I crept down the hall of my grandmother’s nursing home hooked tightly to my mother’s pinky. It was as if we had entered a house of mirrors: the faces of the old people drawn out and misshapen, their shrunken hands and feet sticking out at odd angles. They twisted their necks at me and I knew they would push me into their mouths if they had the chance.
I closed my eyes and kept quiet. The smells congregated then, crawling out of doors and seeping through the flowers on the wallpaper. That very specific nursing home stench, urine mixed with green soap, enveloped me and I suppressed the deep cough it left behind.
We found my grandmother’s room at the end of the hall.
The grandmothers my friends brought to our Christmas programs smelled like fresh washed cotton. They gave you gumdrops and patted your head as you walked by; they stitched sequins on the bodice of your costume for the dance recital.
My grandmother was a shell.
A muffled, choking sound.
She was an infant hiding in a wrinkled, grownup suit that would never fit right.
She laid in her bed looking up and out as if no ceiling obstructed her view, swaddled in the itchy, felt blanket the home provided. My mother spoke to her. She stroked my grandmother’s hair and looked into her bottomless eyes smiling. I sat in a rocking chair in the corner busying myself with coloring books and old magazines. I hated how the vinyl stuck to the backs of my thighs as I waited but said nothing. I was witnessing a moment saved only for the divine: my mother looking down at her mother like a real-life reflection in one of those mirrors that go on forever.
My mother perched me on the side of my grandmother’s railed bed when she finished. I stared as she had. I squinted my eyes trying to find the woman who lived in my mother’s memories, searching for the lady in the black and white pictures taped into the photo albums we had at home. In the end, I surrendered my efforts and moved to get down but my mother wanted more.
“Give Grandma a kiss, honey,” she said.
I kissed the woman’s cheek. Her skin was cold and thin, stretched from years of living next to a mouth held open. My mother did the same and we made our way back through the maze and into the parking lot.
My grandmother died when I was thirteen. My last memory of her is within the funeral parlor, a place not unlike those nursing homes.
Those same drawn out faces weeping for someone I never knew.
Those smells oozing from the odd colored carpet and long halls.
The casket: another railed bed.
Our time came to view the body. I stood next to my mother holding tightly to her hand as I always had. This, our final visit in search of the woman my mother loved. My grandmother looked just as I remembered except her mouth, sewn shut, now stretched across her face in a cartoonish, jack o’ lantern sort of way.
I felt nothing.
I knew my grandmother had died long ago. The memories I kept of her were not going to be set in a nursing home. She was not the body that lied cold in this bed.
My grandmother was the hairdresser that coifed the tresses of the mayor’s wife.
My grandmother was the poet, the seamstress, the chef.
My grandmother was the mother of my mother and I would keep her in my heart that way: a reflection of my own mother’s love, like one of those mirrors that go on forever.