Whenever my brother and I stayed with my grandmother as kids, she'd have us paint a cinderblock wall with water. Easily 10 feet high, the wall ran the length of the house, dividing my grandparents' property from the house next door. Its bricks were uniform and painted the color of sun-faded band-aids -- beige, but also grey.
"This is going to take forever," my brother said the first time we were put to the task.
My grandmother set down a soup pot that she'd filled from the tap, and two of my grandfather's old paintbrushes. "Then I guess you'd better get cracking."
This always happened around noon, when she'd had about enough of us. We'd hear the kitchen door lock as she closed it behind her, and we'd watch through the window as she sat in the breakfast nook with the newspaper.
Reid, my brother, would knock against the window. "When can we come back in?" He'd shout.
She'd look up at us and mouth the words "When you're done" and turn to the Sports section.
"Son of a bitch."
We could never really be done, though, not with how hot summers were in Whittier, California. We'd get a quarter of the wall painted, and the sun would bake off the water and we'd have to start all over again.
Reid was always the first to quit. "This is insulting," he'd say, throwing his paintbrush onto the driveway. "Painting a wall with water. I mean really."
I'd stick with it, though. I'd figured out early on that if I stayed out there long enough, my grandmother would eventually come out to join me and inspect my work. And as she did so, she'd wander into some story about herself, my grandfather, my family. Some homespun memory that I shouldn't have believed but that, through sheer force of will, I did.
I remember her telling me about the time during her childhood in Depression-era Chicago when she peeled fresh tar off the street and used it as chewing gum. And about how, a few years later, when World War II broke out, she worked at a military hospital outside San Francisco, where she once gave a piece of her mind to Helen Keller for telling a group of newly-blinded soldiers that they were lucky to have their hearing.
There were other stories. About marrying my grandfather the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. About lunching at the Beverly Hills Country Club, and crawling in tunnels beneath the Pyramids, and riding donkeys up Santorini's cliffs. I never found out which of her stories were true, but didn't matter.
About five years ago, though, my grandmother started losing herself to a sort of low-grade dementia. Every time I talk to her it seems like her mind's filled up, like there's no room for anything new. Now, her only memories are the ones she formed years ago, and even those cause problems. She can't remember when she lived in Chicago. She's adamant that she'd never been to Egypt. More and more, she's started asking me to fill in the gaps, and more and more I've found myself toying with the facts.
In March, I flew to California to celebrate my grandmother's 90th birthday, which, at least how I remember it, was a pretty sad affair. My family gathered at my aunt's house, where we played games, and ate my grandmother's favorite foods, while she sat confused, trying to recall our names. As the night wound down, my mother brought out 10 boxes of slides that dated all the way back to my grandmother's youth. Here was Jackie as a soda jerk in San Jose. Here was Jackie the night she met Dick, my grandfather. Jackie and Dick at their first house.
"Who is that?" She'd lean over and whisper to me.
"That's Liza Minnelli," I'd tell her. And then, when my mother slapped me on the back of the head, I'd correct myself. "That's you. And that's grandpa. And that's the time you two went to Greece." Again, I found myself playing the role of my grandmother's reconstructionist, picking through the facts that I knew, then polishing with my own embellishments. I watched her eyes as they emerged from a blank grey fog, widening as she remembered something that was maybe a little better than it actually was, if only for an instant.
Lately, I can't help but think that as my grandmother slips away from me, maybe it's in that instant where I can find a silver lining. As her memories betray her and abandon her, maybe they're also making room for someone to paint something a little better. Maybe they're allowing her a moment to marvel at the way water drips off the wall before it vanishes, freeing up space to be filled again.