The blade of the knife should face the plate. This is something my grandmother, my Emily Post, told me many times as we set the table for a Thanksgiving meal.
For all the years of my childhood and most of my young adulthood, setting the table has been our mutual Thanksgiving job. Thanksgiving is the one meal of the year for which we take out the good silver, my great-grandmother’s silver, from its hiding place under the spare bed. My grandmother used to polish that silver until she could see her face in the soup spoons (although we did not actually use the soup spoons), and then we would set the table together, 10 places or 12. My grandmother would follow after me and straighten the occasional wayward utensil.
This year, I do the straightening. My grandmother’s hands aren’t as steady as they used to be. When I find a knife with the blade facing out, I know my grandmother has finally gotten old.
This isn’t really news. Her short-term memory has been fading gradually for years; at a few months shy of 93, it now seems pretty much shot to hell. She repeats the same questions three times in the span of a five-minute conversation; where I live (London), when she saw me last (August), what my mother is doing upstairs (peeing, I think)-we go round and round. My grandmother, reader of mystery novels and doer of crosswords, purveyor of family history, can no longer follow a dinner conversation without getting a muddled look on her face.
Her long-term memory has fared better. Just when I think she doesn’t remember anything, this, in conversation with my aunt and uncle, who are vacationing in Rome:
“When are you coming home?” Gram asks.
“Ohhh.” She turns to me with a pinched face. “I don’t like that at all.”
“Why?” I wrack my mental history bank. “Pearl Harbor?” I ask.
Grandma nods solemnly.
We say goodbye to my aunt and uncle, and then, for the fifth time in 20 minutes: “Where’s your mother?”
My grandmother doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, nor any other kind of dementia that we know of. She’s just old. She’s never had cancer or heart disease or a stroke; she’s got what she describes as her “bum knee,” high blood pressure, and a sensitive stomach. Not bad for 92 and three-quarters.
She also still insists on living by herself, to our perpetual frustration and worry. As much as I wish she would give in just a little, I suspect this lifelong independence (and stubbornness) has allowed her to get to this age in such relatively good condition. My grandmother raised three children on her own after my grandfather left her and never dated again. My mother once commented that she hoped Gram had a decent vibrator in her hey-day. She might have: My grandmother worked for Planned Parenthood and fought quietly for women’s reproductive rights long before they were fashionable or legal; she’s never been prudish about sexuality.
But now that she sometimes forgets her pills and is shaky on solid ground, let alone the icy sidewalks of winter in Rochester, we’ve all been pressing her to move to closer to her children. If only she lived just around the corner, rather than seven hours down the turnpike-we’d all feel a bit more secure.
We would, but perhaps not Grandma. She may not remember the conversation of the past five minutes, but that her children and grandchildren continually nudge her to move from her apartment of the last 50-odd years, an apartment overrun with old pictures, with a desk still bearing my mother’s elementary school pencil holder: This she remembers. And she’s not giving an inch.
One day, my father sensed an opening. She commented how helpful he was as he got something out of the fridge, or went downstairs to iron the tablecloth. He mentioned that maybe she’d like to be down the street, so she could reap the benefits of his helpfulness more often. She conceded that yes, that would be nice.
The next day, my father brought up this conversation.
“What?” Gram said, an incredulous look on her face. “I never said that.”
It feels to me, on the plane over from Heathrow, that I am really coming home to set the table with Grandma. As much as I love my mother’s turkey, I will be with my family again in three weeks for Christmas, and the flight from London is neither very short nor very cheap.
But my grandmother doesn’t spend Christmas with us. It’s too much traveling, she says, after Thanksgiving-and anyway, she’s a Jew. She prefers to spend the day in her robe, eating the candy we send. So if I miss Thanksgiving, I miss Grandma; I miss setting the table with her. For a decade she’s been warning us that she might not be around next year. At some point, she’ll be right.
It would put us, her family, all at ease if she would spend the last years of her life closer to us. We think she’d be happier in Massachusetts, with more to do, more people to talk to.
But of course, the woman isn’t senile. She’s almost 93; she struggles to remember what she’s doing with the onion she’s in the middle of chopping for the stuffing, but she remembers the important things, and she knows what she wants. I suppose-though it pains me to admit it, should her safety be compromised-that having gotten this far, she probably deserves to live the rest of her life exactly how and where she wants.
She plunks the silver down on the table, slightly askew, and I adjust it when she looks away. Turning back, my grandmother admires our handiwork and reminds me that the blade should face the plate.
Photograph of family by Comstock/Getty Images.