When my grandmother, Mae, was 99 years old, I temporarily moved in with her. She was at the end of her life, and I was 62 years younger than her. I remember that time in colors, shapes, smells, tastes, sounds, and in the photographic frames of my dreams.
Grandma Mae reinforced indelible lessons: Don’t throw away food. Go bowling with your friends. Work. Keep moving. Be grateful. Don’t pay too much. Laugh. Don’t complain, do. Be a good friend. Be a good neighbor. Bring donuts.
Physical decay can be uncomfortable to witness at close range, but the intimacy of caring for her made me feel lucky she was not warehoused, discounted, or dismissed.
In between her daily routine of meals, watching the Cubs on TV, and taking unsatisfying naps, we would talk. I helped her shower and toweled her dry. I helped her with toilet needs. I reached for the dishes she could not reach. We made soup. I gently brushed her wet, thinning hair. I wrapped her bathrobe around her now-weak body. I witnessed her coping with the pain from arthritis.
I watched her deliberately choose specific clothing every morning, pray with her rosary at night by her bed, open the holy water stashed in her medicine cabinet, and write checks on the desk that once lived in the house she and my grandfather designed and built together on Chicago’s West Side. Together, my grandparents established Kilbourn Grocery off of Jackson Boulevard, and later Kilbourn Wholesale Produce, working from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week, taking in boarders to make ends meet.
Though her physical body was nearing its end during our time together, through my lens, I could see my grandmother’s entire life.
She was all of 5-feet, 1-inch tall and drove a 1978 cardinal red Cadillac Coupe de Ville with a red interior and a white vinyl top. She could bury you playing any card game and knew how to shoot a gun for protection when Depression Era-violence came to the grocery store.
Grandma Mae was precisely tailored clothing, handmade dresses, beaded purses. She was hats and gloves at the Aragon Ballroom on late Sunday nights. She was meticulously plated deviled eggs, sizzling crepes with cinnamon and nutmeg, and slow-cooked barley soup delivered to us in jars saved from the 1930s. She was Heinemann’s chocolate-covered donuts and custard-filled bismarks, picked up at the original Dominick’s because the store’s founder was a neighbor and a friend.
She was humble and funny and tough. I remember the similarities in the lines and shape of our hands. Most of all, I remember the stories held in her 99-year-old hands.