I was never close with my granny. I was too young and she was too old. Granny had a sharp judgmental stare that would curse you with just a glance. Her face was forever frozen in one sour expression that looked as if it was carved from stone. I never knew how to act when I was with granny. She was cold, she was stern, and she terrified me.
I think most kids know that feeling of confused love you have for older family members. It’s the type where your mom forces you to call them on the phone or hug them when you leave their house. It’s an awkward type of love where you feel insecure about what you say when they ask you about school or friends. While hugging granny I always felt uneasy. She had long bony fingers and arms with warm dry skin so pale I could see each blue and red vein. She would hug me but I wouldn't really hug her back. She would pull me in and force my shoulders to her stomach. Her torso was soft and squishy, but she always wore a stiff pointed bra that would jab into my cheek as she squeezed me tighter and tighter. We would visit granny about once every month and every time it was the same.
It felt like a vacation, driving about an hour away with my brother next to me in the back seat. I drew in a dollhouse-themed coloring book while he played on his game boy. We would arrive at granny’s and it always looked the same, very still. She had a small one-story house that would have been spacious if she didn’t fill it with trinkets and patterns. Her entryway was lace and stained glass with a small oak side table that always had a decorated seasonal basket. Her Easter basket was my favorite, it always had solid milk chocolate eggs in it, but she only let us take one at a time. Her kitchen was warm beige, with dark wood cabinets, and a table covered with lace doilies, and a vase centerpiece stuffed with fake plastic flowers. The living room was maroon and navy with floral couches, wicker, and colorful leather recliners all complemented by knitted throws. Every pillow was puffed, every magazine was intentionally stacked. She had an excess of vases and small glass trinkets, I never understood why someone would need so many vases. As a kid, I had to be careful, one sideways glance, and I could shatter every antique sculpture in my sight. I felt just as out of place standing in her living room as I did being squeezed against her breast in her arms. It went without saying that there was no running and no, “horsing around.” Granny’s house was still, just like her. She would always sit with the most rigid of postures with her legs crossed, left over right, and hands overlapping, right over left. Her face was similarly rigged, her lips were drawn into a fixed bitter expression and her eyes were cold and shockingly blue. She would never be seen without her short blue-white hair fuffed and curled and her thin high arched eyebrows drawn on. Her clothes were as dignified as her decor, dark tones, large silver buttons, and matching pants suits. Granny had a smell that I can't ever forget, it would fill her house and stick to her clothes. Even when I left her house and got back home, the smell would linger in my clothes and hair. It was a musty-hot-vanilla stench like an attic full of dried lavender dipped in Werther’s caramel.
You're told to love family, but to me, granny felt like a stranger. We would go to her house andshe would say how big I was getting. I would smile and look into her eyes and see this look. It was a lookI tried my best to return. After this brief moment, my brother and I would slip off to explore her house andamuse ourselves. The one thing I would do, every visit to granny's house was walk to her dark purpleglass cabinet, the one with the squeaky clean panels. I would grab the cold metal handle on the cabinetand I would pull, but the cabinet pulled back. The cabinet doors were “sticky,” my dad would say. Withsome help, the doors would open with a sudden jolt and the whole cabinet would shake, you could hearthe tottering of the trinkets inside as the cabinet rocked back and forth and then calmed. I would reach inwith a hand so delicate and light, deliberately focusing on not disturbing the still standing figures. I would pull out what I had come for, it was a hand-painted wooden Russian nesting doll. She had light skin, orange-pink lips, and thin eyebrows. Her blue dress was painted on with light sweeping strokes of a brushso small it could’ve been a toothpick. Pink roses surrounded her along with dark green leaves all paintedin a similar style. She was an authentic nesting doll with an impressive 11 layers, that shrunk as you tookher apart. Each layer was intended to look identical to the last which was accomplished in the first fivelayers, but after that, her face shifted and contorted. With her final layer, her smallest self, she wasunrecognizable. I would take the doll apart, layer by layer, and watch as the once mellon-sized dolldisappeared to the size of a chocolate chip. I would put the doll back together again, lining up the seamsso that the pattern flowed throughout the whole doll, perfect. I would take the doll apart and put it backtogether, again and again, layer by layer. This process of deconstructing and rebuilding would go on untilI got bored and wanted to search the rest of the room.
I was about 12 when granny began to lose her memory. I was told that she had Alzheimer's, adisease that would progressively get worse over time. My mom was preparing me to see granny. My momwould go on and on telling me that I shouldn't be worried or scared, and how she’d still be the same, justdifferent. I knew when she was telling me she was half convincing herself. I think mom was more scaredthan I was. To Mom, granny was more like a third parent, rather than a once-a-month vacation andawkward hug.
