One hot day during our Greek holiday, the family decided it was time to get up off our beach chairs and explore the treasures of Crete.
The 11 of us piled into two cars and found our way to Knossos, a lovely pile of rocks which is described by Wikipedia as “the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and considered as Europe’s oldest city…The palace of Knossos was undoubtedly the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture.”
Yay, said we. Stefan, what are you doing?
I convinced many of my family to jump like crazed lottery winners…
…in spite of the fact that it was hotter than the surface of the Sun.
And despite the hordes of tourists swarming around.
The truth is, people don’t care what you do.
Except these men, who seem to care a lot about the possibility of Tor’s dress flying up.
I think the Minotaurs would have appreciated our jumping.
I miss each one of you, my fantastic family.
“Hello Sophie, this is Mum. I need to talk to you. Abwe isn’t doing well. The people at the Lodge want a family meeting with us - apparently she is treating the staff badly and telling them she used to have servants”.
Things are not going well.
I took a day off this week to drive down and visit my grandmother at her assisted living home. She has not lost the frantic sound in her voice for weeks now, and says her teeth chatter non-stop if she lets them. I’m worried she may have another heart attack, like the one she had 8 years ago.
“This place is a prison. I’m here to die. I don’t even look presentable, this is not who I am”, she said.
She has not had her hair done, and doesn’t have many of her own things with her. My brother and I will go fetch them in Connecticut where her home stands alone, like a living museum to a past life.
She doesn’t have anybody to confirm that there are no spills on her shirt, and that her clothes are well ironed. She can’t tie her own shoelaces without help. This is hard for anyone, let alone a woman who was known for her independence and sense of style. Her sight has been getting worse and worse, and only last year I wrote down an exchange we had that indicates her hearing may be going too.
- Is that my 8-year old? I called to my daughter, across the house.
- Did you call someone a negro? said my grandmother.
- No, I said “my 8-year old”.
- Well I heard negro.
We giggled a lot at that one.
The truth is that she can be hilariously snobbish. Like the time my ex-husband told her that his father likes to wake up at 5am every day.
“Why? Is he a peasant?”, she asked. That was the day I found out that yes, you can spit orange juice through your nose.
She was brought up in Paris, along with her five siblings. Saying goodnight to her father meant being brought before him by the nanny, kneeling down to kiss his ring, then being ushered out - yes, like the Pope.
She taught me which fork to use, how to address one’s elders, that one should not actually clink your wine glass when you toast (“it’s not done, Sophie”), and all the things I need to ensure I don’t shame myself unintentionally - at least not with my etiquette.
She has always been chic and even breaks her own etiquette rules to remain so, like putting on lipstick in public. It’s just that she hasn’t worn lipstick in weeks, which tells me everything I need to know about her state of mind.
Last Thursday my grandmother left behind her life as she knew it and moved into an “assisted living” facility in Vermont. Much like giving birth, falling ill or dying are life events whose impact on our lives we witness rather than choose, she feels powerless.
She spent her life snubbing her nose at her age, even volunteering at the local nursing home in her late 70s, to “care for the elderly”, as she put it. She kept driving, attending Mass, listening to the news, all the while slowly slowing down. So slowly that she couldn’t see the need for proper help every day. So slowly that we, her family, preferred not to see the need either because it was easier than forcing her to admit she needed help, and to organize it from afar.
A month ago she fell flat on her back in the main street of her little town and ended up in hospital, alone. That fall slapped her life out of recognition, and fast-forwarded her straight into her true age of 92.
She fractured her back, and faced physiotherapy that she never received, because my mother whisked her out of her rehab facility in Connecticut and took her to her home to Vermont.
"I was lying on my back and she came and she said come on, get up, we’re going. And four hours later I was here (in Vermont). A real kidnapping." said my grandmother.
This is how she sees it, fair or not. It is true that her independence was taken from her that day, because she has not been in charge of her own life ever since. She hasn’t seen her home, her things. Her housekeeper calls, her neighbor calls: “Where is L.? I’m worried about her. When is she coming back?”.
My grandmother doesn’t want to return home to Connecticut now, not even to visit - it would hurt her too much she says, she is heartbroken. But when she lived there, she was heartbroken by the loneliness she faced. Either way I share her heartbreak, because there is no happy solution, and I know now that the most important thing she has lost is her peace of mind.
I knew this day would come, just as I knew also that the closer my grandmother got to the end of her life, the more difficult things between my mother and I would become, and that’s saying something. My mother worries that the closeness I’ve shared with my Abwe all my life will interfere with her inheritance.
I’m quite sure that if she cooked for me in the next few weeks, the main ingredient would be rat poison. Thankfully, she doesn’t cook, unless you count the frozen duck she once tried to microwave for Thanksgiving, still in its plastic wrapping.
It has now been five days since my grandmother moved into the surprisingly nice assisted living home that my mother found. Her back door opens onto a green garden, it is spacious and light. But to her, it is a place she didn’t choose, in a state she doesn’t know, where she depends on people who don’t know her.
