By Vicki Brown
My husband’s grandmother, Nettie, had just started showing signs of dementia when we were newlyweds.
Nettie lived with my in-laws, and had done so for most of their married life, which caused no end of problems in the marriage. But my mother-in-law, Eunice, was a wonderful woman and felt it her duty to take care of her mother.
Nettie was a real character. She was born in 1901, and between you and me, I think she was a Flapper in the 1920s. It was hinted at that she was wild in her youth. She married, and when he died, she celebrated…with a vengeance. She remarried, and life went on. In the 1940s she drove a bus in Charleston, and on one miserable day, she accidentally ran over a child who darted out in front of the bus, and killed him. She never got over it.
After that episode, she and her husband traveled to Sumter and moved in with Eunice’s entire family; six adults and three children living in a 950 square foot house with three tiny bedrooms and one bath. They stayed on the porch a lot.
Eunice and her husband, Leonard, owned a small mom and pop store that sold nasty stuff like hog’s head cheese, liver puddin’ and bologna by the slice to nearby workers for lunch. They also sold the good stuff, like candy, soda and canned goods. Nettie and Eunice ran the store while Leonard worked at the Sumter coffee company. My husband is a diabetic now, and it’s probably because his grandmother would pour sweetened condensed milk in a bowl and give him loaf bread to dip in it after school.
I became acquainted with the family in the 1970s after they had sold the store and moved to another house. Leonard drove a wholesale truck then that sold a variety of things to little mom and pop stores throughout Sumter County. Eunice was working as a rural postal carrier, and Nettie was retired and living at home.
We all began to notice problems with Nettie after a while; she would forget to cut off the stove and burn food. Eunice would have to cut off the stove at the switchbox so Nettie wouldn’t burn the house down. One day, Nettie even called my dad, the pastor of the church they attended, and told him that her great-granddaughter had been killed in a car wreck.
My father, knowing the family would be devastated by this tragedy, quickly drove over to their home to comfort the family. Eunice met him at the door, smiling brightly, which caused my dad to be somewhat confused.
“I am here because of Jenny’s death. How can I help?” my dad asked. “What?” said Eunice. “Jenny isn’t dead…I just talked to her.”
We all began to figure out that Nettie had imagined it. It was funny, yet sad, and we were all trying to come to grips with the situation.
Nettie had an old Ford Fairlane and would drive to pick up friends her age and take them to church. She began to drive like a bat out of Hell, and would forget where her friends lived, so either she forgot to pick them up, or she would drive home, park the car, and go in the house… with her friends still in the car. It was so funny, but finally, Eunice took away her car keys. That really made her mad, and she used some colorful language, but the worst was yet to come.
One summer day, Nettie’s great grandsons, about 10 years old, came to visit. Now, Nettie’s favorite show on TV was World Wide Wrestling. She never missed a wrestling show on the huge cabinet TV console. She loved Rick Flare. That particular day, the two great grandsons came in the house and ran to the TV. They changed the channel and sat back to watch their show.
I looked over at Nettie and saw her confusion. Her wrestling show was gone, and it had something to do with those kids sitting in front of the TV.
She reached next to her rocker and grabbed her heavy, steel, clawfoot walking cane, and before I could even shout a warning, she raised it up over her head preparing to whack my nephews on the back of their heads. Thankfully, my husband walked in at that moment and quickly reached out, catching the cane before it hit the boys. Shocked, I was frozen in my seat. This was wrestling, live, and right there in the living room. I guess she thought she was Rick Flare. That wasn’t so funny.
But minutes later, her son, who was in his late 60’s, came in the room. Nettie looked up at him and said, “David, go over there and sit with your wife.” We all looked around…David’s wife was dead. What in the world was she talking about? But then I saw that Nettie was pointing at me!
I said, “No, grandma, I’m not married to your son David, I am married to your grandson.”
“No, you aren’t,” she said. Okay. What do you say to that? But I was horribly embarrassed when old, gray haired, roly-poly David smirked and grinned, and for the rest of his life, he called me “wife”.
For several years, Nettie grew worse…and so did her language and behavior. While it was often sad, sometimes it was downright funny. Maybe God gives us those funny moments to counter the deep sadness caused by dementia.
It’s hard to be the caretaker. I know, I saw my mother-in-law deal with it, and I helped babysit Nettie from time to time when Eunice needed a break.
Make time for friends dealing with this tragedy in their lives. Be a listening ear or even a sitter. Let them know you are thinking about them and understand what they are going through. It could easily be you in that situation.
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