November 2023


There are no words

By Anna Goldsworthy
Finding solace and surprise around a family Scrabble board with a grandmother in decline

GEEKS, my cousin spells out.

“What are you implying?” I ask.

He grins. “Take a look around this room.”

My aunt laughs uproariously. “I was manic on Saturday. Ask your sister!”

HYPER, spells my brother, on a Triple Word Score. At the beginning of this game, when he allowed me to be his partner, he suggested 30 points per move as an appropriate minimum. Once again he meets his quota.

“Well done, darling!” beams my grandmother, Minna, who is the only one playing without a teammate.

“Watch out,” says my other cousin. “Minna’s got her eye on that other Triple Word.”

“Red rag to a bull,” my father agrees, and leans back on his chair to check on my grandfather, behind the curtain. We’re making it up as we go along, he had said to me, when I arrived.

“What’s that Grandpa doing?” asks Minna.

“Just having a lazy day,” my father reassures her.

Sometimes, when I was small, my grandparents would take me to the symphony. Grandpa was still working back then, and was purposeful and energetic, but he would often fall asleep when the music started. I remember sitting in the front row of the dress circle at Festival Theatre, watching Rolf Harris caper through the orchestra, painting on a giant easel or tying down a kangaroo. Minna sat beside me in bright-eyed enchantment. When Grandpa snored, she elbowed him awake. “Never do that again,” he whispered with surprising vehemence. I had smuggled in some sprigs of parsley from dinner, which were becoming clumpy in my fists. As soon as I was sure nobody was looking, I casually unfurled them and sprinkled them over the balcony, garnishing the audience below.

In recent years, I would take Minna to the symphony alone. She always looked beautiful when I came to collect her, with her snowy white hair and pastel silky tops, and the silver owl brooch my sister had brought her from Mexico. For years her knees had given her trouble, and during interval she would remain in her seat, insisting she wanted to read the program. But on the way in and out she would smile brightly at the people we met, and always knew the right thing to say. Sometimes they were important people, and sometimes, to my surprise, they didn’t seem to realise that she was an important person too. Instead, their eyes brushed over her and away as if they thought she were just an old lady. Very rarely we came across someone she just didn’t take to – because of his superior manner, perhaps, or ostentatious bow tie. Such lapses of charity were so rare I would report them gleefully back to my aunt, and we would cackle together, with something like relief.

I wonder now how long she had been concealing it. How long she had managed to pass, through expert deployment of curiosity and empathy and those social reflexes honed over a lifetime. It must always have felt like joining the conversation halfway through. I remember a game of charades many Christmases ago in which she kept on calling out the answers of her own team, even though she already knew what they were. At the time we had all laughed at her enthusiasm and impulsiveness.

The last time I went to collect her for the symphony was shortly before the pandemic. I arrived straight from work to find my grandparents sitting at the table in their dressing gowns, doing the crossword. Grandpa was eating a piece of toast. They were surprised but pleased to see me. They were always pleased to see me.

“Goodness, darling. We weren’t expecting visitors so early,” Minna exclaimed. “It’s still dark outside!”

I felt a type of vertigo, as if I had fallen into another dimension, outside the usual laws of time and space.

That night, I went to the concert alone. The next day I ordered a clock that spells out the time, the day, the date, and whether it is morning or afternoon.

MONDAY AFTERNOON, it tells us now, in its giant white letters.

My grandmother dexterously turns HYPER into HYPERACTIVE, collecting the Triple Word square in the bottom right corner.

“Seventy-five,” notes my brother, grimly.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” says my cousin.

Minna looks pleased, but no more pleased than if someone else had come up with such a spectacular word.

“What’s that Grandpa doing?” she asks.

“Just having a lazy day,” my father repeats, from behind the curtain. I lean back and watch him take my grandfather’s pulse, and then stroke the side of his head.

“You have such a strong heart, darling,” he murmurs, kissing his temple. “Such a strong heart, and it just keeps on going.”

