I Think My Grandmother Has Forgotten

I Think My Grandmother Has Forgotten

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.

Photo: gettyimages.com

The Perks of Being a Grandmother

The Perks of Being a Grandmother

By Susan McCoy


“Well, Grandma,” he smiled, “at least you improved your vocabulary.”


Monday afternoon is Scrabble day. My 12-year-old grandson Jax and I hole up for a couple of hours at a local coffee shop for serious word competition. Well, perhaps I’m overstating … friendly, word building is a more accurate description.

This past Monday, after setting up the board, we went to the counter. The owner smiled, “Hi, ready for your game? You two want the usual? Hot Chocolate with marshmallows?” (He’s got us down. We are what you would call: regulars.)

Scrabble between us began this past fall and, as I said, I made sure my grandson knew that vocabulary building is the intent. During the first couple months he played open dictionary—this variant, dictionary use, was my idea and I thought using it would keep him on a level playing field. I recall those first few games me saying: Let’s not worry about who wins. We’ll go for improving our personal score each week. Deal?

I thought he had agreed. Me, I continued babbling about how fun it would be to play for the joy of making words and improving. I went so far as to discuss sportsmanship, like if he drew a challenging combination of letters. In fact, in the beginning games, we strategized together instead of staring blankly at a rack of lackluster tiles, for example: iiiiooe—boo hiss.

About 30 minutes into Monday’s game, an employee stopped by our table, chatting us up a bit. Who’s winning? Every week, someone asked that question: Who is winning? Why does everything have to be about winning?

I humbly adjusted my halo, “Oh we play to improve our vocabulary … the score doesn’t matter.” I offered a smile. How could anyone expect a twelve-year-old to beat an ole Scrabble fan like me?

Glancing over at Jax, I noticed he was studying his letters not even aware that a question had been asked.

He was taking a long time with his play. “Do you want me to look at your letters?” I asked sweetly.

“No, I want to figure it out myself.”

“Well, remember, you can use the dictionary if you want.”

“No, I’m okay.”

He reorganized the tiles several times on his rack, stopped, then bit his upper lip suppressing a smile. He looked at me, smiled full out and plunked down the word: perkish. The “k” covered a double letter, the “h” on a triple word and also joined to the word “ut” at the right angle forming “hut”—yes, another triple word. And, since he used all seven letters, a 50-point bonus was allowed.

Arrgh … my back straightened.

“Perkish? Is that a word … perkish?” I was taken back at the play.

“Well, if you are perky then can’t you be sort of perky?” We locked eyeballs. “That would be perkish,” he stated in a matter of fact tone.

I grabbed the dictionary. Yes, I knew we are playing for fun but … what kind of derivative of perky was that?

The answer to that question: perkish is not in Webster’s nor Oxford Dictionaries (I know this because later that evening, I looked it up at home—and, yes, I recognize what this says about me; don’t remind me) BUT, it is in the Scrabble Dictionary. And, according to Scrabble, a person can be sort of perky.

I added up his score: 131 points. I added it again … are you kidding me? 131 points. I also lost my next turn for questioning the move and being proved wrong.

“Well, Grandma,” he smiled, “at least you improved your vocabulary.”

“You are so not using a dictionary for help ever again,” I mumbled. I scrutinized my next play.

“I didn’t use the dictionary,” he said quietly as he pulled seven letters from the black felt bag.

His final score: 414. Yes, 414!

Vocabulary be damned. (The halo is not remotely near me and likely never has been.) The guidelines have now officially changed. Monday’s game will no longer be “sort of” anything to do with me demurely correcting folks who ask about the score.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the coffee shop also serves beer and wine … could become my new “regular” order. Hmm, I’ll have to remember that: “regular” is a seven-letter word. I could place the “go” on a triple letter, put the “r” on a triple word a word, and receive the 50-point bonus. A perkish move, wouldn’t you say?

(A final note:  I have had to hit the ignore key six times when spell checking this article.)

Susan McCoy is an author and teacher who lives part of each year on an island in the Straits of Mackinaw. 

It Flew

It Flew

By Marilyn A. Gelman

WO It Flew ART

We still wonder at the magic that matched Mark and Lisa with Rebecca. And I, in a closer relationship with my granddaughter than I ever thought possible, am very grateful that she flew home to me.

So many years ago that it seems like another lifetime, my older son, Mark, asked his father about the birds and the bees.

