No matter how far I travel, western New York will always be one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Even in mid-March, when the landscape is shrouded in snow and grey skys and you know the first whisper of spring won't be until late April if you're lucky.
For me, its beauty goes beyond the rolling hills and dark forests. I love it for the memories it holds.
Particularly the little town of Freedom. My grandmother was born and raised here. My dad was born and raised here. And this house, every single summer of my childhood was spent here. Every inch is drenched in memories.
I learned how to drive a tractor here. I learned how to make jam from currants here. Almost ten years ago, my siblings and I spent a few days
My sister and I spent countless nights lying in this room, telling stories, making plans, sharing a sense of closeness we didn't seem to find anywhere else.
How lucky I am to still have this beautiful place to go back to. How lucky to have two such amazing grandparents who created this wonderful, safe world where we could grow and learn and explore. Who fostered this loving supportive environment in which we came to understand and cherish the importance of family roots.
How strange it was to visit last weekend. For the first time ever, the house was empty of the one of those influences. Empty and yet so full. Every nook and cranny brims with Nana's heart and soul. It couldn't be more obvious than if the rooms were wallpapered in photos of her. I see her in the row of African violets on the front windowsill. I smell her in the faint scent of Estee Lauder dusting powder that lingers in the bathroom. I hear her in the whistle of the tea kettle. I feel her in the worn leather arms of the Lazy-Boy.
The strangest feeling of all is that she's not even gone in the literal sense. Ten long years she's been drifting away slowly to Alzheimer's. A couple of weeks ago she found a new home in a clean and quiet place called The Pines. My heart broke to see her room there, the single bed with her afghan folded across the bottom. To think of her waking up in the morning, looking out strange windows, feeling strange hands get her dressed for the day. Waiting, wondering, and asking questions only to have her mind let go of the answers moments later.
And then to see her sweet face shine so bright when we walk into the room. We call out to her and our voices are the music of a song she knows she once loved but can't quite place the tune. She frowns, trying to recall a name to the face and when reminded is overcome with joy. "Oh yes, I love my Ellie." It's as if after ten years, I'm only now coming to terms with it.
I sat next to her, rubbed lotion on her hands, braided her hair, and adjusted her robe as if by physical touch I could hold her here, keep her mind from slipping any farther away. A knot of pain formed in my chest, like a fist closed around the emotion to keep it from welling up and spilling out in tears.
She showed me her hands, wondering at a bruise that had formed. "I just don't remember how it got there." What beautiful hands. I wondered how many loaves of bread they had formed, how many shoes they had tied, how many tears they had wiped away. Now they are hands that struggle to hold a fork, that fold nervously in her lap, that wander aimlessly through her hair.
Oh my dear sweet Nana. How intensely bittersweet it is to hold your hand and talk to you and yet to mourn so deeply for you. How painful to look into your eyes and to see only a lost child there. How cruel of this disease to take you from me while you are yet living, to know that the worst is still to come. I want so badly to take you home even though I know this is where you need to be.
This picture is hard for me to look at. Even as I write this, I'm crying for who you were. And yet, I find so much comfort that all the best parts of you are carried on in others. Though all else fades away, the beauty of your soul is preserved, your life sealed by His power. As Papa tucked you in bed, from out in the hallway, I heard him read a chapter to you from the Bible. Looked in to say goodnight, and saw the peace that stole over your face.
It was one of the most difficult weekends of my life, but necessary. I think I'm finally learning how to begin to say goodbye. I'm so thankful for all she taught me and for the memories I will hold so dear.
I love you, Nana, now and then.