“Hey! Where’d that woman put my fan?” Mimi yelled. “That woman—she took it. I know she did. She’s always taking my stuff.”
Ruth held her head in her hands and mumbled under her breath, “Great. Guess I’m that woman today.”
Ruth had moved to Memphis when the peonies bloomed white-pink and smelled their sweetest—the fluffy flowers framing the front of her grandmother’s house like a welcome back banner. The city had greeted her with record-breaking temperatures and newly enforced restrictions on water usage. Heat lingered over the black asphalt roads and the sleek green metal of her grandmother’s 1996 Mazda—hot enough to leave second-degree burns.
“Hello?” Mimi asked from the living room, “I can hear you in there. I need my fan! I’m melting.”
“Mimi, remember,” she called back from the kitchen, “I put it in your room last night so you wouldn’t get hot while you were sleeping.”
“Oh. Ruth. That’s right. I—I forgot.”
Moving had been inevitable. Ruth had always known that deep down and she put it off for as long as possible. She’d been afraid to say goodbye to her hometown. Afraid to move three hours away from where her mom and dad had been laid to rest. But Ruth had promised her mom she’d take care of Mimi. That she’d be there to keep Mimi company after Mom had passed away. Ruth had spent the last few years trying to convince herself that checking in with Mimi once a day over the phone and visiting her once a month for a long weekend would be sufficient. When Mimi’s health had gotten worse, she’d had to accept what her mom had wanted. And the idea that she’d disappointed her had begun to eat away at Ruth’s conscience. Horrific scenes of Mimi falling and not being able to reach the phone when Ruth called had begun to infiltrate her dreams. She’d wake up clutching her stomach, the guilt twisting and flipping around, like it’d been trying to pierce a hole in her stomach.
It’d taken her three years to gather the strength to leave Brentwood and say goodbye to her comfortable life. One where her parents’ graves had been just a ten-minute drive from her house. It’d been so easy to go and talk to them whenever she’d needed. The last time she went, she’d told them that she’d started to think about going back to school. Again. For real this time. She’d imagined her mom smirking as her eyebrow inched closer and closer to her hairline. Her signature “Yeah, right,” look. This time, she wanted to tell her mom, she could go to Memphis State. Where Mom had graduated. Things would be different.
Ruth had learned a lot about being an adult in a small amount of time. Losing both parents before turning twenty will do that—Dad at six, Mom at nineteen. She’d learned about different kinds of chemo medications, like which ones cause you to lose hair and which ones don’t—Dad didn’t lose any, Mom did. She’d planned a funeral all by herself, written an obituary, closed bank accounts, applied to college, and then withdraw and started again so many times. And now she’d care for her eighty-nine-year-old grandmother.
Mimi had always been so aggressively independent. She’d insisted on getting her own groceries, kept up with her gardening, and went on her daily walks. Anytime Ruth had offered to help her so much as tie her shoes, Mimi would smack her hands away and mumble with a deep gruff voice about how she wasn’t a child. Mimi had, of course, had her rough days. She’d often forget what day it was, or what year it was, or even what city she was living in. Ruth had figured out how to calm Mimi down when things seemed to get fuzzy. She’d never argued with her. Only suggested that they take a break from whatever they’d been doing and have a Coke or a cookie or toast with red plum jelly. The distraction had always seemed to temporarily resolve Mimi’s frustration. But Ruth hadn’t quite realized how bad things had gotten till she’d gotten a phone call from the police last month.
Mimi had called 911 because she’d thought someone had broken into her house. She’d claimed that the person had stolen her purse, climbed over her fence, and had taken off with it. When the cops had come and searched her house, it’d taken them all of twenty minutes to find her purse stowed away in a kitchen cabinet. A female officer had called Ruth and told her that Mimi had called the officer who’d found her purse a, “dirty bastard,” and was very upset that he’d touched her things. She’d urged me to either come down myself or hire someone to help keep an eye on her. Said she’d seemed very rattled and hostile. As embarrassing and traumatic as that whole event had to of been for Mimi, it’d also been very real to her. Mimi believed that someone had broken into her house. Ruth couldn’t imagine anything worse; a strange man had broken into her house, and then no one believing her. Dismissing her. Ruth had made plans to move in with Mimi that same week.
“Hey, Mimi? I’m going to step outside for a moment, alright?”
