lost in london

words lucy anderle  |  images leah abrams

As a child I was smitten by London, clutching my father’s hand in delight and terror as double-decker buses rushed by with a wheeze and a bang. I loved the crowds and the cigarettes and the rime of frost that coated the hotel windows overnight. I loved the high-tea mosaic of tiny tea sandwiches, cucumber and salmon and dill all in perfect symmetry. It was magic to me—the polar opposite of my clean, warm, eucalyptus-scented Californian home. My family made the same cross-Atlantic pilgrimage every year until I was thirteen for the specific purpose of seeing my grandmother—Nana. Even now, ten years after her death, London is intensely synonymous with her fleeting presence in my life.

My father placed my grandmother in a nursing home soon after her mind began to rot. Nana’s dementia swallowed her whole long before I could grasp what was happening. It wound around her brain and squeezed until the entire world was new and she didn’t recognize her son or her granddaughters, the proper way to sit in a chair, or the city she had spent her entire life in. She needed constant care, attentive hands, people trained in inhuman patience. I remember being nine, and watching in fixed horror as she wet herself with a tiny sigh.

Nana would fiddle with things until they were destroyed. No more buttons on her coats. Faucets left rushing, the bouquet of roses we brought shredded in the bin. I was often terrified of her; terrified of the way my father’s eyes teared up whenever he saw her. His voice caught like a scratched record when he said, “Hello, Mum.” The diminutive, trembling woman in the dressing gown seemed incongruous with his memories of a fiercely independent single mother, soigné and elegant in the little confected velvet hats she fabricated herself. On her dresser sat a silver-framed photograph of her in her twenties, beautifully plump with fey, cupid’s-bow lips. I remember hoping I’d inherited the same mouth. Nana was always so happy to see my father—her only son—clutching at the sleeve of his sweater until she became confused about who he was and dropped it, looking lost.

My family spent every morning at the nursing home. We brought a two-pound box of plush chocolate caramels she eventually stopped being able to eat. Everything about her was translucent—I worried my clumsy child-arms would break her in half if I hugged her too firmly. Nana smiled and nodded at us, holding my hot hand between her own—ropy blue tendons rolling out from under my fingers when I squeezed. There were always tiger-lilies on the dresser, and their sweetness would cover the barely perceptible saline scent of old-lady urine. Her moments of lucidity were offset by faltering questions about who we were. “Why are you in my room?” she asked, panic mounting, until an orderly calmed her with the deft jab of a needle. More often she was just pleasantly and politely confused. My sister and I would chatter nervously and my dad would repeat more slowly for her, telling stories about our music lessons, our good grades. She didn’t say much in response to our strings of childish babble, just “love-ly, love-ly” with a soft, puzzled smile.

Nana was clearly unhappy in the home. All the old people were desperate to talk to us—little girls who reminded them of their own grandchildren. Their wheelchairs herded around the blue glow of an outdated TV program. Some would nod away, silver threads of spittle running into the stained fleece of their dressing gowns. When it came time for us to leave, Nana’s blue eyes would cloud and she would cry and ask us to stay a bit longer, even if she hadn’t recognized us that day.

My father made an emergency trip back to London one year after he became suspicious that her first nursing home was abusing her—withholding food and locking her in her room until her translucent skin bloomed with bedsores. I can trace my current fear of the elderly back to those February mornings. I remember fluorescent corridors and the shuffle of slippered feet on linoleum, my mixture of intense pity, guilt, and the urge to run.

We’d all feel a burst of relief as soon as the sliding glass doors of the nursing home parted. My sister and I would skip over the oversized piano keys of every intersection, swinging like pendulums from my father’s arms. The three of us would walk around the city, pick out teddy bears at Harrods or—my favorite—go to the Natural History Museum to look at the dinosaur bones. The farther we strayed from the nursing home, the easier it would be to forget why we were there in the first place. The guilt would melt off my father’s shoulders, a tiny bomb of ochre tiger-lily pollen dropping from his lapel as we stopped for gyros or bowls of tomato soup.

Even now, I will always be lost in London. The moment I feel somewhere is familiar, I miss my tube stop to a daydream and begin to discover the city all over again. I visit London often, if only to spend the day away from the constant weight of Oxford essays and reading. Everything is gray in February, every puddle refracting a piece of the gray sky until the whole world feels colorless and glittering. I am still thrown by the bus system—it seems like I’ll never fully grasp which direction is which. Thus, I spend most of my time walking and thinking, getting lost and recovering by stumbling across familiar squares, or the edge of Regent’s Park.

My fleeting memories of Nana are scattered and hurtful and ever-present in the city where I almost knew her. Her loss, previously blunted by childhood, has felt real and sharp to me since moving to England. My restless wandering through London is part of an urgent and irresistible drive to try to understand her, understand the city, even to understand myself and where it is I come from. I feel as though her nursing home is perpetually around the corner, the brick walls and leafless trees all part of an elaborate set of clues that, should I manage to piece them together, might give me a second chance at knowing my grandmother better.

I remembered walking with Nana through Hyde Park on one of the days she was most lucid. The nurses always encouraged us to take her outside, pushing her ahead of us in a squeaky wheelchair. Every few minutes, she craned her paper neck toward me to ask, “Where are we?” I answered “London, Nana. We’re in Hyde Park,” until I started to grow exasperated and made up increasingly ludicrous answers— Prague, Cairo, Bangkok. In reality, it never mattered where we were. She crinkled her eyes at me, smiled and bobbed her snowy head, threatening to dislodge whatever sugared, beribboned hat was perched on her hair that day. “Love-ly, love-ly.” She was happy to be in motion, happy to see the little birds flicker through the wet grass, happy to be with me—a strange, but love-ly girl.

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