A Meeting with Myrna Byrd
Holly Van Leuven
“She’s bad, Pam,” my father warns me as we walk through the parking lot of Golden Manor.
“Worse than the last time I saw her?”
“Yeah. She’ll ask you the same question ten times in ten minutes. It’s always the same: ‘Who put me here?’ ‘Do you work?’ Her short-term memory is officially gone. I think I’m the youngest one she remembers.” He shakes his head and the automatic doors of the facility open. Nonny sits in a green recliner in the foyer, staring far beyond her surroundings.
I look upon my grandmother and see the world I yearn for in her eyes; she looks upon me and sees a stranger. Her gaze shifts right to my father. I watch a subtle contraction of recognition bridge the skin between her blue eyes as they find their perfect match resting in his face. Behind us the sliding glass doors shut, locking us into a room full of invalids.
“’Lo, Pete,” my grandmother says.
“How are you today, ma?” he asks, approaching the place where she sits. Even after watching his mother’s mental health deteriorate for two years, he hasn’t learned that this is a bad question.
Her reply is the same as always. “As all right as I can be here. I’ll be better when I get home. Who put me here?”
“The doctor, ma.”
“Why, what’s wrong with me?”
“You can’t remember things, ma.” This is my father’s standard answer.
“Oh, go on!” She crosses her thin legs and fidgets in her recliner. This is Nonny’s standard response: denial. Usually, my father would continue his attempt to rationalize with my grandmother, but today he has a diversion to supply her with: I am with him. Just days ago, I packed up my dorm and headed home, leaving my freshman year of college behind me. I have spent the last 8 months tip-toeing around my fellow classmates who think throwing ping pong balls into cups of beer and forging polyamorous relationships signify maturity. I need the gravity I can only find around Nonny, who is permanently fixed in her bygone era. I prefer her insanity to the insanity I am surrounded by among my peers. Nonny is my best connection to all I value.
“Don’t you remember my little girl, ma? Don’t you remember Pamela?”
I rest a hand against the back of her recliner and lean down, burying my lips into her ivory curls. The syrupy scent of her pomade surges up my nostrils and I am transported to a golden age that I can only experience vicariously, an age of the deep-throated crowing of jazz trumpets and glass-beaded gowns, an age that only she remembers.
“You’re not a little girl anymore!” The woman who has supposedly lost her mind recognizes what my father can’t, and she never misses an opportunity to mask her forgetfulness or to correct her son. I know Nonny recognizes me as one of her grandchildren by the way she looks between my father and me, but I don’t think she knows who I am. She prefers to ignore my father’s question than to embarrass herself.
“Pamela just finished her first year of college,” he says.
“Ooh!” Her heirloom eyes grow even wider. “Where do you go to college?”
“Sarah Lawrence, in New York.”
“Ooh! Well, lots o’ luck to you,” she says, grabbing my hand. “What do you study in school?”
“Well, don’t write about me!” Her head bounces playfully. I tighten my hold on her silky hand.
“Do you work?” With her short term memory vanishing rapidly, bygone eras have shattered the confines of retrospection and expanded into that place in Nonny’s mind where more recent memories should dwell. Nonny grew up in the Depression when work was hard to come by. Though I doubt she will remember the roast beef I smell cooking an hour after it’s served, I have no doubt that she can remember every meal she went without over 70 years ago. Since her most vivid memories are those from long ago, Nonny has become obsessed with our family’s employment status.
“I work in the library at school,” I reply. I don’t tell her I work on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings. I do it so I never have to listen to electronic music or participate in other rituals my peers adore and I detest. When I have to be stacking books at 8 A.M., I have the perfect excuse from partying and from feeling more out of place than I usually do.
“I worked all my life,” she insists, oblivious to the implications of my employment. “We had a farm in New Jersey. I used to sit in a stand on the side of the road and sell tomatoes for my father. But I ran away once. I was gone a whole two years. Hitch-hiked all the way to Hollywood to be a movie star.”
Inside I rejoice. It doesn’t bother me that she can’t recognize me as her granddaughter. Not as long as she remembers she was Myrna Byrd. Still holding onto Nonny’s hand, I expect her to jump back into the world that time forgot. Her stories never vary and they never disappoint either of us. Through them, Nonny escapes the monotony of waking up frightened and confused, only to wander around the green-walled personal care center day after day. Her constant barrage of ‘Where am I? Who put me here?’ ceases for a while. And me? I would rather retreat into her world of decorum and diligence. I feel I would fit in more with girls who wore hats to church every Sunday. I’d rather spend Saturday nights drinking cream soda and listening to the sweet trill of the orchestras on Wallace Beery’s radio show. It must be the way I grew up. Not that I was forbidden to wear pants as a child or that I was forced to listen to big band music, but I was raised by children of the ‘40s and ‘50s. My parents are the same age as most of my classmates’ grandparents. Since I can find no specific reason why I am the way I am, I lay responsibility for my mindset on the implicit influence of parenthood. It’s something I’ll never be sure about. Kind of like how Nonny can’t figure out how she ever ended up in such a strange place as Golden Manor.
