Grandma’s Patterns

My Grandma is ninety four years old. She’s still pretty sharp. She tracks the hours in the day and days of the week. She keeps track of who ate breakfast and who did not and then will try to get the non-breakfast-eating folks to eat an early lunch. She takes care of herself, but she is heavily dependent on contextual reminders and daily patterns to help her remember what she needs to do. The sun goes down, that means it is time to close the drapes. Six o’clock is dinner time, which means five o’clock is time to start cooking dinner. She has breakfast with one cup of coffee made exactly the same way and drunk, not out of the coffee mug, but out of a small bowl. The patterns of her life wore deep grooves into her mind and now she depends on those grooves to keep on track.

There are times when the grooves lead her astray. The other day she was counting how many places to set for dinner. I told her six, but that didn’t match what she thought. She knew that Sandra has four kids and that we were also feeding herself and my youngest brother. She also knew that my oldest daughter had already gone home, but somehow couldn’t subtract that daughter from the count of my children when figuring how many plates we needed. We talked it through three times before Grandma said “Okay. I’ll believe you.” It was an acknowledgement that she doesn’t always know what is going on around her. I’ve seen her make many of those while I’ve been here. Another example was when the power went out one morning. Grandma was convinced that someone had deliberately turned it off and not told us. “Why would they do that? They ought to tell us.” She also was convinced that we could find information about the outage in the newspaper which had arrived before the outage. For most of her life the newspaper was the place to go for announcements and information. I’d explain why that wouldn’t work and that the outage was an accident. She’d nod and accept the information, but ten minutes later she’d notice that the power was out and we’d be back at the beginning of the same groove and have to run through the same conversation again.

My Grandma grew up in the south and lived the prime of her life in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. These were the decades when the patterns of her life were set. I see this in the patterns she lives now. She gets up in the morning and, unless I’m already moving and fixing breakfast, she’ll start planning and cooking breakfast for everyone. Because it is a mother’s (and grandmother’s) job to feed the children even if those children are adults and fully capable of fending for themselves. She routinely fixes plates of food for my brother and my dad, because that is what women do. If I don’t clean up the dishes right away, she’ll start doing it. I’ve been working to find a balance, because I must not take away all her usefulness. That is not good for her. But neither is it good for a ninety-four year old woman who can’t keep her balance without a walker to be fixing food for a completely healthy forty year old woman who has energy to spare. The easiest compromise is for Grandma to sit in her chair and give me instructions while I fix the food. When Grandma can see that the job is being done according to the proper pattern, she is content to let some one else do the actual moving around.

“We need to have some bread with this.” Grandma says. I would not have added bread to the main dish and three side dishes we’ve already put on the table. But I don’t argue. It isn’t worth the energy to push against that particular groove. All dinners must have side dishes and bread, so I put them on the table rather than spend all of dinner having conversations about how we really ought to have bread with this. If it were very important that we not have bread, I would push against that groove. If I pushed often enough on the same point, Grandma would learn to alter her patterns. But her patterns are her lifelines, I’m reluctant to take any of them away from her unless it truly matters. Most things don’t.

last night at dinner I found myself hopping out of my chair every few minutes so that Grandma would not. I ended up sitting down to eat last. I’d cooked the meal, then I cleaned up after the meal. As I did, I realized that if I were staying more than five days I would have to push against some of those grooves. Because this is how there is generational transmission of sexist life patterns.

There are some things about the patterns that are good. My family would benefit from more regular meal times with a greater variety of home-cooked food on the table. Living around Grandma’s patterns would help me accomplish that. But there is no reason for me to hop out of my chair and dish up food for a sixteen year old who is fully capable of wielding a spoon. Grandma thought I should
“Aren’t you going to fix a plate for your boy?” she asked.
“No, he’s standing right there and he can serve himself.”
“Mothers should always serve for their kids. My mother had seven kids and she always served us. Even when we was grown.” Grandma grumbled, but then let the subject drop.
So, I guess I do push on some of the grooves a little, but the longer I stay here, the more I find myself falling in with them to save energy. Grandma is still strong even when she is genial and willing to acknowledge how often she gets confused.

My parents return later tonight and I’ll hand back the job of caring for Grandma. I’ll be very glad to return to my own life and patterns, but I’m also glad for this chance I got to spend time caring for Grandma. It was great being a kid and having Grandma cook for me. Now I get to cook for her and that feels like a full circle of love. Perhaps the memory of this trip will help me as I attempt to establish more regular meal times at home. Though my efforts will be focused on making sure that all the people in my house take turns with the preparing and cleaning up.