I dreamt once of walking down the side of a river with my grandfather. We were in a magical city, in which all the buildings were picked out in fairy lights, and as we passed a church we heard the sound of a pipe organ. In this dream – as in life – Grandpa was a pipe organ enthusiast, and he sprang up the steps to investigate, with the agility of a mountain goat. I followed him into the church, where we found a congregation of people singing about the joys of getting old. Their voices were rich and resonant.

As Grandpa aged, his body became brittle and twiggy as if it were returning to earth. Sometimes I caught him looking at his hands with astonishment. They were covered in black blotches; the skin was so thin it would often leak blood.

“We’re still enjoying life,” he would tell me when I visited. “The staff here are wonderful, and we still have each other.”

“Why do you keep mumbling, dear?” Minna would ask.

“What was that?”

“I said why do you keep mumbling?”

He winked at me. “I think your grandmother might be a little hard of hearing.”

“What’s that, dear?”

“I said I think you might be a little hard of hearing.”

She chortled. “I think we might both be!”

And the two of them would gaze at me with such joy and pleasure that it was like being illuminated. At home, later that night, the force of that gaze would come back to me and make me laugh with delight.

Yesterday (SUNDAY MORNING) was the day my grandmother forgot my sons. When we arrived, the room was packed full of my cousins: a forest of young men who seemed to brush up against the ceiling. My grandfather lay between them like a fallen oak.

I saw that my sons were young men too, or would be soon.

“Can all these people possibly be my relatives?” Minna asked.

My sons were surprised and a little hurt that she no longer knew them. All those years of Scrabble; all those recitations in loud and awkward voices about their favourite sports and their musical progress. Only last month my teenager had installed Spotify on their computer while my younger son gave Minna a back rub.

“Aren’t I lucky,” she grinned. “Getting a massage from such a handsome young man!”

“I pegged early that this was a very caring boy,” Grandpa said.

“What would you like to listen to?” my elder son had asked.

My grandparents looked puzzled, and I wondered if music, which had always been such a central part of their life, was now finished for them.

But then Grandpa remembered something.

“It was an étude, I think. By Chopin. In A flat major.” His voice was so soft it seemed to be located somewhere between speech and thought. “Even though it was my favourite piece, I was never satisfied with any performance I heard, even by the greats. Until one day I performed it at the retirement village where we lived for many years, and I played it completely to my satisfaction.”

He chuckled. “My interpretation was exactly what I had always wanted. A woman came up to me and said ‘Reuben, you took me to heaven.’”

TUESDAY MORNING, says the clock. There are fewer of us playing today, and the unspoken rule is to keep the game moving. AI, spells my cousin, like a portent of a dark future.

“No acronyms,” I say.

“Actually it’s a two-toed sloth.”

“Isn’t it three-toed?” asks his sister.

She checks the dictionary, and a small frown appears in the middle of Minna’s forehead.

“I think I must be going mad,” Minna says, very carefully. “But I have to ask. Where is Grandpa?”

I move around to her side of the table and wrap my arms around her.

“He died last night. Peacefully, in his bed, surrounded by family.”

“But how?”

“His heart just stopped beating.”

“But was he in pain?”

“He had no pain. It was the very best way to go.”

“But I didn’t even get to say goodbye!” she wails suddenly.

“You did!”

My cousin takes out his phone to show her the photo in which she is kissing our grandfather. We don’t like it because he looks like a dead body. Because he is a dead body.

“Oh thank you, darling,” she says tearfully. “I just wasn’t ready for him to go.”

“Of course you weren’t,” says my aunt. “You’d been together for 75 years.”

Minna pauses on this fact with something like wonder. Then she resumes her weeping. “He was such a lovely man. I don’t know why I should keep on going.”

“Because we all love you so much.”

“I love my family,” Minna concedes. “But I loved Grandpa most of all.”

When they moved into the nursing home, I sorted through years of my grandfather’s meticulously annotated diaries, with that familiar handwriting that spoke of order and planning and the correct management of days. Then I came to Minna’s birthday book. It was crammed with the names of friends – so many friends! – from primary school and teachers’ college and country towns all around Australia. Most of them had the word DECEASED printed neatly alongside them.

