DATE: 05/12/2009 01:25:58 PM
My Grammy cannot be defined by Alzheimer’s disease.
Cleola Payton Williams was born in 1920 in a small town in Arkansas. She was raised by two loving, hard-working parents. She was the oldest of three children, a brother G.W. and a sister Mary Marie. The family lived by meager means, but was taught the value of hard work.
Cleola married young and had her first son, my father, when she was only twenty years old. Her husband Paul was a smart man and he worked in bookkeeping and accounting. However, while still quite young he contracted TB so Cleola had to look after their growing family of two boys. She became a “working mom”, one of the first in our family. She worked hard to provide for her boys while my grandfather was ill. The illness kept him confined and quarantined for many years until his death when my father was a young teenager. Cleola taught her boys the value of hard work and that has been something that has been passed down generation after generation in my family.
Eventually, Cleola met Billy Padgett. He was ten years younger than her (she was only 36 years old and he was 26 years old). Back in the day, I’m sure it was a bit scandalous, but they fell in love. Not wanting to rush things, they “dated” for many years. It was not until 1970 when my parents were expecting me that Cleola and Bill married. And while it is unfortunate that I never knew my grandfather Paul, Bill has been my one and only grandpa “Pa” my whole life.
Grammy (Cleola) and Pa were good grandparents. They lived fairly close so we got to spend holidays with them and see them some in between. Grammy was strict. She liked things a certain way and definitely did not want my sister and I touching all her things. She used to invite us to spend the night but we had to follow strict rules on eating meals, sleeping, etc. It was all worth it though because we found her fascinating. She was quite pretty and always had her hair and makeup done “just so”. There was never a hair out of place. She was not the kind of grandma that would hug and kiss us, but we knew she loved us by the way she cared for us.
I’m not sure when we realized that Grammy was becoming forgetful. It was so gradual. Grammy and Pa retired and moved to Gassville, Arkansas around 1995. That was the year I was married. We didn’t see them as much anymore, but when we visited it was becoming clear that Grammy would repeat the same story many times during one conversation. Or, she would ask the same question over and over. It didn’t worry us too much though because she was in her late seventies and we figured this was normal aging. Soon, it was evident that she was demonstrating different quirks. She began collecting coffee mugs. This would not be concerning but she eventually had them all over her kitchen counter in stacks. The Grammy I knew would have never done that. I often joke that I get my “germphobia” from her. So, to see her not worrying about a little dust and dirt collecting on her counter was like a red flag waving for me. She also began to be confused about people- who we were, where we were. And, she began to lose track of time.
Alzheimer’s is one of those diseases that everyone deals with differently. We tried a little humor mixed with a little frustration. Over the years, I’ve personally learned to just ignore that she may not know who I am or who my children are. For a long time, she thought my little girl was me at that age. That’s ok. Being with Grammy now is like being with a toddler. You have to watch her. Explain things to her again and again. Take care of her. But, that’s ok too. For we all know one thing….Alzheimer’s does not define Grammy. Her legacy is in our faces- my father, me, my children. We see her in us every day. I see her icy blue eyes when I look in my father’s eyes. I see her right now as I look down at my hands on the keyboard. They look just like hers. And, the tears that are streaming down my cheeks are not for the Grammy I do not have anymore, but tears because she will never make another new memory of feeling loved and wanted and needed.
Alzheimer’s may have stolen her memory like a thief in the night, but it cannot steal our lovely memories of Grammy. We love you Grammy.
For more information on Alzheimers, go to the Alzheimer’s Association. There they have a link to the new HBO special on Alzheimer’s.