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What My Baby & Her Great-Grandmother Have In Common

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After lighting the menorah at home, we went to California for Christmas with my husband’s family. My in-laws and their extended family all live within a few miles of each other in San Diego County, and we see them every other year or so for the holidays. Penrose was a champ on the plane, napping and playing and eating airplane snacks, and playing peek-a-boo with the family seated behind us. My in-laws picked us up at the airport–we arrived in the late morning–and brought us to their house. Once we were settled, my husband, Bill, and his father went to the memory care residential facility a half-mile down the road and picked up his grandmother.

Bill’s grandmother is Penrose’s last biological great-grandparent. My maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather died of cancer when I was fairly young. My paternal grandmother’s yartzheit was the same day as my baby shower, and my maternal grandfather died just a few days before Penrose was born. I was able to see him a few weeks before he died, and he was the only person to whom I revealed her name before her arrival. Bill’s maternal grandparents are long gone, and his paternal grandfather died when he was a teenager, so Grandma Emma is all we have left.

When I first started traveling to California to spend time with Bill’s family, Grandma Emma was active and spry. She cooked feasts of pasta and sauces, racks of lamb, filet mignon, and her famous salad, which she dressed with rice vinegar. Her yard had fig trees and lemon trees. Seven years later, when Bill and I were finally married, she made the trip across the country and on a ferry to see us. But even then, she was becoming confused.

Over the last two years, Emma slipped further and further into Alzheimer’s. She moved in with Bill’s parents when it became too much for her to live on her own, and a few months ago moved into a facility when it became clear she needed around-the-clock care. Bill video-chats with his family regularly, and when they held the iPad up for Grandma Emma to see, he would tell her I was pregnant, and that she was going to be a Great-Grandmother, but there wasn’t any indication that she understood.

Bill and his father helped Emma out of the car and into a leather armchair in the living room. They parked her walker next to Penrose’s borrowed stroller. At a glance they looked like the same apparatus.

“Look, Grandma! This is your great-granddaughter. Her name is Penrose.” Bill sat in the armchair next to her, holding the baby on his lap. Penrose tried to climb between the chairs. “Isn’t she cute?”

“Yeah!” Emma exclaimed. She lapsed into echolalia. “The the the the that that that that ba ba ba ba – ”

“Ba ba ba ba,” Penrose answered. Grandma gazed at her, more focused than Bill’s parents had seen her in a while. Sitting at the kitchen table later, eating Mexican food while wearing bibs, Penrose and her great-grandmother touched the Santa Clauses patterned across the vinyl tablecloth, trying and failing to pick them up.

We took Penrose to visit Emma in the facility a few days later. Grandma lit up when we came in, and then ignored us in favor of her lunch. Her tablemates offered Penrose a glass of milk and a piece of melon. We left when we realized we were a distraction.

Whenever Penrose and Emma were together, the family commented on their behavior with striking parallels. “Wow, Mom looks a lot perkier around the baby,” said Bill’s aunt. “She actually said, ‘baby!'”

“Penrose loves Great-Grandma,” I told them. “She was playing with her shoe for a long time the other day!” Emma stroked the baby’s leg as I held her in the adjacent chair. We celebrated each little moment of clarity afforded by her connection with Penrose. Although she was generally non-verbal, each time Bill asked her about the baby, she would respond.

“Yeah, baby,” she said enthusiastically. “Cute!”

Grandma Emma sat methodically folding a blanket as Penrose sat at her feet methodically chewing on a green plastic square. Transitions challenged them equally; Penrose squalled at diaper changes and before bed, and Grandma fought each time she was put in the car, whether leaving the facility or returning to it.

Grandma Emma’s achievements are mostly in the past. She taught me how to win at Black Jack. She made the tenderest rugelach. She raised three kids and traveled the world with her husband. She lived a few miles from her children and grandchildren and saw them almost every day. Penrose’s achievements are unmapped, stretching out before her past the vanishing point on the horizon. But this Christmas, Penrose and Emma were adjacent points on a circle, and they found each other with ease.

I wish a future Penrose could meet the Grandma of the recent past. I’m sad they never baked together, or went shopping at the outlets, or cuddled and watched a Fred Astaire movie. But the time they spent together is precious all the same.

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