As I slowly unpacked two vintage sets of salt and pepper shakers, a half used roll of paper towel, and enough cheap toilet paper to last me the rest of the year I thought back to how fervently and emotionless I had shoved all of those things into the stained canvas bag just a few hours before. This was the second time we had moved my grandmother, and neither time had I been prepared for the little moments that would consume me for days, maybe weeks, later. The first time we moved my grandmother was when she went from her widowed, alcoholic apartment lifestyle to the shiny, brand new assisted living home just down the highway. Things had become chaoctic shortly after I warned my mother that grandma’s memory seemed to be slipping and her fridge was always close to empty. My mother’s way of handling stressful and confusing events was more of a survival method than it was a productive one. Grandma, nude and nearly unresponsive, had peed on the couch in front of us for the second and final time when my mother decided it was time to look into other living options. When it came time to move her she went with little resistance, and that was mostly due to diversion techniques and mild lying justified by our sole desire to see her safe and at least somewhat clothed. It was my assigned duty to take her out to eat on the night of the big move while the rest of the family backed up her belongings and hauled several large pieces of furniture into her new studio apartment. I had bribed her with alcohol to keep her occupied, but days later when sobriety hit her like a ton of bricks she realized the damage that had been done to her wild lifestyle.
This move was a little different. Alcohol had been prohibited at the assisted living facility, but the dementia hadn’t let go of its grip. In just over a year her memory had faded enough to let her sit back and watch as we packed up her studio apartment. This time I was assigned to packing. My mom studied every article of clothing or decoration like it was a prized antique, when in reality nothing held any value and had only been acquired in the past sober year of my grandmother’s life. I feverishly tossed things into one of three piles – trash, thrift store, and nursing home. I moved from closet to cabinet to bathroom, working up a sweat and impressing my mom with my speed. This wasn’t my first time cleaning through an elderly person’s belongings. I had learned several years ago to work on a fine balance between emotional attachment and end of life clarity. My mother was more of a hoarder, believing everything that had ever entered her home held a meaning so dear she would die before having to part with it. I spent many nights laying in bed, in my immaculately clean and obsessively organized small home, thinking about the job that would be before me when my parents passed away and their belongings would need to be sorted through. The anxiety gave me an ill feeling.
Walking into my grandmother’s nursing home room for the first time brought tears to my eyes so I set to getting the place set up like she would prefer. We had spent a lot of time together when I was little. My mother would let me spend weeks at a time at my grandma’s house when I was young, so when she would now introduce me as “like her daughter” I knew it wasn’t a dementia slip, but rather something closer to a miraculous memory moment. When I was a junior in high school I moved into my grandmother’s apartment which was located on the second floor of her antique store. The small three room apartment was set up like a dollhouse, and it was there that I fully absorbed and began my love for decorating. As I attempted to set up the nursing home room to what I thought she would enjoy, I knew deep down that she when she moved in the following day she would put her touch on the space, the memory loss having not yet completely stolen her magical ability to transform a room.
There wasn’t a strong enough beer to take away the emotions from the day. I had watched the slippery slope of alcoholism and knew to not count on a few drinks to make me feel any better or any less. When I arrived home I immediately set out to unpack the canvas bag I had brought from the move. In the moment it felt slightly awkward to take a few barely used dish cloths and her stock pile of toilet paper, but as I set the items out on my kitchen table it took everything in me to not start to cry. While I am normally emotional to an almost abnormal level, I was not one for drama. My husband carried in the lamp that I had fondly eyed while sitting in my grandmother’s apartment on those long afternoons when I was trying to coax her to eat and my husband cleaned up the alcohol mess in the kitchen. Now the brass lamp sat next to my existing lamp – my husband wondering why we needed another. I went into the bathroom and shut the door knowing that tomorrow my grandma’s life would be the next level of different, and I would have to stare at the lamp wondering how she was doing.
When I unpacked the two sets of salt and pepper shakers I noticed one set looked familiar. While sorting through all of her recently acquired grey tshirts and black elastic waist pants, through the plastic forks and paper plates she turned to after losing her full kitchen, through the simple decor she had tiresly rearranged day after day, I had somehow grabbed the salt and pepper shakers – possibly the only thing she had left from our time living together fifteens years ago. I looked at them now on my own counter. The memories of our midnight snacks in her tiny yet fully decorated kitchen, the conversations we had about her crazy flambouyant sister, her cooking us steaks on her George Foreman grill, it all came swirling back as the tiny S & P set sat staring at me. Nobody ever tells you about this part of life. All my years of elderly caregiving could not have prepared me for the emotions that were to surface, and as I reached for one of the many rolls of toilet paper piled high outside of my bathroom door I felt a bit of gratitude- gratitude for a grandma who passed on her love of decorating, gratitude for the relationship we shared, gratitude for the year we lived together, and gratitude for finding those salt and pepper shakers in the midst of this day.