Her afterlife as D.C. geistmeister
Like a good daughter, my Mom was patiently listening to Grandma's complaint about her other daughter: “Your sister is stealing from me.” My aunt, who lived on the same block as my grandmother and checked in daily to see that Grandma was all right, was actually more of a candidate for sainthood than a prospect for a police lineup.
“Oh, Mãe, she wouldn't do that!” (“Mãe” is Portuguese for “mother”; it sounds a little like “my,” but nasalized.)
“She did! She stole my furniture polish! Lemon Pledge.”
Grandma pulled Mom into the little utility room next to the kitchen and opened the cupboard full of household supplies. “See!” she proclaimed. ”My Lemon Pledge is gone! She took it.”
“Oh, Mãe! If Sis needed to borrow your Lemon Pledge she would have asked for it. She wouldn't just take it.” My mother calmly pushed around some of the cleansers and air fresheners and bug sprays. She reached in and pulled out a can of Lemon Pledge.
“Here it is, Mãe. It was behind the Formula 409.”
Grandma looked thoughtful for a moment. Although experience should have taught her otherwise, Mom dared to hope that she had gotten through.
“Huh! I wonder when your sister returned it. She must have slipped it in when my back was turned.”
Grandmother, you see, was never wrong.
Although she lived in a quiet, middle-class community in southern California, my grandmother always gave free rein to her paranoia. A genuine victim of widowhood, Grandma got a little weirder each year that she survived her husband. My grandfather had been a fellow whose phlegmatic manner belied his industriousness. When he was at home between shifts at the dairy barn, his calm demeanor eased my grandmother's fears and settled her nerves. Grandma had been living by herself for several years when I last spent the night at her place during a family visit to southern California. Mom and Dad had the guest bedroom and I camped out in the small den.
During the night, I cracked open the window for some air (Grandma liked to her keep her place too warm to suit me.) Within minutes, there was an anxious tapping at the door. It was Grandma.
“Sweetheart, could you check the window? I don't think it's locked.” The house was wired. The security system had beeped at her and a red light had come on to show her the den had been breached.
“It's okay, Grandma. I opened it a bit for some air.”
“Aren't you afraid, dear?”
“No, Grandma. I'll be okay. The window screen is intact.” Actually, I hadn't even noticed whether it was or not. It hadn't occurred to me.
“Okay, then. Good night, sweetheart.”
“Good night, Grandma.”
Even with a house full of people she did not feel safe. She looked tired in the morning and that was a natural consequence of having family staying over for a weekend visit, but later it occurred to me that she might have stared anxiously at the red light for quite some time before she managed to catch some sleep.
The war against terror
I described my grandmother's suburban neighborhood as quiet and middle-class. So it was. Many of the people there worked for a local community college (walking distance from Grandma's) and Grandma had the comfort of the near presence of a solicitous daughter (between notorious instances of thievery, of course). But my grandmother would not have accepted my characterization of her environs, for she was engaged in one of the early battles of the war against terror.
She couldn't avoid it, because the man next door was a terrorist, unmasked by my Grandma's keen eye. During a family visit, Grandma dragged my mother into the little den to peer out the back window at her neighbor's house.
“See?” said Grandma. “He has a bomb!”
“Where, Mãe? I don't see any bomb.”
“Right there in front of us! Next to his house!”
“Oh. I see, Mom.” (It was never a good sign when my mother lapsed into English when addressing her mother.) “That's just an old car battery. Not a bomb.”
The man next door was a young guy who apparently did some occasional driveway mechanics on his vehicle. A discarded battery was nestled against the stucco side of his house.
Grandma was not deterred: “Then why does he keep moving it closer to my house? It's a bomb and he's going to blow up the side of my house with it! Then he can get in!” (I had not known that the den was a key battle front. No wonder it created a panic when I left its window open during the night.)
Mom was extremely grateful that it was her sister who lived on the same block as their mother while she was privileged to live more than a hundred miles away. Her exposure to Grandma's delusions were spaced at decent intervals, while her sister encountered them daily. Mom had to say something, so she tried sweet reason:
“Mãe, he's not moving it closer to your house. His driveway is between your house and his. The battery is next to his house. If he were always moving it closer to you, eventually he'd have to push it into the middle of his driveway. It's not going anywhere. It's on the far side of his driveway and it's going to stay there.” (Well, at least until he manages to sneak it into Syria to hide it from the U.N. weapons inspectors.)
Grandma thought hard for a while and stared at the old car battery. It was indeed difficult to see how it could be inching its way toward her house without having to creep gradually across the driveway. Funny how different things looked when she was trying to explain her peril to one of her daughters. Her sons, too. All of her children would shake their heads in a way vaguely reminiscent of her late husband, but their efforts to calm her did not have the authority or staying power of her deceased spouse. Still, it helped for the time being. Just a little.
My grandmother has been at rest for twenty years, but there are certainly times when I sense that her spirit lives on. No, it's not a comforting thought.