When my grandmother calls to tell us not to come see her, we are already halfway there. I tell her this and she sighs. “You’re not going to be able to get home,” she says. “Your credit cards won’t work anymore and you won’t be able to buy gas. Don’t you watch the news?”
She knows I don’t watch the news. But my husband does and surely he would have told me if our economy was on the brink of collapse? I pull over to get gas and check the news feed, just in case. The gas station is swarming with cars, which could indicate the early stages of anarchy or just a busy Monday morning. My credit card works and I get enough gas to get to her house and back with enough left over to siphon for the generator or trade for questionable beef jerky at a post-apocalyptic market.
When we arrive, she is still worked up but glad to see us. CNN hollers on the TV in her bedroom while FOX screams from the living room. She insists she got a call that morning from her bank about credit cards not working. We sit at her kitchen table to go over a stack of still impressively organized papers and she taps the side of her head and admits her computer isn’t working so well anymore. She calls her brain her computer.
During our visit, she gets six telemarketing robocalls. One is a pretty convincing spoof from apple support that wants me to press 2 to speak with someone about a data breach in the cloud, which I almost do. In another call, I swear I hear a computer breathing sweatily on the other end. The Do Not Call Registry! I think. Unfortunately I can’t sign her up on account of the government shutdown.
Because it is a federal holiday, I also can’t take her to the bank to get to the bottom of some unpaid interest or to the post office to hand deliver an envelope she could easily stick in the mailbox at the end of her driveway. I wasn’t going to take her anyway because it’s 20 below outside with the windchill. I’m just glad the decision was made for me because she’s very hard to argue with.
We bring up several trash bags filled with pots and pans from her basement. We clean out a small cupboard I never noticed before and I show my daughter how to wrap glasses in newspaper. This feels like a useful, old fashioned skill, like being able to sew a pillow case.
We break for lunch and my grandmother sends us out for Whoppers. She describes it in such a way that it is clear she thinks I have never had one. The more she describes it, the less sure I am that I have. It is, she says, hot, fresh, and comes with a delicious sauce. It also has “all kinds of fresh vegetables” on the top. I order a cheeseburger for myself because I can’t bear disappointment. She eats half of her Whopper and wraps the rest up in neat folds of wax paper to have for supper.
We vacuum her kitchen, living room, hallway and bedroom. She follows me around, holding the cord or standing in the precise spot where I need to vacuum next. In the kitchen, I use the attachment under her cabinets and suck up several cups worth of broken crackers and one small blue pill. When I go in the back bedroom to put the vacuum away, her cat looks up from a spot between a stack of AARP magazines and a lamp base and then drifts back to sleep. His nap spot is safe for now.
Usually when it’s time for us to leave, my grandmother remembers something else she needs me to do. “Take the giant wooden reindeer down to the basement and cover it with a sheet,” she might say. Or, “go in the basement and find the giant wooden reindeer and bring it upstairs.”
Today she seems tired and ready for us to go so she can retire to the couch and her cat. She says she is happy because her house is finally clean. Really all we did was move several bags of stuff from a corner in her basement to a corner in her living room. Crackers that rolled off the counter in daring escape were unceremoniously vacuumed up. It shouldn’t be so satisfying, but there it is, that unmistakable lightness you feel after a haircut or clearing off your desk at work.
I say I’m not going home with anything, but wind up taking two gently used farberware pots, a pair of snot-yellow coffee cups I am nostalgic for with no idea why, a tiny plastic bride and groom from my parent’s wedding cake, and a glossy booklet on Engelbert Humperdink. There is a picture of Engelbert laying shirtless in bed, glaring at an alarm clock. There is another photo of Engelbert shaving, still shirtless, while a mysterious, fully-clothed man stands behind him, smiling encouragingly.
On the drive back, the moon is big and full and follows us home. It teases from the top of a hill, finally close enough to touch, and then ducks behind a patch of trees. I think what would little kid me have thought if I knew how much my grandmother would change. I wonder how it’s possible to miss someone I still get to spend the day with. I look forward to doing it again and bringing my daughters every chance we get.