Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

My grandmother never wrote. She basically refused to. She wouldn’t so much as jot down a grocery list, or leave a note on the kitchen table explaining that she was running out on some errand and would be back at so and so a time.

Her reasons for not writing were unknown, even to us, to her own family. English wasn’t her first language, so there was the possibility that she couldn’t write. But that seemed unlikely because Nona could read. She read often, mostly the papers, and she spoke the language with confidence, without any of the quiet bashfulness of non-native speakers. Of course, she always retained that unorthodox syntax and vocabulary of an immigrant, but her grip on the language was firm. Nona was blunt in conversation — to a degree that was often mistaken for rudeness, or mild spectrum-like behavior — but her curt style was not the product of any deficiency. Nor was Nona oblivious to the rules and proper usage of grammar. Rather, her queer diction reflected a personality that simply preferred to cut through the bs, to “call a shovel, a shovel;” not because she did not know the term spade, but because, as she explained, “peoples hardly say spade except when speaking of playing cards or dark-skins.”

When absolutely necessary Nona would sign her name, but there were few other circumstances in which she would put pen to paper. If a form required the input of personal information Nona would have the receptionist read the questions out loud to her, with Nona dictating her answers, regardless of how personal or sensitive the content might be:

Q: Age?

A: “It is impolite to ask a woman this, but I will give you year of birth.”

Q: Are you sexually active?

A: “Does bear make defecation in woods?”

Q: Allergies?

A: “Small dogs that constantly make bark.”

There were many speculations as to why Nona refused to write. Personally, I think that Nona considered it beneath her, that she considered writing a petty, clerical duty, something crude and menial that lacked gentility (save, perhaps, for calligraphy, which I once heard Nona say had a smidge of artistic merit). Other theories were that she merely hated the quality of her penmanship, or that she had taken a stance similar to Socrates — that she considered writing anathema, a coffin nail in the casket of remembering — and believed that those who relied on writing forfeited their natural ability to recall things and therefore could not be trusted to keep things straight in their minds.

My brother Allen went so far as to attribute Nona’s rejection of writing to Nona’s strict principles on the purity of language. He believed that Nona snubbed writing on philosophical grounds, because writing was “a doubling down on abstraction.” The way Allen explained it, writing was taking oral sounds — abstractions in their own right — that signified and represented real things and then translating those sounds into visual symbols, moving one step further away from the things themselves. I told Allen that he was full of shit, that if he wanted to push all that mumbo-jumbo crap he was learning at school he should just do it and not pawn it off on Nona. “Where would Nona get ideas like that?” I asked him, “From the Cedar Falls Courier?” “You don’t know all the things that nona’s seen or been through,” Allen said with a nasty expression. “You’ve only been alive for like, a fraction of her life.” “Neither do you,” I spat back, and we left it at that.

The short of it is that no one is sure why Nona refused to write. And it’s of no use asking Nona now because her mind, as sharp as it once was, is now basically lost. Nona’s in a home now. We had to put her there. The onset of dementia, which happened seemingly overnight (but in actuality unfolded over several months), came hand in hand with a rich, but insidious delusional paranoia. By the end of her life as a free, self-sufficient individual she would pace up and down the hallways of her apartment, muttering about enemies at the gates. She’d empty all her dresser drawers and stuff whatever rancid, cold cuts were left in the fridge into a duffel bag, explaining that she needed to sneak out in the middle of the night, that she had to “seek asylum.”

Asylum turned out to be anywhere within a three block radius of the apartment. Within a half hour of leaving home Nona would invariably hold up traffic at one of the nearby intersections, complaining mid-street that the “new fangled carriages” were turning the roads into “nothing but disgusting muck and grime.” She complained that the fine silk dresses her aunt had given her as a coming-of-age present had all been stained and ruined. No amount of honking or furious gesticulations from the impeded, red-faced motorists could persuade Nona to yield the road, to come back from her old world delusions. Occasionally, a kind-hearted pedestrian would intercede and corral her back onto the sidewalk, but more often than not the police would get called and become involved.

