Elvie Hester’s laugh was legendary. Whenever people discover I’m her granddaughter, that glorious sound is the first thing they mention. With just a toss of auburn curls, Nanny embodied the spirit of a locomotive chugging through a child’s picture book. Softly, then louder, she’d chuckle – one hand steadying her midsection, another swatting at thin air. These days, I’m lucky to get any sound from her at all.
My Nanny Hester is still alive, she’s just not present. Ten years ago, Alzheimer’s disease diminished that inimitable laugh. Nanny paced around her home, nibbling handfuls of Cheerios, obsessing over people digging in her yard, and hiding stacks of clothing all over the place (so “those people” wouldn’t rip her off). All too often, we’d find Nanny gazing out the window with a furrowed brow, criticizing imaginary vandals. Completely paranoid, she slept upright on the sofa. Someone had to keep out the invaders.
The day my father moved Nanny into the nursing home, his once-gracious mother cursed, kicked, and clawed the staff members. She ripped the Venetian blinds from the window. Unfazed, the doctor assured my father that belligerent behavior was common in Alzheimer’s patients. Meanwhile, my forgetful grandmother swiped at tears like mosquitoes. After Nanny had been sedated, she looked at my father, wide-eyed. “When do we check out of this motel? I’ve got to get a pot roast going.”
In reality, she’d checked out years ago.
On my first visit, a crumpled Nanny sat among other residents in a circle of recliners. Her hands trembled in her lap, picking at phantom lint balls. Approaching her, I half-expected to catch a whiff of White Rain mixed with Oil of Olay or that glint of silver from her bridgework. I patted Nanny’s arm and announced who I was, but her glassy eyes knocked the wind out of me. Borderline queasy, I knelt and yelled my name into her good ear.
My pulse pounded. I prayed to hear a sarcastic zinger, but didn’t. Not a single jab about my new haircut. No ribbing about the long time since she’d seen me. My quick-witted Nanny Hester no longer knew me. She no longer knew herself. I sat on my heels, heartbroken.
Where was Elvie Hester?
In some ways, I could relate to Nanny’s state of mind. With two daughters under the age of six, I too walk circles in a house turned upside down. Lost Cheerios lurk around every corner. Very often, I find myself yelling warnings unheeded – essentially talking to myself – about not climbing the tree any higher or not kissing the E. coli-covered turtle. Many nights I sleep upright, fearing my dynamic duo might search for pirate treasure again and make off with Benadryl or Rolaids. Ironically, Nanny and I do share something. A loss of control.
That afternoon, I studied Nanny’s face, full of lost experience – the staring eyes, the pitchfork-shaped wrinkle creeping down her left cheek; the uncharacteristic chin hairs, begging to be plucked. I focused on Nanny’s lips, willing them to say my name. Wasn’t I, her only granddaughter, important enough to break through the haze? Had I not made a lasting impression? Apparently not. Nothing had. Nanny Hester was lost in semi-consciousness.
In years past, my visits with Nanny involved sermons disguised as small talk. Nanny would counsel while performing two separate tasks at once – such as kneading dough while heckling game show contestants or air-drying her pedicure while mopping the porch. But the day that my multi-tasking grandmother began losing her train of thought, those pep talks were history. And I really needed one now.
There I was – sleep-deprived, barely rational, and desperate for her advice – but Nanny wasn’t present to offer it. Staring into Nanny’s useless eyes, I shrugged, and decided to go for it anyway. Pretending that my Nanny of the past was listening intently, I confessed my maternal shortcomings.
At first, spilling the beans to her felt unnatural – like chatting up a headstone. But by the time visiting hours were over, I had unloaded just about everything. Like the time I screamed at a baby monitor during my wailing newborn’s 72-hour mutiny. Or the time I found my sunglasses in the freezer and, later, a dirty diaper in the hamper.
There I sat, in an old folks’ home whose occupants were seasoned enough to have made their share of mistakes. Unlike me, they’d learned not to panic, that no permanent damage had been done. At least, not until they’d forgotten everything, like Nanny. Despite Nanny’s lack of empathy, I was relieved — and more relaxed than ever.
When I arrived home, my oldest daughter greeted me, dressed in fairy wings, cat ears, and a hobo mustache. Her outstretched hands were covered with marker and her tongue was stained with Hawaiian Punch. “Daddy said you went to see Annie Hester.” The pronunciation always made me laugh. I refused to correct it.
“Show me her happy picture, Mommy. In the ketchup.”
