In Which The Moment Is Alive And Lost

This is part one of a three-part series in which guest contributor Yvonne Georgina Puig visits her grandmother in Houston. Warning: playing the track “Audrey’s Dance” may cause you to lose a giant part of your life to rewatching Twin Peaks. Enjoy.

Oma Portrait

Are You My Granddaughter?

by Yvonne Georgina Puig

Right now I feel like am sitting in my grandmother’s living room, looking at the world through her lace curtains. From time to time, a gentle wind blows the curtains and changes the patterns through which I see the world. There are large knots in the curtains, and I cannot see through them.

Richard Taylor, Alzheimer’s From The Inside Out

Right now I am sitting in my grandmother’s living room. Her curtains are mossy green; her picture window looks out onto an afternoon lush with Houston spring. She watches Cardinals and Blue Jays peck at seed in the grass. My grandmother, Gerda, is lovely. Her skin, olive, still smooth, belies her age. Her hands are strong, her eyes clear, her laugh charming and high, and we are losing her.

My grandmother, Oma as we call her, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease last year. It would, however, be difficult to know this, sitting beside her in her living room, watching her admire the birds. The disease grips her in subtle ways today, in perhaps less subtle ways tomorrow.

She still knows who I am, of course. She knows the family, the basic facts. Details come and go. What she cannot retain are the immediacies, and what she asks me each time I arrive at her door is, why are you here? Where is Mommy?

Oma With Boys

“California,” I say. “I’m in town to spend time with you this week.”

She grips her forehead, asks me when my mom is coming back.

“Tuesday,” I say, again. “She’ll be back Tuesday morning.”

I cannot know how deep this disease will pull her, and how fast. For now I am grateful for having only to remind her of the little things, and we flip through photo albums, side by side on the couch, her fat, white cat named Tootie asleep in the space between us. Doctors say old photographs are good for the Alzheimer’s mind.

Her childhood remains vivid: holidays atop jungle mountains, resorts shrouded in clouds, trans-Atlantic ocean liners, flowing gowns the colors of which I must imagine through black and white. Oma was raised between Holland and the island of Java, in Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies. For the Dutch, it was a prosperous time. Hers was a childhood spent in rooms without walls, with lounging cats and idle breezes.

Oma Friends

Here now in Houston, her accent still pronounced after five decades in Texas, Oma recalls the names of cute boys in old-fashioned bathing suits, the details of her favorite outfits (“Oh, this one was brown,” she says, smiling. “So cute!” we squeal in unison), and the opening moments of her dance revues. Oma loved to dance. “I would dance by myself in an empty house,” she says, and closes her eyes. “I see myself dance.”

 “Audrey’s Dance” – Angelo Badalamenti (mp3)

“No. 3 in E Major” – Chopin (mp3)

“Drivin’ on 9” – The Breeders (mp3)

Oma's Room

Oma’s childhood room

I get up to show her my rudimentary and ineptly-executed ballet moves. Tendu, piqué, grand plié.

“No elbows!” she exclaims, positioning her arms, patiently, as if strumming a harp. I try again. She watches, clasps her hands beneath her chin. “Ah,” she sighs, delighted. “Very nice!”

Oma and I have always been close. Her house is two miles from my parents’ house, and my sister and I grew up seeing her every day, pulling up the driveway in her Ford Fairmont, the Omamobile, delivering us strange and delicious Indonesian dishes for dinner.

Of the nine members of my immediate family, I have always felt most like Oma: daydreaming, skeptical, in love with the arts, hostile toward math, quick to judge and then laugh about it, Oma and I are cut from the same passionate and somewhat astringent cloth. We are the only two women in the family who covet jewelry. When something is absurd, we think it’s absurd. I love Oma’s beauty, her wit, her perfection of manners. I see in Oma, unfailingly, the woman like whom I hope to age. But now I think of her mind, and I’m frightened of what her genes imply.

“Arabian Dance” – Tchaikovsky (mp3)

Oma's House

The house on Java

I remind her to take her afternoon pills, to eat. Alzheimer’s makes its sufferers obstinate and irritable. That she resists food is troubling. One must eat everything on one’s plate, she’s always told us. One must try all foods in order to be worldly, refined, poised.

