My grandmother never owned her own home, although she lived in a two-family house in Norwood for fifty years. In an act of generosity that would beggar today’s imagination, her landlords willed their property to my father with the proviso that my grandmother be allowed to live out her days there. He faithfully fulfilled this mission, even as she grew senile and the walls of her apartment filled with block-lettered sheets: “Your husband died in 1961… you do not live on Herkimer Street… Call John if you have questions” and so it was that a teenage girl (in turns with her mother, father, and sister) spent some minutes on the phone each week reassuring her grandmother of forgotten facts.
On one of these calls, my grandmother described some animals cavorting in her backyard under the porch light. One of them looked like a zebra; another one was certainly a giraffe. They weren’t doing anything particularly dangerous – probably eating dinner. There was no need to call the dog officer. We spent a few minutes pleasantly bickering (“Are you sure they’re not dogs?”) and I reminded her to douse the porch light before going to bed. When my parents arrived home I reported the conversation with some alarm and they reminded me that we needed to take things a day at a time (or however people said that back then, before we all got so sophisticated about twelve-step programs).
For years I’ve lived with the notion that my grandmother had been hallucinating, but quite recently a different idea occurred to me. My grandmother – like my father and myself – loved telling stories – the longer the better, to the exasperation of our listeners (*uses ‘word count’ tool on this blog post and takes out an adjective or two*). My father was honest as a Dukakis, but not me – I got my stepdaughter to believe, for 10 years, that cement mixers actually are filled with cheese. The “Cement” sign is camouflage, for certainly if we all knew cement trucks were filled with cheese, they would be besieged by gourmands as they traveled through the streets. Why wouldn’t my grandmother have been doing the same thing?
My grandmother delighted in my quirky imagination – and she understood me with all her heart. Perhaps she knew exactly who she was talking to, but had simply forgotten my age, forgotten that I was already up to two cups of coffee a day and trying to slam out the evening’s calculus homework. She heard my voice and responded with a story about the creatures of the night. If my father had answered (‘Call John if you have questions’) the conversation would have gone quite differently. In other words, she tailored her communication to my persona, which she knew intimately, having bequeathed it to me.
The opportunity to validate any explanation of that conversation has been gone for forty years. There is a fine line between story-telling and delusion . . . but my grandmother certainly did know how to tailor a story to her audience.
Or maybe it really was a giraffe.