Grace uncommon, part 12

I remember it being a very difficult weekend. It probably would have been in the top ten worst weekends of my adult life. But who wants to keep track of such things.

I don’t think that I could adequately describe how it feels to take care of a loved one that is suffering and dying from dementia. It was different from being a caregiver for my autistic brother, Matt. Sure, they both had good days and bad days. With Grace it was a gradual decline. Most days I didn’t recognize her anymore than she recognized me. I grieved for her while she will still living because she was already gone.

I was exhausted to the point of where I thought I could no longer hold on to the loose strings of my sanity. I hadn’t slept. Dealing with sleep deprivation was never a strong suit of mine. My patience was running thin. I was worn down.

It was one of those weekends that Aunt Grace was up every hour during the night. I “slept” on the couch right outside of her bedroom. Just when I was almost back to sleep, she would be up again. The kids would be up in a few hours and I hadn’t slept yet. I was having a hard time.

As I was walking with Grace to the bathroom, she looked right at me and asked me my name. I replied, “My name is Alissa.” Aunt Grace looked at me and responded, “I once knew a girl by the name of Alissa. She was a very kind and caring girl. I think that if you met her, you would really like her.” She was talking about me without knowing who I was.

I think at that very moment, God was looking down upon me with mercy. He gave me a glimmer of light to help guide me down a dark road. It was such a meaningful blessing to me that it motivated me to finish the race strong. It was exactly what I needed to get through.

I will never forget that moment.

Grace uncommon, part 11

And then one day it happened. Grace did what she always told us not to do.

Aunt Grace told everyone not to get old.

My parents took Grace to the doctor for a check up. She failed the dementia test. Soon after that, she was no longer able to take care of herself. My dad, despite all of his shortcomings as a father, was great with his elders. He became Grace’s primary caregiver. He stayed with Grace every night, except on weekends. My autistic brother Matt still lived at home and my mom worked full-time. At the time, I was staying home with my three kids that were between the ages of 4 and 9. I became the day time and weekend caregiver. One other caregiver worked day time hours and another did weekends. 

Aunt Grace needed 24 hour care. The evenings were especially grueling since Grace would wake up at the minimum of three times a night to go to the bathroom. Some nights she was up every hour all night. She would scream until someone came and got her up. Over time, we tried sleeping pills at night. She would still wake up agitated and try to get up but be very uncoordinated. Sleeping pills were not a good option. 

So the weekends I spent there, I was up all night with Grace getting at best a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. Then my kids would wake up early. I was so exhausted. I had to be within two rooms away from Grace at all times because she would try to get up from her bed or rocking chair by herself and fall without assistance.

It was difficult to do with the kids because although Aunt Grace could not see well she had great hearing. If the kids made any noise at all, she would call them over so that she could flail her arms at them. She would yell at them and try to hit them. I often told the kids to leave her alone and set up a play room for them at the opposite end of the house. I find it sad that they remember her as a crabby old lady, not knowing the wonderful person she was before the dementia took over her person.

We spent a lot of time together. While we sat with Grace I helped my oldest daughter with her multiplication facts. Aunt Grace was a math wiz. She always jumped in with the answers before Angel could. But she didn’t remember our names. She didn’t know who we were. I spent a lot of time scrapbooking nearby. It was a time in my life where I was forced to sit in silence and reflect a lot.

By the time I became Aunt Grace’s caregiver, I had a lot of experience. Not only did I have 3 kids of my own, I  provided care for my autistic brother. I worked my way through college as a caregiver for an older gentleman with paranoid schizophrenia and an elderly woman with dementia. So it really didn’t bother me that I also had to bathe Aunt Grace. After awhile when she could no longer stand in the shower, I helped give her sponge baths. She was pretty angry with me for bathing her since she was always cold. Even on the warmest summer days, she needed her electric blanket turned on high. 