“Don’t boss me,” she replies. “I’m not 100.” Then she asks me if I’m alone at my parents’ house. She remembered they were traveling. When I say yes, she shakes her head in disapproval.

“If you’re not 100,” I say, “then I’m not ten.”

We laugh and decide to play Scrabble. The highlight is my construction of the word “vagina,” followed by Oma’s addition of an “s,” making this bit of plural anatomy the vertical center point and constant amusement of our game.

Today, Oma plays Scrabble with relative ease, but it makes me sad. Tomorrow her memory of this game will have vanished. It will, in fact, never have become a memory. It is my challenge, not hers, to linger in the moment. To enjoy this, and later, to etch it onto my heart. Memories held here seem to cling more firmly to the mind.

I coax her into eating a McDonald’s Asian Chicken Salad, and she settles in with her slokje. Two parts vodka to one part dry vermouth, and ice. In a tall glass. A long drink, she says. Wheel of Fortune flickers on the television, the volume low, the arrows thrumming quietly against the pegs of the wheel. We both used to be so good at this show; it’s our tradition to watch it. But tonight we are terrible, and I have no excuse.

The room is cozy when I switch on a few lamps. Oma, from her spot on the couch, sits across from an antique wooden cabinet boasting twenty-two photographs of cats — my cats, my mom’s cats, my sister’s cats, my cousin’s cats, anonymous greeting card cats. “I looove my toeteladis,” she says. I wonder how I might memorize the sound of her elongated O’s, the beguiling and particular sing-song of her accent when she’s feeling good.

Oma At The Pool

I finish off a McFlurry with M&Ms, and pour a glass of Chardonnay. We marvel at the globularity of Pat Sajak’s head, and move on to discuss the merits of the early-evening cocktail. “My father was suspicious of a man who wouldn’t have a drink,” Oma says. “We should be having this with a little hapje, a little cheese and bread.”

“And salami,” I add, and we both take a sip. The chardonnay is extra-sweet paired with the aftertaste of soft-serve.

“When I was young it seems like we were always drinking and eating,” she says. “Before your evening drink you had tea, with cake, and before that lunch. And you had your wine with dinner.”

“The meals must have been so long,” I say.

Oma scratches the top of Tootie’s head. “Oh yes,” she says, nodding, “and then you had your coffee afterwards of course, and always your dessert.”

Tootie

We are quiet for a few moments now, she with her numbered recollections, me gathering them up into my own reveries, of fine, languid dinners in the Far East. Alzheimer’s takes often, and seldom gives. Today was a gift.

Yvonne Georgina Puig is a contributor to This Recording. She also (wo)mans the lovely It Was Evening All Afternoon, where you can indulge your raging girlcrush on her. She is a writer living in Austin, Texas; her work has appeared in Anthem, The Austin Chronicle, The Austin American-Statesman, GOOD Magazine, Metromix and Variety. Click here for the second part of Yvonne’s series.

portrait of the author in a young scarf

“Tenderly” – Lester Young, Bill Evans, Art Tatum (mp3)

“Be Mine” – The Concretes (mp3)

PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING

We let it get the best of us.

Phallic objects in the sky.

A journey into the modern.

from here

9 thoughts on “In Which The Moment Is Alive And Lost

  1. Heartfelt, touching, and beautifully written about such a sad affliction affecting many families.
    Beautiful accompanying photos.

  2. fantastic and beautiful. my grandpa was diagnosed seven years ago, and is less than a shell of his former self these days. but he turns 91 next week and you better believe we are celebrating the hell out of that.

  3. Such sweet memories of a rich and rewarding life. Thank you for sharing details of the sad journey of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

  4. I loved your memories of Oma. My mom has dementia and it really touched my heart to see how you cherish your grandmother. It really is “the long goodbye”. I’m so glad you are enjoying every minute.

  5. I have never met or spoken with you Yvonne. That is a good thing as that can bring bias. I read the piece twice. How wonderful that you write about a rare lady who has seen more than most care to dream. Your prose are a joy and any aspiring literary agent out there would be a fool to ignore tomorrow’s next great find. Not only for the words, but the genetics that must flow in your body from such a rare person, Oma. As you get swept away on more assignments around the globe, perhaps even Oma’s old stomping grounds in Indonesia, please try to keep this site alive for all families that suffer from such a wasting condition that your Oma has now.

    Fred

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