By Kitty Hannah Eden
Whenever I’m lost, I fire up Google maps so I can take a look at the house again.
This is the house that grew three boys and two girls. For years, this is the house with an old rubber boot attached to the stone wall by the gate and out of which flowers sprout.
The boot has long gone, and a large square green mailbox is nestled between the railings. The house seems naked now. The enormous laurel shrub I loved burying my head in is gone, ditto the hazelnut tree, provider of tasty snacks to three generations.
It was a little stone house with stone stairs and living quarters on the first floor — one living room dwarfed by a giant dining table around which we’d all congregate, two small bedrooms, one tiny bathroom, one modest kitchen, and one restroom. The ground floor was used for laundry and as a root cellar.
My grandmother, Mamie, was a lifelong devotee of the scrubbing brush and washboard method, and still boiled linen in metal wash tubs.
She perceived her children’s repeated offers of a washer as an affront to her dignity, and so never owned one.
Behind the house sat a huge vegetable patch that fed seven and more, and rose bushes my grandfather tended with pride, infinite patience, and love. There was a bountiful cherry tree, and an ancient weeping willow that stood regally at the bottom of the garden, where a waist-high stone wall separated the property from open fields.
It was Mamie’s home, the home she and her husband rented from the farmer who employed him. It was where Mamie lived until a stroke made it inadvisable for her to remain there, an elderly woman alone in a house grown silent, in a deserted village in Northern France.
Every year on her birthday, my heart contracts anew with the pain of absence.
Mamie relinquished her grip on life exactly a week before the Bataclan massacre, in 2015.
To me, she might as well have died yesterday, the shame of being unable to fly back and attend her funeral still very much alive. When I immigrate to America, depression fells me almost upon landing; it will end up taking away my writing voice and livelihood for five years.
At a time when my one job as an only child is to be present and hold my father’s hand, my household can’t even afford to send flowers.
Selflessly, my mother steps in.
“What do you want to write in the note?” she asks over the phone.
“I… I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t know. Sorry. Can I… can I text you later?”
I’m lost for words for quite some time, numb, unable to think or feel anything.
Eventually, my heart whispers “Goodbye, Mamie, thanks for all the love you gave us.”
In her elegant penmanship, my mother relays my message, and a flower arrangement appears by my grandmother’s casket on the day of the funeral. Later that day, my phone beeps with a picture message from an unfamiliar number. It shows a basket of flowers next to a golden handle on polished wood, and is accompanied by warm words of thanks I do not deserve from my father’s youngest sister, my beloved auntie.
For months, I’m unable to feel.
When a fictional character by the name of Mamie appears in a book I’m reading, I come undone behind closed doors, night after night. For several days, I am unmoored but for the loose anchor of shame, a granddaughter who didn’t even get to pay her last respects.
What few childhood memories self-protective amnesia hasn’t erased come flooding back.
It occurs to me Mamie would never have let herself become paralyzed by something as intangible as depression.
Mamie was 96 when she died, so frail she was bed-bound and no longer able to communicate.
When I last see her, before her mental faculties leave her altogether, she still knows me.
I’m surprised as I only visit infrequently, having spent my entire adult life overseas. On that day, I feel undeserving of such clarity. She routinely struggles to recognize her own children, often confusing my dad — her firstborn — with one his brothers or sisters. With them, she has one out of five chances of getting it right, but with nine grandchildren, the odds are a little higher.
But she still knows me.
“So you’ve come for a visit?” she says, “That’s nice.”
And we chat a little, with my dad acting as the MC whenever the conversation goes off the rails, which is every other sentence. Mamie’s spirit is already fading, it has been fading since she arrived at the nursing home.
It was a move of her own volition. By then, she’d been a widow for some fifteen years. The stroke forced her to acknowledge she could no longer look after herself in a small village without a doctor.
She chose to go straight from the hospital into care. She tossed her house keys to my dad and instructed him and his siblings to empty the house. She only requested a few essentials. “Chuck out everything else and give the keys back to the landlord,” she said.
And this is how a born and bred village girl, who once used to run the grocery store and café at the heart of this small community, moved on to the next stage of her life.
Gradually, her body lets her down, and then her mind, to the point when her still being alive becomes a source of much pain for us all, unwilling as we are to accept the universal effects of time.
She, thankfully, is oblivious to her decline.