By Skylar Jennings
People say time feels slower when you are a child because you are experiencing everything for the first time, constructing memory after memory, making time seem like it's moving slower. Think about times when you go on vacation and how long that first day feels or how a weekend in the summer away from your normal life can feel like a year going by. For this reason, most people have some of their most vivid memories as a child; everything is new. As we grow up, life becomes more predictable, and we fall into more patterns, which make time appear to be accelerating, producing nebulous strings of memories. I grew up in New York City. I lived there, went to school there, and have spent the majority of my life there. My memories of growing up there as a kid are going to the park with my dad and my older brother, getting blisters from climbing on the monkey bars for too long, or the way my mom would drop me off at school in the morning, and I would cry because I didn't want her to leave. The regularity of these ceremonies has sculpted these memories together in my mind, intertwined and indistinct. But there was always Santa Fe. It was where my grandmother lived. We called her Bibi, but her real name was Baleine, which she hated because it meant whale in French and it made her insecure about her body. Bibi lived in, what I thought as a kid to be, a museum. Never-ending hallways, rooms with 20-foot ceilings, and a view of the desert and the distant mountain ranges that later in my life guided me to Georgia O'keefe. It had to be that large because Bibi was an art collector. Each of the long hallways and 20-foot ceiling rooms were packed with a skillfully curated combination of Native American art and the more modern abstract expressionist pieces which she collected throughout her life. She built the house for the artwork and put it on the top of a small hill, which was accessible by a winding gravel road through the front yard. In the back of the house was a little garden oasis in the desert, lined with colorful flowers. At night, the house would go black, and the faint noises from each room would echo throughout the quiet hallways, turning the long journey to the kitchen - for a late-night snack of ice cream or sopapillas with honey made earlier that day - a perilous affair where every statue became a ghost, and every mask became a face staring back at me in the dark. The walk back upstairs was always the worst part because the voice in the back of your head tells you to run, but there is something about running in the dark that only makes it scarier. Alzheimer's is a neurological disorder that leads to the loss of nerve cells in areas of the brain that are responsible for memories as well as language. It's a slow death: one of those contrived statements that people say whenever the disease seems to be brought up. This statement always felt strange; at least, the choice of the word slow was making me wonder if it meant it was slow for the sick or slow for the ones watching. You first see them forgetting your name, then they forget what day it is, and slowly, more and more of them are eaten away. Supposedly your oldest memories, childhood memories, are the last to go. When I learned my grandma had it, I was young and didn't know what it meant. As I grew up and we kept going to Santa Fe, I would see the impacts of the disease on not only her but my mom. Luckily there were distractions for both of us. For me, I was more than lucky that for many years all I remember about Santa Fe was how big the house was, how great the food was, and how much fun it was to go into that giant room where my brother and I stayed, with a quadruple bunk bed carved into the wall. I remember waking up in that daze of post-travel sleep where you're not quite sure where you are, but with my eyes still closed I could tell by the smell of pinion, mothballs, honey, and fresh flower that I was in the top corner bunk above my brother’s in that museum on the hill where my grandma lived. And early on, I would look out from my bunk and see Bibi sitting on the chair across the room, waiting for us to wake up. We would talk and tell her about school and our friends, and she would listen and occasionally read to us from Robin Hood or other fairy tales. At some point this ended, and I would wake up and look at the empty chair and think maybe she slept in, or that we had grown out of her early morning vigil. When everyone in the house was awake, we would make our way downstairs for a breakfast of huevos rancheros and then run out to play knights in the garden. Later in the evening, as the sun went down, the sky turned a darker purple and the temperature dropped,creating a kind of aura only found in the desert, we all would head out into the garden for dinner. After, my brother and I would go out into the grass and put on little performances ripped from the scenes of Monty Python. He would pretend to cut off my limbs one by one as my parents and Bibi drank wine and laughed until I lay on the grass with my arms tucked into my shirt and my legs into my pants, now just a body and head screaming “just a flesh wound!” As my brother and I grew older, and my mother knew we would be going there more and more, she asked the caregivers if they had any kids that they would like to bring to the house. One of them did; he was around our age, and he became close friends from an early age. The three of us were inseparable when we came to Santa Fe. Many of the times we would come he had school, so we would think of elaborate ways of getting him out of going so we could stay in that giant museum and play video games or build inventions or go into the garden and play games. My parents made the times my brother and I spent there some of the best I have from childhood. I waited for every visit, and for the feeling that I would get after arriving late at night at the little airport, sitting half-asleep in the back seat of the rental car, listening to U2's Joshua Tree (because that was a tradition) as the desert flew by the window. The short drive only ever got us about three tracks through the album, which is probably why now whenever I hear the song Where The Streets Have No Name, I can't help but think I am about to wake up to the car ignition turning off and my mom leaning back telling us we're here. My parents were always busy. My mother never wanted to put her in a home and believed that keeping her in her house around people, places, smells, and objects she knew would keep her alive for longer. Each visit there were new tasks; find the right doctor, hire part-time caregivers, get rid of the car and her license because it was too dangerous for her to drive, hire full-time caregivers, childproof the house in case she falls. The house that my grandmother built transformed with her as her condition deteriorated, and when she could barely remember who we were, my mom began selling the art so that she could pay for all the expenses. Every time we left and came back, there would be fewer and fewer statues and masks that haunted me as a child, until they were all gone. I never really knew how much this affected my mom, but for every piece sold, she tried to keep the house feeling the same for Bibi, who never noticed anything changing. The antique rugs tracing the halls were replaced with ones from Ikea, duct-taped to the floor, and the painting and murals that draped the walls were switched for knock-offs. Even in parts of the house she knew Bibi would never be going to again; someone without her eye for art would never say a word. For me, I didn't realize the impressions all this had until much later. I think it's what lead me to writing: the greatest weapon against a disease that steals your memory and use of language. Maybe I saw it as not only a way to fend off the fear that something like this would happen to me or someone I love, but also to use the very devices that were taken from my grandmother as a sense of tribute. Even though the fight may be futile, the fortress of memories I build on the page can outlast me when I'm no longer there to remember them. Bibi lived for a while after all the artwork was sold. She had people that knew and loved her keeping her alive. When she died, we didn't know what was going to happen with the house, and for two years, we continued to go and see all the people who were family at that point and stay in the big empty museum. The last time I went, it was just my mom and I. We knew it was going to be the last time. I had just gotten my driver's license, and my mom let me drive to the house from the airport. Seeing my dad do it so many times, I knew the way by heart. A few days later, standing in the bedroom before I left for the last time, all I could think about was that my brother was never going to say goodbye to the house, and for some reason, I couldn't cope with this fact. It was our childhood. It was the place where I remember growing up more than anything. It was my grandmother. For me, it only really felt like we were saying goodbye to someone when we left it that last time.
Read Issue 17