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The Incredible Shrinking Woman

Sick with Age

My grandmother laid in her bed, curled up beneath a crocheted blanket, with plastic tubes connected a machine that loudly pumped oxygen. She had become so small I could wrap my hand around her thigh. I called to her a few times quietly, but her eyes were glazed to the TV like they had since I since I entered the room a few moments ago.

She was “the incredible shrinking woman”. Every time I had seen her in the last five years, it seemed as though she had shrunk a few centimetres. Since she had only peaked to 4’9 in her adulthood, her shrinking-ness seemed even more exaggerated. I outgrew her when I was just twelve years old, and towered over by the time I was fourteen.

My Grandma wasn’t sick, but she was sick with age. Her 92nd birthday had just passed not too long ago. She used to go to my house every Sunday evening as a sort of tradition; we’d turn on the TV to a golf game and pour her a glass of wine. She would eat a full plate of dinner, plus a little dollop of desert and end the night with a cup of tea. A few years back that tradition waned as her appetite decreased. Each time, her servings became smaller, her bites a little more conservative. And just over a year ago she had stopped coming altogether.

“Grandma,” I said again, coming closer to her bed.

Finally, she looked up and for a moment I thought she didn’t recognize me. And then a smile spread across her face. I saw a spark of something before she had gotten so small, like she had never started disappearing.

“Well,” she answered. “Look who we have here.”

The Incredible Shrinking Woman

IMG_2556Dorothy Link was born in 1925, just a bit younger than the Queen, just a bit younger than Betty White, and literally older than sliced bread. She orbited the sun 93 times, lived through the second world war, seen the moon landing on television, and to her demise, witnessed the creation of the cell phone.

I was born in 1996, and grew up on Sherry Lane, a few houses down from my Grandmother’s home. The same home my father and his siblings were raised in.

Sometimes I wondered if she would have ever expected to have had a granddaughter like myself. Throughout a good portion of my childhood, I switched between dressing Barbies, to looking at bugs through magnifying glasses in my basketball shorts. I put my elbows on the table, and talked back to my mother. And then, I hit my adolescence and got all of these opinions.

My Grandma didn’t grow up with much. She lived with her parents until she married my grandfather in her mid twenties. She was a mother and a wife, and then our family matriarch; sitting at the head of the table at each family gathering.

Topics of conversation never strayed too far from what was comfortable, but my Grandmother often asked my opinion about what was happening in the world and just the world itself.

We would often disagree but I think we both understood that it was because we had gained two different perspectives on the world – we were, after all, a product of our times.

While I was accepting of most things, she wasn’t accepting of all things; while she had seen so much, I had seen so little.

We were two women from two completely generations. But, almost every week before I moved away I’d go to her house with my Dad on Wednesday nights and share a pot of tea. As I got older she listened to me and my slightly radical opinions, toned down enough as to not give her a heart attack. And in exchange, I became less indifferent to her old, and sometimes repetitive, stories and started listening.

She told me…

She told me about her parents, who at times had barely enough money to feed their family as the result of the war, but did anything they could to give them the best life.

She told me about her father who used to drive down the county road to an apple orchard and load the back of his truck with baskets  of its red fruit, and sold it to the families in their neighbourhood.

She told me how the kids at her school would call her a skeleton because sometimes she didn’t have enough to eat.

She told me she would be scolded after playing with the only black boy that attended her school, and never understand why until she got older.

She told me she met my grandfather at a her best friends house, and they danced in the living room until her curfew.

She told me one morning she got frustrated at my teenaged father, and while trying give him a little kick, he caught her foot and fell right on her bottom.

Most things my grandmother told me were stories I heard before. Sometimes she say them out the exact same way she always had, word by word as if it were a script. Sometimes she’d add little details that I hadn’t heard yet, layers upon the layers I would get a little picture that was her life.

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“Bill always stayed up so late,” she said out of the blue, speaking of her late husband as she so often did – a grandfather who passed before I was born: “I’d always be asleep by the time he came to bed.”

Her speech faltered and paused, sometimes out of a daze and sometimes out of breath.

“Bill loved music,” my grandmother gushed. “I realized later, he stayed up listening to it… writing about it.”

I had spent the entire afternoon in her small room at the old age home, which had been more time I than in the last two years since I moved away to University.

Like with everything else – telling her to breath a little deeper, eat a little more, have one more sip of that drink – I pressed my grandmother for more; I hadn’t heard this story before.

The stories she told about herself, her husband and her kids now grown, felt like I was unlocking secrets about where I came from. Learning more about them felt like I was also learning more about myself.

I learned that something like the love of music could’ve been passed down from a man I never had the pleasure of meeting.

“Oh, he was such a good man,” my grandmother added. “A good husband.”

I smiled softly. I heard her say that many times.

