Allegra Lingo is a writer and musician based in Minneapolis. She is currently pursuing her master's in Liberal Studies at Hamline University.
My Grandma celebrated her 90th birthday over Thanksgiving weekend. Or it may be more accurate to say that we celebrated, while she got a break in the monotony of her day at the Inn at Westport, the assisted living and retirement home where she has lived nearly six years.
We moved both her and Grandpa into the facility in January of 2006, just five months before he died from congestive heart failure at age 89. They were reaching the age when it was no longer safe for them to be living on their own, and our small family was scattered across Minnesota, Utah, Arizona and Pennsylvania, and not in Sioux Falls, S.D., where they lived.
I am glad Grandpa spent his last Christmas in his own home, falling asleep in his blue armchair in the living room with a piece of prune pie on a plate in his lap, surrounded by his six grandchildren and two of his three daughters. (The youngest had succumbed to breast cancer four years before.)
Although we knew they would be taken care of, the move to Westport would mean downsizing from their 1950s split-level home to a four-room apartment. They took with them their bed, both couches, their two favorite armchairs, some trinkets and three TVs — but not much else.
After Grandpa's death, we spared Grandma most of the decisions about their possessions — what to bring to the Inn, what to throw away, and what to sell at auction as we readied their home for sale. Grandma has never mentioned that it was a hard process to go through, although it must have been, splitting up the treasures of a lifetime of memories.
The piano came home with me.
But I cannot call her apartment at Westport her home. I do not think she does, either. Half of her closet, which once held Grandpa's clothes, is now filled with 70 of the hand-knit sweaters she has made since his death. After a lifetime of knitting for others, she has finally remembered that she deserves a sweater or two for herself, even though she hardly ever ventures outside except for when my mother drives to Sioux Falls to help pay her bills and refill her medications at Walmart. Each time my mother leaves, Grandma asks her, "You sure you don't want to stay a few more days?"
Her refrigerator, instead of being stocked with everything that a Grandma's refrigerator should be, has been reduced to prune juice and Vienna sausages.
After her birthday party, I walked slowly by her side as she maneuvered her walker first to the mailroom and then toward the elevator. As we passed the front desk, the woman there stopped us and said, "Glenda, we have something for you!" It was a birthday card and a single red rose.
"Your Grandma is one of our favorite long-time residents," the woman said to me.
She's only been here six years, I thought. I've lived in my apartment for nearly that long, and it's my home.
When we got to her room, she told me to find her long skinny crystal vase with the cutting of an angel on it for the rose. I searched all the cupboards, including the cabinet with shirt boxes filled with half-finished embroidery projects that had been saved in the move. I didn't find what I was looking for. My mother came in soon after, and asked what I was doing.
"I'm looking for the long skinny crystal vase with the angel cutting," I told her.
"Mom," my mother said, "we sold that, remember?"
"Oh yes, that's right," she answered, clearly not remembering at all.
After the physical objects are discarded, and our own memories begin to fade, what do we possibly have to help us hold onto the home that once was?
This trip, when my mother was leaving, Grandma did not ask her to stay a few more days. Instead, for the first time, she asked, "Can I come home with you?"