Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Katie Bell

Grandmother's house

In a few days I will go see my paternal grandmother, probably for the last time.
Katie Bell House will turn 107 this Easter Sunday,  April 8. Up until a year ago, she was remarkably spry and, as my mother says, “with it.” But old age hit her suddenly and without mercy. She began to forget things. She refused to leave her house. She mistook her son (my uncle) for her husband, Wilson, who died in 1990. She declined to have her hair done anymore, or receive visitors. She became confused. 

Now I realize 107 is mighty old, and none of this should surprise me. But Grandmother seemed like she would somehow defy all expectations and preconceptions about aging. When she was in her seventies, she became obsessed with baseball. I was in Knoxville for an entire summer during that time, and spent most weekday afternoons at her house, having lunch, gardening with her, and watching the Braves. Many days she would insist that we go for a walk around the neighborhood. I could barely keep up with her, and would complain that she wanted to walk too far. She never gave in, but, with a hearty slap to my behind, would urge me onward.

When she was in her eighties, she still cut her grass with a gasoline powered, hand-pushed lawn mower. The family kept telling her it was too much for her, that they would get her a yard man, or that one of the grandsons would be happy to come cut her grass every week. She scoffed at us. Dr. Simmons, her doctor for over fifty years, told her to stop, that she needed to rest in the afternoons, and certainly not be outside in the sun pushing a lawn mower around. But she ignored him too, dismissing his advice until she was ready to give up the lawnmower. Then she stopped.

When she was in her nineties, she got colon cancer. We prepared ourselves for the end. After all, she had lived a good, long life, and this was her second battle with cancer. But Grandmother underwent surgery and emerged as strong as she had been before, as if nothing at all had happened. We held an early birthday party for her on her 98th birthday, secretly fearing she wouldn’t live to see her 100th. The next year, we held another one, for her 99th birthday. Then, of course, the next year, another one for her 100th.
Grandmother's dining room. It's looked exactly like this for as long as I've been alive.
My grandmother has never worried about things. She never talked bad about anyone, no matter how much they might have deserved it. She looks at life as a wonderful experience, but nothing that should be analyzed or dwelled on for too long. Grandmother has kept busy with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren her entire life. She also drinks a glass of “sweet buttermilk” every day. 
I have always wished I could be more like her, and I do try, but some things you are either born with or not. Grandmother was blessed with a sunny disposition and an ability to accept the simple act of living. Her life is spectacular in its unspectacular-ness. Even though I am not equally blessed, I am still trying to be like her. Well, except for the buttermilk.

Grandmother, July 2010
I realize as we all do that it is actually winding down now, that the ever-present, matter-of-fact warmth that is my grandmother will be gone soon. Though she still manages to live in her own house, with my uncle and other caregivers, and go through her daily life without pain or illness, she is fading.
Her eldest son, my own father, got lung cancer when he was 64. Though he held on for six years, it finally got him in 2006, when Grandmother was 102. When she was told of his passing, she decided not to travel from Knoxville to Rome for the funeral, preferring to mourn in her own, private way. Last year, her youngest daughter, my aunt Catherine, discovered she had esophageal cancer. But this time, no one told Grandmother. When Aunt Cack died in October, just four months after being diagnosed, no one spoke a word of it to Grandmother, saying instead, “Cack will be coming to see you next week.” By now, she honestly doesn’t seem to realize that Catherine is not coming.
So now I am going to pay her a visit. My mother says she doesn’t think it’s a good idea, and that I should remember her as she was. Lately she hasn't been taking care of herself like she used to. Her hair isn't "done" and the house is messy, something Grandmother never would have allowed in the past. She doesn’t know who you are when you talk to her. She is kind and friendly, but with a polite distance, as if you are a slightly-remembered acquaintance. Gone is the sense of connection with her, the feeling of being special and loved. But I don’t care if she knows me or not. I don't care if her hair is combed or she has lipstick on. I need a hug and a kiss and to hear my grandmother's voice, before she disappears from this mortal coil forever. 

July 2010

1 comment:

Cameron VSJ said...


I have a quick question about your blog, would you mind emailing me when you get a chance?