Grandma sees me as I am in the present
I spot Grandma in the second row of the chapel, waiting quietly for Mass to begin. Grabbing a Gather book, I head her way. Before sitting, I lean down in front of her and grin.
Her crystal-blue eyes light up, and she smiles back. "Oh, hi, honey! I didn't know you were coming. What a nice surprise!"
Truthfully, it's not a surprise. I'd called her before to tell her I was coming for Mass and lunch at her new independent-living facility. But Grandma has Alzheimer's, just like my late grandfather did. I simply pat her arm and tell her I'm delighted to be with her. And I am. Attending Mass with Grandma is sacred. She may not be able to remember what she had for breakfast, but the hymns and responses roll easily off her tongue, etched in her muscle memory and soul. After 90 years of devoted faith, it is in her. She is a model of fidelity.
After Mass, we're back in Grandma's room, and we open an album of old photos, resting it on both of our laps. Her characteristic incisive mind and wonderful storytelling come back instantly as we trace our fingers along cherished black-and-white images: her parents, her sisters, honeymoon photos of her and Grandpa. She smiles, remembering, but at one point, she stops and sighs: She's one of the only people in these photos still living.
The comment drives home just how precious time with her is. I'd been toying with the idea of asking if I could interview her for this article but wasn't sure how to bring it up. The sense of urgency gives me the courage to follow through.
"Grandma," I begin after we finish the album, "you know how I write articles about religious life? I was wondering if I could interview you for an article — on what's it like being the grandmother of a new sister."
"Oh, sure!" she says, surprising me with her enthusiasm. "Ask me anything you want. I'm proud to be the grandma of a sister!"
I smile as I pull out my paper and pen. I've long wanted to interview Grandma about me becoming a sister, as I did with my mom, dad and a college roommate for past articles. Sassy and direct, Grandma's never been known to hold back her views, so I'd imagined she'd respond to my questions with refreshing frankness. Now, with Grandma's short-term memory failing, I'm not sure how it will go. I'm worried I waited too long. But I want to try.
I start by asking Grandma about her own faith journey.
"So, Grandma, you've been Catholic for 90 years! How did you come into the faith?"
"Yes, ma'am, 90 years!" she quips. "I've been Catholic my whole life. I grew up right down the street from St. Rose Church on Eastern Avenue, and on Sundays, the family would trot over to 8:30 Mass. At home, my mother taught me my prayers. I guess I made my first Communion when I was about 7."
"Can you imagine how many times you've taken Communion since then?"
"Woo-whee!" she says. "I'm not sure I can count that high."
I laugh, then continue. "So, what has your faith meant to you all these years?"
She thinks for a minute, staring out the screen door. "Well, through everything, I've always known I could pray — if I was in trouble, or happy, or anything. I could always stop in church for a visit in the midst of life. It anchors me."
"And growing up anchored in your Catholic faith, what do you remember about sisters?"
"Well, we had several girls from my class at St. Mary's High who became Charity nuns. The night before Alice Glutz entered, we all went out drinking. Glutzy was having a real good time. I'm not sure what kind of shape she was in by the morning, but she and a couple other gals headed off to the convent. We weren't allowed to see them too much after that."
After I stop laughing, I shift the conversation. "OK, fast-forward a couple decades. Do you remember when I first told you I was going to enter religious life?"
Grandma's face goes blank. "No, honey, I don't think I do," she says, "but I know I was thrilled!"
I smile to myself as I scratch down some notes. She absolutely was not thrilled at first. In fact, she was decidedly un-thrilled for several years.
"Well, the first time we talked about it was over breakfast at Frisch's," I tell her. "I also wrote you a letter explaining my discernment process so you could take it home and look at it after our conversation. I was so nervous to tell you. I didn't know how you would react."
"Oh, yes, at Frisch's ... I kind of remember that," Grandma begins. I'm not sure if she really does or not. "Well, I can't say I was surprised when you told me. Maybe I was expecting it, in a way."
"I had just broken up with my boyfriend, Steve, and you did tell me it seemed strange that such a strong relationship would end. But I'd been living and ministering with the sisters, so that tipped you off. And you were disappointed. You had met Steve and really loved him."
"Well, yes, he would have been a good guy for you," she agrees, "but what you wanted was most important to me."
