‘Hi, Mom!” My mother’s sing-song voice rang out as we entered Nana Frieda’s apartment in her assisted living facility. “Look who’s here.” My two boys, Rafa and Gabi, and I were visiting from Spain for Passover.
Mother walked over to Nana’s wheelchair and kissed her. The boys and I hung our coats in the closet and then leaned over to kiss her as well.
I hadn’t seen Nana Frieda for nearly three years — since the time when she was still expressive, vocal, and blonde. Now, hunched forward in her wheelchair facing the television, she was a shrunken woman, shorter than her original five feet and weighing less than 100 pounds. I noticed her skin, loose and mottled, her gnarled hands, her swollen feet. One of her yellowed teeth was missing. Her short white thinning hair had been chopped off rather than styled.
The room was spartan — a smoothly made bed, a couple of chairs, a night table on which stood a sparkling water glass next to an alarm clock, and in a porcelain frame a tiny photo of her with her husband Ted when they were young. In the kitchenette colorful photos of great-grandchildren along with their drawings enlivened the door and refrigerator. Over the bed hung an oil painting of three female heads, a cherished piece of art she and my grandfather had bought nearly forty years earlier.
This was a woman who, well into her nineties, visited the beauty shop every week, dyed her hair, and took great pride in her neatly pressed clothes and artistic color combinations. I remember her quiet smile at her 95th birthday celebration after I complimented her on her matching lilac sweater and skirt.
Now Nana Frieda had lost most of her memory and spoke primarily in monosyllables. But sometimes she surprised the family. The day before when my brother Rand visited with his three children, she’d looked at his four-month-old baby and said, “He’s adorable.” At her birthday party two months earlier she murmured to her two daughters, “I’m glad you’re here.” Her cognitive abilities varied from day to day, often depending on how much sleep she’d had the night before.
“Do you remember how much David enjoyed listening to Dad’s stories?” My mom asked as she settled herself into a seat next to her mother’s wheelchair. “Yeah,” Frieda replied, looking straight ahead. When I first entered the room, her face had brightened, her eyes widened, but she gave no other indication she knew who I was.
Nana Frieda was the grandmother of my childhood. For nearly three formative years, starting when I was 18 months, my parents and I lived near her in Washington. And she’d adored me, her first grandchild. I have a photo of the whole family —my mom and dad, my grandparents, my aunt — all gathered in her Silver Spring backyard on a summer day. She looks so young. Her hair is brown. She’s wearing a cotton shirt and pedal pushers. I’m sitting on her lap; she’s laughing. More photos. I used to take walks with her on the sidewalk near her home. My mom remembers Nana held my hand as I stopped every few steps to pick up a stick or an inviting pebble. She fed me applesauce as I sat in the wooden high-chair at the dining table in her small brick ranch house.
I believe I was a happy child. But then, when I was a teenager, my parents separated, and nothing was ever the same. After that I felt cheated and resentful. I expressed my anger by yelling and complaining but kept my sadness in. The divorce took my father away, and I blamed both of them for not working harder to keep the family together. My mother certainly didn’t understand how I was feeling.
All I remember of my teenage years is screaming and yelling. By me, mostly. At everyone, even my loving grandfather, who didn’t deserve it. I refused to attend his 75th birthday celebration at Lake Williams because my girlfriend wasn’t invited. After he died two years later, I felt terrible about having mistreated him.
My parents, everyone, seemed weak to me. Except Nana Frieda. She was a constant. When I asked my parents for a special lift-top desk, they said it was impractical. Nana Frieda knew it was my heart’s desire, so she bought it for me. Yes, when she wanted to visit me in my shabby graduate school apartment near Columbia, I told her not to come.
During the entire visit with their great-grandmother Rafa and Gabi sat quietly squished together on a large recliner in the corner, the only other available seat. At thirteen Rafa had grown so tall, five feet, seven inches, and his features had sharpened so much my mother had done a double-take when he first arrived at her house. Nana Frieda remained facing the television, her back to them.
My mom sat on one side of Nana Frieda, I on the other. As words flashed across the television screen — any words, captions, advertisements — Nana Frieda read them out loud without registering their meaning. “Senators Working. Family Circle. Cash Call. Pure Michigan. Cream cleanser. Car care center.” She sat perfectly still, spoke in a monotone and seemed unaware of her visitors.
“Did you enjoy your lunch?” my mother asked.
“Yeah,” she replied, staring at the screen.
I didn’t say anything or show my sorrow at the shocking changes in Nana Frieda. I knew I would probably never see her again. She was failing, and my annual visit would end the next day when we returned to Spain.
“You know you now have ten great-grandchildren?” my mother asked.
“That’s right,” she said.
Mom looked out the window at a grassy hill topped by a cluster of apple trees just beginning to bloom.
“You have a lovely view of the trees from your window.”
Finally, the silence was weighing me down. The longer I was quiet the harder it had become to speak. I had to say something.
“Haven’t Rafa and Gabi grown tall?”I asked.
After about an hour mom and I signaled each other it was time to go. The boys had been patient. They stood, leaned over Nana’s chair again, hugged and kissed her, put on their coats and walked to the door.
But for once Nana had turned away from the television, and twisted toward us. She stretched her arms out. Clearly she didn’t want us to leave. I felt a painful hollowness. Mom threw her a kiss and Rafa and Gabi did the same. Again they said goodbye, and my mother called out, “I’ll see you soon, mom.”
My mother and the boys left the room. But as I lingered in the doorway, Nana beckoned me to return to her side. Minutes later I came out and closed the apartment door behind me. I placed my hand on Gabi’s shoulder, and seconds later I was sobbing. My mother seemed startled. She probably hadn’t seen me cry since I was a child.
“What did she say?” mom asked, once I regained my composure.
“She reached up and said, ‘Bring me.’”
Babette Levin is a psychotherapist and writer. A graduate of Vassar, she holds master’s degrees in English literature and mental health and an MFA in writing. She leads book and movie discussion groups.