“Ketchup” meant the Heinz wholesale box I dragged from the hall closet from time to time. After a few minutes of plundering through heirloom trinkets and photos, I spotted it. The happy picture: a 70-year-old, black and white 10×12 of Nanny and Papa Hester in their heyday. Papa was wearing his Navy uniform. Nanny, a teenager with long hair and full lips, leaned against him. Arms crossed before her, displaying a Rosie the Riveter expression: she appeared to dare anyone to try snatching her skinny man. What struck me most beneath that dusty glass were Nanny’s eyes full of anticipation. I wanted to reach into the picture and warn this precocious girl, a girl destined to forget.
Cling to every milestone, Elvie. Breathe in every moment. Do not take for granted, for one second, your marriage and family. Bask in the love and humor and hold on to your insatiable lust for life.
I glanced over at the lopsided Tinkerbelle seated next to me as she studied the faces of her great-grandparents; one precocious female staring at another.
That evening, after my daughters had been coaxed to bed with the usual traditions and bribery — story time, a stuffed cheetah, a cup of water on the nightstand, and three pacifiers for my shot-putting baby — I dug further into my snapshot archives.
Me, with a Dorothy Hammill haircut and a gray kitten.
Me, with scabby knees and a mouthful of braces.
Me, hanging upside-down from my freshman loft.
Me, in a wedding gown, aiming my armpits toward a fan.
Me, in a bed surrounded by pink balloons, wincing at hospital meatloaf.
I placed my photos alongside the one of Nanny and Papa. Would I lose myself like Nanny? I thought about what I’d crammed into my thirty-five-year-old brain: radio songs, sleep away camps, college exam material, my husband’s brain tumor diagnosis, my dead child. I thought about my daughters’ first accomplishments: uttering “da da” and “ma ma,” taking independent steps, and grimacing after a pickle. Each milestone was both euphoric and fleeting. Inevitably, the tiny mouth would grow weary of the new sound, or the chubby legs would come crashing down after step three, or the pickle dribble would be wiped clean.
Seeing my own fleeting moments captured, something in me clicked. Somewhere between wife and mother, I had forgotten myself. One minute, my husband and I were building a house, working long hours, and staying up late with Riesling and movie rentals. The next minute, we were servicing Diaper Genies and breast pumps, speeding to the ER every other holiday, and scheduling rendezvous sessions according to Cartoon Network’s lineup. I thought, this is madness. A competent Nanny Hester might second that.
Where did Heather Philpot go? Where am I?
Whatever happened to that wise-cracking girl with a religious devotion to Abs of Steel workouts? Where was that consummate goofball, the one who impersonated gigolo creeps and hometown rednecks to a fault? I was lost in my own semi-consciousness. In fact, the only time I ever broke from zombie mode was to wrestle with tangled carts at Costco. Had I, like Nanny, simply vanished? Heather Philpot needed rescuing.
The next day I began a journal. Rushing to make my mark on Earth, I scribbled feverishly. Documenting everything I didn’t want forgotten, I wanted to shout, “I am here.” I didn’t expect to “rule the world” like Madonna. Nor did I expect to rally it, like Oprah. I simply wanted to leave something behind for a rainy day. So from then on, my kids’ naptime became my memory time.
Putting pen to paper, I revisited my childhood home, with its shag carpets and wood panels. Taking time to reminisce about old friends allowed me to hear distinctly their cracking voices and name-burping antics. I reopened old wounds – from tragic deaths of relatives to middle school ostracism. When I couldn’t think of anything to write about, I just stuck to the mundane: the weather, what I had for breakfast, the toilet I just scrubbed.
More often than not, I discussed my fears about failing as a mother – a common theme throughout my dog-eared notebook. It seemed I was always screwing things up. Like the time I cursed in the car, inadvertently teaching my preschooler slang from the driver’s seat. Or the time I publicly humiliated her for dumping waffle fries into a stranger’s laptop case (and later, praying fervently that I hadn’t scarred her for life). By writing, I could beat myself up and then cut myself some slack. On thin sheets of recycled paper, I was able to forgive myself.
I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. And I discovered the best place for inspiration: my evening shower. After my husband arrived home around eight, I’d relinquish the party animals and scramble for seclusion. Lathering my head in rosemary-mint bliss, the ideas flowed. Impulsively, I’d think, “I’ve gotta write this down…now!” My hair twisted in a towel, I would bolt for my pen and paper, dodging outstretched sippy cups and little socked feet. My husband said I seemed to be memorizing song titles for a call-in contest. Writing had given me an energetic edge. I hadn’t felt this alive since the days before maternity drawstrings and childproof outlets. Journaling was as gratifying as the milestones it salvaged. My writing was sometimes smart, occasionally silly – all me.
