I had been staring at the picture above. It’s my laptop screen saver – the picture of the man and woman, my Great Nan and Grandad, on a caravan holiday. I was really looking at it, not just passively ignoring it as we tend to do with things repeatedly seen. ‘God, my grandad looks so suave’, I thought. Sure of himself, but humble, he looks as much in love with my diva, sassy Nanny Ethel as he still is today, even if he doesn’t remember her like he used to.
When my grandad was in the early stages of his dementia he would repeat the same story again and again. He would tell it well and I could follow his words, rather than dwell on the mental degeneration that his repetition symbolised – something which I can’t do now. I remember one particular story he told me as we sat on one of those supermarket benches placed after the checkout, waiting for my auntie to get a few things.
“I was on the corner of the street and I heard the hum in the distance. I looked up and I just knew that the doodlebug was coming. What ‘appened was, they used to make this humming sound and then nothing. They would cut out and there would be silence, and then you knew you were in trouble. So I started runnin’. I was runnin’ and runnin’ to the shelter at the end of the street and the sound was growing louder and louder. I looked up and couldn’t see it any more. I couldn’t hear it either. I ran in to the shelter, and then heard the explosion roar.”
“Were you scared, Grandad?”
He laughed so gently, a soft and delicate chuckle that reached his eyes, “Yeah, we were scared alright! But it was fun and exciting. We were only young, you see. It was all a game to us.”
A few moments of silence passed and then he told the story again, and once more after that, until my auntie was done with the shopping and we could leave the bench we had been waiting on and get a milkshake in the cafe. It was on that day too that my grandad told us what Nan was wearing the first time he saw her. It was a blue dress. She was dancing with an American G.I, being thrown around and upside down, “I saw her knickers!” he laughed again. He remembered the colour of her dress, just as he remembered the street he was running down. He remembered a distant past, but kept forgetting the present.
Looking at the black and white photo of my grandparents was, and still is, a painful thing. A longing to see them like that and a longing for my grandad to have his mind back again, for him to have some kind of grip on his blurred, confused world, was quite difficult to bear. So difficult, in fact, that forcing myself to forget, seemed like the best option. Until I came across a line randomly while reading on the commute – ‘All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.’ So succinct and beautiful, the image of the couple infront of the caravan appeared. My grandad’s memory is perfect, allowing him to recall the colour of my nan’s dress and the cheeky flash of blue from her underwear as she did the jitterbug. As he approaches the end of a life, he’s also going back to its beginning, in more ways than one. He drinks out of a beaker now, as he did when he was young, I’m sure. Like a young baby, he has to be washed and spoon-fed too. But through his mind, and through his memories, he revisits songs and melodies, warm afternoons walking his grandchildren home from school, a war-time chilhood fearlessness, and the thrill of first love.
The salmon lives for many years in the ocean before swimming to the freshwater stream of its birth, spawning, and then dying. The water, with it’s own perfect memory, carries the fish there. To return shouldn’t be feared or painful. In the end, our lives are made up of the people we met, the jobs we got, the things that hurt, the people we loved and who loved us. And to revisit that, I don’t think, would be bad at all.