It may be that the price she is paying to have her physical self cared for will destroy her inner self - the will to live that she needs for all this to have been worth it.
Tomorrow we leave.
I will miss this place, and it’s decadent pace, the 10am wake-ups, the 3pm lunches, the 10pm dinners, the 2am bedtimes. I will miss the late night conversations, the morning efforts to get everybody into cars and somewhere else. The love I’ve received and had the pleasure of giving. The teasing.
Even the ritual hurts that come with being with family are a fair price to pay for such pleasures.
I will miss walking into the pomegranates hanging by the front door, the scent of the jasmine tree, the lemon trees, the olive groves and the curving roads. The hills melting into sunshine, the evening run through the countryside. The long lunches, yes even the omnipresent Greek salads.
I can’t help but wonder why these breaks, holidays, vacations are such small blips in our lives, why we devote the majority of our lives to work, to waiting for these moments.
For now, I’m just hoping I’ve absorbed enough of the above to hang on till the next time.
If you’d zoomed in on our villa hidden in the folds of the Cretan hills a few nights ago, you’d have noticed eleven bodies, aged 5 to 72 years old, stretched out on the ground under the night sky. That was my family, watching for shooting stars.
It was the 12th of August, Ferragosto. In my real life, that wouldn’t mean anything, but now on vacation and here, on this island floating in the middle of my favorite of all seas, the Med, it meant a lot. First, we celebrated my niece’s 8th birthday, as well as all the birthdays we’d missed with gifts, drinks and too much food.
Then we took cushions off the couch and lay on the ground in the front courtyard of our villa to watch the Perseid meteor shower. I was surrounded by some of the people I love most in the world: my two brothers, my sister, my father and beloved stepmother, my sisters-in-law, my niece and nephew and my increasingly defiant little girl.
We chattered while we waited for the sky to shower stars on us, and when it did, we shouted in victory. It was magical to lie there, tipsy with bad Greek wine and the knowledge that I was living something very special. These are the sweetest moments of our togetherness. They make the cost, the trip, the frustrations of family life worthwhile.
We have those too - the frustrations. Because we don’t do anything by half measures: when we get along, we do so with gusto, making almost constant eye contact, hugging each other, listening to each other’s stories without interrupting, sort of. Traditionally this describes the first 24 hours of our family holidays, during which we walk around in a glow of familial love, like those maniacally grinning families in TV commercials for washing detergent, floating in a fog of Tide-scented bliss.
By day 3, we have all overdosed on this orgy of togetherness, and we cope in different ways. My father goes into heavy silences, and inevitably finds a huge hill to climb in order to escape our chatter. The rest of us break into small groups and grumble about it and everything else, and inevitably there will be a row (yes, I’m often involved).
It’s like we’re unconsciously making up for the past three years of family ups and downs in the span of 10 days, so it can be intense at times. But the fact that we come together as often as possible means that we love each other better than we hurt each other.
Today is day 5, and we are back to being a Tide commercial. This afternoon I drove us back from visiting a pile of ancient rocks in a foggy haze of heavy sunshine, my hand on the clutch, weaving through sunshine on mountain roads high above the sea. The hills were layered in light, greys sliding into the blue sea. So beautiful. The car radio didn’t work, so we sang anything we could remember the words to, from Hotel California to Justin Bieber, from Let It Be to…Hallelujah.
I miss this already.
Happy 92nd birthday to my amazing Abwe. Wow.
This long weekend I’ll be driving 7hrs. each way to see my grandmother, who lives in the lonely depths of the most perfect little Connecticut village you ever did see.
I wasn’t sure I could face the drive, but she called last night to check, because a few weeks ago, I mentioned that Ailsa and I might visit her at Easter. She is 91 and she forgets things, a lot of things, sometimes in the course of one conversation. However this information she had not forgotten.
- Are you coming? she asked in her tremulous voice.
Ailsa looked at me, raised her eyebrow. “Yes, we are”.
- Oh thank goodness. I’m so glad. I might cry.
- Don’t cry Abwe, unless they are happy tears!
I can feel when she needs me to call her. I’ve always had this internal clock that ticks louder and louder if I let too many days go by without reaching out to her. Sometimes I ignore it, because she knows me well, and I don’t want to infect her with my bad day, I can’t smile down the line. But sometimes I call her because I feel so good that I want to send that bright strong whatever-it-is down the line and feed her with it, like a bird.
We call her Abwe. It comes from abuela - grandmother in Spanish. When I was a little girl growing up in Buenos Aires, I spoke Spanish, so I decided to call her Abwe - short for abuelita, which means “little grandmother”. She taught me to look at everything, to see how the crack in that wall looked like a bird, or how that tree was bent over as if to greet us. She was so far from little, she was so aware and alive.
But these days, she is a little grandmother. She is shrinking - voice, size, the energy around her. She is preparing to take up less and less space in the world. She will not be here much longer.
The smaller she gets, the more my heart recognizes how huge she is for me.