In Memory of my Grandmother – “Bathing in Applesauce”

First thought to pop in my head when thinking about International Women’s Day – Margueritte – who insisted that we call her that because she was way too young to be a grandmother. She embodied the definition of a “helper,” a term she frequently used, and she led by example.

She fed her extended family, friends, and neighbors with goodness from my granddad’s garden and orchard. She took care of anyone who needed it. She never let anything go to waste. She nurtured almost everyone she came in contact with. And, most importantly, she never missed the opportunity to inspire others to be “helpers” too. While her demeanor was traditional and understated, her personality was huge.

Even as she developed Alzheimer’s and her mind slipped into the past, glimpses of her could be seen as she constantly busied herself in an effort to be a “helper.”  Today, I made a donation to the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund in Margueritte’s memory. May we all find more ways to be a “helper.”

But, I wanted to go a step further in honoring her memory by sharing this intense, but beautifully written story by my very talented sister. The circumstances of the story are completely fictional, but Martha is the absolute heart of Margueritte. The garden, the apples, the singing, the pink bathroom, the fretting, the loving – and even the slight rebel streak that appeared along with her Alzheimer’s.

Bathing in Applesauce – by Shana Weber

(Reprinted with permission.)

Martha refolds a pile of clean clothes, pressing each crease, smoothing the sleeves of her husband, Sam’s undershirts, but when she can’t get the towels right, she walks away and ends up in the kitchen. By the sink, a stack of clean dishes sit. She smiles and plugs the drain and runs hot water. She soaps and scrubs and rinses each plate and cup. Her chores, their rhythm ease her worry and remind her she’s here, able to do, able to get along.

The kitchen is her best reminding place. When the Doctors diagnosed her Alzheimer’s, Sam began leaving notes. The garbage goes out on Tuesday. Hair appointment at 2:00. The rear left stove eye is broken. As her knowing faded, the number of notes grew and now each cabinet front displays a yellow post-it collage. Close the refrigerator after opening. Crackers here. Forks and spoons here. Ask me to boil water for tea. The dishes dry and restacked, Martha wonders what is today – so still, so heavy.

Sam died in his sleep two days ago. Peacefully, he left. Martha tried to wake him. Not wanting to know, she simply lay down with him until Gracie came for her morning visit. Martha’s fog pulls and yanks her between knowing she’s alone and feeling Sam there. Today, the day of his funeral, Sam is with her. She finds him in the front room relaxed in his chair. His empty coffee cup sits on a stack of National Geographics. She sees him, one leg crosses over the other, one slipper daggles from a socked foot. She thinks how handsome he looks dressed in his khaki pants and blue shirt. His eyes, a blue worn by age, hold his secrets, his dreams, their way of things she tries to recall. She does not mean to blame him when she feels lost. She snags some things. Fresh laundry, sun-dried, smelling of the garden, of the tomatoes he gives so much love and attention to growing, to picking red, sliced and served by her with Mayo and dill. She turns away from him. She says, I can’t go to church now Sam. I need to be getting lunch.

After accepting their fate, Sam began running wide circles around her, telling others to hush, learning to cook, to shop, to do laundry, to keep her safe with him. A place inside Martha enjoys the power of pushing after so many years of fetching, of minding, of keeping her place. To say her peace, to tell Sam she won’t do as he says refreshes her spirit. Like laundry drying on the line, she feels an airing out relief. As she leaves the front room, she tells him, Put away my good shoes. No need for the green dress. This old housecoat suits me fine. Far away from her knowing, she brushes his passing. She wonders why Sam is underfoot? Why does he demand she know the way of things?

Down the hall she pads and the pink bathroom soothes her, calls her inside. Pink tiles, pink polished shell insides, pink cotton smocked toddler dresses passed down and down. A soapy Ivory scent lifts her memories and she revisits her children, baby-powdered bodies, tiny fingernails, long lashes. She hears their downy voices asking whys and hows. She hums the tune until the words come. The words always come when she hums the tune. Let’s clap our hands and sing, let’s clap our hands and sing, Gracie ate her dinner, let’s clap our hands and sing… Gracie come help me peel the apples. There’s so many rotting away in the cellar. We must make applesauce.

As she climbs down the cellar stairs, she meets Sam. She passes him by and says, Put my purse away. We have to make use of your apples. I mean to find my apron and make applesauce with Gracie. Somewhere in her knowing, she remembers Gracie will come for her soon. Gracie, a mother herself weary from the loving and doing she learned too well. Martha fears her daughter will be left behind, not knowing. In the cellar she hears Sam scold her for not minding. Martha stamps her foot and shouts, I am not your good girl. I won’t go.

Martha always stayed behind Sam caring for their home and loving Gracie. She would sing her daughter through breakfast and apple tree picnics. She would fluff the house as she called it, making everything pretty for Sam when he got home. And, Sam nodded hello as he stepped through the door each night. He loved them but didn’t know how to let his heart show. He didn’t know how to save her from the emptiness, the loss of her own self. He could hold her in his lap, and each time she asked he explained how they got married, who this neighbor was, or how this pill might help.

Martha gathers the soft apples. She whispers, oh, my Gracie, so many apples, their skins bruised, the sweet turning sour. We can save them. There’s grand applesauce to be made. The words come when she hums… Share with one another, share with one another… Apples cradled, Martha climbs the stairs. She sees Sam sitting at the kitchen table. She says, Sam, I need to nap now, just rest my eyes.

She makes up the couch for her napping. The apples snuggle beside her. She rests tucked in with the quilt her mother and aunts sewed. She closes her eyes and pats a corner of the quilt remembering the leftover scraps of calico her mother gave her and her sisters. Pretending to be mommies, they sewed dresses for their dolls. Mother, braid my hair. Sam tells me I have to go, but I can’t leave him. Sam visits her dreaming. He reaches for her. Oh, Sam how I’ve loved you. He holds her face with his hands, wrinkled with working, worry, and living, smelling of apples and garden. Why should I go Sam? Here is where I belong. Startling her rest, trembling her ways of things, she hears a car scattering the gravel drive.

As she leaves her quilted napping, the apples, warm from her sleep, tumble to the floor. She reaches the window, the one where she always sat rocking, waiting for her loved ones to come home. Coming home to be soothed and fed. She looks and sees a grown up Gracie tell her children to stay put. Martha turns to tell Sam Gracie’s home. He’s not there, not in his chair.

The knowing hits her, Martha hurries to their bedroom. Look Sam, I’m putting on my good shoes. The shoes she hates squeezing her toes, insisting she stand lady-like, repressing her bare-foot soul. Come see, I’m wearing the green dress you love. Sam’s favorite dress. He whispered once how he adored the green dress that tries to match her eyes. I’ll brush my hair, put on a little color for you. There now, here’s your good girl. Purse in hand, she searches for him, in the kitchen, his chair, the pink bathroom. Sam, where are you? Stumbling back to their bed, she trembles with the fear of who will scold her for bathing in applesauce? Who will hold her and tell her the way of things?

She hears footsteps. She listens hard needing to hear his breathing to complete her own. Gracie steps through the door, smiles, sits beside her mother, and pats her back. She tells Martha how good she is to be ready. Gracie says she hated to leave her alone but the arrangements and the kids. She stops, bites her lower lip, takes a deep breath, and tells her mother she thinks they will all be fine. Taking her mother’s hand, Gracie leads her through the house, out the door. As Martha settles in the car, her grandchildren ask for a song. Looking for Sam in the garden, she whispers, I’m going now Sam. They’re asking for a song. She hums a tune and the words come…

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