Our goal was to keep her at home as long as we could. It wasn’t easy because she was no longer the Grace that we remembered. In retrospect, even though it seemed like a long time while we were going through it, it really didn’t last that long. Plus it felt good to know that we did everything that we could to be there for her in her darkest hours even if she might not have realized it. 

Grace uncommon, part 10

Aunt Grace did not like to be touched. But it seemed to go beyond shirking away from hugs. My family was never the affectionate touchy feely huggy group. However, Aunt Grace’s dislike of touch went far beyond the human touch. She liked animals but had a great fear of them touching her. I found this to be quite peculiar. Even the least affectionate person that I know loves the furry touch of cute kittens or puppies.

I knew that Grace liked animals. She always threw out stale bread for the birds to eat. She put out milk or food scraps for the stray cats in the neighborhood. Her care towards them told me that she liked them. But if an animal came near her, she would shriek.

Once I brought my dog with when I visited Grace. He got away from me and jumped on Grace’s lap. She screamed, “Get it off of me” over and over in fright. When we were little kids, we thought that her fear was rather comical. Now as an adult, I wish I understood why she was so afraid.

Grace uncommon, part 9

One day while at the small local grocery store, I saw Aunt Grace come in to buy a beer. She wanted one beer. She wanted the store owners to open a case to sell her just one beer. She wanted the beer for a beer brat recipe. Aunt Grace did not drink so she did not need the other beers. She always said that sitting on bar stools made women unattractive. She also told us that we shouldn’t drink until our mortgage was paid. I sure hope that she didn’t roll over in her grave a little that time I was at Coyote Ugly. Hhmmm.

Aunt Grace was a religious church goer. She attended every Sunday but never took communion. My mom thought that Aunt Grace didn’t take communion because there was alcohol in the communion wine. My mom went on this big campaign to have the wine replaced with grape juice. She said that there were so many medications that people were on (Grace included) where they weren’t supposed to have alcohol. Finally the pastor switched over to grape juice. Aunt Grace still did not take communion.

Aunt Grace became bitter in her later years. She was very upset that people of the church did not pay their garage bills. She said that kind people were not always kind when they owed you money. Money that they didn’t seem to have to pay their bill even though they could afford nice new toys. She was very upset about this after her brother Harold died and the family business closed. She said that he worked so hard all those years for nothing. She was angry. She was bitter. She couldn’t stop ruminating about it. It found a way to trap her. Some things were hard for her to let go. 

The bitterness ate her up inside. She was the type of person to hold a grudge. She felt like she should not take communion with an unforgiving heart. It was too bad that she couldn’t see that she was only hurting herself. She wanted things to be fair and right, but the world doesn’t always work that way. 

There are certain family members that have a hard time forgiving and forgetting. When I said that Grace never forgave me for saying shut up to her, she really didn’t. I struggle with this myself at times. I find that being angry, criticizing, or condemning people for their imperfections is much easier than forgiving them. When someone screws me over, I want to cut them out of my life. Now this is much harder to do with family. LOL. Seriously though, forgiveness? Letting go? Forgetting? I find it much easier to form a hard bitter wall around myself.

Paul is one of the most forgiving people that I know. He tells me again and again that I am only hurting myself when I don’t forgive someone. That doesn’t mean that I have to be best friends with the person or trust them again. Forgive, forget, and let go… I can do this now, it just seems to take awhile until I can get over it. I feel a little sad that Aunt Grace didn’t seem able to do this. 

Grace uncommon, part 8

Aunt Grace was way ahead of her times. Aunt Grace was the Vice President of the local bank.

Aunt Grace earned what would be equivalent of an Associate Degree in Business in a time when most young ladies like my grandma only received an 8th grade education. She loved money and finance. She was most likely the richest woman in our small town. But she was never greedy. There once was a bank employee whose husband left her with several kids at home. One day an anonymous letter arrived at the bank with money in it for that woman. We all knew it was Aunt Grace because that was the kind of thing she would do. Another family had a tragedy where their house burned down. Aunt Grace took the children shopping to buy them new winter coats and clothes.

