My kindergarten-aged daughter, Megan, recently ran into one of her friends from preschool. The two girls did not recognize each other, although they had claimed to be best of friends back in the day. Somewhere toward the end of her preschool years, Megan started making memories and developing them. Before then, everything has a fuzzy quality for her. She doesn’t remember her earliest preschool friends, some of our favorite camping trips, or her time in the 2- and 3-year-old Sunday school room at church where she had some amazing teachers.
I smiled and shrugged at the other little girl’s father, and he commiserated. “We do all these fun things with them, and they don’t remember,” he said.
How We Are Making Memories
My husband and I have made many efforts over the years to give our daughter rich experiences and good memories. One of our priorities was to give Megan as much time as possible with her great-grandparents. Yet, just as Megan’s permanent memory is coming into sharp focus, her great-grandparents, my paternal grandparents, are losing some of their own making memories abilities to age and early Alzheimer’s.
The weekend before Thanksgiving, my family moved my paternal grandparents into an assisted living community. After 80-some years, my grandparents are no longer able to live fully independent. There are days when grandpa, now retired from pastoral ministry, doesn’t remember his own children. Sometimes he wanders off and no one knows where he’s gone. Grandma is more lucid, but the years are showing their toll on her as well.
|Enjoying a snack with my grandpa in 2009.|
While it saddens me to see them decline, I’m grateful that Megan and her 2-year-old sister Abigail have been able to spend time with them. When I met my husband, he had only one grandmother still alive, and she passed before I could meet her. It made us keenly aware of how precious our time is with my own grandparents. I still have my maternal grandmother as well. We see her a few times a year and she is as sharp-witted as ever. At Christmas time, she mentioned she checks out and reads six books from the library every two weeks.
We got a lot of quality time with my paternal grandparents before they declined. For several years starting when Megan was 1, we drove five hours to my grandparents’ home in Indiana to spend part of my teacher husband’s spring or summer break with them. They were thrilled to have us and sent a letter stating, “You can’t believe how excited we are that Megan convinced you to bring her for a visit.”
My grandparents spent much of the past decade living in their retirement home, a tidy spacious trailer. Josh and I slept in the guest bedroom and Megan snoozed in a Pack and Play in a third bedroom set up as an office. Grandma cooked hamburger casseroles, broccoli cheese soup, and homemade chicken and noodles for us. We walked around the neighborhood and Megan watched a neighbor catch a catfish in the local pond. My grandparents treated us at McDonald’s and the ice cream shop, and grandpa bounced Megan on his knee and fed her graham crackers.
|Megan with my grandparents at the ice cream shop in 2011.|
Slight signs of my grandfather’s slow mental decline were there for years. During each visit, Josh fixed the settings on my grandparents’ television. In his day, grandpa was a great tinkerer and handyman, but modern technology got the better of him. Grandma would tell grandpa, “Josh fixed the TV. Now don’t push any more buttons.” But grandpa couldn’t help himself. We also took care not to leave our cell phones lying where grandpa could get them. Out of curiosity, he once started punching buttons on Josh’s phone and nearly entered a random numeric code that would have locked the phone. Grandpa’s tech skills became a bit of a joke among the family.
Josh, an ever-curious history teacher, liked to ask questions of my grandparents. How did they meet? What memories did they have of World War II? He asked his favorite question for any senior citizen: Who was the oldest person you ever met? During his childhood, grandpa had known a woman who had a living memory of the Civil War. Grandma walked me around her kitchen one afternoon and told me the family history behind each of the decorative plates hanging above her cabinets. We studied the old photos of my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents hanging in the hall, and we tried to remember it all.
|Abigail with my grandma and me in 2012.|
While I was pregnant with our second daughter, I intended to continue making the trip as long as possible. Yet soon my grandparents started to decline. Megan was almost 4 when they moved to a small, low-maintenance apartment, which put an end to our overnight visits. For the past two summers, we have seen them at a family reunion at an Indiana state park, where they and other relatives stay in the park’s inn while others camp, and everyone gathers at the campground for meals and time together. They sit quietly in lawn chairs at our camp site and listen to the family chat. Grandpa occasionally joins the conversation but sometimes struggles to put words together, and grandma’s face lights up when she gets to hold her youngest great-grandbabies all afternoon.
|The girls with my grandma last summer.|
Two-year-old Abigail is still too young to really know her great-grandparents, and Megan does not remember our times spent at my grandparents’ trailer. I asked her if she had any memories of our visits there, and she said, “I know about those times because of the pictures you show me.” The pictures seem to help a lot.
Megan will remember her great-grandparents as the demure pair who sat at our camp site every summer. Maybe she’ll remember that her great-grandmother brought homemade cookies to share, or that her great-grandfather was eager to catch a glimpse of the raccoons that lurked in the woods on the edge of our camp site.
Megan and my grandparents are like the fabled ships passing, with Megan making memories growing clearer while the fog slowly creeps up on my grandparents. Even if Megan doesn’t really remember, those visits were precious to my grandparents. We have made an effort to do a lot with our daughters, to give them fun times and rich experiences, but those experiences are not only for our daughters’ making memories benefit. Sometimes, those experiences are also a bright spot in the twilight years of others.
How are you making memories with your family?
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