Thursday, November 1, 2012

"Remembering"... and a Birthday Cake for Grandma...

Today's post is dear to my heart as I am writing about my Grandma Edith ("Edie"), my mom's mother, someone who always has a smile on her face, a smile that quickly turns to a laugh, as she has maintained a happy, positive attitude throughout her life.  A military wife who set up house with five kids in so many different states in the U.S., as well as overseas in Taiwan, as they moved more than 50 times over the years, she had to be strong, adaptable, fearless.

"Getting old isn't for sissies!" she said a few times the weekend in September that we flew to Portland for a visit.  Being a military wife isn't for sissies either, I'm sure.  And neither is finding your memories slipping away from Alzheimer's.

As I looked through grainy old photos - scanned in from racks of old slides - of grandma, my grandpa, my mom, her brothers and sisters (my aunts and uncles), I'm struck by how ladylike and beautiful she was.  Throughout the 40s and 50s, with her pinup-girl shoulder-length dark hair, heels, dresses and white gloves, she was the epitome of style and class.  She always looked like such a lady.

Grandma with all the girls, Sally, Susan (my mom) and Alice
Grandma and Grandpa with the two oldest girls, Sally and Susan (my mom)

When I knew her during my childhood, when she was in her mid-50s, she and my grandpa traveled and moved around quite often, driving from state to state in their RV, and her preferred outfit was a denim skirt over pantyhose and tennis shoes, topped off with a collared sweatshirt, popular in the 90s.

She would sit patiently for hours as I brushed her dark, wavy hair, by then cut short and ever so lightly sprinkled with gray, and never complained that I was "messing her hair up".  She proudly wore the bead necklaces I made in school art class, strips of newspaper dipped in paper mache, then rolled around toothpicks to harden, before stringing them on thread.  To see her wear the necklace, you'd think it was the finest pearl necklace she owned.

Grandma liked to bake, and I remember her baking spice cakes, covered generously with Penuche frosting, an incredibly sweet frosting made from browned butter and brown sugar.  My grandpa's favorite way to eat this cake - and everything, really - was with slabs of cold butter and whipped cream.  I tried to recreate this frosting a few weeks ago, but couldn't get it right.  I wish I knew her recipe.

She and my mom traded books back and forth over the years, and as I became old enough to read some of the same books, I felt like I had entered adulthood, now that I was on the same reading level as them.

She preferred eating apples that were mushy, and when she bought apples, she'd put them away in a cupboard until they were the right stage of mealiness.  I never understood this preference, since I love apples that are crunchy and cold from the fridge!

She was patient, tolerant and kind, and I rarely saw her without a smile, in spite of the hardships, disappointments and betrayals she had endured in her life.

My memories of her are random, scattered, not nearly enough.

Since high school, too many years have passed that my grandparents were not in our lives.  For reasons that I cannot, and will not, divulge, rifts in our family kept them away, and the last time my family saw them or had any communication with them, I was about 15 years old.  At the time, I couldn't fully understand the implications of all of this, although I tried.  I also didn't know how I should feel about it.  They were the only grandparents I had left, removed from our lives so suddenly, almost as though a death had occurred, and yet I wasn't allowed to mourn their absence.  There were no letters.  No phone calls.  No birthday cards.  It was just the way it was and I had no choice in the matter.

I regret that after college when I struck out on my own, I didn't initiate the first move in reigniting our relationship.  It never really occurred to me - they were simply my estranged grandparents - and yet I felt a void in my life, a lack of connection to my family roots, that I didn't know how to fill.  I was jealous of friends who had close-knit extended families, and longed for one of my own.

I wish I had tried harder.  It's easier for young people to change, adapt, understand...  than it is for older people.  I should written or called and told them that the past was in the past so that we could embrace the years that we had left together.

Grandma with (I think) my mom
(left to right) Sally, Susan (my mom), Layton, Randy, Alice and Grandma
The Whole Family (left to right): Grandpa, Grandma, Sally, Susan (my mom), Alice, Randy and Layton
Grandma, and her youngest daughter Alice

These years left are precious.  My grandpa, now 80, takes care of my grandma, 78, who was diagnosed with Alzheimers several years ago.  Her disease is progressing, and although she has very lucid moments, her long-term memories being more intact than short-term memories, there are increasingly more moments of confusion, cloudiness and fear.

She remembers vividly meeting and shaking the hand of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the first lady of the Republic of China from 1928-1948, but drifts in and out of recognition of her children and grandchildren sitting next to her at the kitchen table.  She's aware enough to fear the change that she feels in herself, and this breaks my heart.

This brought my family back together this year.  For the first time in almost 20 years, my brother, sister and I sat in the same room again with my grandparents, hugged them, said I love you.  I think my grandma remembers me.  Sometimes.  But then again, I'm not really sure.

We were able to have a mini family reunion in September for my grandma's 78th birthday, and my aunt asked if I would like to bake her birthday cake.  For all the chocoholics in my family, I baked a towering 4-layer chocolate cake, covered in slightly salted chocolate buttercream, and roses, flowers and leaves in fall colors.

Grandma and Me

My grandma remembered those Penuche-frosted spice cakes, and promised to look for her recipe to send me.  I hope she's able to find it.  It's a memory of her, one of the few I have, that I would so love to preserve.

We all - my mom, brother, sister, aunts, uncles and cousin, and Jamie and me - spent much time gathered in the kitchen and living room that weekend, cooking, eating, laughing, talking, remembering...

At one point, my grandma looked at me and said, with tears threatening to brim over her eyelids, "I wish my own kids could be here, but they live so far away."

I squeezed her hand and said, "So do I, grandma."


  1. Such a beautiful post... you have tears streaming down my face. A whole mix of emotions you have experienced, but I'm so happy that you have the moments with her now.
    We are experiencing very similar lives. My MIL is suffering from an alzheimers-like dementia, and all those stories you hear about how hard it is really are true.
    I understand about the family rift as well. I won't go into details, but I get it. I'm just really happy that you have this time with her now. Beautiful pictures, a gorgeous cake, and a truly wonderful post.

  2. Great post - it's amazing the memories that a simple cake can bring up. A beautiful tribute to your family. You look quite a bit like her when she was young...

  3. What a great post - it made me cry. It was so nice to see everyone there and Mom really had a good time. I think she was so happy with the cake but especially with all the family there to visit. She said to me, "that Heather is such a sweet girl" and just smiled really big. Love you lots, Baby. Mom

  4. Kim,
    I'm sorry for what you're going through with your MIL - it's not easy!


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