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Trying to Understand What It’s Like to Be My Grandmother

30 Pokiok with a little row boat

She puckered up her 74-year old lips and I leaned in as we kissed each other on the cheek. Hers was soft and fleshy; warm and white with a dash of pink and feeling like I’d imagine it to. I see white when I see here because she’s old and majestic in relation to me, but she’s warm, like the colour pink. Her spirit is soft and sweet and I would give anything to know what she was like when she was 27 – the age I am now.

Shirley-Thorne_June2014This is my grandmother, Shirley Thorne. I spent the last two days watching over her at my mother’s request. She was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and hasn’t been feeling well lately. The milleux of pills she’s on ranged from depression to glaucoma. I’d never spent this long with her – just the two of us. And I wasn’t even nervous.

My two days were spent fetching the cordless phone from various spots it would be left and listening to my Grandma’s neighbour-friends tell me about how to get their dogs to like me. The act involved one of them putting a dog biscuit in their mouth, getting on all fours, acting like a dog herself, and letting the pup take the bone out of her mouth. When the dog didn’t respond at all to this, they encouraged me to try it out. “He takes it right out of her mouth!” my Grandma said smiling, but I smiled politely and said, “That’s ok! I believe you!”

I took Grandma to her doctor appointment and we counted out all her meds – 14 bottles altogether. “This is for your head… your stomach… your Parkinson’s… your Parkinson’s again… your heart… your eye… your eye again… your depression…” the doctor went on. The doctor got my grandma to lie down, stick out her tongue, touch her elbow then her nose, lift her legs… All sorts of little tests.

“She got me to do everything!” my Grandmas explained to her friends afterward. I thought, everything is such a relative term.

“Did you ever think you’d take so many pills?” I asked her later.

“It happens gradually, so no,” she replied, telling me that she tries her best to take care of herself. “I can’t imagine what it’d be like if I didn’t have all these pills holding me together,” she said, pausing. “What sort of person would I be?”

At times I didn’t know what to say because I want to ask her everything. Because she hasn’t been feeling well she doesn’t give up energy to much conversation if she doesn’t have to, so I thought I’d prod for some juice. One of my favourite things to do is hear about her life as a twenty-something.

This was an easy and interesting start: “How many kids did you have when you were my age? Twenty-seven.” We settled on three: a 6 year old, 4 year old (my mother) and a 3 year old. She got married at 19, she told me.

Shirley-Thorne_Norm-ThorneDid you have a baby before you got married?”
“No.”
“Were you pregnant?”
“No. I hadn’t had sex with him. Not back then. You didn’t.”
“Were you a virgin?”
“Yeah.”
“Grandpa was your first? And only?”
“Yeah.”
“Grandma.”
“Well back then you just didn’t do that.”
“Did you hook up on the night of your wedding?”
“Talk about personal questions! But yeah.”

“It’s a different world out there now, isn’t it?” I said to her.

She told me about meeting Grandpa (Norm Thorne, 1937-2008) and how he never really proposed. They just knew they were meant to be together. She said he boyfriend before him pressured her to have sex and even bought condoms one Saturday night, but she never gave it up.

“I see the ‘no means no’ issue stands throughout time…” I said. She agreed.

She told me about the house she grew up in on Pokiok in New Brunswick. Living there until she got married at 19, she said seven people lived in the little house on the water.

“Do you remember the address?”

“30 Pokiok,” she said. So I pulled it up on Google Street View. New-ish townhouses were at our address. “Oh, they renumbered the street since then. Go down there. It’s on the other side.”

We found it.

30 Pokiok Road, NB

She stared at it for a while saying, “That’s the one,” a couple times. It must’ve been beautiful growing up along the water, I thought. She said her family used to have a row boat and they’d all pile in with picnic supplies and row to a nearby beach. It was too rocky to swim where they were.

Shirley-Thorne_1956

“It’s a wonder we never drowned because there’d be 8 people plus our tent and food. The boat was so low in the water,” she said. “I can remember a few times being scared. Really scared. The water would get rough and the waves would get big but we never had anything bad happen. What a miracle.”

It was in this moment that I realized the element I fear most regarding death isn’t actually death, it’s losing these idiosyncratic tales; the tiny and trivial ones that shape and define a person. Every individual on this planet has stories like my Grandma’s row boat, and we hold on to these memories and emotions like currency, using them for consolation or explanation if ever needing it. To collect all of these would be a beautifully unimportant piece of history.

Memories are an identifying tool, one that helps us prove that we occupied this place for however long. We cling to this “I was here” notion because change is one inevitable factor is reminding us that we are temporary beings. The trees get taller and new people occupy your old places but nothing can take these stories away from us until time makes us old and forgetful. I cling to this too and I can’t ditch the idea that, as long as you tell your stories to someone else, they have a chance of living on, even when you cannot. We all want listeners to keep ourselves alive, and I’m betting on this coming around full circle. If I listen now, I’ll be listened to later. And that’s how I’ll deal with this fear of mine.

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