The blade of the knife should face the plate. This is something my grandmother, my Emily Post, told me many times as we set the table for a Thanksgiving meal.
For all the years of my growing up, setting the table has been our mutual Thanksgiving job. Thanksgiving is the one meal of the year for which we take out the good silver, my great-grandmother's silver, from its hiding place under the bureau in my childhood bedroom. My grandmother used to polish that silver until she could see her face in the soup spoons (although we did not ever actually use the soup spoons), and then we would set the table together, ten places, or twelve, as many as fifteen some years. My grandmother would follow after me and straighten the occasional wayward utensil.
Now, I do the straightening. My grandmother's hands aren't as steady as they used to be. Last year, upon finding a knife with the blade facing out, I knew my grandmother had finally gotten old.
This shouldn't really have come as news: the woman is 93. Her short-term memory has been fading gradually for years; now it seems pretty much shot to hell. She repeats the same questions three times in the span of a five-minute conversation: where do I live (London), when did she see me last (August), what is my mother doing upstairs (peeing, I think). My grandmother, reader of mystery novels and doer of crosswords, purveyor of family history, struggles now to follow the dinner conversation.
Her long-term memory has fared better. Last Thanksgiving, we spoke to my aunt and uncle, vacationing in Rome, over Skype.
"When are you coming home?" my grandmother asked.
"Ohhh." She turned to me with a pinched face. "I don't like that at all."
"Why?" I wracked my mental history bank. "Is that Pearl Harbor?"
Grandma nodded solemnly.
We said goodbye to my aunt and uncle, and then, for the fifth time in twenty minutes: "Where's your mother?"
My grandmother has never had cancer, or heart disease, or a stroke; she has what she calls her "bum knee," high blood pressure, a sensitive stomach. Graceful aging runs in the family: her younger brother, at 85, still goes to work every morning.
And because her body has allowed her to, she has continued to insist on living by herself. As much as I wish she would relinquish what now seems like an absurd arrangement, I suspect this lifelong independence (and stubbornness) has allowed her to get to this age in such relatively mint condition. My grandmother raised three children on her own after my grandfather left, and, from her early thirties, never dated again. My mother once commented that she hoped Gram had a decent vibrator in her hey-day, and she might have: a nurse for Planned Parenthood, my grandmother fought quietly for women's reproductive rights long before they were fashionable or legal; she's never been prudish.
But now that she sometimes forgets her pills, and is unstable on solid ground, let alone the icy sidewalks of a Rochester winter, we've all been pushing her to move east. If only she lived just around the corner, rather than seven hours down the turnpike -- we'd all feel more secure.
We would, but perhaps not Grandma. She may not remember the conversation of the past five minutes, but that her children and grandchildren continually pressure her to move from her apartment of the last fifty-odd years, an apartment overrun with old pictures, with a desk still bearing my mother's elementary school pencil holder: this she remembers. And she's not giving an inch.
One day, my father sensed an opening. She commented how helpful he was, as he got something out of the fridge, or went downstairs to iron the tablecloth. He mentioned that maybe she'd like to be down the street, so she could reap the benefits of his helpfulness more often. She conceded that yes, that would be nice.
The next day, my father brought up this conversation.
"What?" Gram said, an incredulous look on her face. "I never said that."
I might be the only American in London who flies home at Thanksgiving. It's ridiculous, really, to spend a long weekend stateside when Christmas is just three weeks away, and the flight from Heathrow is neither very short nor very cheap. But every year, the idea of Thanksgiving passing without my grandmother has felt incongruous enough to warrant booking that ticket. For a decade she's been warning us that she might not be around next year. At some point, she'll be right.
It would put us, my mother in particular, at ease if my grandmother would spend the last years of her life closer to us. We think she'd be happier in Massachusetts, with more to do, more people to talk to.
But of course, the woman isn't senile. She may momentarily forget what she's doing with the onion she's halfway through chopping, but she remembers the vital things, and she knows what she wants. She has lived longer than she ever intended; sometimes, watching her trek up and down the hardwood stairs in my parents' house for no good reason, I think my grandmother is deliberately courting disaster, flashing two fingers at the universe that has allowed her to reach an age she considers both unnecessary and possibly cruel. I suppose -- though it's difficult to admit -- that having gotten this far, she probably deserves to live the rest of her life exactly how and where she wants, until she can't.
Until then, once a year, we'll set the table together, with my mother's polka dot wine glasses and my great-grandmother's silver. If Grandma's utensils are crooked, I'll adjust them when she turns away. She'll admire our handiwork, and remind me that the blade should face the plate.