Every December I spend a Sunday at the toy store where I formerly worked wrapping presents for donations to the MSPCA. I went with December 9 because it's close enough to Christmas so that there is a lot of shopping, but not close enough to the last-minute frenzy that I'm overwhelmed. Plus Sunday works best because hours are 10:30-6 instead of 9:30-7, so it's a bit more manageable for one person. Today we made $218!
While at the store, my friend Melissa pointed out a very bittersweet new children's book called "The Remember Balloons" by Jessie Oliveros and illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte. It tells the story of a little boy and his grandfather who experience the sorrows associated with dementia. In the story, different colored balloons represent fond memories. The little boy has a small few due to his young age, and the grandfather has a whole bouquet collected throughout his lifetime. However, as they get older, the grandfather starts to let balloons go. Over time, he even loses balloons that were shared between him and the grandson. When most of the balloons are gone, the boy's parents point out that because the grandfather had shared all of his favorite stories while he still remembered, the boy had taken over the balloons his grandfather had lost and they were now his stories to share.
It's a very sad story, but it made me think of all my connections to my grandparents. Last year, I recorded some of my maternal grandmother's memories of her early life and how she met my grandfather, and this year, she barely knows her own daughter, let alone any of her grandchildren, and I'm not sure any of those memories are accessible to her anymore.
My maternal grandfather passed away two years ago. His memory was still sharp and he rarely missed a beat. While this story describes the different kind of loss that comes with losing a person rather than that person's life, I still relate to the metaphor of cherishing happy memories and trying to bring them forward over time, even if they are secondhand.
My paternal grandfather had a similar struggle with dementia. Over the last ten years of his life, the details of his childhood and early adulthood years were very unclear, and we were never sure if a story was real, invented, or taken from somewhere else. It made it very hard for him to communicate with his family toward the end. I remember him describing his crossing of a rickety bridge in France when he was a young man, even though he had never been to Europe.
My paternal grandmother died 15 months before I was born, and though I never met her, I still hear stories about her today. Maybe they are not as clear as they would have been coming from her, but I can imagine them through the words of those who knew her best.
Although this book brought tears to my eyes, it's a valuable one to have on hand for anyone with a young person trying to come to grips with the loss of a loved one.
Hannah Dunscombe is a painter and portrait artist based in Mansfield, MA.