When it was our birthday, she would give us $50 in an envelope marked love always, Aunt Grace. At Halloween, she didn’t give out candy. She gave out rolls of nickels and dimes. At Christmas, we all received $10 worth of McDonald’s gift cards. If she ever gave someone a gift, she would wrap it in the comics section of the newspaper. Grace herself was a miser, it was sad to see how destitute she lived when she could afford to take better care of herself. Her washer didn’t wring out her clothes and her dryer took 2 hours to dry a load of clothes. Her clothes were old and worn. I didn’t find out how cheap she lived until I stayed with her at the end.

Grace worked as a bookkeeper for the family business. She also worked at the local bank. When I was a young girl, she was the VP of the bank. She would give me suckers and take me into her private office. She was so excited, she wanted to be President of the bank but women just didn’t do that in her day. Everybody knew her and respected her.

She always told me that I could do anything that a man could do. She went to a conference and brought a duffle bag back for me that read never underestimate the power of a woman. She was very upset that I didn’t go to college for business.

There were some things though that she thought that women shouldn’t do. She frowned upon me hanging out in the garage with the men. I didn’t hear the end of it if I went in there with shorts on. I loved the smell of rubber from the tires that were on sale there and even the scent of gasoline brought me comfort. But I never even learned basic things about cars.

One day while I was in college, I had car trouble. It happened on the day of a snow storm. I flooded my car. Today things are so easy, I step on the brake and push a button to start my car. Back then, I had to push the gas pedal to the floor once. Then while I had the key in the ignition I had to pump the gas to get the car to start. The day of the storm, I flooded my car. I knew that there was a way to pop open my hood and pull up on something to ease this problem, but I didn’t know how. I ran back inside to find a pay phone to call my grandpa who spent his whole life as a mechanic. It was all a fool’s errand because all I needed to do was pop the hood and about 10 guys offered assistance. I miss calling Grace or my grandparents for guidance. Now somehow I am supposed to be an adult with all of the answers. 

Last night all of these memories came back to me like a flood. Stupid things. Silly things. I felt overwhelmed by nostalgia, a longing for my loved ones long gone. I asked myself why I seem to be so plagued by these memories. Then I reminded myself that I opened the door by thinking and writing of these things. I feel very compelled to write everything that happened down so someday it won’t be forgotten. While I was studying genealogy, I searched to understand, to really know, the people that came before me. All I found were names and dates scratched on a piece of paper. It really meant nothing. Aunt Grace kept our family geneaology. The funny thing was that after she was gone I continued it for her. But with the internet and all of modern technology, I did not get any further than she did.

My childhood has been gone for a long time now. Now the childhood years of my children are coming to an end. It has been a difficult transition for me. I struggle with accepting change, even if it is for the better.

I have to keep writing.


Grace uncommon, part 7

Grace liked to take things.

To be more accurate, she liked to take things that were questionable if they belonged to her. She would be the person that would grab a handful of mints while leaving the restaurant. Or back in the day, she would grab matches everywhere she went. After she passed away, we found enough matches to make someone with a two pack a day habit happy for at least 10 years. Hotel rooms would be cleaned out of soap, shampoo, conditioner, pens, and paper. If I was told that she made off with a couple of towels, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Every time that we went out to eat with Aunt Grace, she would get a box for her leftover food. It was in this box that she would try to take whatever was left on the table. Sometimes it would be the little bowls that warm butter would come in. Maybe it was a bowl full of creamers or sugar packets. Silverware or small plates. Bread baskets. Cloth napkins. Table decorations. If it didn’t fit in with her leftovers, sometimes she would shove it in her purse.

We questioned her for taking more than she should. She always said, “I paid for the meal.” It was true, she always did. 

Grace uncommon, part 6

Aunt Grace lost her driver’s license.

