A litany of little things


My grandma wrote down everything.

In calendars from funeral homes, she’d write whether anyone came to visit (“Phyllis trimmed shrub after dinner”), masses she attended, and names of people who died, with their ages behind their names. All these little things.

Grandma’s notebooks are inside a scrapbook now beside her bed in the nursing home. Sunday, her fingers gripped mine tightly. Her eyes bore into mine and her mouth was pursed tight, so I kept talking.

I told her about the meal we’d all eaten the night before when our extended family got together. Someone had made her sloppy joes, and her chicken, and her graham cracker dessert. Someone else had made rhubarb crisp, and my cousin’s close to perfecting the Grandma Schroeder cookie recipe. Close.

My eyes left hers to encourage Alice to smile. “I ate three of them.” Alice nodded and smiled at her great-grandma.

I looked back, and told her more: my uncle had said Mass for all of us; it was nice, I said. (Nice? I questioned myself. “Lady calls Holy Spirit dwelling among us ‘nice,'” my brain creates headlines from The Onion when I’m nervous.)

Well, anyway.  Grandma didn’t flinch, so I went on about swimming in my aunt’s blue pond, and how my daughters and I were going back to Michigan in a little bit so the girls could go to school the next morning. Alice is in second grade; Violet’s in kindergarten, I said, pointing to the girls beside me. Grandma’s eyes held mine.

I just kept talking, holding her hand. What the hell else is there to do, except pray, when Alzheimer’s wipes away the internal journal? I think it’s OK to just keep talking; anything kind will do, I think.

Now we get to carry the little things, our family: the meals, the visits, the remembering, the retelling. Now we get to do that for her, our last gift to her, maybe, besides making indents on the foot of her bed while we sit. And pray.

The little things make a life, carrying us from Monday mornings to Sunday nights, and don’t I feel that when we line up plastic containers on the counter to fill them with snacks and fruits for school lunches? Don’t I feel the weight of a week until I can barely keep pace?

Don’t you, too?

Isn’t it hard to remember this? I think about her discipline in never missing a day of recording her life of small things: one week in November’s notes are on a motel notepad, stuck inside. She kept this. Why?

Don’t the skies keep turning us, the clouds morphing and racing beyond us, where our feet can only move in small steps? Did she feel that, too? Does she?

This is why we tell stories, or write recaps of our days in journals we pick up as freebies from funeral homes (oh, Lord, I can’t even). The globe keeps spinning. The clouds move. That’s all that stays, that sky. Oh, the sky.

I’ve spent a year now, thinking of small experiments our family has made toward new monasticism and intentional spiritual practices. I moved during this year. I sent the kids to school during this year. I’m horrible at small, I suppose.

And Grandma wrote, “Erin’s grad party, potato salad. Home at 10:30 PM.”

Smaller. Think smaller.

What story are you keeping track of? Is it small enough?

9 thoughts on “A litany of little things

  • Beautiful!! Thanks for reminding us that the small stuff does matter! Grandma impacted all of us in so many ways! It’s awesome watching your generation interacting with family. Mom would be so proud of all her grand and great grandkids!

    • Thanks, Karen! I think this long goodbye that Alzheimer’s gives us has allowed us a few graces, one being the deeper appreciation for their lifelong faith. It still sucks, but … Gotta look for the graces.

  • Erin,

    Wonderful reflections on your visit with Mom. And nice reflections on life in general–being attentive to the “little things”!

    I will be meeting with that Sister working in Brazil this coming Friday, as a follow-up on the new-monasticism and other things. She said it won’t be a three hour conversation this time. We’ll see.

    Sending thoughts and prayers for this day.


  • Erin, this is so very real and beautiful, and I relate to it very much. In my grandmother’s last months of living I used to go visit her (when in town) and take old photo albums from her house. We’d pour over each picture and I’d just keep talking, talking, talking, the whole time. And she would lock into me with her eyes. She never spoke, but she listened with her eyes and every once in a while she would laugh–like she knew an inside joke about a particular picture that was lost on me.

    And you’re right about thinking small enough. What story am I telling? Not one small enough, because I am easily overwhelmed by it. Thank you for reminding me to think smaller.

    Grace and Peace,
    Shari (fellow Redbudian) 😉

  • Beautifully written! Thank you for sharing your heart. Sitting on the beside of an aging parent, grandparent, or dear friend is like standing on the shore of the Jordan River. We see heaven’s gates, and it is glorious.

  • Beautiful. Tears well up. I so do this and have done this since I was in fifth grade. I have large rubbermaid containers with all of my scribblings. Maybe not daily, but for sure regularly. I wrote down more than just what I did, but also my thoughts, feelings, prayers. Lovely post. It is indeed the little things. Remembering the stories. (Glad I found your website.) – Cornelia from West Linn, Oregon

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