I am up early, but not earlier than Aunt D., whom I suspect did not sleep at all. She makes an egg and turkey bacon for me, padding barefoot in her dressing gown, duckwalking a bit from her bout with polio six decades ago.
It is quite, quite warm. 70 * by day's end, in fact. Fortunately, I did pack some warm weather clothing. It is odd to have packed both a bikini and a hat, not sure which you'll wear. As it turns out, I'll wear neither. I slide open the sunroof on the PT Cruiser and grin as I drive in daylight through this still-lovely city. Traffic is light. I noticed last night that the streets were deserted, but put it down to the late hour. It was not the late hour. A great deal of the city is empty.
The bridge offers me a lovely view, and I grin at the gilttering slate-grey river that snakes through the city. I choose the right road, but go the wrong way, and am soon in the ghetto, which these days is more of a barrio.
I enter the locked ward, nervous of what I'll find. My grandmother is in the doorway of her room. I meet for the first time Daisy, who attends her.
"Loooook, Meez Jackie, who come to see you! It’s Jackie dotter! It’s you grandotter. Tell her you name, sweetheart."
Despite hearing my name, Grandmother does not know me. She seems pleased to see me, but she doesn't know me. We sit in the common room with Becky, who is training to be a music therapist. She sings to each patient individually, then encourages them to sing songs with her and her accoustic guitar. Gran is tolerant but uninterested.
"Do you have a special visitor today?" Becky asks her.
"Not really," responds my gran.
Afterwards, we take a little stroll/wheel around the lake outside- she walks with her feet while sitting in her chair. I walk behind, and she forgets about me, muttering to herself in a disjointed monologue. When we return to her ward, it is lunchtime. The attendants have arranged a lunch for me. Cornbreaded catfish, hush puppies and stewed okra? A little bland, but really not bad for institutional food.
We go back to her room, at her insistence. She shows me her beads. They are shiny Mardi Gras beads that have never made it onto a parade float. She has handfulls of them. They're in a turned-over hat. "Don’t touch them! Just leave them there. They’re fine just like they are. That one’s gorgeous. Look at that. It’s blue, and this one’s black, and that’s blue, and that, and that, and that, that one’s gorgeous."
And now Gran is ready for a nap. She climbs into her bed. "Bye, bye," she dismisses me.
I’ll see you later.
I tell Daisy that I'll be back in a couple of hours, and head to the Quarter. I find a garage near Hove Parfumerie on Rue Royale and relinquish my borrowed car. Where’s Cafe du Monde from here? The garage man grins at me. He walks me outside the entrance of the garage and, twisting me by the shoulders, points me toward the river. The green and white awning beckons. "Enjoy your cafe," he says.
And shopping. I came here specifically to spend some money.
"And we thank you very much for that. You have a good time, doll."
Off I stroll to Jackson Square, where I remove my shoes.
A fortuneteller beckons me over. "You're not from around here?" No. And neither are you. No honey drips from your voice, and your face is hard and cool as a day-old pancake.
"I'd put on my shoes. People pee on the floor here." She indicates the flagstone walk in front of the Cathedral. I know it. Like any tourist spot, the panhandlers gravitate here. Bums sit and spit and drunks stagger and heave and loonies gibber and drool here. But the superstition is, if you are barefoot in the Quarter, you'll be back.
Still, I wash my feet when I return to my room. And wipe my shoes out, too.
After cafe-au-lait and begneits (my crumb-phobia has for many years deprived me of the delicious taste of begneit dipped in strong coffee- and yet,it's nice to find that life holds a surprise or two) and visits to my favorite shops, I return to the nursing home and to Grandmother.
Daisy tells me Grandmother didn't stay in the bed any longer than it took me to leave the building, and I'm sorry that I missed three hours with her. And yet. A change in routine is unsettling for an Altzheimer's patient, even a pleasant change. She may have needed time to regroup.
Grandmother opens drawers and discovers her belongings. The bottom drawer of her nightstand contains only a skirt.
"Nothting here but this," and she pulls it out. "Look, that’s nothing, nothing, nothing at all. It’s beautiful, look at it. It’s not mine, but it’s beautiful."
We sift through her jewelry boxes, which contain buttons, unmatched earrings, pendants without chains, a special jeweled belt, and more Mardi Gras beads. It is these she likes best. Outshining the halfhearted glitter of rhinestones on antiquated ear-bobs, the plastic metallic gleam and silky smoothness of stranded ovals clicking together as she piles them up or slides them onto her arm appeals to three of her senses.
She pulls out playing cards, a large stack of several different decks blended all together.
"How many will you have?" she asks.
She hands me a stack of probably twenty.
How many will you have?
"This many." She takes a stack of thirty or more. I fan the cards in my hands, waiting to follow her lead.
"Well, we don't need this one, and he can just stay right here, and we don’t care much about THAT." She puts a four down, face up.
I have this. I put a three next to the four.
“That’s good, that’s good.”
Do you have a two?
She looks, finds a two, puts it next to the three. "Do you have an ace?"
I do. I put it next to the two. How about a five?
She has a five. She asks me for a six. I put one down. Then she puts down another six. We put down three sixes before moving on to seven. Then, eight nine ten just fast like that, and then she scoops them all together and turns them face down, passing them to me.
"We're all done with that, it won't bother us anymore."
We play again. If she notices that I play a card from the set we just completed, she does not object. We play three or four rounds of this, sometimes going all the way up through the face cards.
Daisy brings dinner to Grandmother in her room. Grandmother picks at her food. I agree that the stewed spinach is less than appetizing. Daisy brings an Ensure drink. Grandmother likes it, but keeps asking if it is mine or hers.
We play with the things in her jewelry boxes for awhile longer. When she climbs into her bed and recedes into the television. I kiss her forehead and promise to return tomorrow.
"Leave me a note," she requests. I find paper and tape to post the note on her mirror.
‘My darling pussycat,’it reads, for the word ‘Grandmother’ has no meaning for her anymore.
‘I will come back to see you again tomorrow, which is Saturday. I love you.Missy Belle is what she used to call me when she knew me.
xox Missy Belle’.
"She know you," Daisy insists. Possibly Daisy knows my grandmother better than I do at this point. I don’t care if Grandmother knows me or not. I want to enjoy her, and make her feel loved and entertained. The other residents sit, nearly catatonic, not conversational or animated. My grandmother may not make sense, but she is talkative.
Is she enjoying me? Is this a good day?
"This a verrrrry good day. She like you, can’t you tell?"
"Oh, yesssss. She like you, like you ver’much. Doan you know, she never let noooo body touch her card. But she, she play wit you. She like you so, so much."
I leave, feeling somewhat better, and arrive at the apartment to find Aunt D. still in her dressing gown. I have a feeling she napped a lot. I hope she did, anyway.
"You're too late to order dinner, lover. They used to close at six, but since The Big Blow, they close up at five, I guess."
She’ll cook something, she says. I resolve to leave earlier tomorrow, to avoid Aunt D. cooking. She does it, but I know she doesn’t like it.
"Don't you tell your mama I served you raw food," Aunt D. admonishes as we cut into buffalo burgers that are dark on each side and cool in the center.
Why would I do a thing like that?
"Because I did. Look at that thing."
Well, if it doesn’t moo or bleed when I cut it, I don’t mind.
No need to tell her I'm not a meat-eater. We're in the South, and I will be Southern.
It's only for a little while.
(New Orleans; The Blues Brothers)