I hated walking with my mom and sister down that long, bright hallway in the nursing home where my grandma lived. The white tile floor and the ceiling covered with fluorescent lights reminded me of school. The only difference was that there were handrails on either side that old people could hold onto while they walked, so they wouldn’t fall.
The blare of television sets from just about every room we passed, laughter and chatter from the nurses’ station, and announcements over the PA system made me wonder why Dad called this place a rest home. The sharp aroma of disinfectant reminded me of the monthly trips I’d made to the dentist years before to have my braces adjusted. I nearly gagged as I remembered the goop they put in my mouth so they could take impressions of my teeth before the braces were put on. The stench of poop and piss from some of the rooms was overpowering.
We finally reached Grandma’s room, and for once, there was silence and only the smell of her perfume. Her bed was next to the window, and she sat in her wheelchair, wearing white pants and a blue, checked blouse. Her curly gray hair was cut short and pushed away from her face. She had a roommate, but the other lady wasn’t there. It was just us.
When we walked into the room, her head was hanging down, but she raised it and gave us a blank look. My mother, as she did every Sunday when we came to visit, went up to her with a smile, kissed her cheek, took her hand, and said, “Hi, Mom.” Then she said, “Oh, I see you’re wearing that lovely blouse I got you for your birthday. It looks nice on you.”
Mom always complimented Grandma on the clothes she wore, most of which she had bought for her. It made me want to throw up.
She sat on the bed next to Grandma’s wheelchair and smiled as she said, “I’ve brought Natalie and Sarah to see you today.”
My younger sister walked up to Grandma without hesitating and took her other hand, as she always did when we visited her. “Hi, Grandma,” she said with a smile.
Grandma’s face broke into a big grin. “Sarah, how lovely you look today. How old are you now?”
“I’m ten,” answered Sarah with a grin of her own. “And my sister, Natalie, is here, too.”
She turned to me, but I stood where I was. I knew what would happen.
Grandma gave me one of her blank looks. “Who?”
“Mom, you remember Natalie,” my mother said. “She just turned sixteen last week. Natalie, don’t just stand there staring. Come say hello to your grandma.”
As I did each week, I walked up to her and said, “Hi, Grandma.”
She smiled, but I could tell she still didn’t recognize me. She said, “Martha, she doesn’t look a bit like you. Was she adopted?”
This conversation happened every week, but it still made my face grow hot.
“Of course not, Mom. Don’t be silly. She just takes after her father’s side of the family.”
“Bill?” Grandma’s brow furrowed.
Who was Bill? I didn’t know, and I didn’t care.
Mom smoothed Grandma’s brow with her other hand. “Sit down, girls. I’ve got something to read to you all.”
Without a word, Sarah and I sat on either side of Mom on Grandma’s bed, facing the old woman in her wheelchair.
Every week when we visited, Mom brought something to read to us all that she thought Grandma would like. Usually, it was an article from Reader’s Digest or one of the women’s magazines she liked. Today, she pulled her iPhone out of her purse, made a few gestures, then said, “Here, Mom, this blog post has some quotes from Erma Bombeck.”
It was all I could do to keep from groaning. Just the previous week in my English class, we’d had to read an essay by Erma Bombeck and write about it. Yuck! I could have written a whole book about Lorde, but that didn’t matter to my English teacher.
Anyway, Grandma smiled and said, “Oh, yes, Erma Bombeck writes some good stuff.” She’d apparently forgotten that Erma Bombeck was dead.
While Mom read a long list of quotes, Sarah and I shuffled our feet and twiddled our thumbs until one quote got our attention: “Your grandmother pretends not to know who you are on Halloween.”
“Halloween’s on Tuesday!” said Sarah, smiling at Grandma. “I’m going to be a mermaid when I go trick–or–treating.”
“How lovely,” said Grandma with a smile. “I’d love to see you in your costume.”
“I saw a poster in the lobby advertising your Halloween party,” said Mom. “There’ll be games for the kids, and they’ll give you candy to hand out. Won’t that be fun?”
“I’m sure that’ll be nice,” said Grandma.
“Grandma, I love butterscotch candy,” said Sarah. “So be sure you have some when I come, okay?”
“I’ll see what I can do, love bug,” said Grandma, ruffling Sarah’s long blond hair.
“Daryl and I have play rehearsal that night,” Mom said, “but the girls will come.”
My heart sank. I was hoping the director of that play would give my folks the night off. Taking my little sister trick–or–treating was the last thing I wanted to do, especially when I’d been invited to the Halloween party of my best friend, Katrina.
Unable to stop myself, I said, “Grandma doesn’t know who I am even when it isn’t Halloween.”
“Natalie, don’t be rude,” said Mom, giving me one of her disappointed looks.
Grandma sighed. “She’s right, dear. I don’t remember her. But Natalie, that’s not your fault. Nobody chooses to be put on this earth.”
That was the grandma I remembered from when I was little. She was always telling me that nobody chose to be put on this earth. As far as I knew, she’d never told Sarah that.
My little sister now said, “What do you mean, Grandma?”
It was Mom’s turn to sigh. “Honey, your grandma is trying to say that God created us and we had no say in the matter.”
Grandma wrinkled her nose as if she could smell the poop from the room down the hall.
Our house was only a few blocks away from the nursing home. Later, as we walked home, Sarah said, “Mom, Grandma doesn’t like God, does she?”
“Honey, your grandma doesn’t believe like we do,” said Mom.
“If she doesn’t believe,” I said, “why does she always tell me we don’t choose to be put on this earth? She doesn’t tell Sarah that.”
Sarah shook her head, and Mom said, “Well, she doesn’t believe in God, necessarily, but she believes that a being of some sort chooses whether we’re born.”
“I don’t think so,” said Sarah. “I chose to be born to you, Mom, because you’re so pretty.”
“Oh, you silly girl,” said Mom. They stopped walking, and she and Sarah hugged each other.
Disgusted, I kept going. I’d wasted an entire afternoon when I could have hung out at Katrina’s. We could have done each other’s nails and listened to the new Lorde album that Dad had given me for my birthday. But no, I had to visit my stupid grandma, who never knew who I was anymore, and listen to my mom read stupid quotes by a stupid author. And now I’d have to take my stupid little sister trick–or–treating on Halloween instead of going to Katrina’s party. It was too much.
Can Natalie get out of taking her sister trick-or-treating and go to her friend’s Halloween party? Who’s Bill? Read the book and find out. See below for details.
The above excerpt appears in the current issue of Magnets and Ladders and can be read here along with other great stories, poems, and essays. The aforementioned quote by Erma Bombeck inspired me to write this book.
Photo Courtesy of Tess Anderson Photography
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Copyright 2021 by Abbie Johnson Taylor.
Independently published with the help of DLD Books.
Sixteen-year-old Natalie’s grandmother, suffering from dementia and confined to a wheelchair, lives in a nursing home and rarely recognizes Natalie. But one Halloween night, she tells her a shocking secret that only she and Natalie’s mother know. Natalie is the product of a one-night stand between her mother, who is a college English teacher, and another professor.
After some research, Natalie learns that people with dementia often have vivid memories of past events. Still not wanting to believe what her grandmother has told her, she finds her biological father online. The resemblance between them is undeniable. Not knowing what else to do, she shows his photo and website to her parents.
Natalie realizes she has some growing up to do. Scared and confused, she reaches out to her biological father, and they start corresponding.
Her younger sister, Sarah, senses their parents’ marital difficulties. At Thanksgiving, when she has an opportunity to see Santa Claus, she asks him to bring them together again. Can the jolly old elf grant her request?