Another uncommon quirk about Aunt Grace was that she was always in a hurry to go somewhere. This may not seem that unusual on the surface. The strange part was that once she got where she was going, she was always in a hurry to leave. For example, a couple times a year Aunt Grace would make the one hour drive up north to the cabin during the off season when it was all closed down. She would get there, look at the cabin from inside of her car, see that it did not burn down over winter, then turn around and drive back home.

There were countless times that this happened. The biggest example that I can give you was when we went on the trip to South Dakota. Aunt Grace signed up for women’s church conference. My mom, dad, Luke, and I accompanied her on this trip in her small car. Thankfully my dad did all of the driving!

When we got to the conference, Aunt Grace checked in and received her conference bag. Then we looked around the conference hall, left, and didn’t come back. I convinced Aunt Grace to go to a water park 2 hours away. Once we got there, Aunt Grace asked for a tour of the water park. I saw lots of kids having fun and couldn’t wait to go. After the tour was done, Aunt Grace said that I saw the water park and that it was time to go. I cried and begged her to be able to go. She didn’t seem to understand. She said that it was time for lunch instead. I refused to eat. I stayed in the car. Aunt Grace was upset that I didn’t eat and called me an ungrateful child. I told her to shut up. To Grace those two words were like the worst obscenities in the world. She never forgave me for this, ever. I complained to my mom, “How could we tour the water park and not go?” My mom replied, “Aunt Grace is paying for the trip so we will do what she wants to do.”

After that Aunt Grace wanted to swing through Wyoming to see the Devil’s Tower. We stayed there for about 45 minutes then started the trip back home to WI. Except that Grace was not ready to go home yet. She wanted to stop in Canada to buy her favorite tea. So we drove many hours out of the way to get her tea. We sat in line at customs for an hour to go into Canada for 20 minutes to get her tea. On the way back through customs, they searched our whole vehicle. Who drives all the way up to Canada for 20 minutes?? Aunt Grace, that’s who.

Over time, the hurried trips became fewer and fewer. Aunt Grace’s driving got worse than it was before. She stayed closer to home.  My grandma complained that she was all over the road. Other people started commenting to us about her poor driving. When it was time to renew her license, she did not pass the vision test with glasses. She lost her license and was beginning to lose her vision as well.

This was also the beginning of the end. Sometimes I sit and think. I try to make sense out of everything that happened. I don’t understand. What Grace did to me was cruel. But I don’t think that she ever meant to be cruel. That is what I don’t (can’t) understand. She didn’t relate with others in a normal way. Sometimes I wonder if Grace was in the Autism Spectrum. Is this the line where everything started? 

Grace was not the only one that seemed anxious going or staying somewhere. My grandpa and Uncle Harold would only go somewhere if they had to. When they got there, they would stay for the shortest amount of time that was socially acceptable. My grandpa would drive my grandma to the store and stay in the car. I have never seen him go in a restaurant. He didn’t even go to my wedding. Now my dad is showing the same pattern of behavior. He doesn’t go to the kids events. He shows up for parties for the least amount of time that is acceptable or finds excuses not to show up at all. Once when Paul and I were in a real bind, my dad stayed with our kids while we were gone for the night. He sat in the car all night. He did not come in at all or even talk to the kids.

I don’t understand. I can’t relate. But if I did, would I take on these strange family traits?




Grace uncommon, part 5

Sometimes when I was with her I felt like I was suffocating.

Aunt Grace not only wore navy blue clothes, she bought navy blue cars as well. Except for the two tone two door gold Olds Cutlass. Aunt Grace was hands down the worst driver I ever knew. I often felt car sick riding with her. My stomach churned as I watched cars move towards us then stop quickly. It seemed like the windows were always up without A/C. It was always hot, always suffocating. I was trapped in the back seat. There wasn’t any way out of it. I often felt like I was on an amusement park ride that I thought I could handle, but found out I couldn’t.

