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Coming Undone

“Kalimera nanna, te kanis?” I ask, as I walk through the door.

She gets up, slowly, to greet me with a hug and a kiss. “Sit down, love, sit down,” she says, waving away my question.

She’d told me, years ago, how much she hates the Greek word for grandmother, yia yia. “Ya ya” she said, making a face. “Nonna would be better, if I were Italian.” She doesn’t remember that conversation anymore. She doesn’t remember much, anymore.


She calls me sometimes, and doesn’t recognise who I am.

“Who are you?”

“Nanna, it’s Emily.”


“Emily, Johnny’s daughter,” I say, slurring the J into a Y sound, somewhere in between a Johnny and a Yanni. How she says it.

“I don’t know you. Do you know who I am?” Sly. Testing me.

“Yes nanna, I know who you are. You are Elatheria Katerina Montenari”

“That’s right! And who are you?”

“I’m Emily!”

“I don’t know you”

“Yes do you do, Nanna, it’s Emily. EMILY. I’M EMILY, YOUR GRAND-DAUGHTER EMILY.”

“Oh Em.” Recognition. “And where are you living now, love?”

“Here, at Katina’s.”

A pause.

“Who are you?”

I hung up the phone in tears, she was gone again.


She tells stories of Greece to me, repeating each one over and over, the story swallowing itself like Ouroboros. These memories are the strongest – how she was educated, for a girl, how she wanted to write books. The civil war between the monarchists and the Communists. How she met my grandfather, how he was kind, how they left Greece to come to England and then Australia, and how he died from a disease caught working in the Australian asbestos mines. Each time the details change, ever so slightly, the same rough elements re-arranged.

When I came out as trans, she was already starting to lose a little bit. She wrote my name on a piece of paper, with female pronouns underlined, and stuck it next to the door so she would see it every time she walked past. She would smack her legs in frustration when she used the wrong name or pronoun.

When people would say, as they do, “oh it’s so hard for me to remember your name,” I would reply, “Bullshit! If my 82 year nanna can do it, then so can you.” I was so proud of her, that she struggled to get it right. Because it was important to me, it was important to her.

She rarely remembers my name anymore. Sometimes she confuses me with my cousins, sometimes I’m just that nice girl who visits her. The tall one.


When I was a child, I used to go to Greek lessons after school, then sit on the front porch at Nanna’s waiting for my parents. She would make macaroni for me, with butter and cheese, amused by my slurping the noodles.

Of course, I promptly forgot almost everything I learnt at those classes, willfully, wanting to be as Anglo as everyone else in my class. Answering her back in English. My Greek is getting better now, because her English is getting worse.


I saw her on Sunday and drank coffee with her. During one of her stories, I reminded her that I was her grand-daughter.

“Are you?” she asked, delighted. “Nobody told me that. Such a clever girl, you are.”

Most of the time, she remembers that she loves me, that I am clever and pretty. She always had a foul temper at times, and dementia’s released all her inhibitions. I don’t get the worst of it, she saves that for my aunt, who she calls a prostitute, a drunk, a thief, a murderer.

As she loses her memory, she loses our love, too.


In Precarious Life, Judith Butler says:

when we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel as though we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us.

It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only lose the lose, I become inscrutable to myself. Who “am” I, without you?

As she slips away, I’m not sure who I am, who I have been, who I will be without her. I don’t know. I know that I am responsible to her, for her, that as awful as it can be I will be back, again, as often as I can. I know that I miss my nanna, that I am watching her disappear right before my eyes, and all I can do is mark it. All I can do right now is try to remember, stubbornly, every detail of her life that I can, every pointless story and annoying quirk and amazing kindness she ever gave me, before she is gone for good.


  1. tiernafeminista wrote:

    This post is my heart. Thank you.

    Monday, September 10, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  2. Ethyl wrote:

    This was beautiful, Em. I always find it interesting who my grandmother and my great-aunt get me confused with, and what exactly is remembered. There’s a certain type of logic there, kind of. Gram gets me confused with my sister, unless I remind her that I’m the one with cats and she’s the one with dogs. She remembers her dogs growing up and the therapy dog that comes to visit her, and my sister’s dogs that she’s never met, and my cats that she’s never met. But my partner of 15 years she gets confused with my uncle. Meanwhile my great-aunt gets me confused with cousins that I’ve never even met, who I’ve never been in the same place with. Minds are interesting.

    Monday, September 10, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink
  3. Ros wrote:

    “As she loses her memory, she loses our love, too.”

    Ok, that made me cry.

    I spent the weekend moving my grandmother, suffering from advanced alzheimer’s, into a home where she’ll at least be safe, and the entire post just hit there.

    Taking care of our elderly is necessary and important, and I’m so glad I’m there to do it, but it can be terrifying and heartbreaking to do.

    Monday, September 10, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Permalink
  4. Nyssa23 wrote:

    This is heartbreaking, but with real beauty and love. Wishing you the best, Emily, always.

    Tuesday, September 11, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  5. Vanessa wrote:


    Wednesday, September 12, 2012 at 4:08 am | Permalink
  6. GGeek wrote:


    Just… thank you.

    Wednesday, September 12, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Permalink
  7. Heqit wrote:

    This is a beautifully elegaic tribute to your grandmother and your relationship with her, Emily. The whole piece is wonderful, but the bit about your grandmother writing down your name with feminine pronouns when you came out as trans, and being frustrated with herself when she forgot the pronouns, brought me to tears. Happy tears, really, to be reminded that love and acceptance like that exist. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, and blessings to you and your Nanna.

    Friday, September 14, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink
  8. Mara wrote:

    Thank you for this. My Mother has early onset dementia and it brakes my heart to see her “coming undone”.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2012 at 12:40 am | Permalink