When I was a young child, my parents were so horrified by the problematic behavior of my grandmother that I was seldom taken to visit her. The ancient woman lived alone in a cramped, unspeakably dirty mobile home, from which she was eventually removed. My parents saw to it that her life ended in a nice nursing facility.
I still remember words from that final visit.
As we drove several hundred miles down the interstate in my father’s Cadillac, my mother had cautioned: “Your Grandma is getting on in years and will probably act very strange. If she says something that makes no sense, just smile and be thankful that she’s still with us. We’ve tried our best to help your Grandma but she refuses to help herself. When people get very old, they sometimes get that way.”
My mother had been so appalled by the advanced disintegration of Grandma’s home that she was determined to clean everything. The objects that it contained were in complete disarray. A deep layer of dust covered nearly every surface, from the decades old carpet to the threadbare sofa to even the cracked countertops in the kitchen. It seemed Grandma ate very little.
Covering her nose as she strode through the dusty house, my mother found the corner closet where a vacuum cleaner had been abandoned.
With watery eyes Grandma silently watched my mother’s actions. The old woman sat in a folding chair that she used in the front room. The chair faced a dirty window that overlooked a narrow bed of almost dead roses.
When the old woman noticed the vacuum cleaner, she cried out feebly: “No!”
“Why not?” asked my mother. “Don’t you think it would be much nicer if your home was clean?”
“Don’t do it! Don’t!” Grandma cried, moving ineffectually in her chair, as if she were desperate to leap from it.
“Now Mom, what’s the matter with you? You used to keep a very clean house. Remember when sister and I would tramp dirt in from the Miller’s pond? You’d make us take off our shoes and mop up all the mud we tracked in.”
“It’s your father! Don’t touch him!”
“My father? What on Earth are you talking about? We were all at his funeral last year. You remember that.”
“Don’t do it!”
“But I’m just going to run the vacuum for a minute. It’s nothing but dust, Mom, you know that.”
“Dust is everything!” Grandma protested strangely.
“Okay, now you’re being unreasonable. It’s nothing but a layer of dust and it isn’t healthy for you to live in it. I’m going to clean your house and it’s going to be so much better that you’ll thank me when I’m done.”
“No I won’t!” the disconsolate voice cried. “The dust is your father. It’s your grandmother and grandfather. It’s the dead coming back. It’s everything. It’s dead leaves and dying roses.”
My mother shook her head hopelessly, laughed out loud.
“Dust is everything,” the old woman cried. “It’s your father and his dreams. It’s years gone by. How they are remembered. It’s you and your sister. It’s everything we did. It’s the mountains where we camped and the stars we looked at.”
My mother rolled her eyes and switched on the vacuum.