McCANDLESS TOWNSHIP, Pa.
Lately, I’ve been telling my mother-in-law a lot of stories. Her stories.
Each time, I begin by asking my restless sons to listen. But I know, and they know, that their 93-year-old grandmother is my real audience.
She sits, motionless, in a high-backed upholstered chair in the dining room of her assisted living home north of Pittsburgh, her wispy silver hair drawn back from her tired face in exactly the gently pinned bun you might imagine.
She looks like she’s listening. But, at least at first, she’s really only being polite.
They are strangely new to her, these stories I spin about an intrepid young woman who moved to Thailand in the 1950s to teach English. I describe the sun-baked yard outside the home where the young woman lived in Bangkok, and the water buffalo that loped along the road just beyond a hand-hewn wooden fence. I describe the small college campus where she taught with her husband. I tell of the day she stood solemnly with Thailand’s beloved king and queen for a photograph.
I show her this black-and-white photograph on the screen of my phone, and though she doesn’t recognize anything about this moment from the “winter” of 1955 (if there is such a thing in Bangkok), she seems to want to remember.
She’s listening to me now, ignoring the hamburger she orders for lunch every single day, and almost smiling. So I double down on this new theory of mine, and I keep talking.
I jump forward a decade, seeking the splashiest stories, and I describe this woman’s life in the mid-1960s — how she taught at the University of Michigan while raising her daughters in a modern split-level house she adored, and how she mentored a young, frightened, widowed mother who never forgot her kindness.
She’s with me now — in pieces, at least — though the name of the famous young woman whose name you’d know, whose life she changed, now brings only fleeting memories to her mind.
Yet even with those once-indelible details gone, she’s smiling. She’s leaning forward to sip the last of the red wine from the glass in front of her, and waiting for the next chapter of this remarkable story.
“I’ve lived quite a fascinating life,” she says. It’s the first time she’s spoken since this lunch began.
“I don’t remember it all, but I lived it.”
I go for broke, leaping forward yet another decade into the 1970s. Your grandmother, I tell my boys, decided to trek across India in 1975, at age 50. Alone.
She spent 15 hours in a superheated bus without a bathroom, and feared her bladder would explode. She saw incredible sights — the caves at Ajanta and Ellora — and met remarkable people, then finished it off with the trip she’d been craving all her life: to Jerusalem. All because she had the courage to go.
I’m wishing I had more photos to show her, because she’s all in now, and I don’t want this moment to evaporate too soon. Within an hour she’ll be back upstairs in her reclining chair watching “Wheel of Fortune.” By tomorrow she’ll be refusing to leave the building, swearing to me that she no longer ever leaves and hasn’t for years, not since her husband died, because the outside world has come to feel so daunting in her very old age.
Time robs of us many things. No amount of love or effort can change the fact that she walks with a walker, hears with hearing aids and is sometimes exhausted by a walk across the parking lot. But it has been crushing my soul to see her, during these past few months, be afraid even to leave her assisted living building. This is not her. This is not the woman I met during the first years I loved her son.
That woman — that woman blazed trails. She fought for her right to a career in the 1940s, at a time when her male bosses directly instructed her to take a backseat to her husband. She was still traveling to Asia from her Pittsburgh home when she was nearly 80 years old. Why? Because she wanted to see China one more time and wasn’t going to be denied.
So I’ve begun fighting for these moments when I strengthen her not simply with the food we’re eating for dinner but with the stories of her own life. I tell them — carefully, gently — as each highly calibrated, sodium-controlled course arrives like clockwork, carried in by endlessly patient attendants.
By the time the side of ice cream that came with her pumpkin pie is dissolving in front of her, she’s remembered enough of herself — enough of her own story — that I decide to gamble.
As she’s slowly rising from the table, I throw out a suggestion. “Let’s go outside for a minute,” I say, turning her gingerly so she can grip her walker. “We can sit just for a minute before you go upstairs.”
My boys look at me, knowing their grandmother has been adamant lately about staying in the safe cocoon of this building. This time, they’re wrong.
“OK,” she says. We shuffle through the double doors that lead to a landscaped walkway with rows of padded benches.
She seems surprised at the beautiful bushes and trees, delighted just for a moment to have subverted her ironclad routine. Only moments later, she tells me it’s a bit too chilly out here. She pulls her worn, navy-blue cardigan tighter around her dwindling frame to underscore the point.
My boys will point out later that she stayed outside for barely five minutes. But that’s not the point. She went out, and she went out because her own stories resurrected her. I’m encouraged.
It’s brutal when age steals our memories of those we love. It’s even more devastating when it hijacks our memories of ourselves.
I will keep telling my mother-in-law her stories for as long as she will keep listening. I am determined to give her back to herself.
The stories are hers. She earned them.