She heard Mimi switch on the TV and took that as an okay. The mornings were still cool before sunrise. Tolerable, at least.
As a child, Ruth had always thought that the sun hit East Memphis differently than the rest of the world. The light held a gray tinge, as if you’d stepped into a black and white movie. She’d sit in the passenger seat as her mom drove through the streets of Memphis, on their way to visit Mimi, and she’d think about how different the houses, even the people, looked from the new, manicured homes in Brentwood. The buildings in Memphis leaned a little to the left, or to the right. Shiny blue tarps taped to the windows of houses blew viciously in the wind. The sound would make her stomach twist. A high-pitched whistle, an alarm.
Mimi’s street was different though, a beacon of light, separate from the rest. When Ruth was little, the people on Cherry Street used to bake like there was a prize to be won. Chess and pecan pies sat in windows. Every night a barbecue. A child’s paradise. Mimi and Ruth would have a different dessert each night, sometimes for breakfast too—a secret they’d kept from Ruth’s mother.
Everything is different now. Ruth doesn’t recognize any of the faces on Cherry Street, but Mimi’s and her own. As everyone moved or passed away, the street became blurry. Only Mimi’s house was clear in Ruth’s mind now. The sweet chocolate chip cookie aroma of Cherry Street replaced with diesel fumes and dust.
Ruth could see the top of Mimi’s white permed hair from the kitchen window. “Ruthie?”
“Yes?” She loved to hear her grandmother call her by her name.
“Could I join you?”
“Are you kidding? Of course! It’s your backyard.”
Mimi pushed the back door open with her body. Her legs shook under the weight, her jaw held tight. After Mimi’s neighbor’s house had gotten broken in to a few years back, Ruth and her mom had thought installing iron bars over the doors would steer burglars away. Now it doesn’t seem as practical. Ruth moved to help, but Mimi held her finger up. She gave it a good push with her backside and then shuffled over to the patio table. She chose one of the matching white steel chairs.
Ruth had always loved Mimi’s backyard. Nothing had changed since she was a little girl. Not a flower was out of place. The same lavender irises and red tulips bordered her chain-link fence. They seemed to bloom no matter the circumstance. Neither the drought nor her grandmother’s fading memory had been able to suppress their budding excitement for the summer.
Ruth plopped her jacket down onto the seat of the rusted rocking chair. She didn’t want to have to worry about her legs sticking to the scratchy metal.
“Do you remember that summer Mom couldn’t afford childcare and I was too young to stay home by myself? She let me stay out here with you for the entire break.”
Mimi scrunched up her curls. “You wore those little feathers in your hair.”
“I thought they made me look like a big girl.” Ruth had begged her mom to let her get these blue and purple feathers twisted into her hair cause that’s what all the teenagers were doing at the time. Ruth had always wanted to grow up. Be as big and smart as the people around her. To be able to make decisions. Now she wished she were a little girl all over again. Wished Mimi didn’t have dementia. Wished her mom was here.
Mimi pulled at the sleeves of her nightgown and crossed her legs. “You looked just like your mother when you were that age. Like Janie.”
Ruth nodded, keeping her head down. It was hard for her to hear Mimi talk about her mom. Mimi’s devastation over losing her daughter affected her every day. Ruth still didn’t have the right words. Didn’t know what to do to make it better.
“I remember making you pretend to be a bank robber every day, while I, of course, played the heroic cowgirl. This ol’ rocking chair here was my trusted steed.” Ruth pushed off the patio, whipping her imaginary reins around like she used to. “Do you remember the name you gave it?”
Mimi reached out and patted the rocker’s arm. “Mustang Sally. She was fire-engine red back then. Creaked a lot less too.”
A small group of bird’s flew by and a chorus of competing chirps grabbed their attention. They made a beeline for the feeder that hung from the big maple tree in the middle of the yard, ready to devour their breakfast. The same ones came by every day, like friends come to visit. Ruth had secretly given them names. Copper the robin, Louie the mockingbird, and Lola the cardinal.
“I haven’t seen a blue jay this summer,” Mimi said. “They used to come around during this time of the year—squawking at me from the windows. It’s an awful sound, but I always imagined they were just trying to get my attention. Trying to say hi.”
