“How are you?” she asked, playing along.
“I’m doing really well. I’ve missed you.”
“You too sweetheart. Did you say hello to Gus? He’s working in the yard.”
“Not yet, no.” I chose not to remind her that my grandfather had died years ago, not long before my mother disappeared entirely. Not to mention the grounds surrounding the facility were covered in a growing layer of snow now.
“We were about to go play cards with the Smiths,” she said, fingering the top button on her sweater. She straightened, as if she meant to take off for her social event at any moment. She always had an air about her, like she wanted everyone to know that what she was doing was important, even if it was weekly game nights with the Smiths. I struggled to think of something I’d want my grandchildren to know to elevate myself in their eyes. I couldn’t think of anything.
“Yeah? That sounds like a lot of fun. The Smiths are sweet people.” I vaguely remembered them from visits when I was a child.
“We go every Friday, you know.”
I smiled and nodded, letting her chatter on, telling and retelling the news that she thought was current and worth sharing. Gus’s arthritis had been bothering him, never mind the cancer that had slowly been working its way through his organs the last time we could share a coherent conversation. On top of that, Bernice Smith had insinuated that her zucchini bread was superior the last time they visited. I offered my support and scoffed at the audacity of her lifelong friend to outdo her in the baking department, only a little jealous that on my current track, I might never know how to bake anything.
She glanced outside for a moment. I studied her face. She seemed unchanged from the young grandmother I’d remembered playing dolls with when my mother was away working. Lynne had always tried like hell to make ends meet. Back before alcohol had stripped away her will to fight and survive, for us.
I’d given up trying to bring Ruthie up to speed on anything I was doing. Our brief and irrelevant talks had to be enough, and I hoped they gave her some comfort. I wasn’t sure how much the people here entertained her, but she’d always been talkative before she started losing her faculties.
She faced me again, her eyes searching mine. I was about to speak, to pick up where we’d left off when she frowned.
“Are you my daughter?”
I shook my head. “I’m Maya, your granddaughter.”
“I don’t have a granddaughter.”
“I’m Lynne’s daughter, remember?” I hated bringing up my mother’s name in front of her, but sometimes it was one of the only ways she’d remember me.
Her cheek twitched and her hands twisted a mangled tissue in her lap. “I know who you are,” she muttered, her voice lower. “I told you not to come back here. I don’t have any money for you.”
I sighed inwardly, sending up a silent prayer that I could turn her back. “I’m not Lynne, Grandma, and I don’t need your money, okay? You’re confused.”
“Don’t tell me I’m confused,” she snapped. “I know who you are. I’d know my own daughter. Stop trying to trick me.”
“Lynne hasn’t been here to see you, has she?” I held onto an irrational hope that my dementia-riddled grandmother could unlock the mystery of my mother’s sudden disappearance.
“Gus was always giving you money. We should have kicked you out when that boy knocked you up.”
I sat back into the hard plastic back of the chair, fighting the urge to snap back at her. She was a child in her mind, even less. I took a deep breath, making myself believe it.
“Do you want to do a puzzle? They tell me you like to do them.”
“That’s enough! Stop trying to trick me. You don’t fool me, you little w***e. I told you not to come here anymore, and here you are. You’re embarrassing us.”
She shook her head violently, muttering a string of obscenities. Ironically, I’d never heard her curse until she’d gotten so bad that a home was the only safe place for her. I looked around the room, as if anything here could help me. She started shouting at me again, and I rose, warring with the part of me that wanted to defend myself and my mother against the harsh unfiltered judgments spewing from her.
As I was about to step out to get a nurse, the door swung open and Cameron’s frame filled the doorway. My body relaxed at the sight of him. His eyes flashed to mine and then Ruthie’s. He came closer, handing me a small foam cup and continuing toward her.
“Hi, Ruthie. Did you want some tea?”
She brightened immediately, as transfixed on his beautiful face as I’d been a moment ago. “Why, yes, thank you. I take mine with cream.”