Cleaning House

Caitlin Hamilton Summie

In their dusk-lit nursing home room, my grandparents seem at peace with the half-darkness, in that space between what they know and what they don’t. It’s as if the shadows suit them, soften the edges. Promise a gentle passing.

But none of that is true.

As their day nurse, Kirsten, said on the phone yesterday, “You did something. I don’t know what. But this situation has been going on for days now, and you need to get over here and fix it.”

My grandparents have been arguing, and the argument has escalated into barks with my name in them. Sarah!

Then suddenly this morning, silence. They will not talk to each other. In fact, they will talk with no one.

Except, apparently, me.

And now here I am, on this crisp October evening, gathering courage before crossing the threshold, wondering what I’ve inadvertently done that has made my grandparents, married for a remarkable 61 years, stop speaking to one another and the staff.

The door to my grandparent’s room is pushed back against the wall, and three black numbers form a diagonal down the white paint: 129. Someone has taped construction paper leaves to the door announcing their 61st. Congratulations, Catherine & Ed!

Grandpa lays quietly in his bed, hands in constant spasm, his middle grotesquely enlarged. Grandma, in a chair by the foot of his bed, stares fixedly out into the hallway, her same determined glare suddenly fiercer. She’s wearing a navy sweat suit, which bags around her legs. Her hair lies flat on one side, then swoops up on the other. Her scalp shows through in spots. She slumps, but she stays where she is, right by Grandpa. She waits. She can’t see me, but she will try. For as long as it takes.

She’s the only brave one in the whole damn family.


My grandmother wanted me to have the china.  She told me over the phone early last summer, slipping the news into a discussion about how to clean my moldy shower curtain. She referred to it as my shower curtain because she refused when discussing anything remotely intimate to acknowledge that Al might use the item, too.We talked on a warm day, a bee buzzing kind of day, when Al and I had looked around the house and each chosen a chore. Al decided to clean out the fridge, which for him meant eating all the leftovers. That accomplished, he’d disappeared into the back yard. I’d peeked out the kitchen window at him, momentarily forgetting Grandma. When I looked back at my notes about how to clean the shower curtain, I’d scribbled add china.

“Back up, Grandma,” I’d said.

“Back up to what?” she’d asked, sounding tired.

“To the china part.”

“Oh,” she’d said. “Well.”

I’d fiddled with my pen like it was a baton.

“I’ve mentioned this on and off for years, Sarah.  I’m leaving my china to you,” she’d said.


“Because I’m leaving the silver to Glennie.”

“No, I mean why are we talking about this?”

“Because I’m cleaning house, too,”

I didn’t want the china.  I don’t really want anything, except what I already have, a pale orange sweater she knitted for me my freshman year of college and the few photos she parceled out last Christmas.  But what I want isn’t the point, though I have trouble remembering that.  The point is that she wanted to give me something, me and Al, and she wanted to give it then, before she got to the now, in which on bad nights I pop in for a visit and find her sitting in the nursing home hallway strapped into her wheelchair, picking at the scab on her head.

“Be gracious,” she’d said finally last summer, as our conversation wound down.

“About a moldy shower curtain?”

She didn’t think I was funny.  She said, “You’re being flip.  How’s Al?”

I peeked out the window again and saw Al bent over our vegetable patch.  He seemed to be examining the garden.  He seemed to be debating.

“He’s trying to weed.”

“Trying?  Is he actually doing anything?”

Grandma loves most everything about Al, except what she interprets as a certain lack of decisiveness. It’s hard not to love Al, with his big dimples and white blond hair, as if it has been bleached. But her love came around slowly, after she recovered from our decision to live together.

“Is he going to ask you to marry him or not?”

Grandma had sounded perturbed, and I remember thinking, It’s my life. I couldn’t be pressured into doing what I wasn’t ready to do. She blamed Al for my reservations.  She expected me, after all, to believe in marriage, as if her success ensured mine.

I stared out the window at Al, who had begun to vigorously pull up my basil. I didn’t stop him.