"We really won't have time to miss any school this year," I remember saying at the beginning, "we'll have to make up any time we lose."
Remind me not ever to say something like that again.
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So, I am in a hotel suite just outside my hometown with my sleeping toddler and my sleeping 94-year-old grandma. I found a place with separate sitting rooms and a pullout sofa, so the baby would not disturb Grandma, and a full-service restaurant, so we could stay here all day.
We are here in this hotel because today Grandma's house is being treated for a massively terrible bedbug infestation. Do you know what a scourge bedbugs are? If you do not, now is the time for you to take a side trip to Google and educate yourself. I have dealt with roaches, and I have dealt with mice, and I have dealt with head lice, and I would take all of them over bedbugs in a hurry (I guess as long as the mouse infestation did not give me hantavirus; one thing that you can say about bedbugs is that they do not carry disease).
My grandma is really a very remarkable lady. She is frail now, but has only really been frail since she was 88 or so; up till then she always seemed the same to me, although maybe my cousins and brother would tell me that my memory is off or that my impressions were poor. She moves around by herself slowly, and you think she is tottering and in danger; but as you watch her, you see that she moves carefully, and pays attention to where she puts her feet. If you walk with her and give her your arm for support, you find (because with your arm out you are thrown a bit off balance) that you are struggling a little to keep up. She keeps track of her medications by lining them up in order on the kitchen windowsill, and every morning and evening after she takes her pills she sits down and enters them by hand in a notebook log, and marks the date. (The log also records COFFEE in its proper place, between the meds that must be taken on an empty stomach and the meds that don't have to be.) She keeps her checkbook register meticulously, paying all her bills and carefully entering them, along with $5 checks to every direct-mail charity who asks her for money and the occasional $11.49 payment to random sweepstakes contests, which my cousin had warned me Grandma thinks she's really going to win (more on that later).
Grandma was widowed 35 years ago; my grandpa, a plumber with his own business, died at 59 when I was five. I barely remember him, but he is legendary, and my impressions from the family stories are of a man who could be loving and exasperating, rough and gentle both. My mother often reminisced that he would shed tears whenever he saw anyone perform anything well or beautifully. There is also a story that he refused to leave a baseball game (or some other sports event?) when my grandmother went into labor, and the baby -- I don't remember which of her three children -- was nearly born on the way to the hospital. I really only remember sitting on his lap, playing with him with a deck of cards marked on the back with the name and address of the plumbing business.
After he died, Grandma became a world traveler. She took at least one trip a year throughout my entire childhood, with the same tour group. She never made it to South America, but she has been everywhere else. Stacks of photo albums prove it. She took my older cousin to the British isles, she took the next cousin to southeast Asia, she took me to the Iberian peninsula and North Africa, all when each of us were fourteen. Her last trip was to London to go Christmas shopping. I don't remember when that was.
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So, another relative whom I love very much, who values privacy, has been living with Grandma and watching out for her for several years now. This relative has had some health problems of late that got worse and worse over the past few months and maybe 5 weeks ago became uncontrollable and dangerous. The relative was then suddenly hospitalized, although not so suddenly that there wasn't time for the relative to line up half a dozen of the relative's own friends to bring Grandma groceries and check on her every day. (Everybody who meets my grandma adores her. It was not hard to get people to promise to bring her food and fix her thermostat when it went on the fritz.)
One of my cousins who, of the four grandchildren, lives closest (same state, different city), and on whom a lot of the responsibility has fallen because of that proximity, went to visit Grandma at Grandma's house and discovered the bedbug infestation. They had had them before, and it had been treated by Terminix twice, but apparently neither treatment eliminated them completely; and when the population grew a third time, the health problems of my relative had interfered with her ability to act promptly, and so the infestation had grown unchecked for several months.
So my cousin contacted the rest of us, and for a variety of practical reasons, it turned out that Mark and I were the ones best able to respond. We were delayed about three days because of some of Mark's work responsibilities. Then we piled everyone in the hastily-packed car and drove out of town.
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The bedbugs in Grandma's house being descended from the badasses that had survived two applications of pesticide, my cousins had selected a different kind of treatment. Heaters and fans and blowers are to be brought in to raise the temperature to 140 degrees everywhere in the house.
