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Her childhood remains vivid: holidays atop jungle mountains, resorts shrouded in clouds, trans-Atlantic ocean liners, flowing gowns whose colors I imagine through the black and white of the photos. “So handsome!” she exclaims. She wishes I could have known him, and I do too. I tell her what scattered memories I do have, of Opa throwing a beach ball to me in the backyard, of him, after he got sick, shuffling across her living room in a plaid robe and a pair of slippers with sailboats on top. To this day, Oma puts cotton balls in her ears during thunderstorms, dreams of the war. If she loses these memories, I worry, she’ll lose herself. When I think of the possibility that she’ll lose Opa, I stop short. Tom Cruise is on Oprah now, so the conversation turns to Oma’s devoted crush on Paul Newman, our mutual softspot for blue eyes, and boys in general. “Don’t make them jealous,” Oma says, then raises her shoulders. “Well, maybe a little bit” We conclude that Tom Cruise, while cute in Risky Business, is no Robert Redford. Later, as I’m leaving, she lets me ring the big bronze dinner bell by her front door, a treasure unearthed from beneath her childhood garage. On the ride home, I pass beneath old oaks and razed lots where I remember old oaks to have been. The woman two doors over is pulling into her driveway when I get home, and I think of the time she called my mother after a thunderstorm. The power had been out for a couple of hours. “What is going on here?” she’d said. “It’s like we’re living in a third-world country.” She doesn’t realize it, but Oma has lost her sense of smell. It’s another cruel twist of this disease, that its sufferers should lose the most eloquent trigger of memory. It is the sense that cannot be conjured and evades description; when it is inaccessible, it is gone. Oma can no longer verify whether the musty aroma lingering in the spines of her old books is her childhood home. Or her first home with Opa. Or something else entirely. I wish I had asked her sooner. There’s cinnamon and damp wood and jasmine in the spine of The Soul of the White Ant, a study of South African termites by Eugene M. Marais, her mother’s favorite book. This was Over-Oma’s copy, published June 3, 1937. Oma, dressed today in a pretty turquoise house dress, tells me that her mother was fascinated by small insects, particularly ants and termites. I remind her that as I child I wanted to be an entomologist studying weird bugs in the rainforest. We laugh because it’s ridiculous, the thought of me as any sort of scientist. I read aloud to Oma from the first chapter, “The Beginnings of a Termitary”: The functioning of the community or group-psyche of the termitary is just as wonderful and mysterious to a human being with a very different kind of psyche, as telepathy or other functions of the human mind which border on the supernatural. When one wishes to write of all these wonders, one is bewildered by the embarrass de richesses. It’s hard to know where to begin. Oma smiles; she is listening. The beginning of a termitary dates from the moment when the termites fly, after rain and usually at dusk, in order to escape their innumerable enemies. Even here we see a remarkable instance of the wonders of instinct. The termites beginning their thrilling flight know nothing about enemies. They have never been outside the nest before. The peril of existence is to them a closed book, and yet nine times out of ten they do not fly until the birds are safely in their nests. Perhaps Alzheimer’s is similar, in reverse. The individual, with time, shedding gradations of self, until what’s left must function on feeling and impulse alone. The body becoming a vessel to the inchoate mind. Oma perks up in the evenings. Where she used to fret, she is almost blithe. Oma, whose dreams were always vivid recollections of the war, of long-ago conversations, of Opa, now has nightmares which wake her shaking; the past wailing at the door, fists beating, locked out. Still, she suspects only that she getting old. It’s an especially insidious disease that devours a mind without revealing itself to the very mind it’s devouring. Or an especially merciful one. I make Oma a peanut butter and honey sandwich and suggest that we play hangman, another classic in our repertoire of word games. Oma guesses my word, “California,” almost immediately. Then she gives me a phrase, four words, punctuated with a question mark. It takes her some time to count out the letters. Before I know it my man is hanging hopelessly from the gallows. We’re laughing because Oma keeps forgetting letters and I keep getting confused. Finally, I give up and watch as she fills in the blanks, one by one, in her disciplined print: ARE YOU MY GRANDDAUGHTER? I don’t know what to do, so I say of course I’m your granddaughter! My tone is bright but my heart is breaking. It’s difficult to accept that she’s asking me this question in earnest. I know she has asked my mother similar questions, but here now, with her, I am not prepared. She recognizes that I am familiar, that my mother is familiar, but the context is clouded. She cannot place our parts in the play. I want to ask her, if she isn’t sure I’m her granddaughter, who she thinks I might be? I won’t ask though, as it would only confuse her more. She looks at the page with an absent smile, NOVEMBER 28, 2008 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29