I don’t speak much among my peers, but within these sanitized walls I am full of the gab. A half-hour with Nonny revitalizes me after months of solitude. A pudgy assistant creeps upon our reunion; he dashes my hope for lengthy discourse.
“Time for lunch, Gladys,” he says. Nonny rises from her recliner with ease and we all head to the dining area, but I won’t leave behind our preempted discussion.
“That wasn’t your name in Hollywood, was it?” I ask even though I know the answer.
“Not for long,” Nonny replies. We clear the archway and the assistant ushers us to a private table, set away from the other vestiges of the Greatest Generation in various stages of decay. “You can’t keep a name like Gladys Ebersbach in Hollywood. That’s what they told me at Paramount. ‘We love ya,’ they said. ‘You sing like a bird. But that name’s gotta go.’ So their musical director named me Myrna Byrd.”
“Just don’t eat like a bird,” my father says. I rue another innocent interruption to my planned dialogue, but decide to leave it be. His tough hands pull the chair out for Nonny and then push it back until the maroon tablecloth grazes her legs. We sit down beside her.
“I’m going to get fat here with the way they feed me,” she says. The attendant hovers near her with a casserole dish full of roast beef and gravy. He pierces two pieces with ease and garnishes my grandmother’s plate with them.
“That’s enough,” she says as the prongs retreat back to the serving dish, ready to strike again.
“You can eat more than that, Gladys,” he replies, laying another slice across her dish. She grumbles at him all the while.
“Yea, well the dogs around here will eat good tonight,” Nonny challenges him as he returns to scoop mashed potatoes onto her plate. He only smiles at her before moving to the next table.
Not everyone has been so patient with her. Since my grandmother was diagnosed two years ago, she has bounced from home to home. In the beginning, her doctors were unwilling to place her anywhere because of her perfect physical condition. But she soon proved too confused to stay in her own house. She began exhibiting Alzheimer’s the way most other people do; she continually asked for her mother, who died 40 years before. Her progression since then has been entirely typical. She started putting newspapers in the oven in an anachronistic attempt to heat her home. After this, she was on the road like in the good old days, only instead of exploring California’s motion picture studios she hit just about every personal care home on Pennsylvania’s map. And unlike the good old days, Nonny would never be able to go home again -- she had grown too unwell to live alone.
Putting her in a personal care home seemed like the best option, until it became apparent that traditional personal care homes could not care for her properly. Nonny’s body -- with the exception of her baffled brain -- still functioned perfectly. This resulted in multiple break-out attempts; Nonny was convinced she could escape her emerging illness if she fled to the sanctity of her childhood home, which had been demolished in the ‘70s. This in turn forced staff members to conduct just as many rescue efforts, during which the employees weathered plenty of spirited words pelted from my grandmother’s always–glowing lips. They wouldn’t keep her long after an escape. Personal care assistants are paid to slop out food and fluff pillows. They’ll begrudgingly respond with high-pitched voices to the annoying questions residents ask them when they sit at the front desk and try to read People. But none of them will chase escapees around town for $8 an hour, and no personal care home wants the liability of an old woman on the run. It seemed as if no one in the area could handle Nonny. But then in the midst of my spring semester, the only personal care facility in the area with a locked ward specifically for Alzheimer’s patients called my father. A space had become available and Nonny was next on the waiting list.
Looking around Golden Manor for the first time, I like the place. The potted ferns, the china, and the staff’s concern are all genuine. The bay windows allow the spring sunshine to fall on residents who are too infirm to go outside and feel its warmth for themselves. But in looking around the room I can’t help but notice the wizened woman at the next table over who picks up her mashed potatoes with her hands, or the half-dozen men and women in wheel chairs who sit hunched over their plates and can only sigh and wheeze. My heart breaks for them, but it breaks for my grandmother, too. She doesn’t fit in. Just like the teenage girl who acknowledges Fred Astaire as her favorite singer among people her own age.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” I turn to my Nonny and see her waggling her eyebrows at me, breaking my pensiveness. I chuckle.
“No,” I say.
“What? A pretty girl like you? Why not?”
Because boys today don’t like prudes. Because boys don’t borrow their fathers’ cars to swing by your front door with a corsage to escort you to the dance hall, sharing a foamy malted milk with you before having you home safely before ten. Because I cannot resign myself to any of this, but I’d rather keep my own impossible standards anyway. But how can I tell her this?
“Because I don’t want one,” I settle on.