Life and Death

In the time that I spent in her room, I thought about so many things. But I mostly thought about death.

And there she was still living. Clinging onto life in a body that was breaking down.

I cursed my pretentious adolescent self who thought she knew enough about life to have any idea about what happened after. Now, I felt like I know absolutely nothing.

I wondered if it was some sort of betrayal to have thought of her absence was she was still here. I tormented myself enough sadness for the weeks after I saw her that when she was actually gone I thought I wouldn’t have any left.

But that wasn’t the case. The news hit me a month later when I had reached some sort of plateau; enough time had occurred in between my last visit that my Grandmother was a worry I placed in the back of my mind.

I was at work and talking to a customer. I excused myself, let my heart unravel in bathroom.


Ironically, while experiencing her death, I thought about life. I thought of all the life she had lived in her 92 years and the small fraction of that I got spend with her.IMG_2557

She might’ve not done anything extraordinary, like win a Nobel Peace Prize or climb Mount Everest, but she impacted the lives of her loved ones in profound and subtle ways.

One thing about the “incredible shrinking woman” is that she was no small woman. Her personality, her snarky, hilarious comments and one liners filled the room. As did her laughter. But the biggest thing about her was her gratitude. Towards the life she was given, and the family that surrounded her.

Loss is an unfamiliar feeling to me, so while I figure that out, I’ll continue to save her seat at family dinners. And perhaps I’ll pour an extra inch of wine in my glass… in her name, of course.

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Puberty & the High School Playwright 

For the most part, I am pretty privileged to say that my life, with a gradual incline upwards, has been going at a slow and steady pace. What I really mean by that is, I definitely didn’t peak in high school.

My first day of high school kind of set the stage for how my next four years would play out. Whether it was a blessing or a curse, the uniform at my Catholic high school was something that really did not come natural to me.

My old friend from grade eight came to my door on the first day of grade nine, and somehow managed to perfectly avoid the regular awkwardness that came from adorning a never-worn forest green kilt and matching sweater vest.

I, however, wore the exact same pieces, including two butterfly clips pinning back my overgrown bangs, pink and blue patterned elastics on my braces, and a pair of white knee high socks to go with my two inch heeled ballerina flats. I watched as she gave me a once over, with a look that foreshadowed her embarrassment as we walked several blocks to the bus stop.

High school was a strange time. The years that followed weren’t far from the standard I set on the first day. The braces came with the whole package: off-coloured foundation that barely hid my acne, dark eyeliner on my waterline, and outdated lenses. But as I said, with emphasis on slow, my experience steadily went upward. Overtime, I gained more friends, got rid of my acne, and then my braces – shedding a little layer of myself that was no longer needed.

Besides my apparent awkwardness, what I also brought with me from elementary school was writing. I jumped from interest to interest, from visual arts, drama, and even singing in musical; I became a jack of all trades in the world of amateur art. But writing remained a constant. Writing was something I developed a passion for in grade three, and storytelling was was something I could remember doing with my stuffed animals before I was able hold a pencil in my hand.

There were few times in my adolescence I was able to share that passion. I entered a few poetry competitions in elementary school and completed some short stories the years after. After years of sheer naivety, my dream of being novelist became something that seemed out of reach. I thought maybe I needed to choose something a little more practical.

I set aside my ambitions and made writing something that I did on the side. That was until my final year of high school.

plays the thing actual newspaper
SEARS DRAMA FESTIVAL: St. John’s College production advances to regional competition in Hamilton (Article by Michele Ruby, The Brantford Expositor)

 

April 2017 is the third anniversary of a play I wrote and directed in grade twelve. It was called The Fitzgerald’s; a dark comedy about a dysfunctional family at funeral. It was a two act play featuring a drunken grandmother, a gay uncle, a trophy wife, all members fighting and obsessed with their reputations. It was a script that was chosen and supervised by my eccentric drama teacher. My best friend was the stage manager, and the tight knit group of incredibly talented friends I made in grade eleven, starred as the main characters.

For nine months I did rehearsals twice a week and tweaked the script to its best and final product. It went through a regional competition called the Sears Drama Festival. The first official performance was in this small town in a place called the Lighthouse Theatre. That night, with nails digging into my seat, I had never been more nervous is my life.

And it was amazing.

The theatre was packed with students and the parents of students and theatre-goers. When the actors came out in tableau a hush went over the crowd. They acted on their marks and added their own touches to characters that finally meant something to them.

The audience was alive; they laughed in all of the right places – laughed more than I would’ve ever expected. I even saw a few people cry.

When it was over, I embraced everyone that was involved, including my drama teacher who was responsible for giving me that opportunity. I went out to the lobby and heard someone yell out, “Who wrote that?” and everyone pointed in my direction. The girl actually ran up to me, and amongst the absurdity of that night, asked for my autograph on the playbill. My family was beaming at me with pride.

