By Patrice Gopo
On the two-hour drive to my sister’s house, I tell my older daughter about the time my grandmother slaughtered my pet chicken. My husband’s hands hold the steering wheel, and my toddler sleeps with her cheek pressed against her car seat. But my six-year-old focuses on the story about the woman we will soon see sitting on the couch in my sister’s home.
“A family friend gave your auntie and me a chicken,” I tell my daughter. I then explain how one day when my sister and I were away at school, my grandmother walked with her machete to the makeshift coop in our backyard. She grabbed the chicken and chopped off its head.
“Then Gong Gong cooked it for dinner,” my daughter adds using the same name my grandmother called her own grandmother long ago in rural Jamaica. My daughter has heard the story before, and she doesn’t flinch at the chicken’s beheading.
“Yes, Gong Gong made a curry out of it.” I chuckle at the thought of my grandmother’s no-nonsense behavior. Her life in rural Jamaica happened decades before I was born, far from the suburban American neighborhood where I grew up. I imagine she struggled to believe that a chicken was supposed to be a pet. I can also imagine that an activity like slaughtering a chicken must be similar to riding a bicycle. Even if decades have passed since one last killed an animal, a person can’t forget the way the hand holds the feathered body. Or the way the opposite hand grasps the smooth, wooden handle of the machete.
Except a person can forget, and I think my grandmother has forgotten.
* * *
When I was about eight and my grandmother a bit past 60, she called her daughter-in-law—my mother—and said she was going to retire and come help my parents care for my sister and me. She left New York City, her home since leaving Jamaica, and came to Anchorage, Alaska, the place my parents settled after my father’s time in the military. With two working parents in our home, my grandmother shouldered many duties, easing the strains of managing life. She walked my sister and me to the bus stop and was there when we came home in the afternoon. What I remember most, though, is the way her hands spent their days in a whirlwind of motion: holding the handle of a hot iron as she pressed my father’s work shirts, twirling a wooden spoon while she stirred substances in great cast iron pots, hovering over a vegetable garden plucking weeds. Even in rest, she sat with word search puzzles in her lap, a pencil in her hand, making quick circles around the found words.
The color of my grandmother’s hands is brown like mine but with a tint of sunlight. These days she sits with those golden hands folded in her lap, no longer twitching or looking for something to make the fingers move. Now she doesn’t long for pulling weeds in a garden. And if my daughter had a chicken, her Gong Gong wouldn’t remember the steps to transform the pet into a fragrant curry dinner.
Why does the brain do this? When the brain decides to forget, to carve out gaps in memory, why does it leave the hands idle?
Once upon a time my grandmother came to help my parents care for their children. Now the years have passed and the roles have changed. My grandmother lives with my sister who helps her get ready in the morning, reminds her to take her medicine, and offers her more water to drink. From time to time, my sister even wipes my grandmother’s tears away when she remembers how much she forgets.
My older daughter was in preschool when my grandmother came to live with my sister. In those early months my sister and I talked about the similarities in our caretaking roles. The overlap as we both cajoled others to eat or go bathe or both.
As time has passed, though, I have watched my daughter develop greater independence and shoulder her own responsibilities. And my sister has watched the eager help my grandmother’s hands once offered diminish. Instead my grandmother sinks into the couch while the sounds of old television shows fill the living room and transport her to the past.
* * *
At the end of our drive, my sister answers my daughters’ pounding fists, and my girls leap through the front door. A dance of hugs ensues, and my grandmother rises from her spot on the couch. Her smile is wide across her face, and I know my sister will tell me later that Grandma had a good day because we came to visit.
“TC,” my grandmother says, standing in front of me with her hands pressed against my shoulders. She stares at me, her eyes a soft sparkle. I smile at her use of my old nickname. She stares a moment longer before adding, “It’s been so long since I last saw you. So long.” Her hands drop from my shoulders, and her arms curl around my waist, bringing me into a hug.
“Yes, Grandma, it’s been so long,” I say to her just like I said last month.
In the kitchen, my oldest daughter says to her aunt, “Gong Gong asks the same questions again and again.” I hear silence and know my sister pauses, taking a moment to gather her words. I’m glad my family lives close enough that we can make this trip often. There is a sweet joy that comes when I watch my grandmother’s face brighten at the appearance of my daughters. Even more I think of the lessons of life, love, and family my daughters discover during these times.
“She asks the same thing over and over,” I hear my daughter say again.
“Yes,” my sister explains. “Gong Gong’s brain is sick. She has a hard time remembering things.”
My daughter accepts this answer. Later, when we all are leaving a museum and walking down the sidewalk to the parking lot, I hear my daughter call, “Wait, Mommy. Don’t forget Gong Gong.” I turn and see my grandmother lagging behind.
While there are no guarantees about what the mind will do in the future, today I don’t forget. I tell my daughter about my grandmother’s hands that were once in constant motion. I pour over my daughter stories my grandmother no longer remembers. Perhaps one day my grandchild will speak to her daughter the stories I no longer remember.
Now, though, I stare up the sidewalk at the generation ahead of me and the generation behind. “I’m coming, Gong Gong,” my daughter says. She runs back and slides her smooth fingers into her great-grandmother’s wrinkled hand. I watch them, linked together by laced palms, walking toward the rest of their family.
Patrice Gopo‘s recent essays have appeared in Gulf Coast, Full Grown People, and online in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She lives in North Carolina with her family.