by Colleen Lanier
My Dad’s mother was a wonderful cook. Born and raised in Alabama, she had mastered the art of Southern fried chicken, potato salad and lemon squares. Everything she made was good, and she did it all from scratch. It was like magic to me, because she never used a recipe.
My earliest memories of Grandma take place in her kitchen, sitting on a stool watching her cook and bombarding her with questions. I visited often, and I was allowed to help, starting with small jobs like peeling potatoes, setting the table and, best of all, licking the spoons. As the years passed, she let me do more and more, showing me how to prepare some of her best dishes. I learned how to multi-task in her kitchen, a skill that serves me well to this day.
By the time I finished college, Grandma wasn’t cooking nearly as much. We gradually changed roles, and during my frequent visits Grandma would keep me company as I prepared meals in her kitchen. I think she enjoyed sitting back and being served, and I loved cooking for her and Grandpa.
I moved out of state for graduate school, and when I returned 18 months later, Grandma wasn’t cooking at all. Grandpa had stepped in, establishing a routine to simplify their meals into something manageable: toast and fruit for breakfast, soup and crackers for lunch, and cantaloupe with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for dinner.
I wondered if Grandpa was being overly protective when he told me, “Your grandmother is getting forgetful.” I did see some subtle changes in her: mild confusion, repeating herself, and not wanting to go out as much as she used to. One day I found Grandma standing in front of the elevator in her building, completely at a loss as to how to open the doors. Dementia had entered our lives, and Grandma was heading down the path from which there was no return.
The time came when Grandpa could no longer keep her safely at home, and she moved into assisted living. Grandpa, who had spent his whole life taking care of family and friends, found himself with no one to take care of. He was adrift without Grandma, and died many years before she did.
I visited Grandma regularly, and was in the habit of bringing her a snack. One weekend I decided to surprise her with homemade lemon squares.
“I brought you a treat, Grandma,” I said, handing her a square. “I hope you’ll like it.”
Grandma sniffed my offering and proceeded to stuff the entire piece into her mouth. A cloud of powdered sugar filled the air as she chewed with her mouth open. Then, inexplicably, she spit it into her hand and held it out to me.
“What’s wrong, Grandma? You don’t like it?” I grabbed a tissue and took the half-chewed food from her, puzzled as to what had gone wrong.
“I hate lemon. Yuck.”
“But … Grandma, we made hundreds of these in your kitchen.”
“That must have been someone else. I never made these.”
I was so disappointed that my efforts had failed. “What sounds good to you? Would you like me to get you some fruit? Jell-O? What can I get you?”
She waved her index finger at me, and then pointed at my purse. “You have any peanut butter in there?”
And that was the end of the lemon square era. I brought peanut butter cookies the following week, and she ate all of them in one sitting. When she informed me a month later that she had always hated peanut butter, I moved on to MoonPies, which were enjoyed for a few weeks. Chocolate chip cookies were next, followed by peach yogurt, and then bananas. She never lost her taste for bananas, so I always had one in my purse whenever I visited.
It turned out that Grandma wasn’t done teaching me. Over the course of several years, I learned how to work with what she gave me. I came to understand that she no longer had the memories of what she used to like, or whom she used to know. She only knew what she liked now, in the moment. It was my job to find her reality so we could enjoy our time together.
For the last three years of her life, Grandma had no idea who I was. Sometimes she liked my company and sometimes she didn’t. She talked less and less, and most of our time together consisted of my pushing Grandma in her wheelchair down to one of the living rooms, sharing a snack, and reading aloud to her. We read the Bible almost cover to cover, and I found that she also enjoyed Nancy Drew mysteries. I had read every Nancy Drew book as a child, and it was fun to re-read them with Grandma.
We were reading The Hidden Staircase one day, and Nancy Drew had almost figured things out when Grandma interrupted, roughly grabbing my forearm.
“Shut up! Stop talking! Your voice is so annoying. Who are you, anyway?”
I wanted to say, “I’m your granddaughter, and this annoying voice has read dozens of books to you.” But Grandma had taught me well, and I knew what to do. I closed the book and spoke quietly.
“My name is Colleen, and I’m sorry to have disturbed you. I apologize. Is there anything I can get for you before I go?”
She didn’t answer right away, so we sat in silence as I waited for a reply. She looked at me with no recognition, no familiarity, just a hopeful expression on the face I loved so dearly.
Her voice was a whisper. “Lemon square.”
I found lemon squares in the third grocery store I went to, and picked up two cups of coffee at Dunkin Donuts. I hurried back, and found her just I had left her — looking out at the gardens in our favorite corner of the living room. I wheeled her over to a table and set out our little feast. Grandma ate her lemon bar quickly, and then reached for mine.
“Nice lady.” She patted my arm as she helped herself to my lemon square.
“I’m glad you like them. I’ve always loved lemon squares. My Grandma used to make them for me.”
Grandma smiled, and we got back to Nancy Drew.
Colleen Lanier is a registered nurse with a private consulting firm, and the author of Miles from Home, a memoir of an emotional journey made by Colleen and her first love Sean to transport his ailing parents to an assisted-living facility in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a story about the messiness of life, death, friendship, and, ultimately, the power of love. The book is available at colleenlanier.com.