Soon after we went to see granny. We walked in and she was sitting the same, hands overlapping,right over left and legs crossed, left over right. I took a glance around her house, it looked the same asexpected. Mom said hello, but he was talking to her not like she had talked to her before, the kind of talkyou save for babies or people who speak a different language. It sounded like an attempt to enunciate, butat the same time mock. I watched as granny's expression changed, not in any way I had seen before. Herstone-cold face seemed lost. She scanned the faces around her, Mom, Nate, and Dad, and me. She juststared, with a look backed with nothing. She didn't recognize me. Her eyes moved on and theconversation continued. All I could do was stare. My eyes left hers and met with the purple cabinet Iknew so well. This time when I pulled the handle, the cabinet pulled back, but I had grown strong enoughto break the seal. I lifted up the nesting doll and layer by layer I watched it shrink. In the palm of myhand, I held the chocolate chip-sized doll. I felt the weight of it like a drop of water on my skin. I lookedat the bite-sized doll, I could hardly make out a face. It looked nothing like the original layer, yet I knew itwas meant to be the same. I looked back to granny, still sitting, overlapping hands and legs crossed rightover left, left over right. I looked at the stack of magazines on the coffee table, a perfect pile. I put the dolltogether layer by layer and back to its home in the cabinet. I saw her living room full of patterns and lace,I smelled the recognizable air and I knew nothing had changed, except for granny. She was a stranger tome, even more so now. Over the following year, I learned a lot about granny. I asked about her occasionally. As I gotolder I became more curious. Granny was raised in the deep south with abusive parents and 5 siblings.While growing up she was told what to think and how to act. I learned that she had a hard life. She had twohusbands, both physically and mentally abusive. I felt like I finally knew her. It's funny how well you canget to know strangers.
Granny’s Alzheimers worsened fast. Mom and Nana decided to put her in a home when sheneeded more care than they could provide. We were on our way to visit granny after she was put in thehome, and it felt less like a vacation. In all honesty, I was nervous. When you’re 13, you don't exactlylook forward to going to a nursing home. I'm ashamed now to say that I asked my mom if I could stayhome, she was upset. She told me granny was family and that’s what family does, they visit. When we got to the home, it seemed nice. It was nothing compared to granny’s house. The frontdoors led to an entry room and a nurse let us. She led us straight to the common room. It was an open,high ceilinged space with paintings on each wall and a big T.V. in the middle of the room. It was beigeand pale green, with couches and chairs scattered, but most residents were in wheelchairs, includinggranny. Aside from the two nurses I saw in the room, the four of us were the only people there under 80and the only ones standing. I felt like I stood out. Out of place, and gawky, but no one looked my way.The majority of the residents were transfixed on the T.V., huddling around the large flat screen, or theywere positioned by a side table staring at their feet. hopefully asleep I thought. I can’t forget the feeling Ihad in that room. Any sense of awkwardness and discomfort I felt in granny’s living room wasnonexistent compared to then. We walked up to her and I met with the same eyes I saw in her kitchen some years back,shockingly blue. I expected that she wouldn’t recognize me, but I didn’t expect I would have troublerecognizing her. Her hair was flat and her white-blue hair was grown out so that her light auburn roots peeked out. Her eyebrows were nonexistent. I had never seen her without them on. She was missing her pants suit that was substituted for a brown robe. I took myself back to her living room. I was sitting by the purple cabinet, with the chocolate chip-sized Russian nesting doll in my hand, surrounded by granny’slace, patterns, and glass. I felt as her smell seeped back into my hair and clothes. Werther’s Caramel and powdered lavender. I was watching her sitting at the kitchen table, legs crossed, with her handsoverlapping. I thought of every hug she gave me that was “too tight” and every time I didn't hug back, Ithought of the look she would give me that I tried to imitate. I thought of her coldness, her stone-coldexpression unrecognizable before me now. I was never close with my granny, I was too young and she was too old, but she was no stranger. I knew her the way I knew a lot of people, by her hug and her face, by her suit, her eyes, and her scent, only now those layers were gone. Stripped away by time, age, and life. She was taken from her shelf and stripped of her paint and home, left in the palm of my hand to be seen just like the bite chocolate chip-sized doll I knew just as well. I could see her then in a way I never saw anyone. She was an accumulation of her whole life. Every twist and turn, every heartbreak, and every love. Every bruise and every yell. It seemed like every wrinkle could have been a dried-up tear or molded smile. She was tragic but she was beautiful in a way. I saw past her and into her life at that moment. She was always so hard and rigid, with a face carved from stone, but right then she was blank and paralyzed, relaxed from any frown I knew. I saw in her eyes the look of an infant. Then of a teen. Vulnerable and contemplating. Warm and blue. I saw at that moment that our eyes were the same color, I never noticed it before. I looked at her and I saw some of me, filtered, miles away, cursed by years and time, but I saw myself somewhere deep in them. I was never close with my granny, I was too young and she was too old, but she was no stranger to me.
Artist Statement This work was inspired by my late granny, how I knew her, and the nostalgia I hold in her memory.