They were sitting on my then-husband’s side of our rumpled bed. Daddy was bent over tying a shoe when Mark asked how the part from the man got to the part from the woman so that a baby came.

Daddy paused and looked at me over his shoulder. I shook my head. Luck had sent the question to him, not to me. I was not getting involved.

Daddy ducked.

“It flew,” he said.

Divorce happened; children grew into adults. Mark and I often joked about his sex education at home. At least Daddy had told him something; as far as we knew, his brother married without even the benefit of “It flew” to guide him in wedded bliss.

Mark went to college and graduate school. He married his college sweetheart, Lisa, and they began to build a life together. They bought a house, got a dog, put up a fence and, in 2006, some thirty-five years after he had been told “It flew,” they flew to China to adopt Rebecca. She was thought to be about two years old.

I knew from the get-go that I would not be a daily fixture in Rebecca’s life. Although I live a mere twenty miles away, it might as well be hundreds of miles because I did not have a car. In addition, I live with disabilities that would make it difficult for me to be as involved as Rebecca’s other grandmother, who lived only ten minutes away. Any jealousy you can conjure up would be right on the mark.

As Mark and Lisa prepared for their trip to China, I prepared myself to be cold. I would look upon the child with scientific interest. I would not become emotionally involved. My absence from the minutiae of the child’s life, and from my son’s life as a father, surely would hurt less if I steeled myself to be only the old lady she had to kiss a few times a year.

Mark called me periodically from China to update me on Rebecca. Like the other children in her adoption group on “gotcha-day,” Rebecca was not in great health. She had bronchitis; she was very thin and weak. Neither Mark nor Lisa spoke Chinese and were confused by the doctor’s explanation of her illness and treatment.

I was happy that they called me from their hotel so I could give them advice like “Don’t pass a sick baby around in the hotel dining room; I don’t care how cute she is,” and “Give me the name of your doctor at home, and I’ll call for advice.” It was so exciting to place my cell phone, with Mark on speakerphone from China, next to my landline phone, with the pediatrician on speakerphone from New Jersey, and listen in on an unexpected medical conference at 11 o’clock at night.

I felt like a mama again. My son needed me. I was involved with my granddaughter’s well-being. And his, too.

But of course I would remain stoic and aloof. Once they got home.

Mark is a veteran of family politics, having kept divorced parents separated at most major life events. He’s learned to weigh and balance honors and create complex algorithms to determine which of four single parents will see him and his wife on holidays. Of course I always figure I get the raw deal.

He needed the wisdom of Solomon to decide who would meet the new family at the airport, who would wait at their home and who would visit the next day. Everyone agreed that Rebecca needed to come home to a calm landing, free of the disruption of multiple strangers making bizarre noises and poking at her with unfamiliar fingers.

I was delighted to be the one chosen to meet them at the airport. Mark hired a car service so I would be the first to see the child and to see him in his new role as father.

I only can imagine the force of the new parents’ emotions when they first saw their child. I was overwhelmed with love, pride and a sense of history when I saw my son as a new daddy for the first time.

How quickly he had learned his role in his infant family structure. He appeared in an archway, directly behind Lisa who was carrying a small bundle. He looked exhausted, yet his calm face shone joy. It seemed he did not notice he was managing a mountain of luggage teetering on a cart. He beamed as his wife spotted me and ran, with Rebecca, down the aisle to greet me.

Our driver snapped a photograph of us, just as Rebecca leaned over and kissed me. I tell people that the airport kiss was my first sign that Rebecca was an extremely sensitive and intelligent little girl. I wonder if Rebecca knew then, even before I knew, that there was something special between us.
We loaded up the car on a parking garage roof deck; artificial lights had turned night into day. Then we began the drive home.

This little country girl was strapped in an unfamiliar car seat in an unfamiliar vehicle, with strangers, and immersed in highway traffic at night, white lights coming and red lights going. She began to wail.

“Li! Li! Li!” she cried.

“I think she’s afraid,” I said. “I think she wants a light turned on.”

Lisa shook her head. “She doesn’t like the car seat.”

“She’s tired,” said Mark, between munches of the first bagel he had had in weeks.

“Li! Li! Li!” Rebecca continued.

“OK,” I said. I feared I was being an interfering grandmother. Mark and Lisa had been with Rebecca for almost two weeks. They had taken care of her in a strange land where they did not speak the language. They had managed her diet, her bronchitis and her diapers. How could I insist to this brave couple that they were wrong, that their daughter—my granddaughter—was expressing her needs to them in English?

