In Which The Moment Becomes A Memory

This is the third and final installment from Yvonne Georgina Puig’s series on her visit to Houston, where she spent time with her grandmother Oma, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Catch up on parts one and two.

Are You My Granddaughter?

by Yvonne Georgina Puig

OmaOpa Park

Oma and Opa

She doesn’t realize it, but Oma has lost her sense of smell.

It’s another cruel twist of this disease, that its sufferers should lose the most eloquent trigger of memory, scent. It is the sense that cannot be conjured and evades description; when it is inaccessible, it is gone. Oma can no longer verify whether the musty aroma lingering in the spines of her old books is her childhood home. Or her first home with Opa. Or something else entirely. I wish I had asked her sooner.

Oma Venice

Oma, age 10

There’s cinnamon and damp wood and lavender in the spine of “The Soul of the White Ant,” by Eugene M. Marais, her mother’s favorite book. This was Over-Oma’s copy, published June 3, 1937, a study of South African termites. Oma, dressed today in a pretty turquoise house dress, tells me that her mother was fascinated by small insects, particularly ants and termites. I remind her that as I child I wanted to be an entomologist studying weird bugs in the rainforest. We laugh because it’s ridiculous, the thought of me as any sort of scientist.

I read aloud to Oma from the first chapter, “The Beginnings of a Termitary”:

The functioning of the community or group-psyche of the termitary is just as wonderful and mysterious to a human being, with a very different kind of psyche, as telepathy or other functions of the human mind which border on the supernatural. When one wishes to write of all these wonders, one is bewildered by the embarrass de richesses. It’s hard to know where to begin.

Oma smiles; she is listening.

The beginning of a termitary dates from the moment when the termites fly, after rain and usually at dusk, in order to escape their innumerable enemies. Even here we see a remarkable instance of the wonders of instinct. The termites beginning their thrilling flight know nothing about enemies. They have never been outside the nest before. The peril of existence is to them a closed book, and yet nine times out of ten they do not fly until the birds are safely in their nests.

Perhaps Alzheimer’s is similar, in reverse. The individual, with time, shedding gradations of self, until what’s left must function on feeling and impulse alone. The body becoming a vessel to the inchoate mind.

Oma perks up in the evenings. Where she used to fret, she is almost blithe. Oma, whose dreams were always vivid recollections of the war, of long-ago conversations, of Opa, now has nightmares which wake her shaking; the past wailing at the door, fists beating, locked out. Still, she suspects only that she is getting old. It’s an especially insidious disease that devours a mind without revealing itself to the very mind it’s devouring. Or an especially merciful one.

oma can can

Oma in her can-can costume

I make Oma a peanut butter and honey sandwich, and suggest that we play hangman, another classic in our repertoire of word games. Oma guesses my word, “California,” almost immediately. Then she gives me a phrase, four words, punctuated with a question mark. It takes her some time to count out each letter. Before I know it, my man is hanging hopelessly from the gallows. We’re laughing because Oma keeps forgetting letters and I keep getting confused. Finally, I give up and watch as she fills in the blanks, one by one, in her disciplined print:

ARE YOU MY GRANDDAUGHTER?

I don’t know what to do, so I say of course I’m your granddaughter! My tone is bright but my heart is breaking. It’s difficult to accept that she’s asking me this question in earnest. I know she has asked my mother similar questions, but here now, with her, I am not prepared. She recognizes that I am familiar, that my mother is familiar, but the context is clouded. She cannot place our parts in the play. I want to ask her, if she isn’t sure I’m her granddaughter, who does she think I might be? I won’t ask, though, as it would only confuse her more. She looks at the page with an absent smile, gestures as if to indicate that of course she knows I’m her granddaughter, and we move on, back to the present.

I tell her I’m going to see La Bohème tonight, one of Opa’s favorite operas.

“Oh yes,” she says. “I’ve seen it many times.”

Opa’s favorite was Tosca,” I say. She told me this a few years ago.

“Oh he loved it,” she says. “Every Saturday morning he played it so loud, all through the house!”

I have a collection of random memories here: Oma picking me up from elementary school, her gold bracelets clinking against the plastic Fairmont steering wheel. The brown vinyl sunglasses case which hung from her keychain, tapping the steering column as she made a turn. The symphony or opera playing low on her radio, and the muffled male voices of NPR. I remember thinking that whatever those men were saying wouldn’t pertain to me for a very long time. Oma is wearing the same gold bracelets today.

She asks me if I’m going to the opera alone. I say yes, and she doesn’t like this at all. I assure her that I’ll be careful in the parking garage, and as I’m leaving, promise to call her at intermission.

“Etude in C Minor Op. 10 #12” – Chopin (mp3)

“Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” – Herman’s Hermits (mp3)

“San Antonio Rose” – Patsy Cline (mp3)

Splendor In The Humidity

Splendor in the humidity

Of the (limited) pleasures Houston has to offer, including New York-quality ballet and opera companies, The Menil Collection, a house made entirely of beer cans, and ethereal fried chicken, driving from the Westside to downtown along Memorial Drive counts among them.

