming a high school English teacher and discovering how the other half lives: in poverty. She left teaching after five years to pursue life as a creative writer. This is her first published essay.