When I was 23, and the possibility of having children still seemed distant and terrifying, my grandmother asked me to consider the impossible. We were polishing buttons at the kitchen counter. “Johanna,” she said, “you’re such a nice girl. Wouldn’t you like to be my niece?”
She had advanced Alzheimer’s. I was in Spokane helping my mom and aunt and grandfather sift through the beautiful, collectible clutter of her life—silver tea sets, jacquard napkins, Lennox china, and a lifetime supply of Estee Lauder makeup. She seemed to know each of us was family without being able to place us exactly.
“I’d love to, Grammy, but that’d be a little odd,” I laughed. “I’m already your granddaughter.”
She scrunched her nose in polite distaste. “Oh,” she said. “Well. We’ll leave those kinds of messes to the Mormons, won’t we?” She smiled and went on shining buttons. It was the closest she’d ever come to acknowledging the existence of sex in my presence.
Despite its ravages, Alzheimer’s had helped my grandmother lose some of the primness that sometimes made her seem cold. It made her sadder, but also at times both more affectionate and funnier than she’d ever been. Before the disease struck, I had never seen her hold hands with my grandfather. But now every night after dinner they would sit on the couch, hands clasped, holding tight to one another. He was the only person she never seemed to lose in the fog; he was Stan long after the rest of us had become interchangeable with the distant past. You could see how much he wished he could save her from what was happening. But there was also quiet at the center of his grief. He was allowed, finally, to kiss her on the lips when other people were looking.
In the 10 years since my grandmother’s death, my grandfather has remained in stubborn good health. “The big one’s coming,” he jokes, patting his heart, and pointing to the sky. At 92, in his fedora and golf jacket, he is remarkably good at enjoying life in discrete moments. He especially loves eating out, ordering gin cocktails and steak. After the first drink, he expertly flashes winks at the waitress, praises the bartender from across the room. When something is especially funny, his laughter overtakes him until he is wheezing. He guffaws silently and tears roll down his face.
He marvels at life, even more now than when he was young. He will stand on a rocky beach and wonder aloud how big the ocean really is, how life can survive in the deep, how many millions of years old the rocks are, and where they came from deep inside the Earth. He will look up at the stars and say, “My god, aren’t they beautiful?” Being in his presence is like turning up the volume on life’s big questions.
But he’s mostly ready for it to be over. His wife, his friends, and all his things are gone; he’s already given everything away. I have my grandmother’s rings, the pine table from the Idaho farmhouse where she grew up, their wedding china. My cousins have divvied up his coin collection, his history books. My mother took the family objects, like a small pocket Bible he carried through World War II, slightly too large for the handmade wooden box it lives in. His grandmother made the box; his father gave him the Bible.
Most days are relentlessly the same for him: He wakes, he walks, he eats, he endures the infirmity around him. He loves it when we call, but doesn’t like to talk for long. “You’re busy people,” he says, “I don’t like to interrupt.” A man who spent his whole life serving out a responsibility to others (his country, his company, his family) has no one to care for anymore.
Two years ago it hit me suddenly, how much I would regret it if he never got to meet his great-grandchild, if I never got to see him hold my infant in his arms. At the holidays, he’d joke about the big one and mime his need for “life support,” a stiff vodka soda. I’d cut him a lime and point to my belly or my husband and say, “Hold your horses, grandpa. We’re working on it.” He’d look at me like he looked at my grandmother those last few years, with such love it was almost unbearable.
I miscarried so early that we hadn’t yet told him I was pregnant. Driving downtown a few days after it happened, on my third or fourth crying jag of the morning, I noticed for the first time a hulking stone building with a copper spire and stained glass. I had rarely ever been inside a church without my grandmother. Since her death, she had remained a quiet, distant presence in my life. But reading the familiar word, Presbyterian, she suddenly, viscerally, came to me. In the sanctuary, it was dark, cool and silent—the opposite of how I felt, like a bird flapping frantically inside a cage, in rebellion against a condition that can’t be escaped. On the first pew there was a Bible and a box of Kleenex, as if someone knew I was coming. As soon as I sat, I felt her arthritic hand, gnarled but with impossibly soft skin, cupping my cheek, bringing me stillness. She was quiet while I cried, as she had been at the end. She seemed to know she couldn’t order chaos with speech.
