Sunday, May 02, 2004

Grace was her nature
I never really knew her. She knew me though, in several different aspects. I was “that girl” her son went out with. I was the strange guest she needed to treat politely. I was the mother who performed the tasks to keep a household running. I was a source of sweets and treats, an excuse for yet another cup of coffee. At one time I was “the nice lady with the hat and the flowers”. Another time I was “she who brought the white hair.” But most of all I was the maid.

Everybody told me what a wonderful woman she was. Daughter of a doctor, from the times when being a doctor was really something, she was well spoken, educated, intelligent, interested and very, very considerate. Since I loved these traits in her son I was looking for what they told me about her. And once in a while I would see a glimpse of this woman, the competent social worker, the warm friend, the concerned citizen of the world. Those were the moments when she saw me as a stranger, without some lingering sense that she should know me. But long before we met her past had started unravelling like a knitting from her most recent memories and backwards.

At first they all protected her and refused to see that she was sick. She was herself, only more so, more fuzzy, more endearingly impractical, she asked her polite questions a few times more than normal. When I said that something was wrong I was told to shut up, stop being so critical, be happy I had such a darling mother-in-law.

The first years I was unhappy, and felt that I was the one who couldn’t make enough of an impression on her. Then, one visit, she started ranting about how I didn’t do enough work. She had decided who I was. You see, I speak the way their maids had always done – a west-coast dialect. So much more reliable workers, the girls from the west-coast; strong, thrifty and efficient. Her mother always had a maid speaking somewhat like me.

Sociolects guided her understanding of the world as she lost more and more of her memory. By the time her softly west-Oslo speaking son became “that very nice young man”, I had resigned to my role of unskilled labour. I would clean, cook and look after the children. One Christmas I washed her hair, and she obeyed me like a child, the way she had obeyed the maids and nurses of her childhood. There was nothing else I could do for her, and she felt safe with me that way. It confused her when I sat down and had dinner with them, but as I acted as nurse for the children at those occasions, she translated me into some kind of nanny.

I could not help her family into an equally clearly defined space in her world. Her loving, doting husband became “that nice old man”. She thought her son was my son, my “boy”, and cried when in a clear moment she realised that he was hers. My children mainly remember that she stole their candy. At least they were too small to realise their grandmother forgot them.

I never knew the woman her family grieved. But having lost everything, she was still magnificent, dignified. In the end she had no real language, only fragments: “Oh, really? No! What is…? MmmHmm? Yes? Is that so?” This was her entire vocabulary, and she was still able to charm strangers, acting the perfect lady. I can’t even do that with my brain at full speed and my well-mannered husband as a coach. When everything else was lost, grace was her true nature.

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