Sundays With Mummi

One of the highlights of my stay on the family farm was getting to spend time with my grandmother.

"Mummi" is my dad's mother. She's ninety years old and for the last I can't remember how long has been living at an old age facility about a ten-minute drive from the farmhouse.

(We call her Mummi because it's the name my cousin Seija gave her when Seija was really young. I think it's a toddler's interpretation of the Finnish word for grandmother, but I'm not entirely sure.)

For the last year or so, Mummi has been living in the nursing home part of the facility as her health has begun to decline.

Before this winter, I hadn't seen Mummi very much in recent years. This was partly because I'm not in Prince Edward Island very much, but I'm ashamed to admit it wasn't the only reason.

My grandmother is a very quiet and, on the surface, very passive woman. She's someone who requires a lot of effort to engage with; as her mind has begun to slip in recent years, so has her ability to hold anything more than a superficial conversation.

She's an easy woman to discount, because she's so passive. She was married to a hard-drinking, outspoken man and I suspect she grew or learned to accept to let her own wants and needs take a backseat to his. Since his death nearly twenty years ago, she's remained a largely private, enigmatic individual.

But that's not the sum of my grandmother, of course.

Her past comes out in bits and pieces, stories that spring up suddenly and unexpectedly in conversation, about life as a girl in the Finnish countryside during the Winter War with Russia. Bits of family lore about how my grandfather came to North America first to find work, leaving my grandmother to shepherd my very young uncle across the Atlantic when my grandfather sent for her.

There's the story about how my grandfather fell over the side of their fishing boat in the middle of the night, and his cries for help woke my grandmother, who even though she was much smaller than her husband somehow found the strength to pull him over the side of the boat to safety.

And of course, there's the Mummi I remember, a magnificent cook with a wonderful smile, who was always happy to have me visit her apartment in the James Bay neighbourhood in Victoria, who enjoyed walking downtown to The Bay for lunch in the cafeteria.

Who would smile and wave at me from her second floor window as I walked away from the building, watching me go until I turned the corner at the end of the street.

She's a woman of hidden strength and resilience, much more than meets the eye.

I'd been ashamed that I hadn't put forth more effort to see her. Especially as my dad was away working in Alberta, and so my mother was left to visit Mummi, which she did, though I could tell it was challenging for her.

Nursing homes are hard places to visit, no matter how nice they are. I don't think any of us walk through those halls and feel happy about the prospect of one day winding up there ourselves, helpless among the similarly helpless, playing out the string of our lives, dependent on an army of nurses and orderlies, no matter how kind and compassionate, to meet even our most basic human needs.

I noticed, after a few visits, that though Mummi's grasp of her surroundings seems pretty foggy, she's fastidious about thanking those nurses and orderlies who help bring her to lunch, get her fixated in her easy chair to rest her legs in the afternoon, who tend to her bathroom needs.

I want to stress that this nursing home of Mummi's is staffed with very competent and considerate people. She needs constant attention, and they cheerfully provide it. I can't see as we have any complaints.

But how many of us want to be in those places? How many of us want to imagine we, too, will wind up there one day, if we're lucky enough to live so long?

It's easier to push the thought from our mind. Avoid those places. It's easier to tell ourselves that our aging relatives won't even notice we've come.

And maybe they won't. Mummi often doesn't remember.

But she still smiles when she sees me. She thanks me for coming and holds my hand when I stand to leave.

She laughs with delight at the pictures of her great-grandchildren that I pull up on Facebook, at the stories I tell her about what my brothers and I have been up to. What Seija is doing.

She loves seeing pictures of Lucy.

And she still has stories to tell, too, if I ask her. She was a world traveler, back in her day, and she talks about her visit to China, the food and the bathrooms and the culture shock.

We don't have the deepest conversations, but I know that she's happy I've come.

And even if she won't remember I was there, I'd like to think my visits make a difference.

They certainly have for me.