A long time ago, before her mind began to slip away and the color in her hair began to fade, my grandmother was a horse thief. It was one of the few memories she had that never left. The memories that did leave, and left first, started out as rather simple. She would forget what time things were, or what day of the week it was. She would forget people’s names or the dates of things she was supposed to do. She would forget where she was supposed to be, if she was supposed to be somewhere. Sam, she would say, the skin between her eyebrows pinching together, do you remember when my doctor’s appointment is?
But Grandma had never been the most attentive woman, so when it all started coming loose, none of us really thought twice about it. We figured she was just getting older—that it came with the territory. We justified it by telling each other that she had always been this way, more or less. But soon, the holes in her mind became so large and so abundant that pieces of who she was began to fall through, and it became impossible to ignore. Where there used to be color, there was now only space.
She would ask a question and then moments later, in the very same way, with the very same expression, she would ask it again. It got so strangers began to notice. There would be a sympathetic nod from someone in line at the grocery store, or a quiet, tilted smile from the teller at the bank. But memory and awareness are two separate things and Grandma noticed these little signs of pity people threw her way. So she stuck with the questions that worked. The ones that always got a response. The ones that were safe. Her favorite question was: Sam, what are your friends doing these days? She asked it every time we were alone together in a room. I used to give her a different answer every time, or at least rephrase my answer in a different way. I felt rude if I didn’t, like I was somehow deceiving her, but eventually I stopped putting in the extra effort and the guilt slipped away and I took to always answering in the same way, because it was easier this way, and no one seemed to care enough to notice, or notice enough to care.
She had red hair, the color of autumn, with streaks of brown like rot in a red barn door. But as her memory slipped away, so did the color, and at almost the exact same rate—like these two things, these two parts of her, the color in her hair and the things she had buried in her memory, had decided to hold hands as they walked away from her life.
She liked when people didn’t notice—or at least pretended not to notice—the changes that were taking place. She loved most of all when her grandsons played along. Have you done something with your hair, Grandma? No? I don’t believe you! When are you going to start looking your age? She told us it was all so silly, to say such nice things, and not at all necessary. But she blushed every time, and never asked us to stop. She would put her hands up in front of her, palms out, like she was trying to stop the words before they reached her. But maybe that wasn’t it at all, maybe it was simply her way of greeting them—of acknowledging the kindness buried in the lies. Oh quit! she would say, a smile covering her face. You don’t really think so, do you?
She always voted republican, forgetting that she was a staunch liberal before marrying Grandpa, who died some time ago, and wasn’t my real grandpa, but was the only grandpa I remember having. He was a rancher and so that is exactly what Grandma became when she married him. The things that didn’t fall through the holes in her memory became who she was. There was nothing that existed before them. The disease chewed away at the parts of her it found appetizing and left behind unrecognizable things. Nameless things. Empty things.
I remember her sitting at the kitchen table one morning, a glass of apple juice my dad had poured beside her, (she never remembered to drink or feed herself, unless someone put it right there in front of her). The sun was spilling through the dust on the windows and Mom was in the bathroom, getting ready for work. Dad was fixing something out in the garage. Grandma was reading a book about horses. It was mostly made up of photographs, black and white on one page, and then on the next, a photograph with so much color that it seemed to be making up for the lack of color on the one before. She was turning each page carefully, with all of her hand, smiling. It’s a great book, she said.
Yes, I agreed, even though I had never read it—never looked at it twice in a day. It sure is.
They’re beautiful, she said.
The horses? I asked, taking a seat next to her, and pointing to a photograph of a black horse with a white back side, on a colored page. Yes the horses—that one is an Appaloosa, she said. I would steal one just like that from our neighbor when I was a young girl. He lived down the road—a grumpy old man who always seemed to be shaking his fist at something. Her name was Gypsy, the horse, and I always returned her when I was done.
Isn’t that borrowing? I asked. Not stealing?
She laughed at me, eyes bright and wide, freckles of dust suspended in the air in front of her open, laughing mouth, and said at the time she did not know that they were called Appaloosas at all. She thought they were just called painted horses, as if painted were simply a different breed. She had heard someone call Gypsy that word once, painted, although she couldn’t remember who the person was. But the word, for whatever reason, had stuck.
I took a long look at her face as the smile sank away to the table, and I agreed with her. Yes, Grandma, I said, they are very beautiful. Yes, grandma, you stole horses. You did not borrow them, no, that would be something else entirely. You stole them and brought them back. Yes, grandma, that is how it was.
I miss her.
I know you do, Grandma.
I miss the way she looked at me.
I know you do, Grandma.
Will you do me a favor, Sam? Will you remember her for me?
Yes, Grandma, I will remember her. I will remember all the painted horses you stole, and I will remember all the ones left unpainted too. Yes, Grandma, I will remember them all for you.