Cate Eliot

United States

About me: Published poet and writer. Artist. Avid Christian. Lover of words. High school student. Big sister. Cat whisperer. Introvert thinker.

Message to Readers

Summary: What did you say to someone who knew you less than a stranger? A grandmother memoir.
All feedback appreciated.

The Hum in Her Head

July 10, 2015

She was perched on our couch, Christmas Day.  Red and green light reflecting off of her close cropped hair, messily dyed to conceal growing gray strands.  Her too big sweatshirt was so long my grandfather had to fold and fold the sleeves, the mirror image of mother and child.  As we open gifts, I turn to smile at my grandmother, only to find her staring off at the nothingness of the room, oblivious to the laughter and crinkling of wrapping paper, simply hum, hum, humming under her breath. 

I’ve never heard her speak an entire sentence. 

The dementia began before I was born.  The corrosive forgetting disease began to eat away at her humanity even as my mother was a child.  The form of dementia started as a few forgetful moments, but festered more seriously by the year.  My grandfather had no choice but to stand by and support his wife as her brain neurons and connections began to fail and she started to lose more than her memories, her emotions, her speech, her humanity.  By the time my mother married and my sister and I were born, she had become a shell of the person she once was, subjected to very few words of coherence and the continuous sound of her nonsensical humming.

While growing up, I never understood what was wrong with my grandmother.  It had always seemed perfectly normal to have one paternal grandmother who was fully functional, who loved to talk and read, and one that would sit around our living room humming off to herself.  It was only a few years ago that I understood just what this disease had stolen from her, from our family, from me.

We called her “Mimi” though she never knew my name.

The last occasion I remember her speaking was in my garage where I was walking inside after soccer practice.  My dad was showing my grandparents one of his model airplanes as my mom and I walked inside.  My grandmother was standing off to the side, inspecting something on the shelf.  “Hi Mimi,” I greeted her with a big smile, hoping the encounter would be less awkward than normal.  She turned at the sound of my voice, with a blank stare, empty of recognition in her eyes as I gave her a hug.  My nose flared at the cigarette smell I knew my mother secretly hated around the house. 

When I stepped back her hand trailed to the hair falling out of my pony tail.  She fingered it lightly, saying “so pretty”.  She gave me a huge grin, like a child being proud of their hard working accomplishment and dropped the sweaty strand of hair.  I smiled an artificial smile at her and hugged her a little tighter. 

What did you say to someone who knew you less than a stranger?

My grandfather told me that my grandmother used to paint.  When we visited their house before they sold it inOhio, once I had showed talent with a brush.  He showed me some of the old canvas she had created before she had forgotten that she liked to paint or even that she knew how to. 

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be able to paint with her in our sunroom, the smell of acrylics and wet paper towels with the sun caressing our skin and the sound of the radio in the background.

What disturbs me more is the stuff she’s missed out on that she doesn’t even realized has passed her by; my mother’s 20th wedding anniversary, my first publication in a magazine, Sara graduating from elementary school, my wedding in the future.  The saddest realization of all is that she doesn’t remember any of it. 

She doesn’t say anything now, as we visit her.  Once her dementia affected her sleep cycle, confusing night with day, my grandfather couldn’t keep her at home anymore and they moved her into a nursing facility for memory problems. 

She just continues to hum with her blank stare that seems more like a permanent mask now than a facial expression.  She doesn’t remember my mother or father anymore.  The only one she recalled is my sister, who she calls “Jo”, my mother’s name.  At thirteen, Sara’s sensitive compassion can’t take visiting anymore, especially when her grandmother thinks she’s really her daughter. 

Looking back on her as I’ve grown older and more mature, I’ve realized she may not realize just how sad her situation is.  She wasn’t able to express herself through words and speech, the different songs she hummed reflected her state of mind, her own form of communication.  The contentment of her humming representing that she’s not sad at all, rather the absence of sadness, it’s blankness, nothingness, emptiness. 

The humming is all that’s left of the shell of the woman I never got to meet.


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