Reflections from my grandmother’s distorted mirror


A few months ago, my grandmother broke her hip after a bad fall. Until last week, she was in the hospital. Visiting her there reminded me of the bottled confusion and anger I still held toward her.

Ellie Ritter

We’re both quite recessive.

With our blond hair, blue eyes, short stature and unrelenting stubbornness, my grandma and I have always been similar. Since I was young, my whole family has noticed our resemblance and often makes jokes about it.

“Who knew a shopping addiction could be genetic?” they’d say. Or, “It’s like the 1950s found its way into a millennial girl!”

I always liked the comparison. When I thought of my grandmother, I thought of Christmas in Indianapolis, the warm smell of wine and pine that seeped into each room of her small nursing home apartment and the smile she wore to Christmas Eve Mass. I thought of her always-stocked fridge, the turtlenecks she never seemed to run out of and the way she squinted when she laughed.

My grandmother meant gifts, my grandmother meant attention, my grandmother meant laughter and joy. She was a classy lady, someone I could admire. Our likeness was good.

As I grew older, though, Grandma’s fogginess became much more transparent. She had developed severe dementia, and each year, it only grew worse.

I think I first realized it one Christmas – I was 9, maybe 10 – when my grandma, my aunt and I were sitting in her living room. My grandma was drinking wine and accidentally spilled it on my brand-new Converse. As I began crying, she panicked and asked me what happened.

“You spilled your drink and ruined my new shoes,” I cried.

“What? I haven’t been drinking,” she said, visibly puzzled and upset.

I pointed to her glass, and she looked back at me, still confused.

“It’s not mine,” she maintained. “That’s not my glass.”

It was the first of many times she would forget something that happened moments before. A few years later, she forgot my name for the first time. My older siblings and I were spending a week at her home, and she took me to pick up a movie from Blockbuster. In the car, she began to forget several things – where we were going, why I was there. I was well aware of her dementia by that point, so I decided to flat out ask.

“Grandma, what’s my name?”

“Your what?” she asked back.

“My name.”

“I… I really can’t remember right now. Don’t ask me right now. I can’t remember.”

For me, it’s still so clear – that’s when she began to fade. She hardly can remember the day or the year, and she never knows where she is. We’re lucky if we can put on an old Broadway show tune that she remembers enough to hum along with. 

Since that day in her car, the comparisons to my grandmother have become painful reminders of what I may become when I’m older. Dementia has made her into a completely new person: now, she is a cruel reflection of her past self – and of me.

Perhaps what scares me most, though, is that as grandma and I become more separated, I can see more clearly the similarities that remain. I fear so deeply that I, too, will become – or already am – the person she has become. And, the more I can look at her from far away, the more similar we seem.

My grandmother, seated in the right chair, with her brother (left chair) and my aunts and uncles. My grandmother's brother, Bill, suffers from a less severe form of dementia.
My grandmother, seated in the right chair, with her brother (left chair) and my aunts and uncles. My grandmother’s brother, Bill, suffers from a less severe form of dementia.

A few years back, my grandmother moved in with us. She wasn’t cooperative at any of her nursing homes, but she needed supervision, so we took her in. Eventually, we gave up and sent her to another home – a move for which I will always feel incredibly guilty – but that’s another story. For the time she was with us, she was, quite frankly, vile.

Once, when I refused to give her a third glass of wine, she called me a b**** and said she hoped I would never have children and become divorced. Along with her memory, her compassion began to fade, and she would ridicule anyone who was gay, black, fat or anything different from her. Would I become that? Could I ever be so close-minded?

Now, as my grandmother nears the end of her life, I look in my own mirror and see her. I am scared of becoming her. Guilty as it makes me, the thought that I, too, could become vile and forgetful – that I could one day forget everything and everyone that has made me who I am – sends unnerving chills to my bones. 

I frequently remind myself that I am not her. I love to think deeply and fully; I love compassion and grace; I am strong-willed. As they’ve seen my worry develop, some members of my family have tried to comfort me, saying that perhaps we’re not all that similar. Still, the fear has settled in like dust I can’t sweep away.

My grandmother, like a distorted mirror, has changed my self-perception forever. I will always live in the shadow of her quietus, scared of whose path I may be following. But I am the one looking into the mirror, and it will reflect what I put into it.