Grandma's Friends

At first we were sure she had Alzheimer’s. We sat close to her, spoke unnaturally loud.

“Who is this Fran,” we asked, “How do you know her?”

“That’s just it,” she said, “I’ve never met her. But I remember her first kiss.”

Over the next week, it got worse. Grandma remembered Fran’s bout with appendicitis in college, could point to the exact spot on her belly where the pain began. She had a vivid mental picture of Fran’s older son — apparently she had two — displaying his first tiny tooth. And Fran wasn’t the only one. Grandma began recalling scenes from the life of a boy named Trevor, who came from a military family and moved around a lot. She described to us his first glimpse of the oil fields in Saudi Arabia, late at night — a black expanse with a ring of light at the horizon. She remembered the tiny armless action figure he had given as a goodbye gift to a friend.

We took her to the doctor. She answered questions about the alphabet, how to make soup, the names of her family members. She was polite and cooperative, and got all the answers right.

“There’s no sign of cognitive impairment,” the doctor said. “But these hallucinations are troubling. You’ll want to keep an eye on it.”

The truth was, we’d always expected something like this with Grandma. Everyone in our family had seen a lot of trouble. Dad became an alcoholic after he lost his job, and Mom got depressed over his alcoholism. Growing up in a house like that, of course I had my share of problems. Since I was 13 I’d been drawn to older, inappropriate men, and now I was dating a married mechanic who liked to call me by the name of his wife. Grandma had had at heart a life as any of us — her first husband died in the war, and Grandpa used to hit her, but she was the only one of all of us who seemed happy and relaxed. It seemed inevitable that her perfect brain would one day unravel.

So when she talked about Fran’s job in the dentist’s office or Trevor’s poorly attended eighth birthday, we just nodded knowingly to one another. We began to prepare for her decline — we read books on Alzheimer’s, called nursing homes.

It was a rainy Sunday when Fran came. She was a little apple-shaped woman of about sixty with a battered green purse. She was very nervous, and she kept folding and unfolding her purse strap with her fingers.

“You won’t believe how I found your house,” she said.

She and grandma were like long-lost lovers. At first they were shy with each other, offering up inconsequential memories in vague, uncommitted voices. But soon they were sitting close together on the sofa, whispering. When we came in to offer them tea, they giggled like we’d caught them in a clinch. Trevor came a few hours later. He was 20 now, broad shouldered, with long hair in a ponytail. We thought he’d have nothing to say to a couple of old ladies. But it was midnight when he left.

They began meeting every Sunday. Did sit in the living room and talk quietly to one another, a warm glow on their faces. At first we tried to join them, but they had too many in-jokes, too many friends we didn’t know. And there was something unpleasant about them, a kind of crackle behind their words, as though they enjoyed their lives three times as much as we did. Now when they come over we try to avoid them. Occasionally we catch a snatch of their conversation and we shake our heads, jealous and uncomprehending.


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