“Oh, yes. Your creepy bird singing clock taught me all about that. It used to scare the shit out of me.” Ruth scooted her chair a little to the right in case Mimi slapped her for cussing. The clock had been hanging in the kitchen for as long as Ruth could remember. Each number was replaced with a picture of a bird and when the hour struck, the clock would play that specific birds’ song. It was cute, but as time went on and the batteries wore down, the sounds distorted, muffling their chirpy calls into a sort of groan.
Mimi laughed into her hands. “You used to think the birds were laughing at you!”
The seat under Ruth heated up with the rising sun. Time’s almost up. She leaned her head back to soak up a little more of the rays. A battery charge giving her the extra push to keep going. A healthy alternative to her 5-Hour Energy addiction.
“Janie?” Mimi asked, looking up at the birds as they nibbled on their seeds.
Ruth still hadn’t gotten used to hearing Mimi call her by her mother’s name. She bit her lip to try and suppress her desire to curl in on herself.
“Mhmm?” Ruth asked.
“We should start getting ready. Daddy is gonna be expecting us at today’s sermon.”
Ruth always felt disoriented when Mimi transported back in time. Back to Bell Buckle, when Mimi’s parents were still alive and when Janie was still a young girl. Trying to keep herself from correcting Mimi each time was much harder than she’d thought it would be. Ruth resisted being pulled into Mimi’s reality. Something about not being able to say it out loud took away her confidence.
We’re in Memphis, not Bell Buckle.
“Actually, I already spoke to him. He said he’s not feeling great and that he’d rather you just take it easy today,” Ruth said.
You’ll snap out of it once we’re back inside. Just need to get out of the sun, drink some water.
“That’s just like you, Janie. Always trying to get out of going to church. Give your granddaddy a call for me and tell him I said we’re goin.”
Mimi stood and sauntered to the door. She held it open with her body again, but this time, she made no attempt to squeeze through—she kept her head arched back, nose to the sky. Her eyes darted in Ruth’s direction, not long enough to make contact, just enough to see if she’d moved yet.
“Alright, alright I’m coming. I’m gonna beat you to the fridge and get that last cold Coke though.”
Mimi’s eyes lit up. She gave Ruth a quick smirk and then let the door slam behind her on her way inside. Glass bottles rattled on the inside of the fridge door as Mimi flung it open.
You’ll need help opening that bottle.
“Wait up, Mimi! Can’t you spare a little for your granddaughter?”
“Ha! Tell me where you’re hiding that damn pecan pie and maybe I’ll let you have a sip.”
Ruth exhaled as the cold A/C hit her. What a relief to see her grandmother standing there, shoulders back and clear-eyed, with a Coke gripped tightly in her outstretched hand.
Ruth reached for the bottle opener on the kitchen table, took the Coke from Mimi, and popped it open. The fizzle and hiss as the carbonation activated always brought Ruth back to her childhood. Of being here, with Mimi, and the summer when it had been just the two of them. Drinking their weight in Coke-a-Cola. “But you see, there would have to be a pie left in order for me to show you where I’d been hiding it.”
She handed the bottle back to Mimi and her jaw dropped as her eyes scanned Ruth up and down, like she was wondering where she could have possibly stored all that pie in such a small body.
“Well then, no Coke for you.” She lifted the can back and glugged down two gulps. “Ah! Refreshing.”
Jokes always seemed to be the thing that could bring Mimi back. Sarcasm is a genetic trait passed down in the family, Mimi had always said.
Ruth spent the next few days trying to prepare Mimi for her doctor’s appointment. She’d developed this cough that sounded like lava crackling in her throat. Mimi tried to brush it off as allergies, said she didn’t need any doctor. But Ruth insisted.
Today would be the first time the two of them ventured out together since Ruth had moved in. She’d thought that the more they’d talked about it, the more prepared Mimi would be. That they’d be able to get in and out of the doctor’s office with no issues. Mimi would know the plan by heart.
Guess dementia doesn’t work like that.
Once they were settled in the examination room, Mimi turned to the nurse. “I didn’t want to come here. This woman stole my car! I want to go home! I need to get back home to Bell Buckle. Why won’t they let me go home?”
Ruth’s face turned red, a spotlight on her. Should she put her hands up?
The nurse reached out for Mimi’s hand. “Your granddaughter loves you. You’re safe with her.”