The route, which cuts through the largest (and what feels like the only) park in the city, is especially pleasing when travelled in my father’s 1984 300D Turbo Diesel Mercedes sedan. One would not guess, rounding the bend at Buffalo Bayou and glimpsing the skyline, that Houston is a city without zoning restrictions. If one were to continue past downtown however, this fact would immediately reveal itself. Downtown, as seen from Memorial Drive, is H-Town’s most flattering angle.

Oma-Vega

Oma in the Vega

The opera is beautiful; I imagine Oma listening to the proverbial O soave fanciulla, with her family in Holland, with Opa in this very theater.

Oh lovely girl, oh sweet face bathed in the soft moonlight. I see you in a dream, I’d dream forever!

Orchestra Pit

When I call during intermission she sounds sleepy and content, genuinely excited that I’m at the opera. She asks again that I call her afterward; she wants to know I’m home safely.

It’s unsurprising that observing Alzheimer’s from the outside augments one’s own awareness of memory. Peering into the orchestra pit, I recall Oma taking me to see The Nutcracker. It occurs to me that A Passage to India is her favorite book, and that I haven’t read it. Driving home, down a street near her house which a few years ago endured a prolonged overhaul, I think of Oma joking about the big orange sign on the sidewalk: ‘Slow Men At Work’. I pour a late-night bowl of cereal, and remember the way Oma, when she was staying with us, would take all the cereal boxes out of the pantry in the morning and place them on the kitchen table. I glance at the mail and think of the letters, into the hundreds, that we exchanged when I was in college. She always told me to throw them out, but I’ve kept every one.

“I’ve been meaning to write,” she says to me often these days, “but I just keep forgetting.”

“It’s okay,” I say, “I keep forgetting too.”

Oma and Yvonne

A part of me is glad she hasn’t written. I broke down reading her last letter, about a year ago, right after she was diagnosed. Oma, always the clever poet, wrote in uncharacteristically wavering cursive:

Dearest Yvonne, I am not good at writing notes. (Maybe I wrote you already?) My mind is kaput. I feel I just wrote to you. Help me out! What day is it? March 12? You are taking care of yourself? I read your article! I write so sloppy- old age. Mommy is taking good care of me all the time. Don’t worry. Don’t work too hard – I know I wrote this already! Tell me if I am losing it? Sweet hugs & thoughts & kisses for all, especially you.

Love, Oma

I cried because I sensed the first tremor of the coming avalanche, and because I understood the best we could do was brace ourselves and hold her close to cushion the fall.

Young Oma

Peripheral reminders are everywhere. A block of Post-it notes invokes memories of marathon scavenger hunts at Oma’s house. I see an advertisement for a bridal store on television, and realize I’ve never asked her about her wedding. These reminders are not piercing because they’re nostalgic; they are piercing because they come with the knowledge that for Oma, they are dropping away. There’s insufficient time. We remember, and she forgets, we remember, and she forgets; a devastating and infuriating stasis. If only I could scream at this disease and scare it off, I would gather the memories to make her whole again. I cannot conceive of what it’s like for my mother, her heroic caretaker.

It’s 12:45 A.M, and I’m brushing my teeth when the phone rings. It startles me to see her name on the caller ID this late.

“Oma?”

“Yvonne!” she says.

“Are you okay?” I ask. “Why are you awake?”

“You said you would call me,” she says. “I’ve been waiting for you to call.”

Hours ago, when I called my mother, she told me she’d just talked to Oma, and that she was settled in for the night.

“I’m so sorry Oma,” I say. “I thought you were asleep.”

I’d assumed she had forgotten.

“Noooo,” she says, her voice clear. “You said you would call when you got home.”

In the melody of that wonderful extended O, stern and sweet, I hear her unmistakably. My grandmother. I hold on tight.

Yvonne Georgina Puig is a contributor to This Recording. She also (wo)mans the lovely It Was Evening All Afternoon. 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 first, and here for the second part of Yvonne’s series.

“All Mixed Up” – Red House Painters (mp3)

“The Past and The Pending” – The Shins (mp3)

“Handguns and Firearms” – Japancakes (mp3)

“Stars” – Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma (mp3)

“Stand By Me” – Ben E. King (mp3)

“Trike” – U-ziq (mp3)

ms. puig

PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING

iTunes, and ourTunes, and uTunes

Remember when Tess followed the lemmings off the cliff on the fake Meg White sex tape?

Loverboy Tyler Coates: Don’t Go Breaking His Heart

6 thoughts on “In Which The Moment Becomes A Memory

  1. Having gone through a similar situation with my own mother, I know how painful this is and was for you. Thank you for being strong enough and brave enough to share this story.

  2. Yvonne has been so fortunate to have her Oma in her life into adulthood. Later, she will find that it’s the treasured, happy memories that stay alive in her heart. Mercifully, the dreadful details of these recent times will slip away from the forefront, as they should. The real Oma is the one who will be remembered dearly forever.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s