My grandmother could have set the tone for gracious living. Not expensive living, just a way of life that was mindful of the details – the grace notes – that bring smiles to faces and make strangers feel comfortable. In her home, there were never too few seats at the table, or not enough to go around, and if someone showed up at the door, they were welcomed like family. In fact, her house was the central gathering point for three generations of boisterous Italian-American aunts, uncles, and cousins, and whatever stray friends or acquaintances happened to come along with them.
The year I turned twenty-one, my grandfather died, and my grandmother’s life changed forever. Of course, we all felt – and still feel – that loss, but along with losing her partner of fifty years, Grandma also lost her home. She just couldn’t handle it alone.
At first, she moved to an apartment in a building for senior citizens. It was just a couple of blocks from her beloved yacht harbor and had buses that took the residents on errands as well as to Broadway shows. While some of her belongings had to be sold or given away when she downsized, enough of her treasured possessions moved with her that the much smaller space still felt like her home. Within a year, though, her health had diminished to the point where she couldn’t be on her own, so she moved from New Jersey to my parents’ house in California.
Moving is never easy. As I write this, I’m overwhelmed with the packing I still have to finish for my own cross-country move in less than two weeks, and I have a husband to help, and all my faculties, as well as helpful friends and professional movers. Still, as I try to be as ruthless as possible with deciding what to store until we find a new house, what to bring with us for the month or two we’ll be staying with my mother, and what to sell or give away, what I remember is all the ways Mom helped Grandma find comfort and a sense of home in a house that wasn’t hers, and I thought I’d share them here, because it’s something many of us will experience as our own parents age.
- Bring a few of your loved one’s beloved possessions for immediate use. For my grandmother, we made sure she had her favorite bedspread, a hand-mirror she loved, and framed photos of my grandfather. Others may want a special pillow or coffee mug. These are little things that don’t have to go on moving trucks but provide a sense of familiarity.
- Incorporate your loved one’s belongings into your décor. My mother made room for my grandmother’s prized marble-topped side table and her grandfather clock, even though neither was really her style. In my grandmother’s room, she put the vintage secretary desk that had been my grandfather’s. Seeing her own things around her made my grandmother feel more at home. Adding a round side table on one side of her bed, full of the potted African violets she loved, also helped. (My grandmother was the queen of round side tables.)
- Make a point of making favorite foods. Even after my grandmother couldn’t remember that her son had died of cancer in 1986, she could rattle off the ingredients to our family’s recipe for pasta e fagioli (hint: it’s nothing like the stuff they serve at the Olive Garden), so whenever she craved it, that’s what we made for supper. My parents, who weren’t fans of keeping sweets in the house, also stocked up on Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies and Stella D’oro anisette toast – two of my grandmother’s favorite snacks when we wanted “a little something.”
- Include your loved one in family activities. My parents made sure that my grandmother met all their friends and included in women’s lunches and other social gatherings. When I still lived close by, I would take my grandmother for long walks (she’d be in a wheelchair) to the local café, and once a month mom, grandma, and I went to a movie together. (I think the reason I’m so fond of the Winona Ryder version of Little Women is that it’s one of the last movies the three of us went to. My grandmother transferred to a care home shortly after that.) Keeping Grandma part of our social world helped her not be lonely for her old life.
None of these things are the kinds of things they talk about in brochures or medical literature, but these grace notes go a long way to creating stability and a sense of home, not just for the aged relative who has moved in, but for everyone else in the family as well.
As I fill yet another box, I hear my grandmother’s voice in the back of my head, reminding me that a piece of art or jewelry came from her house, or commenting on some of my choices in décor. I sold her clock and secretary desk last year in preparation for my move, but her best gifts – those of graciousness and inclusion – will never leave me.