Mimi eyed Ruth and then lurched forward into a coughing fit. Little wheezes pushed through her closed lips, as if she were trying to silence them. Ruth filled the paper cup on the counter with water and handed it over to Mimi.
The nurse’s sullen eyes struck Ruth in a way she wasn’t prepared for.
Don’t say you’re sorry. Don’t say anything.
An hour later, Mimi came back into the examination room with the doctor trailing behind her. He said he’d call in the morning with the results of her imaging and blood work. That there was no need to sit around and wait.
The whole process had clearly drained Mimi. Her eyelids drooped and sweat droplets beaded her forehead like she’d just run laps around the building. Ruth kept her eyes on Mimi as the doctor spoke. She didn’t want his eyes to tell her something he wasn’t saying out loud.
Both Ruth and Mimi were in desperate need of a nap after their excursion to the doctor’s office. Mimi didn’t even put up a fight. She went to her room, eager to lay down. Ruth thought she’d just rest her eyes for a bit, recover so that she could wake Mimi in an hour or so for dinner. She cuddled up on the side of the bed where her mom used to sleep when they’d come to visit Mimi together, and then she drifted off.
Ruth woke from her nap doused in a light sheen of sweat. She heard the Tufted Titmouse on the bird singing clock chime and jumped to her feet.
Five o’clock already. Mimi will need to eat soon.
Ruth slid out of her room and crept past Mimi’s bedroom. She wasn’t in bed. There was a tenseness in the house that terrified Ruth. Too quiet.
Ruth’s stomach clamped up when the first thing she saw was an empty lawn and an empty street in front of her. She heard a car door slam. It directed her attention to the back of the driveway, where she saw Mimi half inside the back seat of her car.
Is that a lamp sitting in the passenger seat?
The mugginess outside made her feel sick like she was drinking the air. She could feel her hair starting to rise, her hands already sticky.
“Mimi? Whatcha up to?”
“I’m goin home today,” she said, keeping her back to her as she slid out of the car.
“Oh, where’s that? Maybe I can help?”
“Bell Buckle. You know this, Janie. We’re goin to visit your grandparents. I wanna go home. I’m ready to go home.” She shook her head as if this were obvious.
“Okay, well, how about you head back inside, and I’ll get dinner ready before we go anywhere.”
Mimi’s soaked nightgown clung to her sharp shoulder points. Her perm flattened against her head. She looked at Ruth, eyebrows furrowed and her eyes squinted. In that moment, Ruth wished she could transform herself into Janie. She’d know what to say. Ruth’s throat was tight, her knees locked.
Mimi’s mouth tightened into a straight line. She wrapped her arms around herself. Her face flushed bright red. Mom would have known how to comfort her.
“I’ll be right in, okay? You go ahead. Everything is just fine,” Ruth said.
Mimi nodded and shuffled back inside, her head hanging low.
Ruth popped the trunk of Mimi’s car. She had two suitcases squished in there, a pile of socks and underwear thrown on top, a stack of magazines squished between, and a picture of Janie, Ruth, and Mimi propped against the side of the suitcase. In the picture they were standing in Mimi’s front yard. The bushes of peonies served as their backdrop. Mom stood in between the two of them. Their smiles identical—dimples indented on the right sides of each of their cheeks. Mom had been so excited to try out her new “selfie stick.” This was the last picture they’d all taken together.
Ruth can remember how fun that day had been. They hadn’t gone anywhere. Nothing new, or exciting had happened. They’d spent that day in Mimi’s backyard, pulling up weeds in the garden together. Ruth and her mom fixed Mimi’s lawn mower with YouTube and Google’s help, and for dinner, Mimi had made barbecue ribs with green beans and mashed potatoes. Pecan pie for dessert. With full bellies, that night they’d played the card game, “Go Fish,” till one in the morning. Mom had won nearly every game, and after each round, she’d jumped up out of her chair to do a dance. She shook her hips dramatically back and forth, and waved her hands around in circles in the air. Uh, huh, that’s right! I won! she’d sing along with her little jig. Ruth had laughed so hard watching her mom, and then at Mimi who’d throw her cards down each time and call us both little shits.