At long last, I am here.
Granted, a lot of my journal is embarrassing, and a lot is just plain boring. So is life. But maybe someday my children will appreciate reading the essence of their mother – not always a winner, but definitely a participant. And when I begin to show signs of memory rust, maybe they’ll read it aloud. By being present and just listening, I’ll be reminded that I did play a part in this life. Ultimately, my journal represents Heather Philpot’s final impression on Earth, my own inimitable voice.
I imagine two grown ladies, the very ones I taught to walk and talk, spilling the secrets that I wouldn’t tell anyone else. About the perpetually frazzled and often comical mother who wore faded clothes with flair. Yes, the same nutcase who maneuvered her SUV through a hailstorm while belting “Old McDonald” to a sobbing rearview image. My children can relive all my crazy episodes – the mall Santas, sun poisoning, freeze tag marathons, and tantrum-alleviating Laffy Taffy. They’ll read my torment, my confidence, my helplessness, and my elation. About how it felt to live my life, as well as the crucial substance they gave it.
I’m grateful to Nanny for invoking the journaling spirit within me. I think she’d be satisfied, knowing that she saved me from obscurity when no one thought she had it in her. My writing is proof that, unlike the tragic Elvie Hester, I am living, and not just present. Journaling allows me to seize moments with my words.
On Nanny’s ninetieth birthday, my parents, my five-year-old, and I paid her a visit. My daughter made a card with a picture of Nanny sitting in her recliner under a rainbow. She drew Nanny’s hand resting on a belly vibrating with lightning bolts. All four of us sang “Happy Birthday,” while the residents stared at us like we’d lost our minds. We then took turns screaming wishes into her good ear. My father fed Nanny ice cream from a kiddy cup. Stroking my daughter’s long hair, my Nanny let out a faint cackle, mistaking her for a younger me.
After that day, I made a point of sharing memories of Nanny. I grabbed moments when my children couldn’t run off or tune me out. For example, during bath time, as my preschooler groomed soapsud beards and rescued drowning mermaids, I recounted tales of blue ribbon pie crusts, Nanny’s six stray cats named “Tom,” and those bizarre and meticulously steam-pressed windbreakers.
One night after her bath, my daughter danced around in a banana-print gown stuck to her damp back. Stopping mid-shimmy, she brought up the subject of death. I froze, but not for long. Tugging on chimpanzee slippers, she began to figure it out.
“When Daddy dies, he can talk to Elvis.”
“When I die, will I still have to take naps?”
“When Annie Hester dies, can we go see her chair?”
My last visit with Nanny was brief. In the hospital with a broken hip, tears streamed down her face as she repeatedly rubbed her side. Nanny seemed broken.
My daughter created another card: a picture of Nanny sitting in her lap in the recliner. She’d drawn a band-aid over Nanny’s entire leg. I sat at the foot of the bed holding my toddler, who batted a “Get Well” balloon tied to the footboard.
I studied Nanny’s expressionless face, quivering hands, and the one uncontrolled, tapping foot. I thought about the many decades she’d experienced – chatting, laughing, recognizing, and feeling. Elvie Hester didn’t know who she was anymore. But I did. She’s that unforgettable spirit – with rose lipstick, a house in the woods, and that unmistakable laugh echoing in my head. I can still picture Nanny, clear as day – her head tossed back, her eyes dancing, and that necessary hand holding down a jiggling belly – as she explodes in uproarious amusement about some silly thing I’ve done.
Across Nanny’s room, five Teleflora deliveries and a mug of soaking dentures decorated the window ledge. My five-year-old walked over and leaned the Get Well card against the mug. Tiptoeing to Nanny’s bedside, she draped a pigtail across Nanny’s fingers.
Nanny’s hand, black and blue from her fall, reflexively quivered.
My daughter gasped.
“Mommy . . . she remembers!”
I smiled through tears, recognizing this as one of those moments I should capture in writing. I avoided the instinct, realizing I could set it aside for later, say, after that ubiquitous shower or during naptime. Instead, I just seized this second by breathing it in and truly living it out. For once, I was heeding my own warning, living Nanny’s example. Maybe we’ll all talk to Elvis one day; but until that moment arrives, I am here. And I’m going to push my pen until my mark on Earth is carved deep enough.