I found out today that Thora Morris, a woman who was once a second grandmother to me, has been put in a nursing home because of dementia. This poem is about her.
Rose-thumbed, green to the elbow,
you smiled wide to see
a small girl in a flower-print dress,
barefoot, poking her head through the gate –
frowning, as children do, at the mysteries of rich soil,
bright violets, lush carnations –
you invited her in, down the dim hall
behind the screen door, past the old photos, out
to the veranda, sitting her down
beside the typical crocheted rug, the bowl of home-grown oranges
and told her stories.
Once, your hair was princess-red, burning a bright fire.
You rode a Clydesdale called Jack, whose broken gallop
threw you clear over the paddock fence. At school,
you were Puck, laughing as a stubborn boy vowed
that he weren’t sayin’ any thees or thous
when after almost seventy years, you still remembered your closing lines
and said them with me, word for perfect word.
Grown up more, you loved a man
who went to war, piloting the high skies. His name was Bing
and though you wished him home again
even his body never made it back, buried instead
with an English squadron, name marked up
alongside English dead.
I said, when I grow up, too
I’ll visit at his grave for you, or else
find his name on the memorial, so that one of us
could say we’d been. It’s not too late. I’m here, visiting the right soil.
I can still do it.
But your memory has betrayed us both.
These last few years, the older me has wilted away,
browning at the edges, peeling back like a dead petal,
falling aside; but there is no new blossom underneath.
Last time we met, your eyes wavered through me.
Here was some strange impostor, far too tall
and far too old to be Mary’s granddaughter –
Where is Philippa? you asked, and though I answered
here, I’m here,
you didn’t quite believe.
Now you’ve been taken away
to where the dementia can be kept at bay, ministered
by careful hands and careful minds.
I imagine you in a small, grey room, your tiny frame dwarfed
in a wooden chair, your clever hands idle, twitching for a trowel.
There will be no more gardening.
What will become of your roses? I try to imagine
the nurses will give you a plot of earth, some seeds to sow,
but in such institutions, life either visits, or fades;
a temporary gift.
It does not grow.