One of Mom’s greatest fears after she’d gotten diagnosed with breast cancer was how it would affect her Mimi. Mimi had been eighty-five at the time, after all, and the dementia had just started to make itself known. She hadn’t wanted the cancer to upset her, so—at Mom’s request—Mimi only ended up seeing Mom once after her diagnosis. That was really all that there was time for anyways. Mom had died just two months into the two year’s the doctors had given her. Ruth had had a hard time believing it at first. She’d seen her mom just two nights before she’d passed away, and she hadn’t seemed all that different. Not better, but not different. Mimi had been utterly lost. At the funeral, she’d walked around with her eyes half open and her shoulders slumped like she was barely conscious.
Ruth tucked the photo under her arm and walked around to the back seat, already feeling short of breath from the heat. The back was filled with Mimi’s clothes, some shoes, and a leaf blower? Thank god Ruth had already put in a steering wheel lock.
What if something had happened to Mimi because Ruth had been inside taking a nap, or reading a stupid, smutty book. She’d have to do more. Put special locks on all the doors. Motion detectors in front of Mimi’s bedroom. Anything but a nursing home. Mom had made that very clear. If Ruth sent her away, that’d surely be the end of Mimi’s memory. Removing her from her home would mean everything else gets left behind.
The rain poured that evening. Ruth loved the sound—like someone spilling buckets full of tiny beads onto the floor.
“Mimi? Do you want to sit outside under the canopy with me? I want to watch the rain.”
She nodded, pushing away her plate of what used to be pecan pie—only crumbs left.
The mist dusted their shins and faces. Ruth was tempted to run out into the yard and twirl around like she had when she was little, but she was too afraid Mimi would follow. She can’t afford to get any sicker.
Ruth thought about the doctor and nurse from earlier that morning. How they’d seemed to know something about Mimi without having to even look at any scans or test results. But they also thought that whatever it was, could wait to be discussed till the morning. At the time, Ruth had been grateful for this. For them letting her have another day, living in a world where Mimi was fine. She just had problems with her memory sometimes. And she had a cold. But now, knowing that there is a phone call awaiting them in just twelve hours that could change their lives is torturous. What did they know? How much time did Ruth have left with Mimi?
Ruth wished that she’d taken more pictures of her and Mimi together, that she’d written down Mimi’s stories about her childhood and her life. Now, those stories are slipping away, both from Ruth and Mimi.
“Mimi, what were you doing when you were my age? When you were twenty-three?”
Mimi sat up, gripping the arm of her chair like she was on a rollercoaster that was fixing to drop. “I was living at home, taking care of my father and little brother. Mom had been dead for a few years by then. She’d died, winter of ’32, I believe, from pneumonia. She’d coughed for so long…” Her eyes glazed over like she’d just gotten sucked into the memory.
Death had been something that Mimi had struggled with the most these last few years. She forgot and then remembered, sometimes with Ruth’s help and sometimes without. Ruth was death’s personal messenger, and the deliveries never stopped.
“I’m sorry, Mimi. Our mothers were taken from us too soon.”
Mimi shook her head, as if she were shaking the image out of her mind, and picked up where she’d left off. “I’d just gotten a job working a factory line, building airplanes for the war. It was strange, I remember. The building had cement walls, cement floors. All day we listened to the echoes of women crying, wondering if they were building planes their husbands were about to die in.”
“You did that?” Ruth asked. How had she never heard this before? She’d write it down later.
“Yes. That was a scary time. Everything changed after that. Nobody was the same after the war. Just you wait, everything will change for you one day too.”
Mimi coughed again. Her head fell back and her chest pulled. The crackle in her throat grew deeper and louder, her breaths harsher. She held a handkerchief to her mouth and closed her eyes. She didn’t open them till her breathing had returned to normal.
Ruth put her hand in hers. “Let’s go inside, Mimi. I’ll make you some tea.”
Mimi squeezed back. “No. I want to stay here just a little longer.”
The rain had slowed, and a few brave birds came out of hiding. Copper and Lola were the first back to the feeder. Louie would come by once things dried up. The weather was untrustworthy. Ruth understood.
“Oh look, Janie. A blue jay.” Mimi pointed to the other side of the maple tree. The bird was a striking sky-blue with a white belly and a navy stripe around its neck. Mimi smiled. With her hand on her chest she stood up.
Ruth followed, tears suddenly streaming down her face, and held Mimi’s shoulders. “So beautiful.”
Mimi rested her head against the side of Ruth’s cheek. “Janie?”
“I’m ready to go home.”
Photo by Lasse Nystedt on Unsplash