When my grandfather phoned the next day, I was paralyzed. What could I say? Who could begin?
But he already knew. When I put the phone to my ear, he was crying. We didn’t say anything for a long time. I could hear him composing himself, dabbing his nose.
When he spoke, it was with great unhurriedness.
“I don’t know what an old man like me can say about something like this,” he said, and then stopped as if that might be all. But he went on. “I do know one thing. One thing I know. I know I love you.”
As soon as he hung up the phone, he booked a flight to come see us. I never would have asked him to come. Though his presence makes me calm and grateful, though I long to be close to him more often than he knows, I wouldn’t have asked a 92-year-old man to endure airports and air travel just to watch a 31-year-old woman cry for three days.
He would have come anyway, I know, but my mother told me a story that clarified his instinct to console, to be of use. Almost exactly 50 years earlier, my grandmother had a miscarriage. My mother was five or six. It was summer and they were at the lake house. Her mother was suddenly ill, and she heard the words “emergency room” whispered by her aunts. Then her father and mother were gone to the city while she stayed among the Ponderosa pines. That’s all she remembers; they never cried in front of her. My grandmother was an expert stoic.
He took me to a diner for breakfast the morning after he arrived, just the two of us. We each ordered a Bloody Mary and coffee, and we split a hash. We sat for three hours, talking about nothing and everything: Work, gardening, family gossip. Miscarriage—mine, maybe also my grandmother’s—was an island, and our conversation sailed the perimeter. But it was the first day in two weeks I hadn’t felt deeply alone; possibly the same was true for him. Finally, near the end of our meal, I told him about the church, about feeling the presence of my grandmother. “Really?” he said, sounding grateful more than disbelieving. He had the same look on his face as when he watched the stars—wonderment.
I think he sometimes worried that no one but him thought of her. I realized it was the same for me. Ten years from now, besides my husband and I, who would remember our almost-child?
After the miscarriage, my mother brought me the small Bible in the wooden box. My grandfather had kept the book in his breast pocket through World War II. He was exactly as religious as I am, which is to say not at all, but it was a talisman. He had a hat with two holes in it—one where the bullet went in, and one where it went out an inch above his head. It’s not that the book protected him from the horror of war. It didn’t. But it kept him inside the story of his family. Opening the box, running my fingers over the perfect wooden joins, feathering the tiny pages, I was inside it, too.
As we left the diner, he took my arm and said, apropos of nothing, “I’m not going anywhere.”
We developed this recipe with writer Hanna Neuschwander. She likes to use salt pork for this recipe, but we tested it with regular ol’ bacon and it tasted just dandy. If you can find good quality salt pork, take a stab at using it here; you can’t beat the salty punch it gives this dish. Sweet and savory meld together to heighten this diner standard into a revelatory plate of breakfast fare.
Grab a cutting board and dice your humble onion.
Put a cast iron skillet on medium-low heat and add the olive oil and bacon. When the fat starts to render, add the diced onion and cook on medium heat until it starts to take on a sweet smell. It should look a little looser at the edges, as if the stiff cuts of onion have been a little unbuttoned. Add the shredded sweet potato at this point and stir until mixed well. Add a bit of salt (not too much since bacon can be quite salty) and a few turns of pepper. Give it a stir, then let it cook without stirring for about 5 minutes. Give it another good toss, and let it sit on the heat untouched for a few more minutes. Add the kale and thyme, stirring a couple more times until the kale is wilted and everything looks well cooked, but still bright and fresh. Season with a squeeze of lemon (meyer lemon really stands out in this dish), and salt & pepper to taste. Savor with delight and gratitude.