While slowly navigating a sloping parking lot with sharp sticks and muddy mulch, I argue with my grandmother over which of my daughter’s birthdays had been at a park on a raw, cold day several years ago. My memory is excellent for things that don’t matter, such as birthday party venues and the names of all the boys I’ve liked since kindergarten.
Even though I know I’m right about this, it hits me how silly this need to be right is. I remember a family from childhood whose mom used to argue loudly with her own aging, confused mother when she swore she watched a team of tiny children during the day while everyone else was at work and school.
“You’re here by yourself, Ma” the younger mom said, exasperated. “There aren’t any children.”
The old mother’s brow furrowed and she folded her arms across the front of her downy flannel nightgown.
“There are so children and they greased the banister and slid down and got hurt,” she said. “Several died,” she added.
Every year my grandmother becomes a little more like her own mother, who stubbornly wore cork-heeled wedges around the house well into her 90s and kept a stash of fun-sized milky way bars in her room because she said they helped her sleep at night. My own grandmother insisted on wearing low-heeled but open sandals to the hilly farm today even though I told her sneakers would be better.
After we make it through the minefield of a parking lot and get in line to pay, my grandmother gets stung by a bee on the neck. I don’t see it happen, but she holds her neck with one hand and gestures triumphantly to a dead bee on the ground with the other. She is not allergic and in fact seems to get stung regularly. Last summer, she was stung multiple times on her arms and legs while pruning bushes in her yard. I see now that she’s not phased by her bee sting. She only wants to share her excitement with us.
I start to feel like the trip is a terrible idea. The farm is bigger and hillier than I remember. There are way more people than I expected. Toddlers, strollers, parents – even goats – are everywhere. My own kids are off like shots, and I do my best to track them with peripheral vision and that homing device all parents come equipped with.
When I see my younger one sail off a distant slide and look around for us as nonchalantly as possible, I leave my grandmother’s side to corral her back. From the slide, I see my grandmother look around as nonchalantly as possible. Once we get into her line of sight, I wave my hand and smile until she sees us and smiles back.
My grandmother spies another woman using a cane by the goats and remarks excitedly that she’s not the only one. It doesn’t occur to me that she’s self-conscious about using a cane. Her mobility is very good, excellent even, for someone turning 88 later this month. Her own mother had fought stubbornly against using this very same cane, but compromised by keeping those damn wedge heels. My grandmother uses the cane willingly for balance, but inherited her mother’s love of impractical shoes.
My grandmother tells me about a class trip she took in her home country when she was a little girl to a place just like this. I think she means a farm, but when she says they sang and picnicked and played in a field by the river, I realize the woods were the destination.
My grandmother tells me this is the first time she’s felt like she was back in her home country in all the years she’s lived here. She says the woods in her village were so clean, you could lie down and rest and not even have to brush off your clothes afterwards. This is not the first time I’ve heard this and she has no way of knowing how many times my parents and I told and retold that story to each other because we loved it so much. Later, my husband loved hearing it too. We were all tickled at the idea of a preternaturally clean forest, oceans away. I look down at the ground here and see it littered with pine needles and kicked-up silt that she doesn’t seem to notice. For the moment, she is home again and she is happy.
After the farm, we make the long trek back to the car and I feel myself loosen. I help my grandmother buckle the seat belt in my car because it is hard for her and she jokes that I have three children today and I smile like it’s the first time we’ve shared this joke.
Back at her house, we assemble sandwiches and dine overlooking her back yard, which she has spent the last three decades tending and trimming. She has two beautiful bushes in the back that I fall in love with every fall. They’re so big, you can almost stand beneath them and they bloom white flowers in late summer that turn a lovely shade of purple-pink in early fall.
I ask her what kind of bush or tree they are and she says she doesn’t know. She adds, “They’re not hydrangeas” because she remembers I asked her the last time we visited. Last time we visited, I even used Leaf Snap but it only pulled up trees that don’t grow in this region.
Honestly, it’s bugging me and I say that I wish I knew and she says, “You don’t even know the trees in your own country,” like she’s confiding to me about some other idiot. I am as handy in the yard as a plaster gnome, and this is probably her deepest disappointment in me.
My kids and I say our goodbyes, which weigh heavier each visit, and drive back home in the setting sun. I decide to detour through the town where I went to college, which is also where my other set of now long-gone grandparents once lived. For some reason, I find myself missing them terribly this fall. It’s like I held everything in until this year and now songs on the radio remind me of car rides to their house and old movies remind me of inappropriate things I watched on the small TV set in their back room while the grown ups talked in the main room, oblivious. I ache rawly with love for them it is far too late to express.