I don’t know how old my grandma was when she finally succumbed to the family disease. I don’t know how old because she stopped answering that question in her forties. She told my mother once that it was depressing to constantly keep track of the years, that sometimes you just want to BE without tabulating every instance of time. Time is minutes and seconds and months that sometimes skip a day, and it’s unreasonable to expect people to keep track of all of that for approximately 80 years. That’s stupid to think about.
She was a nice grandma from a distance, but up close she could be jarring. She didn’t like watching TV, but you could sometimes catch her experiencing TV from the corner of her eyes while she folded laundry or did dishes or whatever was nearby in the TV room. Grandma could be very sharp, suddenly lashing out with a smack on the hand or a holler as painful as a bite.
My father never liked her. My mother, the last surviving child, resorted to a drywall façade. I didn’t always understand why my grandma was held at such a distance from us. When I was very little, we rarely saw her. As my two brothers and I grew up, our visits became more frequent. And it was during those more aware times that I slowly learned why she was a difficult subject for my parents.
The main thing I could point to was that Grandma was a tyrant when it comes to dirt and mold and grime. She could see a single fallen hair from fifteen feet away. Once or twice, she’d caught the dirt before it hit the ground. Her house was spotless. Her yard somehow just as spotless.
She taught us all to prowl around, looking for aberrations to perfection. Get low to the ground at first, look at how grass unfolds in patterns, how carpet rolls in and over itself, how the hardwood joins together. Once you have learnt those patterns intimately, then you can slowly straighten up and catch the patterns from a foot up, from three feet up, from standing up straight. Sometimes she would walk into a room and immediately feel that it was out of place. “Use your eyes!” she’d snap, sending us scurrying. The pillow was face-side down. Or the curtain was uneven.
It was awful as a child to be so meticulous. Spending so much time bent over, staring at the ground or into the closets or crawling behind the couch, looking for dust and hair was far from what we wanted. We wanted to run, jump, climb trees, throw chestnuts, chase through the woods. Instead, we were armed with Lysol and rags and trash bags and towels. And we found that the lessons sometimes carried over to our own home. “Is that how you’d set the table at Grandma’s?” My mother would ask, watching our faces carefully. She seemed to be searching for something.
When I was in my teens, Grandma started to lose her mind due to the genetic disease that all of the women in my family got. Historically, members of the family could see the clouds gathering on the figurative horizon. When the clouds gathered, it was almost your time. My grandma got cloudy, meaning she started to forget who we all were and where she was and what she was doing. Because my brothers had moved away to college, my mother and I started spending our weekends with Grandma. I moved alongside her, helping her straighten and tidy. As the disease progressed, I started trailing behind Grandma so that I could correct her clumsy housework.
My mother seemed to worry if it was a good idea to spend so much time together. “You don’t know her like I do,” my mother would say, but she still would drive me over there every weekend to spend time with her mother, as if she couldn’t help herself. I know now she just wanted me to get into the habit of caretaking a forgetful old lady because it was inevitably her future. I know now she wanted me to practice the care she would want.
“This is how you fold towels for Grandma,” she’d say, looking hard at me. “This is how long you let tea rest for.” “This is how you discreetly get her underwear out from under the bed and into the washing machine.” I took it seriously because my mother wanted me to take it seriously. “Here’s how you load the dishwasher.” “Here’s where she hides the bills for the house.”
Here’s how you’ll teach your children to take care of you.
Once when Grandma was cloudy, she told me that her own mother lived in filth, in squalor. When Grandma’s mother had gone cloudy, she’d refused to let the kids anywhere near the house. My grandma was her youngest. The older sisters were supposed to take over her mother’s care, but they left her to her own devices. The house stunk like a pit. The food rotted immediately upon arrival. The rats gave a wide berth to the house; even they had a sense of dignity and knew better than to wander into that sort of home.
My grandma learned her lesson there and rigidly applied rules to her own home. She commanded presence. She commanded perfection. There wasn’t much choice. Either you took care of grandma or you left her to sink. Either you obeyed your mother or you left her future to sink. I cared for my grandmother. I loved my mother. I was afraid of fate.
My grandma eventually died. I thought for a short time afterwards that the watching was over. But it had only just begun.
Once, in the year after my grandma died, my mother forgot the name of my best friend from college. After gaping for a moment at each other, she burst into hysterics and couldn’t be calmed down despite my assuring her that it was perfectly normal to blank out on a name. “It’s happening! It’s happening!” she screamed and cried. Once we’d all calmed down, she got out a bucket and filled it with water and soap and a drop of essential oil, and scrubbed the floors until her hands were so wrinkled, she could no longer hold the brush.
Months passed. Then years. And still, we creep around the house looking for evidence of rot and ruin. Our eyes have taken on a bulbous look, like they’re going to fall out of our heads. My dad laughs and says we are working too hard, that we are using too much of our brain and eyes. Have you ever tried listening to an Audiobook? Have you ever tried letting the floors get dirty? We don’t hear him. We are too focused to hear him. Besides, we aren’t acting like animals. We are merely dutiful servants to our future.
The older I grow, the more afraid I become.
I had a baby. She is in her pre-teens now. I let her grow up with her father most of the time. Her father and I do not get along, but he has a big house surrounded by lavender fields and the yard is large and beautiful and meadow-like. Our daughter can grow up there like a little horse. I know she’s well looked after. I wish I could see her more, but I don’t have the time. I’m too tied up taking care of my own mother, who is growing fuzzier by the month.
Still, when Lil comes over to visit, I teach her how to use her eyes. It’s different when you’re an adult, and you can see the clouds coming. I am petrified. I am up all night every night screaming noiselessly into the darkness. My mother grows more and more frustrated. Her hair is silver tinged with blue, and her eyes seem to push out further from her head every day. Sometimes I want to take my hands and press them gently back in. And then I catch myself staring into the mirror, looking at my own eyes. Wondering why they hurt so much.
Jordan Hagedon is not afraid of the dark. No, she isn’t. You can find her most recent work out or upcoming in Grande Dame Literary, Gigantic Sequins, and Lit Mag News. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jeimask.