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Grandmother Clarice

People often ask me how (and why) I first ventured into the world of "senior care." Why am I so drawn to this field, they wonder. Were you really close with your grandparents? Did you take care of a loved one growing up? Yes, I was close with my grandparents, but no, they never needed any care from me. (My grandpa "Daddy Bill" was skiing down black diamonds well into his late 70s and shooting hoops in the driveway at Thanksgiving every November.) I don't know how or why this became my life's calling. In fact, I'm kind of shocked by it myself. I have a debilitating fear of death (just ask my therapist) and those who know that about me are doubly confused by my chosen profession. But here I am, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Now, that is. 

My first memories of the senior care industry — or, heck, an older person in general — revolve around my great grandmother, Grandmother Clarice. I remember going to visit her in South Carolina. It wasn't something my siblings and I looked forward to, in fact I think it's safe to say we all absolutely dreaded it; one of those rare family road trips where you actually preferred the time in the car over the final destination. Now, don't get me wrong, Grandmother Clarice was a lovely woman. But her house was what gives old people's houses a bad rap. The air felt stale and the decor was super old-fashioned and in my memory there were a few cats (were there cats? It felt like there were cats.). She did let us have soda, a rare and precious treat in our household growing up, but the cups she'd pour the Ginger Ale into were green and I wanted to see the bubbles through the glass. Yes, I was selfish and spoiled and would've rather been anywhere but there.

Then Grandmother Clarice moved into a nursing home, and if I wasn't fond of visiting before, I definitely wasn't after that move. The nursing home smelled funny and everyone seemed miserable (the bored staff and the residents). Grandmother Clarice's room was cluttered with all the knicknacks she'd brought from home, and here there was no Ginger Ale. I knew it was important to my mom that we visit her grandmother; my mom's mom died before I was even born and Grandmother Clarice was the closest link to my late Grandmother Harriette. I wanted that connection, really I did, but not enough to endure stuffy afternoons in a crowded room, trying desperately to think of conversation topics to fill the air and unsure whether to sit perched on the edge of the bed or stand awkwardly in the corner. 

Every time we'd visit, Grandmother Clarice would give us gifts. But these weren't gifts any 9 year old girl would want… they were bird figurines and old bags of chips and whatever else she could find in her dresser drawers. Lots of times they were things we'd given her as gifts, regifted back to us. 

When we were a little older, my mom asked her four kids to each write a letter to Grandmother Clarice one day a week. There was a family chore chart and each of us had to complete our assigned duties and our homework before playing on the computer or watching TV. (This was the nineties, we didn't have a computer/TV in our pockets at all times like we do now.) My row on the chart looked something like: Monday: Help make dinner, Tuesday: Sweep the kitchen, Wednesday: Set the table; Thursday: Clean the bathroom, Friday: Write to Grandmother Clarice. 

Now I can't speak for the content of my siblings' letters, but I know mine weren't all that scintillating — who really wants to sit down and thoughtfully compose a literary masterpiece to their great-grandmother when that task is all that's left between you and the new episode of Lizzie McGuire? But we all did it, diligently. And with four kids, each having letter-writing in their chore rotation one time a week, Grandmother Clarice received letters on more days than not. And she wrote back to almost every single one. Her handwriting was shaky and I'm sure we didn't read the responses all that carefully, but we liked seeing our names on the envelope and feeling the weight of the folded paper — addressed with our name — in our hands. 

I don't think I fully understood why my mom put that task on our chore list (wouldn't she rather have had a clean house?!) but looking back I get it. And I think it's amazing. And I think every single kid should have to write a letter to the older adults in their life at least once a week. Because even though I didn't wow Grandmother Clarice with any life-altering prose, and even though I couldn't really read her handwriting in the replies, the correspondence mattered to her. And it taught me, at a very early age, that she mattered. She was worth remembering. It mattered to my mom that we have some sort of relationship with her grandmother; that we not forget her existence. Every Friday for years, no matter what else was going on in my life, I thought of Grandmother Clarice. Even just for the few minutes it took to scratch out a short letter. Her name and her personhood and the fact that she was alive just a few states over re-entered my thoughts week after week. She bounced back into my mental orbit every Friday after I'd had my after school snack and finished my homework. Should I have thought about her more? Sure. Should I have thought about her in a different way? Probably. But my mom's insistence that we complete this task ensured we did, at least, think about her. Grandmother Clarice would not be forgotten.

So often we don't even want to bother thinking about the older adults around us. To pause even just for that single moment is an inconvenience, an imposition. And I think we're shying away from thinking about the Grandmother Clarices in our lives because of the guilt that follows hot on the thought's heels. I should call more. Then the anxiety that falls as the next domino in the thought spiral. Ugh, just reminds me of my own mortality. Then back to the guilt because although you know you should do more, say more, be more, write more — you don't. 

Or you could. Just once a week. Say: you matter enough for me to think about, to have your name in my head, to write you this letter, to find a stamp. I may not be the best great-granddaughter in the world, but I do at least acknowledge that you exist. You are here and I know that. 

And I realize that's not enough. It's a very, very low bar. But one that's been unmet by so many for so long. Surely we're all worth a letter now and then, right?

Thinking of you.

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