It was a first for many things; my first play, my first real leadership role, my first piece of writing that was made into something and received awards for. The first time I ever really felt like I was taken seriously.

When we went back to school the next day, back in the uniforms and into our daily routines, I was still living on high that no one but myself, the actors and the crew knew about. Yet this time, my path was carved out, which meant I could walk a little more boldly.

To be honest, I hadn’t let myself think about that memory or that play for a while. Much like high school, I’ve entered a lull in my university career, letting the tedious stream of formal essays take out every ounce of fun I originally found in writing.  

However, this year in Ottawa, a young man was standing at the bus stop in my front of my school, staring at me like he wanted to say something. Eventually, he did and asked me if my name was Alannah Link, to which I replied with a confused yes.

He told me that he saw my play a few years back, and that him and his classmates all I loved it.

He didn’t know it, but he gave me a dose of nostalgia that reminded of me of that night, those people and that play. A story I wrote in the last year of high school and performed in front of just a few hundred people, found itself just 600 kilometres away from the town I first performed it in. Right then, the the world felt incredibly small. It made me want to search for that feeling again.

I recognize that I didn’t peak in high school, but I definitely made the happiest memory there.

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The Nice Girl

Rough patches are common, and come quite often, but this is the first time in a long time that I don’t really like myself.

This isn’t one of the periods of life where I can’t get my hair right, or none of of my outfits look good, or my makeup can’t really hide that pimple. Just like every other young woman, I’ve been experiencing those things as well, but this has something more to do with my character.

Recently, I was thinking back to when I was younger, and how people always described me as nice. I was a nice girl. My mother raised me right; I had good manners, I smiled at strangers, I complimented girls in public bathrooms, and said yes to almost every favour someone asked of me.

I even perfected the formalities of professional gatherings adults would have, strongly grasping the hands of socialites, making the right kind of eye contact, and laughing in all of the right places.

I think I prided myself on that. I grew up in school with some girls who weren’t that nice; who could pretend in front of parents that they were a golden child, but would draw nasty things on my face when the lights turned off during a slumber party. Or later in high school, when those same girls would make fun of just about anyone who was slightly atypical.

I was not usually an active passenger of my meanness; it happened passively when I laughed at the wrong times or didn’t stand up for someone who needed it. Sometimes it’s because I was tired and impatient, acting irrationally towards someone who also didn’t deserve it. Either way, those incidents I’d always later regret, and ponder restlessly into the night.

When it came down to it, I was just a friend to anyone who needed one. I gave my time to people who did not deserve it, and offered generosity to people I knew would never give it back. There were people who really hurt me, and they never knew how much they hurt me. Perhaps someone could argue that this gave me a sense of heroism, but looking back I genuinely think for the most part I was being good, to be good.

The nice girl appeared in the first year university, too. But she appeared in areas of life that she had never appeared before. Like dating, and professional settings.

After joining organizations and doing a range of small networking activities, the definitions of nice and formality became interchangeable. I’d converse with associates and then two seconds later they would turn around and their bright smile would disappear. Genuineness became rare. More than anything, being nice seemed like a tool in a well constructed PR campaign.

Soon, some things became apparent to me. I didn’t actually have to smile at everyone. Girls who glared at me as I walked by deserved, in my mind, to be stared back at just with the same amount of intensity. A sorry didn’t have to escape my mouth every few seconds as I made my way through a throng people. A man was not entitled to my attention, just because they showed some kindness. I no longer felt obligated to keep toxic people in my life.

My gradual gain in confidence let me hold my head a little higher. Unapologetic for the space I took, I compromised less with people who made me feel like I was in their way, literally and figuratively.

It isn’t necessarily like my niceness has ceased to exist. It just that it isn’t on all of the time.

Now, I focus on things like a tone of voice or a look that carries an ounce of disrespect and immediately turn the nice girl off. I could get an angry customer at work or a pushy stranger on the bus, I would let them know with a lingering stare that their disrespect was heard, and I didn’t like it. I’ve allowed this space where my confidence has grown – with the idea that my time, my space, my feelings are my own – to also grow an annoyance that bubbles to the surface when people get in my way, literally and figuratively… With strangers, it’s different. With family and with friends, my quick temper isn’t excusable.

I haven’t been able to compromise between my old self and my new self. I think that’s where my fault lies. 

People from high school would be surprised at how much I have changed. People I’ve met within the last two years would have a hard time can’t imagining me as anything but a little outspoken, confident and perhaps even to some, a little intimidating.

However, no happiness can come from reacting to every single act of rudeness. While being a good person makes one more vulnerable, I’d much rather be vulnerable than completely closed off.

The only thing I think I can do is plan to use the strength that came with my newfound confidence in all areas of my life. And with that, maybe allow the nice girl to visit more often.