I’m pretty good at breaking an egg with one hand.
I realize that this falls pretty far short of being a super power, but it makes me feel competent in the kitchen. I don’t have any other particularly identifiable cooking skills. I do fine, but I make a mess, and I take longer than people who are actually good at cooking. But breaking an egg? I do great.
Whack side of sink. Crack over bowl. Shell in the garbage disposal.
This morning, I made myself some scrambled eggs. But instead of my usual skill, I goofed it up. Instead of popping open the first egg over the bowl, I opened it right down the garbage disposal. Not because I hit it too hard on the side of the sink and it leaked out. No, I just dumped it right down the drain.
I made a mistake, obviously. My first thought wasn’t, “Oops,” though. I went immediately to degenerative brain disease. It’s been ten years since my aunt died, and I remember the dismissal of her earliest symptoms. She complained that she’d find herself standing in a room with no idea why she had gone there, and my family said, “Yes, that’s called getting old.”
It’s not that the answer was a bad one. I’ve put the milk away in the cabinet instead of the refrigerator. I’ve put a tea kettle on the stove and come back an hour later to find a broken, dry tea kettle smoldering. These are signs of distraction, not a degenerative brain disease. Except that sometimes they are the signs of a degenerative brain disease.
My maternal grandmother is in hospice care. She lives in a nursing home, and has had a steady decline since my grandfather died four years ago. She’s moved from sometimes confused to often confused, from often confused to usually confused. Now we only get a rare glimpse of the person we know and love.
The staff at the nursing home have been wonderful, but they’ll never know my grandmother. My mother and I laugh whenever someone at the nursing home describes my grandmother as “sweet,” or “cute.”
“There are lots of words I’d use to describe Nana,” says my mother, “but ‘sweet’ and ‘cute’ will never be on that list.”
My Nana was an English teacher. She retired on June 19, 1978. I know the date because I happened to be born on the last day of school that year. She is whip smart, and possessed of a biting sense of humor. I like to think that she invented the side eye.
She could do flawless impressions of people. Not extended performances, but if she was telling you a story about something someone said, their words came out of her mouth in their voice, not her own.
In the mid 80s, when my brother was probably 4 or 5, she baked us a batch of chocolate chip cookies. My brother told Nana that her cookies were good, but “not as good as Almost Home,” a brand of packaged cookies my mother would often buy. I don’t think Nana ever quite forgave my brother for that slight.
Nana mostly sleeps these days, and if she happens to be awake, her speech is infrequent and incoherent. On Friday, when my mother visited, Nana was annoyed. She snapped my mother, snapped at my father, snapped at the social worker from hospice. When they went for a walk, the social director of the nursing home put her hand on my grandmother’s arm and said good morning.
My grandmother grabbed the woman’s hand and dug her nails in. My mother had to pry her fingers off.
The woman shrugged it off and said, “Oh, Agnes, you’re surprisingly strong.”
My mother laughed as she told me, “Now that’s the mother I remember.”