4: The Girl with the Golden Curls

4: The Girl with the Golden Curls

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

The Girl with the Golden Curls

Just like the butterfly, I too will awaken in my own time.

~Deborah Chaskin

“But I don’t want to take care of Grandma!” I said. I was 17, and it was the first day of summer vacation. I was looking forward to the best summer I’d ever have. In September, I’d start my senior year, and after graduation I’d have to get a job. This was the last summer I’d ever be completely free, and now my mother was trying to steal my last summer by forcing me to take care of my grandmother. My grandmother lived two hundred miles away. If I went to stay with her, I’d be cut off from all my friends.

My grandmother was 80 years old and had diabetes. She was in bad condition, and it was only a matter of time before her foot would be amputated. She also needed an insulin shot every morning. I would have to learn to give her a shot, cook all her meals, do all the housework and laundry, and take her to her weekly doctor appointment. It wasn’t fair!

Although we had a large family, no one else could or would take care of Grandma. I was told that if I didn’t take care of her, she’d have to go to a nursing home. A heavy burden of guilt was heaped on my shoulders. If I didn’t agree to take care of her, I was a selfish, terrible, spoiled teenager who only cared about myself.

I’d spent very little time with Grandma while I was growing up, and I barely knew her. This was going to be the worst summer of my life.

I practiced giving injections on an orange, but the first time I had to give her an insulin shot, I nearly got sick. Her diet was very strict, and her food had to be measured and cooked a certain way. She blamed me for what she considered “tasteless” meals.

I missed my friends and knew they were having fun going to the mall and on dates. I wasn’t going to have a single date all summer. My life was over.

The only things in her house to read were National Geographic magazines from the 1970s. I asked her if there was anything else to read, and she said she thought there was a dictionary in the desk. I had the feeling that before the summer was over, I’d be reading the dictionary and be glad I had it.

Twice a day, I had to change the bandages on her right foot. Two of her toes were black. It was only a matter of time until they fell off in the bandage or had to be amputated. Every time I changed the bandage, I prayed when I removed the gauze that her toes would still be attached to her foot.

She was confined to a wheelchair, and one day I pushed her out into the yard under a shade tree and sat on a lawn chair next to her. A butterfly fluttered past us, and she smiled for the first time since I’d arrived.

“When I was a little girl, I loved butterflies. I would chase them, but I never caught them, because if you catch them, they die,” she said.

I tried to imagine Grandma as a young girl who liked butterflies, but I couldn’t. She was just a sick, old woman, and I was stuck with her.

“When I was a young girl, I had beautiful, long, golden curls that hung past my waist. In fact, when I sat down, I had to pull them aside or I’d sit on my hair. Everyone was jealous of my long curls. My mother would wrap my hair around her fingers at night and tie little strips of rags around my hair to make curls,” she said. “My mother died when I was 11. I had to take care of my two younger sisters and my three younger brothers. From then on, I did all the cooking and cleaning. My father was a quiet man; he hardly ever talked. I had to stop going to school in the fourth grade. I cried because I couldn’t go to school anymore.”

I realized I’d never known anything about my grandmother. “My father said he’d lost our farm, and we had to move from Kentucky to Kansas. I hated leaving the green hills of Kentucky for the flat, dry plains of Kansas. I had friends in Kentucky. I never got to make friends in Kansas because I was too busy taking care of my father and my five brothers and sisters. When I was 16, a neighbor boy asked me to marry him, and I said yes. We’d never even had a date or kissed, but I was so tired of cooking and cleaning and taking care of five kids that I wanted to get away. He had pretty blue eyes, and so I married him. My two sisters were old enough to take over the cooking and cleaning,” she said as her eyes looked far into the past.

Every afternoon after lunch, I’d push her wheelchair into the yard, and she’d tell me more stories about her life. I don’t think anyone had ever heard the stories before.

She’d always lived on a farm, and it had barely provided enough food for the family. When she was still in her teens, she had two daughters who were stillborn. She had nine more children.

I’d been upset about not going to the mall and having dates. When she was my age, she’d lost her mother, left school, helped raise five siblings, gotten married, and had two stillborn babies.

Every day, we sat in the yard and drank iced tea while she told me about her life. The days flew past. It was hard to believe that I’d ever dreaded spending time with her.

By the middle of July, her diabetes had become so bad that her foot had to be amputated, and the family decided to put her into a nursing home. She needed more care than I could give her, and I’d have to leave and return to school soon.

I went home. I still had half of a summer ahead of me, but I wasn’t the same person I’d been when I left six weeks earlier.

I never saw Grandma again.

The summer I’d thought was going to be my worst turned out to be one of my most memorable. I was always grateful for the opportunity to know and love my grandmother.

When I think of her, I don’t think of the white-haired, old woman in a wheelchair. I think of her as a beautiful, young girl with long, golden curls who loved butterflies.

~April Knight

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