Despite the fact that Nona was obviously senile (bat-shit crazy, to use the officers vernacular) there were certain protocols that had to be followed. Reports had to be made, and statements taken. Laws, the officers contested, whether consciously or not, were being broken. Peace and order was being disturbed. And furthermore, it was not up to them to decide, arbitrarily, when to uphold the law. They were merely enforcers, they explained, executors not interpreters. The officers claimed they did not have the power to look the other way. They said their hands were tied. “We have no choice,” they complained, “we have to treat your grandmother equally in the eyes of the law, with the same procedure and professional manner used for any other offender.” That meant handcuffs. That meant fingerprints and bookings and considerable paperwork. All in all, It amounted to, if an officer strategically timed his coffee breaks, bathroom visits, and mealtimes, the better part of a shift, and one of relatively light duty, which seemed to be welcomed by some of the more rotund, tired-eyed patrolmen.

Obviously we had to keep Nona off the streets. But nobody in the family had the time, or the vigilance that was required to keep her under constant surveillance. Nona was too slippery. She needed a full security detail that could keep her under lock and key, because though her mind for everyday things had melted away, she was still wildly clever. She’d excuse herself to use the bathroom and, leaving the light on and the water running inside, slip out unnoticed through the back door, giving you the impression that she was still in there and merely an obsessive hand washer.

We picked out a decent place for her, the best one we could afford without any of us having to make unreasonable sacrifices to our own lifestyles. As far as nursing homes go The Commons wasn’t half bad. It was relatively clean, smelled somewhat normal, and if you combed through the food carefully you could find solid chunks. The Commons had other things going for it too. They kept the climate near tropical, and the staff, though not exactly friendly, was at least polite. They seemed to engage the residents with enough scheduled activities to keep them from rotting away like forlorn mushrooms on a log. Overall, it seemed like an acceptable place to die. Certainly it wouldn’t be any one’s first choice, but it wasn’t half bad.

I visited often, as often as I could — well, perhaps not as often as I could, but often enough that I didn’t feel bad in between visits. And when we took our regular summer family vacations I would write Nona letters, or send her a postcard, updating her on where we were, how the family was getting along, and what a brat Allen was being that day. I never got any replies, even when I told her where she could send one, but I never expected one, given how Nona felt about writing. That’s why it was a shock to us when The Commons called, after Nona eventually passed, and asked when we could pick up Nona’s journal and her other personal belongings.

“Journal?!” we shouted, our mouths agape in shared disbelief.

“Yes, journal,” they said.

We piled in the van and raced over to The Commons, all of us desperate to get to the bottom of it, to inform them that there had obviously been some kind of a mix-up. When we got there the lady in charge explained. Each resident, she said, was given a journal upon moving in, a novelty item, a little fill-in-the-blank style notebook that encouraged the new resident to chronicle some of their life’s memories and “most precious moments.”

The nurse held it up. Greedily and lightning quick, I reached out and grabbed Nona’s journal before anyone else could lay a hand on it. I flipped it open and read the first page. At the top, there was a prompt:

Describe what you were like when you were young…

Below, where there were about eight lines of empty space, a few words had been penned by a steady hand. DROP DEAD GORGEOUS, it said. That was all. There were no other entries, not even a doodle. And there never would be. As far as I, or anyone who knew Nona is concerned, that was the most, if not the only thing, she had ever written.

I was disappointed. We all were I think. I had hoped for some insight into Nona’s life, all those years and experiences she’d had that were separate from my own experience of who she was. Why had she kept them a secret? Why had she kept so much hidden. Why was her life such a mystery?

I tried to find out more. I asked my parents, but it seemed they were in the dark as much as I was. Nona was a private person, they said. She was old school. Whatever internal life she had, she kept it all to herself.

I keep Nona’s journal in my purse. I think about adding to it from time to time, but I never do. When I think of what I’m going to say it never seems profound enough, it never seems worth committing to permanence. It’s like Nona used to say: “all this, it is like so much dust and wind.”

Writer, Reader, Thinker — based in the Hudson Valley.

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