I worried about her going to all these funerals: it must have felt like living through a genocide. Occasionally she became sad, as when she spoke of one of the “tennis girls” she had met weekly for half a century, who no longer knew who she was. But then her eyes would alight on something nearby – some flowers, perhaps, or a dear little bird in the tree – and she would smile again, expertly blinking away the tears.

Today, I wore a floral dress and brought daffodils. My cousins brought tulips, her favourites.

“Look at the flowers on Anna’s dress!” my aunt calls out.

Minna gasps with delight. “Oh darling, they’re beautiful!”

She picks up a single tile, and places it on the Triple Word. QI. Life force. It has always been one of her favourites.

Many years ago, my father published a story, “Triple Word Score”, in which a mother and son use Scrabble to communicate things they could never otherwise say. Last night, when I couldn’t sleep, I went searching for it among his collections of stories. It was much as I remembered: a sketch in four pages, executed as deftly as a game of Scrabble. The mother is the family Scrabble champion, but in every other way she is my grandmother’s opposite: “stonily impassive”, with her “mouth tightly clenched, giving nothing away. A pullet’s arse, he thought.”

But I am startled, now, by the story’s beginning: “‘He just dropped,’ the mother murmured. ‘In his tracks. Without warning.’” I had completely forgotten that the game was played in the aftermath of the father’s death. Here we are again: life imitating Scrabble imitating life.

QA, spells my cousin, but the Triple Word has already been used.

“What’s that?” I ask, sceptically.

“A form of classical Chinese poetry,” Minna offers courteously, like a cup of tea. “From the Yuan dynasty.”

Then her brow descends.

“I think I must be a very stupid old woman. But where is Grandpa?”

I move to her side of the table and wrap my arms around her. “Grandpa died last night.”

Her downy cheek is as soft as a child’s against my own. “But how?”

This morning, before my father left for chemotherapy, I asked him if we needed to keep telling her. “I think so,” he said, “because she feels sad but can’t remember why.”

“His heart just stopped beating,” I tell her.

“Was he in pain?”

“He had no pain. It was the very best way to go.”

“But I didn’t even get to say goodbye!”

Again, the photo.

“Look at the flowers on Anna’s dress!” my aunt calls out.

Soon the board is so densely packed there are no clear opportunities. Minna inserts an I between MAZE and THOUGHT, forming the only word I have ever taught her.

“I taught you ZIT when I was a teenager!”

She smiles at me. “I believe you may be right.”

Then her forehead puckers, and she glances around the room.

“I think I must be getting confused. But where is Grandpa?”

My sweet cousins are trying to be merry, but they look hurt, in the eyes. How can you hope to move through the stages of grief when you cannot remember that threshold moment?

We tell her again, and after her next turn, we tell her again. Soon we have refined a monologue that answers all the questions:

Grandpa died on Monday night.
His heart just stopped beating.
He felt no pain.
You kissed him goodbye and he knew he was loved.
Family was there, and Dad (Peter) checked his heart and found that it had stopped.
You had been together for 75 years.
You are in shock and sometimes you remember and sometimes you forget.

After several more tellings, I write it down for her. It is a horrible note to give to a grandmother.

She reads it twice and then pushes it away. Then she picks it back up and reads out the final line.

“Exactly!’ she says. “I don’t remember because I don’t want to remember.”

She reaches into the drawstring bag for the final tile. At her next turn, she finds a slot for an O.

“WOE is me,” she declaims, in the low voice she reserves for mock gravitas. Then she grins, and there are no further questions. Finally she only has two tiles left. As she stares at them, I see the beginning of a frown. I prepare to nudge the note back to her, but then she picks up a letter in each hand and arranges them around LEASE in a pincer movement.

“This is a very silly word,” she says, fiercely.

She folds her arms and glares at the board. The word sits there, capitalised, like a faux pas. And yet perhaps it is a type of progress.

“Because I’m not at all PLEASED about what has happened to Grandpa.”

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a pianist and writer. She is the director of the Elder Conservatorium of Music at the University of Adelaide.

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