Erma Linde’s Eyes – One Precious Moment in the World of Alzheimer’s

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Here is another beautiful story by Holly St Jean about an interaction she had with her Grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease.  I know you will enjoy it as much as I did!

Erma Linde’s Eyes 

by: Holly St. Jean

Erma Linde, Laurel and Holly St Jean


             I missed my first semester of college – the fall semester of 1982 – because I was recuperating. At the beginning of the summer, a team of surgeons saved my life by cutting out a disease I never knew I had until it almost killed me. Now, disease free, I would live. Following a period of euphoria, I fell into a funk. I almost died, but didn’t – so no complaining, right? Wrong. My friends were away at college and I was stuck at home waiting to mend. The worry that welled-up in the eyes of my parents, I mistook for disappointment. “Oh, we had such hope,” their eyes seemed to say.

            The only eyes that didn’t judge were those of my grandmother.  I could always tell her anything, and usually did, and even when she was all there, she may have “tsked, tsked” occasionally, and offered advice, but she never judged.  And now, the onset of Alzheimer’s meant cognition clogs and memory malfunctions. Reasoning was a burden Grammy no longer carried. Knowing, had drifted from her like a cloud, and her sky blue eyes were mirrors reflecting only what she saw.

            Grammy lived in the city, a half hour’s drive from our house in the suburbs. Hers was a basement apartment one story below street level. The windows of her apartment were narrow rectangles near the ceiling.  From them, only the front lawn and the feet of passers-by could be seen.

            Aunt Paula, my mother’s sister, lived with Grammy in this cave-like dwelling, caring for her as best she could. But, this caring had become increasingly difficult. During the weeks of my hospitalization, Grammy’s mind deteriorated rapidly. Once, during the day while Paula was at work, Grammy left home; and only long after dark did she return, or rather, was she returned. While Paula, frantic and frightened, stood curbside, Grammy emerged from the police cruiser demure as a debutant. The way Paula tells it, Grammy, with her arm nestled comfortably in the crook of the officer’s, looked at her and said, “Make sure you give this nice cabbie a plentiful tip.”

            Obviously, this sort of thing could not continue. Options were researched. Medicare would cover the expense of a home health worker three days a week. And since I was around, I was expected to drive over for Grammy Watch Tuesdays and Thursdays. Finally, I was forced to do something other than wallow.

            It was high noon, my first Tuesday on duty. The cramped building entrance reeked of cigarette smoke and disinfectant. Paula had yet to have a spare apartment key made, so carefully balancing the cardboard tray of McDonald’s food and drink I’d brought I pressed the buzzer for apartment 1A.

            Five minutes. I pressed the buzzer again. Nothing. No one. I glanced at my wrist watch. Eight minutes. I leaned on the buzzer. No response. Placing the tray of food on the floor, I went outside. On hands and knees, I peered through the rectangular window into her living room, then crawled over and peered through the next window into her kitchen. Where was she? Was she okay? What if?

            My body ached.  At 98 pounds, as opposed to 130 prior to surgery, I was weak. “Wholesome,” a term my mother had often used to describe me, no longer applied.

            I returned to the tiny lobby. If Grammy had suffered another stroke, what would I do? What could I do? As I considered pushing my palm against the entire double row of buzzers, Grammy appeared.

            “Hold your horses,” she announced while jogging up the stairs. Every step she took made my heart triple in speed. No blouse. No bra. No underwear. Grammy wore pink lipstick, tan panty hose, white faux leather sandals, and a giddy grin. Gleefully, she flung open the glass door to let me in, no doubt the same way she’d have received a deranged stranger wielding a large ax. Scooping up the fast food and somehow managing to spin her around, I demanded she march down stairs.

            “Do I smell French fries?” she asked. “McDonald’s!” she shouted and clapped her hands.

            Fortunately, the apartment door was wide open. I hustled her inside, slamming the door shut with my foot. After placing the food on the kitchen table, I turned on her.

Grammy! You are naked!”

            “Now just wait one minute, you!” she said, while defiantly snapping the tummy-control elastic at her waist. “I am not! I mean . . .”  Suddenly aware, she crossed her arms over her breasts and started to cry. The girlish curls of gray hair framing her oval face bobbed upon her shoulders.

            I led her to her bedroom. A floral print dress lay on the floor in a puffy lump like a beached jelly fish.

            “See?” I said. “Paula left a nice dress for you to wear.”

            “Who?” she sniffled.



            “You know. Paula.” I said.

            “Oh her,” she said, waving a nonchalant hand as if shooing a gnat.

            She had no idea who Paula was. She had no idea who I was.

            “Right?” I said. “You know, Paula – your daughter?”

            Resenting this test, she blurted, “I know! I know! I know! Paula is. She is. . .  She is the girl who lives with me!”

            “Right,” I said.

            “Well, where is she?” Grammy panicked. “Paula? Paula!”

            “It’s okay. Paula is at work. That’s why I’m here.”


            I picked up the dress and shook it out a little. “Okay, here we go.”

            Obediently, Grammy sat on the edge of her bed. She stretched out her arms over her head and tilted forward, looking as though she might dive. Having gathered the material in the shape of an inflated pool ring, I obliged. I passed the ring over her hands, arms and head. She stood and wiggled a bit. The cloth dropped about her. I smoothed the dress to her knees. Then I stood, too; too quickly. Grammy’s smile and blue eyes floated amidst a swirl of stars. I felt faint.

            The hug that ensued was primarily for balance. I clung to her to steady myself. Grammy just hugged. She was sticky and thin. She smelled like coffee and talcum and Jean Nate, and in that instant, I was a kid again holding her hand as we walked to the A+P where she’d buy sardines for Poppa in that funny roll-top tin and a bag of neon orange marshmallow circus peanuts for the two of us “gals.” Then, the A+P vanished and so did the stars, and I hugged Grammy back, for real, desperately hoping that she hoped I wouldn’t disappear.

            Suddenly, Grammy sniffed the air like a bloodhound. “Hey Kiddo, Do I smell French fries?”

            Stepping away, on sure footing now, I nodded.

            Grammy clapped her hands. “McDonald’s!”

            Lunch that afternoon was delicious. Pretending the long skinny fries were conducting batons, Erma Linde Shafer, my grandmother, waved each one in the air and hummed waltzes. We laughed.

            “Dah, da, da, Da, Da! – Toot, Toot! Toot, Toot!” Grammy sang and nibbled, nibbled and sang.

            Grammy was seventy and almost a child again. I was seventeen and definitely an adult.

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