Underpants: ‘It’s a little cold for streaking today’

By PollyAnna
Reader Contributor

Each early January, as everyone hoists aloft their new goals and new selves in a show of mental weightlifting, I start my year bogged down by thoughts on aging. My grandmother and my partner’s father both have New Year’s Eve birthdays. So New Year’s Eve, rather than being about alcoholic scavenger hunts and carelessly wielded explosives, has become an annual meditation on time’s fleet rabbit feet.

My grandma just turned 93 at the close of 2022. Helena no longer reminisces nonstop about her Great Depression childhood in rural Michigan… she’s hit that dementia milestone where she’s simply battling to remember who we all are. 

During the first year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic, my mother and her siblings checked grandma out of her assisted living facility and took turns hosting and caring for Helena. The end result was fraying familial relationships. As Helena continued the backwards progression towards re-childhood, she grew increasingly cranky about being told what to do by her own kids. Cleaning supplies had to be locked up, veggies were cajoled onto her plate and bathroom habits had to be monitored. My mom even had to watch to make sure grandma wouldn’t touch the wood stove (and frequently heard the telling creeaakk of the stove door the moment she stepped out of the room). 

Now that the sons and daughter have reluctantly checked grandma back into her institution, like a well-loved but overdue library book, Helena is — shockingly and immediately — four times happier. It defies our heartstrings, and cultural studies, and all the things you want to believe about multigenerational living. 

But the fact is, from there, she can pursue one of the peak joys of aging: “othering.” She gets to poke fun at “all these little old people” that live all around her. She gets to wander the hallways in the pursuit of being “helpful” (gossiping and being nosy). She gets to relish how she’s the only person on her floor without a walker or a wheelchair — and occasionally, even confesses to cringing adventures with other people’s wheelchairs. (“I gave him a push, and he went flying, and suddenly there were six people gathered all around!”) She can love her kids from afar, now that they aren’t bossing her to bits. And her kids can relax slightly… and pray for the sanity of the poor underpaid staff who supervise her wake of chaos. 

A few weeks ago, on New Year’s Eve’s eve, I called my grandma to wish her a happy birthday a day early. Helena was in supposed quarantine, having contracted COVID and subsequently wandered the hallways doing as her pastors always taught her — sharing freely and abundantly. Despite the fact that she has the memory of a goldfish (“look, a castle!”), grandma can’t be locked in her room due to home regulations. Our family had been mobilized to call the walking biohazard as much as possible, to keep her busy enough that she wouldn’t get bored and break out. (Breaking out, like dementia, is a genetic tendency in my family. Along with aged streaking… as in naked, through public spaces, with wrinkles.)

During our conversation, grandma once again had completely forgotten what COVID was, and grumbled in confusion about being in trouble for “not obeying.” But some clever person had figured out an important trick: put a castle in the goldfish tank. Or, in this case, a sign on the back of her door. Grandma read it to me happily, conveying the punctuation perfectly through her tone: “Helena: You are in isolation due to an infection!” 

I gave her as much empathy as I could. She counted the bird decorations in her room to me, misreported the activities of my cousins and repeated stories a few times. And then, after we hung up, I reached out to my mom and my cousin to compare notes. 

Notes-comparing is a vital part of the family’s relationship with grandma now. We try to share a baseline on which memories need correcting, or which resources have been carefully stationed in grandma’s environment. The day following my phone call, my mother had to scold Helena for darting across the hall to share her birthday care package with her frail neighbor. On the phone, she made her re-read the sign in her room. “Well that sign doesn’t work!” grumbled grandma. “I was on the other side of the door!” 

Out of all my motley relatives, I’ve always most closely resembled Helena in attitude and emotions. Her health, her bumblebee zest for life and her generosity all seemed like great attributes to have inherited. Recently, though, I catch myself thinking, “Phew… Is this how it’s supposed to end? In spirals of increasing indignity?” 

It’s hard to not let the last impression of something be the lasting impression. It’s always that last glance, that last conversation that becomes the legacy — the most perfect place you ever lived, or the worst breakup ever. Those final minutes of a year — or of a home, or a life lived — can throw a bias over the whole beast. Positive or negative. 

As I struggle with thoughts like these, and fumble to tie yet another year in a bow, my favorite cousin has found the best way to keep grandma’s true legacy alive. A year and a half ago, she started using a signature sign-off to every phone conversation with Helena: “Don’t you go streaking, now!” And she writes Helena’s reactions down. The cheekiness in Helena’s responses leaves us both with hope that, somewhere in that tiny little frame, grandma’s still there:

“Well, it’s a little cold for streaking today.”

“No, I wouldn’t want to feel bad if they didn’t catch me.”

“I won’t, but you don’t either… even though they’d have a hard time catching you, because you’re probably faster than me.”

With best wishes for your own 2023, don’t you go streaking, now.

PollyAnna lives and writes the “townie” life in Sandpoint, where you can pick her out on one of the icy sidewalks by her wildly flailing arms. Ice cleats: wear them.

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