I want to visit my grandparents’ house one last time, a final few hours before young new owners move in with their own styles, smells, and belongings.
I’ve always thought of it as a simple house with a quiet elegance. My grandpa expanded the place over the years with the precise carpentry he used with any project. His work is seamless and solid: a comfortable family room, a single-bay garage for a car, and a solid workbench for all his tools. He is gone but lives in the beams and cabinets and brickwork. My grandmother is still with us, warm and alert at 98 but living in a nearby nursing home. She can no longer navigate steps and carpet and the demands of a family home.
The house is empty, ready for its next occupants, devoid of my grandparents and their 65 years together under this roof. The vacant rooms echo. But I see the dining room table where we always gathered for Thanksgiving dinner; the special kitchen drawer that held “Grandpa’s bread,” dense brown slices that made me and my younger siblings turn up our noses; and the bedrooms where my mom and her sister grew up. The house was 200 miles from where we lived in Michigan, but my parents packed us into the family station wagon to make the trip to rural Indiana several times a year for holidays, birthdays, and no occasion at all. It never felt far away. And now I am saying goodbye to the most welcoming place I’ve ever known.
As I drove to the clinic, I knew my mom was nervous. Tiny waves of fear and anxiety radiated from her in the passenger seat. When she asked, “Tell me again why we’re doing this,” it was not so much a question as a whimper.
I explained that we were visiting a neurologist, one who specialized in memory. We’re a little worried about you, Mom, and want to see if the doctor can explain why you’re having trouble remembering things. The doctor is going to examine you and ask some questions.
Silence. The landscape rolled by.
“Kim!” She practically yelled my name. “I can’t remember my Social Security number.”
I assured her she knew it but had worked herself into forgetting. I knew it, too, having assumed power of attorney and taken over her finances and medical care. I knew every creditor, every investment, and every prescription or procedure in her health history.
The silence returned, and we drove on, past the subdivisions and green fields of southern Michigan. As we eased toward a red light, I turned to her. “Hey, Mom, what’s your Social Security number?”
She answered with nine quick numbers. Nine correct numbers. I patted her thigh and told her she was fine. She was just thinking too hard.
Once in the doctor’s office, the exam began. The neurologist was gentle in explaining what she was doing; she and my mom shared a first name and wasn’t that a good sign.
Do you know where we are? The hospital.
Good. Do you know which hospital? The University of Michigan.
That’s right. Who is the president of the United States? Barack Obama. My mom made a face. She was a Republican.
Do you know what season we are in? Summer. My mom looked out the window to confirm.
I saw how badly she wanted to give the right answers, and I willed the same. With every correct response, I relaxed a little more. The exam was going better than I anticipated.
The doctor checked my mom’s reflexes, using a tiny hammer to rap her elbows and knees. She asked my mom to walk down a corridor and back. As my mother stepped away from us, I saw how thin she had become. Sometimes she would forget to eat, and the lunchmeat and lettuce in the refrigerator would go untouched until it began to rot. She wouldn’t notice.
But her stride down the clinic hallway was steady and measured. She smiled goofily at me on the return trip. I knew she was thinking, This is ridiculous.
Next came the math. Starting at one hundred, the doctor explained, I want you to subtract by seven. My mom nodded that she understood.
OK, what is one hundred minus seven? One hundred and thirteen.
My mom had not hesitated. She answered with a confidence that had been absent all morning. My stomach dropped.
The doctor explained the answer wasn’t quite correct. She encouraged my mother to think about having one hundred dollars. If you go shopping and spend seven dollars, what is left?
Again, my mom nodded. Yes, yes, now she understood the question. Sixty-five.
She looked at me and smiled. And I knew I needed to call my brother and sisters with the diagnosis none of us wanted.
I sob as I walk through my grandparents’ house, crying harder with each deserted room.
This was to be my mom’s job, to empty her parents’ house. She was the oldest and would always groan in an exaggerated way about what the future held: overcrowded closets, shelf upon shelf of boxes in the basement, the workshop with its tools and paints. My grandma had collected wheat pennies for years, filling empty coffee cans and tucking them into heating ducts. Lord knows what we’ll find when she’s gone, my mom always said.
In each room, I lift my camera, blink away tears, and focus. I photograph what remains: the heavy front door that was always painted red, the bay window where my grandmother’s plants thrived, the hall closet that still smelled of Band-Aids and clean towels, the backyard with the wooden swing beneath the giant oak tree.
I never want to forget any of it. Please, god, don’t let me forget.
Kim Clarke lives in Michigan, where she writes about history for the University of Michigan. Her work has been published by HerStry, the American Historical Association, the Detroit News, and other newspapers. She is working on a book about those who gave their lives during World War II, including her grandfather, and the unacknowledged heroes who brought them home.