Aunt Grace drove through red lights. She never stopped at 4 way stops either. She was oblivious to the rage of others and to our terror. When she was on the two lane highway, she drove at least 10 mph under the speed limit. She drove with half of the car on the road and half on the shoulder. People never seemed happy when she cut them off then drove slow in front of them. People tailgated. Some people thought that the shoulder was another lane and would pass her even if there was oncoming traffic. They would often honk at her or flip her off. She never seemed to notice.

My grandma once told me a secret about Aunt Grace. When she was young, she got pulled over for speeding and received a ticket. Not Aunt Grace, it didn’t seem possible. I wonder if it was after dark? She would never drive after dark, it was one of her rules. 

Aunt Grace often times would go into the ditch while backing out of my parents driveway. They live on the top of a small hill so their driveway is on an incline with 6 ft ditches on the bottom of both sides. We always looked out the window when Aunt Grace left, especially during the winter months. At times she would slide into the ditch and get trapped in her car by the snow. If we didn’t watch, she might not be able to get out to ask for help. Sometimes we had to push her out of the ditch. It sure was a good thing Uncle Harold had a wrecker to pull her out with when she got really stuck.

I told my mom that I didn’t want to ride in the car with Aunt Grace anymore. My mom was also afraid of her driving and worried when she took us places. But grandma always rode with Aunt Grace, especially after grandpa got sick and could no longer drive. My grandma never drove a car. 

Grace uncommon, part 4

After the war, Aunt Grace and her brothers all returned home to help run the family business. Uncle Harold finished high school. My grandpa and Uncle Kenny got married. Aunt Grace and Uncle Harold moved back home with their parents where they lived for the rest of their lives. Grandpa and Uncle Kenny lived down the road. My grandparents had their only child, my dad.

Uncle Kenny and his wife were unable to have children. During the war, Uncle Kenny watched the bombing of Hiroshima along with other service men aboard a Navy ship. The exposure rendered him sterile. He passed  away from skin cancer a few years before I was born.

Out of the four siblings, my dad was the only child. I would like to say that after the war there was a time of peace and serenity. Perhaps there was for a period of time. My great-grandma was a very forceful woman. Before my great grandparents started a successful automotive company, my great-grandma was a school teacher. I suspect that she very easily put the fear of God into disobedient children. She put the fear of God into her own children. Aunt Grace and her siblings (my grandpa especially) spent a lot of time being disciplined out it the wood shed. My great-grandma was the family matriarch. When she passed away, she passed the baton to Aunt Grace.

My Aunt Grace and great-grandma were such a strong overbearing force not to be reckoned with. Grace not only had a strong personality, but she was physically taller than her brothers as well. She was about 5’9″ and her brothers were all barely 5 ft tall. There was a bit of fighting over my dad. Aunt Grace and her mother wanted to raise my dad. So one day my dad stayed overnight by his grandma’s and didn’t come back home. Days at grandma’s turned into weeks which turned into months which turned into a year. The only fault I could find in my grandma was that she was too submissive. She never stood up for herself. But after a year, she told my grandpa that he needed to bring their son back home where he belonged. This created a rift between my grandma and Aunt Grace.

Time trickled by like it tends to do. My mom and Aunt Grace became best friends. My mom viewed Aunt Grace as a mother since her own mother passed away while she was a teenager. My mom’s family was very large and lived far away. So Aunt Grace and Uncle Harold became “grandma” and “grandpa” to us.  They helped raise us. Aunt Grace favored my brothers Luke and Matt. My grandparents favored Mark and I. As a group, they helped my parents through some very difficult times. 

Grace uncommon, part 3

I remember when she first started to slip.

I took the kids over to visit Aunt Grace. They made a picture frame for her out of popsicle sticks. They glued candy hearts on the frame and put a cute picture inside.

The next time that we went to visit, the picture of the kids was gone. Grace pulled all of the candy off of the frame and ate them. She had one of the popsicle sticks soaking in water to get the candy remnants off.

That was the beginning of the end.