By Jodi Savage
Granny was obsessed with toilet tissue, napkins, and paper towels. She placed them everywhere – under her pillow, in every pocket of every coat she owned, in drawers, and purses. Paper helped Granny fulfill her main goal in life: to hide things from the invisible people only she could see. But, she would forget where she hid the items, accuse the invisible people of stealing from her once again, and then yell at them about how they needed to pay her rent or get out of her house. I felt sorry for the invisible people; they just couldn’t win. Not to mention that piles of tissue lying around will inevitably get tossed in the trash. I’m convinced that her missing eyeglasses, dentures, and the ten dollar bill a home attendant gave her for her birthday are now resting in a shroud of two-ply Marcal toilet tissue in a Staten Island landfill. Another downside to Granny’s paper obsession is that I could never find any when I needed it. So, I started hiding paper goods in my bedroom, which I kept locked when I wasn’t home. Thus began my hoarding.
My bedroom became a holding cell for anything I needed to hide from Granny and the invisible people – including plastic bags.
As she did with tissue, Granny placed her belongings in plastic bags so the invisible people wouldn’t steal them. It was a hassle to search through every plastic bag in the house whenever I needed something of Granny’s – like her favorite brown suede sneakers or those peach-colored sponge bra inserts she loved to wear. I also grew tired of never having enough bags when garbage day rolled around. So, I started keeping the garbage bags in my bedroom as well.
I learned the hard way that Granny could not be trusted around bathroom and cleaning supplies. She once woke me up in the middle of the night to show me an unidentified white substance all over her face.
“What’s that on your face,” I asked after realizing the ghost-faced figure was really Granny.
“I don’t know,” she answered, her voice cracking as she held back tears.
“Well, how did it get there?”
“I don’t know,” she answered.
Granny’s mystery beauty cream didn’t look like lotion, so I figured it must have come from the bathroom. After sudsing and rubbing and scrubbing the paste-like gook off Granny’s face, I searched every nook and cranny of the bathroom. But, nothing looked disturbed or similar to Granny’s concoction.
I took the safe route and removed everything except soap and toothpaste. Pretty soon, I had to buy several of those plastic storage bins from Target so I could organize the growing pile of Granny contraband.
Granny grew afraid of things around her, including herself.
“I told you to get outta my house! Leave me alone,” Granny once yelled as she swung a yellow plastic baseball bat at the television in her bedroom. She was talking to her reflection in the black television screen.
“Gimme this bat before you knock yourself out,” I told her. I confiscated the bat and any other object Granny could use to harm herself, or our furniture.
Granny’s wigs also went to the holding cell. She used to keep her wigs on top of vases, plastic bottles, and Pringles potato chip containers.
“Those people keep looking at me and won’t leave,” she often told me while pointing at her makeshift wig mannequins. I couldn’t have the wigs terrorizing Granny, so I removed them and my bedroom became wig heaven.
And then there were those things that made Granny anxious or sad. They too had to go.
“Why is this picture here?” I asked her one day when I discovered a framed picture buried under a pile of clothes in one of her drawers. It was a black and white photo of her stepfather sitting on a bench with one leg crossed over the other.
“That man was mean to me,” she answered softly. That man had sexually abused her when she was a child.
Although hiding things from Granny was a necessary step in granny proofing our home, I was running out of space in my bedroom. There was always something else to hide from her. I even had to monitor what she took outside the house. One day while I was at work, Granny’s home attendant Robin called me.
“Did you throw out a large bag of papers?” she asked.
“No. What bag are you talking about?”
“When I put the trash out, I saw a large black bag in the can that wasn’t there before. When I looked inside, there were a whole bunch of papers and pictures,” Robin replied. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I’m sure Granny knew.
“Ok. Just take the bag inside and hide it from Granny. I’ll look at it when I get home.”
The nondescript plastic bag turned out to be a collection of memories and clues about our past. Where had Granny hidden this bag all these years?
The bag contained a picture of Granny when she was ten years old. Granny’s face hadn’t changed much over the years. As I looked at the stern-faced little girl in the black and white photo with a ribbon tied on top of her head, I wondered what she was thinking, what she was feeling and what her life was like. How had she grown into the woman who would become my grandmother?
I read Granny’s fifth-grade report card. Math and citizenship had never been her strong suits.
I also saw letters my mother had written to Granny throughout various stages of her life, while she lived in Florida and Granny lived in New York: letters my mother had written when she was in high school; as a college freshman shortly after she gave birth to me; and as a prison inmate years later. Although I had always been so critical and unforgiving of my mother for choosing drugs over me, her words revealed that she was still that little girl who just wanted her mommy. Granny had also made mistakes as a mother – mistakes she had a chance to correct while raising me.
Granny’s memory bag also contained pictures of people I had known and those I would never know. They made me miss Granny’s sisters, my aunt Jennye and aunt Lilla, both of whom had died while I was in college.
“Who’s this, Granny?” I asked while holding out a picture of her younger sister Lilla, a light-skinned woman with fat cheeks and curly hair.
She stared at the picture.
“I don’t know. That’s you,” she answered.
Examining the contents of Granny’s memory bag was like getting to know her for the first time, getting the answers to questions I never thought to ask, coming up with new questions she’d probably never be able to answer. I silently thanked Granny for saving these pieces of us. Had Alzheimer’s not robbed us, she would never have thrown out our life stories, her memories, our past. I hugged Granny and took the plastic bag to my room. It deserved its own sacred plastic bin. I began to hoard the remnants of our lives, the memories and old wounds infused in our DNA, long after Granny could.