My paternal grandmother (nana) was raised in bayou country- Port Arthur, TX. She was the youngest of 8 children and they had a real-life honest-to-goodness mammie who pretty much raised her. She spoke broken french, otherwise known as Cajun, and the woman could COOK. Of course my childlike affinity for roast beef sandwiches from Arby's or McDonald's chicken nuggets didn't often let me explore her cajun cooking. I do remember having blue crabs at her house and she could make stew out of pretty much anything. One summer my grandparents took my sister and I down to Baton Rouge for a big family reunion. We turned our noses up at the real life authentic gumbo and we actually sent our papa to McDonald's for hamburger happy meals. Sigh. My naivete! Not to mention my grandparents' willingness to be total pushovers and let us make special requests for what we wanted to eat. I guess that's the perspective you take as grandparent though.
My nana started showing the signs of early stage Alzheimer's when I was about 10. When I was 12 my grandfather retired after 32.5 years at his job at a local tv station (ok, technically he started working there when it was a radio station) so they could spend some quality time together traveling. That never got to happen because of my grandmother's growing inability to remember much or care for herself or recognize her loved ones. When I was 13 my papa showed up at our house in tears. He had just run to the grocery store to pick up a few things and when he got home my nana ha confronted him at the door, not knowing who he was, and started hitting him with a kleenex box to make him leave. At the time they had been married for over 40 years.
He soon made the difficult but necessary decision to put my nana in a nursing home, knowing the time was growing close when she would not allow him to care for her at all. Always faithful to his vows and loving her until the end, he went to visit her in the nursing home every day, and sometimes twice a day. The growing cost of private nursing home care ate through most of his retirement savings so he took a part time job, first as a security guard at the airport, and later at the cowboy hall of fame. This continued until 2001 (I was 21 and in college) when he developed an aortic aneurysm and died from complications of the surgery 3 weeks later.
He died before she did. To this day the irony (is that the best choice of words? it felt more like a cruel twist of fate) of that fact has never been far from my mind- that sometimes life is not fair. Anyways, my sweet nana lived 3 more years (a total of 13 years in the nursing home, where her mind and spirit seemed so far away while her body continued on, strong yet small and frail) and died in December of 2003.
I will never forget the missed opportunities inflicted by 'losing' my nana to alzheimer's when I was only 12. The loss I felt was reflected deep in my papa's sweet spirit. While physically he continued to be present to her in any way he could, not having her companionship and care on a daily basis made him seem like a widower. The delicate nature of acknowledging that she was still alive and that her life indeed had value while at the same time knowing that everything was different, unfair, and painful held such a precocious balance. As a young teen I wanted to ask my papa questions, learn more about him and her, not lose their past or their stories, yet I didn't want to be a painful reminder of what he had lost/ was losing, so I kept quiet. Now they are both gone and there is no one to tell me their story... how they met... where they went on their first date... their parents... etc.
I don't write this story out of sadness... maybe a little bit of remorse, but not sadness. I had wonderful grandparents who set for me a beautiful example of the beauty of love and the value of life.
So, today I made beignets, my little touch of that history, a brush with the past. And I drink my coffee in my cafe du monde mug and I think of my nana. I hope to be like her in so many ways.