Mark and I left the kids with his parents and showed up Wednesday morning with the checklist that the new exterminator (not from Terminix) had given us. We needed to remove all loose items from the rooms, take all the clothing (except hanging clothes in closets) away to be dried on high (the kill step) and washed and dried again, disassemble all the beds, empty all the drawers, take everything off the walls, remove all papers and books to be later fumigated before returning to the house), remove all outlet covers and switchplates, unplug everything, and take the wallpaper border off the upper walls.
Since Grandma's house, though tiny, was packed top to bottom with her collections of antique glassware, porcelain plates and figurines, photo albums, and travel souvenirs, this was a formidable task.
It took three days. We fell into the traditional roles that seem to work so well: Mark mostly dealt with the furniture and switchplates and things, and I dealt with the clothes. There wasn't time to sort, really, so I packed all the clothes and towels and bedding in the house into thirty clear kitchen garbage bags, tied them shut and marked each with a knot of orange ribbon, and piled them in the living room. The next day I piled them on the lawn, put them four at a time into clear contractor bags, tied those off, and tossed them in the tarp-lined back of my van. Then I spent six hours at a laundromat with wifi, although there was little waiting time. It takes so long to load that much laundry into machines that by the time the last load was in, the first load was done. I hardly stopped moving for six hours.
One bright and pleasant spot: my best friend from high school stopped by between places she had to be, and kept me company folding clothes with me for an hour.
Those done, I bagged the clothes back up again, this time marked with a knot of green ribbon, and hauled them back to the house, to be stored in the bug-free basement until the treatment ended.
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Meanwhile Mark busied himself at the house. The second and third day, we brought our 15yo son to help. He moved furniture, scraped wallpaper, fetched and carried. He also spent a fair amount of time with his great-grandma, asking questions about the items he was helping pack into boxes, sorting the old foreign coins. He was delighted to discover a small container full of steel pennies from World War Two; when Grandma offered them, we gave him permission to accept these as a gift in exchange for his work.
Mark told us later, "I can tell that it was a plumber who hung that curio cabinet, with the figurines." It had been attached to the wall bolts with the kind of nut you use to install a toilet. We assumed it had been my grandpa who hung the cabinet, but Grandma told us my uncle -- also a plumber/pipefitter -- had done it.
I do not get back to my hometown very often, mostly on busy holidays. We all spent more time talking with Grandma over those three days than we had in the past several years. As the days wore on, I grew to realize that she really is still on top of everything. Mark had to ask her a lot of questions about various papers he came across, so he could store them retrievably; she carefully explained details about each insurance policy (sometimes misremembering the most up-to-date name of the insurance companies, due to mergers and takeovers across the generations, but remembering accurately the value of each policy and an overview of the coverage details). Occasionally she picked up her checkbook register to confirm dates and amounts. Wanting to know if Grandma would need to be taken to the bank to move money from savings into checking, Mark asked about her accounts, and received more details than he needed about Grandma's system of automatic deposits.
At the end of the third day Grandma and I decamped for the hotel, while Mark stayed to meet the exterminator.
We couldn't settle in until I made Grandma change all her clothes. Nope, I said, you can't change into new pants and then change your shirt. Nope, not even your underthings. Everything off and into the bag to be sealed, and then you can have your new things out of this sealed bag of clean clothes.
"Really?!" She gave me an unmistakeable I'm too old for this look.
That done, with minimal help, she combed out her hair, put it back up in a bun, freshened her makeup, got into the bedroom slippers I had bought for her that morning, and picked up the new purse I had bought on the same errand. I gave her my arm and we went down to the hotel restaurant.
I tweeted a picture of smiling grandma to my cousins.
And then a picture of my glass of wine, which all agreed I deserved.
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Partway through dinner Grandma looked straight at me and said, "Now Erin, I know I'm probably not going to win those sweepstakes. I have enough money, and it's something to do. Same with giving money to my charities. It's only five dollars for each of 'em. I don't have a lot of things to keep me busy anymore, and I like it. So I'm going to keep doing it."
I looked her in the eyes. She meant it.
Well, okay then. She knows what she wants. I'm going to listen a little harder from now on.