She wipes her mouth against her napkin before letting it fall with a flourish to the table. “Don’t worry about it,” she tells me. “Boyfriends are easy enough to get but hard to get rid of.” Her simple declaration touches me strangely. It makes my agitated thoughts and flushed cheeks dissipate. My problem of fitting in doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore when it’s illuminated by the flippancy of a woman who has seen and done so much in her many years. We both end up laughing and for a moment it seems as if nothing is wrong with either of us.
“Do you work?” The words my father told me before entering come back to me. She’ll ask you the same question ten times in ten minutes. I begrudgingly believe him now.
“I work in the library at school.”
“Where do you go to school?”
I answer all her questions as if they were never asked before. I should be annoyed, but I can’t be. No matter how much I would love to escape my problems through Nonny, she won’t let me. I must face my own challenges as she faced hers. Her constant interrogation forces me to acknowledge and accept my obligations to the present.
“Which one are you?” It’s the closest she comes to admitting that she can’t remember me.
“I’m Pete’s daughter. I’m Pamela.” My answer helps Nonny, and it helps me too.
“Are you the baby?”
“Yes,” I reply.
“I was the baby, too. I had 4 sisters and 4 brothers. I was supposed to be born in July but I came in June. They said I’d never make it. Now I’m the only one left.”
The attendant comes back again, putting a big square of brownie in front of Nonny. Her complaint is of a different sort this time. “Hey you, where’s the icing on this cake?” She demands after he has turned away. Her comedic timing is still perfect.
“Why did you come back from Hollywood, Nonny?” I ask.
“Oh, my father needed my help on the farm -- or so he said. It really was a lot of hard work, you know. I danced six days a week. My feet were always bleeding. So one day I hopped in the Chrysler Royal I had bought and figured I’d find my way home. I did what I had to do for my family, and I just wanted to be with them. I had two big bags of silver dollars hidden in the trunk to take them. Boy, were they happy to see me!”
The attendant returns a final time to clear away the plates after the brownie has vanished and Nonny regresses again, asking me her standard questions.
I have a beautiful record of Fred Astaire and the Johnny Green Orchestra at home. It’s from 1937. I listen to it every chance I get for solace, but it’s a bit scratched up. It repeats in spots, but how could I ever throw it out? I always oblige it; I listen to the jarring notes it sticks on just to hear strains of the original song when clarity breaks through. I try hard to commit them to memory for the time when my record gets tired and decides to play no more. And so I oblige Nonny. I tell her about Sarah Lawrence and writing, about the job in the library. I swear I don’t have a boyfriend, always giving my words the exact same inflections. I am still smiling the fifth time she entreats me not to write about her, but my father’s dwindling patience is shot.
“You ready, Pam?” He asks.
“If you are,” I reply. I expected him to understand about old records.
My grandmother’s eyebrows leap nearly to her hairline. “Going so soon?”
“Yeah,” my father says, “I have some stuff to do around the house.” Nonny follows us to the glass doors we entered by. My father kisses her and I do likewise. She doesn’t try to escape. It almost saddens me to know that some of that fire within her heart has been tempered.
“Come see me again,” Nonny says, as if admitting her powerlessness. “I love you.” She might not remember anything I have said or done in the past half hour, but it comforts me to know that, somehow, she is able to remember the way I made her feel. I tell her I love her, too.
I give her another peck as my father enters the security code in the keypad that will unlock the door. The glass doors release their lips as I pull back from Nonny. In a moment, I am once again in the rumbling world. I glance a final time to where my Nonny stands on the inside of the panes. I take a good look at her face. All at once I see my father’s round head, my cousins’ high cheekbones. My aunts’ dimples and my uncles’ precipitous noses. I can see no feature of mine in her.
How silly of me. My dark eyes and towering frame may not have come from my grandmother, but what about my heart? My blemished skin can never match her silky complexion, but can’t I sing the warbling melancholy lyrics of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” with her, the song she remembers now the best? Can’t she talk about the first time she saw Clark Gable and Joan Crawford at the picture shows and find an interested audience in me? Can’t she fret about feeling lost and confused, remembering one era and somehow living in another; and, can’t I, on some strange level, quietly commiserate with her? It’s getting harder to do so, though. It seems every time I see Nonny, she gets a little worse. I feel guilty, because every time I see her, I get a little better. I always walk away from Nonny with a little more of her obstinacy: obstinacy to renounce my beliefs, my tastes, my identity. In this way, she will fade away and I will strengthen. Uncertainty and fear will die, but courage will live on. There’s no time limit on my values. Nonny has proven that for me. After all of these years, they are the foundation for her best memories. They console her now that everyone else has somehow failed to make her happy. I, too, will be my own source of happiness. I’ll stroll proudly to the library on weekend mornings, singing Fred Astaire all the way. No, no, they can’t take that away from me.