Our next door neighbor’s middle son came screaming up to the back door asking for her. His older brother sliced open his leg riding his bike and there was a lot of blood. Before his mother took him to the hospital to get stitched up she wanted my great grandmother to stop the bleeding. It was always thrilling to watch: she’d gently lay her hands around the cut and whisper a prayer and the blood would clot instantaneously. She had another prayer for healing burns. When I was old enough to really think about it I asked her how she did it. She shrugged and said she didn’t know but that it was a gift that had been handed down in the family from woman to man to woman since before the family left the old country. There was no power in her; the power was in the words. My grandfather refused to learn the words and the gift died with her.
My room was darkened even in mid-afternoon. I’d had another seizure and had been put in my bed by my grandfather. As I came to I felt the cold cloth being changed and my face being wiped down as though the water could soothe the fire in my head. The fingers stroking my face were my great grandmother’s, the pads so softened by work that her fingerprints had worn off. Her knuckles were bruised and I found out later that she’d stuck her hand in my mouth to keep me from swallowing my tongue.
She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's when I was fourteen, around the time that I was coming off the phenobarbital and dilantin I'd taken since my first seizures as a small child. There was no medication that would make her better or make her remember where she was or how old she was. More than once she tried to escape, convinced that her son was a gangster holding her against her will. She just wanted to go home to her mother. She couldn't remember him or the husband she'd been married to for forty years or the hotel she'd owned or the grandson she'd help raise or the nephews who adored her or me. She thought I was her favorite niece, Beulah, who years before had moved to Arizona to raise another family. I was away at school when she died but I'd been home the weekend before and visited her in the hospital. She was refusing to eat and on an IV, her tongue blackened from dehydration. I cajoled her into eating some sherbet. "Thank you, Beulah," she said after she'd had three bites. "Orange was always my favorite."
Happy Birthday, Grandma Ellen. I love you.