My grandmother was moved to a nursing home this week. She’s my father’s mother, and she lived right next door when I was growing up. She stayed in that house, her only home for her entire adult life, until last Friday. Last Monday, my father and his sister took her to her doctor for an evaluation for long-term care. Her in-home caregivers were no longer able keep up with her increasing needs. Her mental and physical state, which had been slowly declining over the last few years, took a sharp nose-dive a few weeks ago. She was sent to the hospital, and from there, to the nursing home.
My “Granny”, as we call her, is The Last Wamboo. “Wamboo”, in my family, refers to my grandfather, any of his siblings, or their spouses. The siblings grew up in the farm house just up the hill from the house I grew up in. Most of them settled somewhere on the farm property when they married, and my grandfather bought up most of the original farm when his parents died. I grew up in a house on the property, too, which was built by cousins and later purchased by my parents when the cousins built ANOTHER house on the property.
I grew up under the watch of The Wamboos. I don’t know where this name got started. I’ve heard the tale many times now, in various forms, but I what I think happened is that someone’s child couldn’t pronounce someone’s name, and somehow it came out “Wamboo”, and it stuck. My family is like that about language. They don’t particularly care if it’s right, as long as everyone in the immediate vicinity understands it, the word is good enough for them. Why force some toddler to say some difficult name? We’ll just ALL begin calling this unfortunate individual “Wamboo”.
As an aside, my family has a bizarre accent. They put “r’s” where they don’t belong, and they often omit them from the ends or middle of words. If I type it out, “Put that dahlin’s boostah seat in the cah,” you’d probably read it as a New England accent, but it’s not. Imagine what the Kennedys would sound like had they lived in Georgia in an Antebellum mansion and you’ll almost have it . . . . (My family is not from Georgia and no one related to me has ever lived in an Antebellum mansion.)
One time in the 90’s, when I was living in California, my Dad called me long distance:
Him: I’ve bought a SPAR!
Him: A SPAR? YOU know?
I began fearing my father had somehow gone off the deep end and invested in some sort of horrible cock-fighting enterprise, but that didn’t fit his character. He hates team sports.
So I asked, as tactfully as possible:
Me: What in the name of Hell are you talking about?
Him: I bought a SPAR, A HOTTUB, A JACUZZI. . .
He said this last bit the way Eddie Murphy says, “Now that’s a FIRE!!!”
My father had bought the used SPAR for next to nothing, off someone who didn’t think it could be fixed. Never underestimate my father’s ability to fix something. He would have to reinforce underneath his back deck before he installed it, but within 24 hours he was using the SPAR, hooked up to his home electrical and water and mounted on the bed of a friend’s pick up parked in the yard. It became, briefly, the REDNECK SPAR.
My grandfather, who had just begun his slow descent into the grip of Alzheimer’s and who had never used language any stronger than “Goddurnit” said, “I don’t know why he wants the Fu%$%ng thing.”
About that same time, my father and brother and I began using the term “Wamboo” to incorporate anyone of that generation in the family. It simplified conversation for us. If my father said, “Well, this will be a mostly Wamboo gathering,” I knew I was going to get called “dahlin’ ” all night, and that my father would want a drink when we got home, possibly in the SPAR. (As the Wamboos aged, he began having a drink before AND after these gatherings.) The word could be used as an adjective, or even as a verb. “Your brother hadn’t been to a family picnic in so long, they Wambooed him to death last night.”
I loved the Wamboos. I loved hearing colorful tales of their youth. To give you an idea of the kind of tale a Wamboo would tell about their youth, a good story would likely involve a concrete ball, a glowing watermelon placed in the middle of the road as a practical joke, and their infamous farting pony named “Rifle”.
The Wamboos took care of me when I was growing up – took me shopping, made me lemonade with crushed ice (before your refrigerator could crush the ice for you), and bandaged my skinned elbows and knees. They were a fun bunch, and no excuse was too lame for a party. You know how grocery stores today sell half watermelons and quarter watermelons? That always makes me sad . . . The Wamboos could easily put away a whole watermelon when they got together, and possibly use it later in glowing form as a practical joke. And then they started dying, and we had to buy fractions of watermelons for family gatherings.
One by one, they slipped away – taken by age, dementia, and other illnesses. Some died easily and gracefully, like my great aunt who urged me not to stay if she died while I was in Virginia visiting, but to go on back to my home in California to “that sweet thing who loves you”. She simply stopped eating, closed her eyes, and died. Some had a more painful path.
The Last Wamboo’s reality is a harsh one. Her husband is dead. Her friends are dead. She is legally blind, has difficulty seeing, and becomes easily agitated and anxious. She has trouble getting around. This, from a woman who, after laboring in the house and her garden all day, cooked our supper every weeknight after my parents’ divorce, and who went for a walk after, always urging me to “keep up – This is exercise!”
I’m told the nursing home has her sedated, and that she sometimes smiles and is much calmer than at home. She occasionally asks my Dad and aunt to take her home. This would break all of our hearts if she hadn’t been asking that for the last few months while she was at home. We think she wants to go to her childhood home, but that’s not possible. Time has passed; things have changed. The SPAR has been replaced by a GAZEBOR. And the Last Wamboo sits in her wheelchair in her posh nursing home with its advertised “flat screen TV and fireplace in every common room”, well-fed, her hair done, her lipstick carefully applied by the staff, waiting to go home.