I can tell that memories of that time have faded from Grandma's mind. The truth is that I dreaded her phone calls for at least a year after I revealed my decision to her. She'd ask me repeatedly if I had talked to Steve and if I had reconsidered my choice. The day of my entrance ceremony, she wore her displeasure unabashedly in a sour grimace, and she sat off to the side with her arms folded.
Only over time, as she got to know the sisters better and could see that I was happy, did her resistance slowly wane. In June 2015, we danced together at the party after my first vows. She was 86 years old, but that didn't stop her. She told me later that it was the most fun she'd had since her own wedding reception. My heart almost burst with joy that day; I knew that she was truly happy for me — finally.
Now, in 2019, Grandma can't remember anything before the happiness. This interview won't be what it could have been a year or two ago, and that makes me sad. I decide to try one more question before giving up.
"Was there anything that worried you about me becoming a sister?"
"No, I don't think so," Grandma says tentatively. And then, suddenly, her voice becomes strong and certain. "I really believe that you made the right choice."
I'm taken aback by how clear and genuine she sounds. "Really?"
"Oh, yes, honey. You know, God has always been the center of your life. Faith has been so important to you. And you have always been so sincere about everything you do," she assures matter-of-factly, as my heart creeps into my throat with emotion. She might not know the details, but she still knows me. She goes on: "I know you'll always be happy because you make everyone around you happy."
"OK, now that sounds like a biased doting grandma," I say playfully.
"Well, I'm allowed to dote. I can do what I want at this age!" she retorts, chin up. There's my sharp, sassy Grandma. I laugh. I realize that even though the interview isn't what I expected, it's just right. It's OK, even beautiful, that Grandma doesn't remember her resistance to my vocational choice. She sees me as I am in the present, the only way she can, and she is proud. What more could I ask for?
After a pause, she goes on, sweetness in her voice. "Your grandfather would be delighted that you're a sister."
Grandpa's been gone for 15 years. "He was a deeply faithful man, wasn't he?" I lead, hoping she'll keep talking. I love when she talks about Grandpa.
"Oh, yes, he had a lot of faith. You know, he had a hard life growing up — lots of tragedy. But I think his faith helped him to get through it all. And boy, did he love to sing in the church choir! He had such a nice voice."
"And he was handsome, wasn't he?"
"Oh, golly, was he handsome!"
She is beaming. I no longer care about my interview questions. I want to hear the most treasured story I've heard so many times before but never gets old, the story that remains untouched by any memory loss: "Tell me about when you first met him."
"Well, we met at choir practice," she starts, sunlight from the window dancing on her animated face. "The director of our St. Rose choir was married to the Assumption choir director, and that's where Grandpa went. They brought the two choirs together for a Christmas concert one year. I was after a different guy at the time, but my sisters told me after the first practice a handsome man named Don kept glancing in my direction. I wasn't interested at first." I always giggle at this part. "Anyway, after the second practice, we all went to Combs' Saloon, and I decided that Don was pretty good looking after all. So I tried to get him to sit next to me, and he fell for it. Soon, he asked me out to a dance on a Saturday night. And you know the rest."
Her eyes are looking somewhere beyond the room now. She's never stopped loving the handsome tenor she married in 1950.
I reach down to pick up the photo album from earlier, searching for a photo of young Grandma and Grandpa that I particularly adore. He's standing behind her, arms on her shoulders. As I find it and slip it out, I catch a glimpse of Grandma's exquisite cursive on the back. It reads: "Pat & Don. June 19, 1949."
I gasp and show it to Grandma.
Today just happens to be June 19, 2019. Exactly 70 years to the day since the photo was taken.
My heart beats with awe and gratitude for my remarkable grandmother. Almost 91 years of life. Over 70 years of love for my grandfather. All of those years infused with steady, devoted Christian faith. A true model of fidelity that I hope to emulate on my own journey.
At Mass earlier in the day, Grandma and I had received the Eucharist side by side: two women, separated by almost 60 years but united in profound bonds of family and faith. How moved I was as we each opened our hands and said, "Amen," taking the body of Christ to our lips. In our different vocations and ages, we both come to the table to encounter the mystery that sustains us.
I looked lovingly at Grandma after she received; her eyes were closed and her hands folded in prayer. I bowed my head, too, thanking God for Grandma's long life and asking God to bless her with strength and peace as she ages. Even as her memory slips away, she will not be forgotten.
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati who authored the blog Diary of a Sister-in-Training during formation. After a decade in social justice and Hispanic ministry, she is working toward her master's degree in pastoral ministry at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.]