“Are you sure she never heard you say to one another, ‘Turn on the light’?” In unison, Mark and Lisa said, “No.”

Just then, the driver switched on the interior car lights, and Rebecca stopped crying and went to sleep. We have understood one another ever since.

I do not speak Chinese, and we don’t know if my darling was verbal before she came to us. Yet, from our first meeting, Rebecca and I could communicate with a glance, touch each other’s sense of humor, and speak to and understand one another. People around us could not figure out how.

By the time the new family had returned from China, Rebecca was an old hand at eating in good hotel restaurants. The Jewish delicatessen, Chinese restaurant and American grill soon became pieces of cake for her.

It was in the deli, during her first week home, that this child, with a lumberjack’s appetite, broke a French fry in half and gave me a piece. She understood there would be more food if she was hungry.

And it was here that I asked Mark not to wipe Rebecca’s face because she could wipe her own, and his, when I asked her to. She touched us all when she removed imaginary crumbs from his chin.

It was in the grill during her second month home that I realized she was calling Mark “Da Da” before he did. And, during a threesome for dinner, the first time mommy stayed home for a long shower and a nap, Mark realized that he couldn’t use the men’s room without my babysitting cooperation.

We were all still unsure how much English Rebecca understood.

A few years earlier, I had attended doggie school with my dog, Buffy. There I was trained to set up the dog for success and to reward desired conduct. Soon after Rebecca’s arrival, I used the same method with her that I had used with Buffy.  I didn’t see anything wrong with it.

“Sit,” I taught the child, using Cheerios as reinforcement. I kept Buffy’s Cheerios in my right pocket and Rebecca’s in my left. Doggie and granddaughter would sit, stay, run, come. The three of us—Buffy, Rebecca and I—had a wonderful time. Lisa was concerned that I was treating Rebecca like a dog, but Mark was tickled that doggie school training worked on his child.

When Rebecca was three, she wanted to be just like me—to wear a coat or not, like me. If you saw us settling down in a Chinese restaurant, it might have looked like a choreographed routine to you. Without words, I would hand her the folded napkins and she would distribute the utensils that were wrapped inside. Then I would pass her the noodles and sauce. We worked as a team: two bodies, one brain.

According to people, in addition to me, Rebecca is beautiful, brilliant, multi-talented, generous and fun. She can own the world. But family and strangers alike are mystified that we appear to have a physical resemblance. Despite small differences in skin tone and around the eyes, Rebecca looked like a photograph of me taken at the same age. People still tell me they see a resemblance between us, although they know it is impossible.

Now 10 years old, Rebecca’s busy schedule—dance class, baseball, Girl Scouts, music lessons—makes it difficult for me to see her as often as I once did. She tells her dad that she wants to visit me every weekend. Clearly, that is impossible. She said she wants a two-week sleepover. That would be exhausting. She wants me at family holidays and vacations. How lovely. I keep asking her if she has her driver’s license yet so she can come visit whenever she wants. I’m still waiting.

Mark regrets that Rebecca and I cannot be together more often. When he sees her kiss my hand and say, “I love you Grandma, I miss you so much,” I know his heart breaks. He says that sometimes it seems criminal that we are kept apart so much. She cups my face in her hands and I cup hers.

Rebecca is extremely smart, sensitive, considerate, capable and kind, always beyond her years. Her joy in life is infectious. If she tells me she is going somewhere and I say, “Have a good time,” she responds that she always does. She moves through life with grace.

If I could, I would put all the health, wealth, happiness and fun that exists in the world on a silver platter for her. I know she would love it and then share it.

So the question remains. How is it that Rebecca and I seem to be from the same gene pool, the one for grandmas and granddaughters, that excludes the man in the middle?

Was my son’s father right, those many years ago, when he described how a baby comes?

We still wonder at the magic that matched Mark and Lisa with Rebecca. And I, in a closer relationship with my granddaughter than I ever thought possible, am very grateful that she flew home to me.

Author’s Note: Rebecca’s life is filled with friends and activities; she is healthy and strong, the best any grandmother could wish for her grandchild. On her Valentine’s Day card to me this year, she wrote, “I will have fun with you every day in my heart when you aren’t around and when you are. Love, your one and only granddaughter.” I expect her to have her driver’s license in about seven years.

Marilyn A. Gelman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, True Stories, Well Told: From the First 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, A Cup of Comfort, and The Paterson Literary Review, among other publications.