Excerpts of this post have been transformed into another piece entitled Hula Hoop.

Imagine this: an old lady, about 65 years old in Pamida, a small-chain department store. She has short, dark blonde hair, a grin on her face. She’s wearing a bracelet, glasses, sandals and a black sweatshirt with grey capris. Just a typical old lady doing some shopping.

Oh yeah, and she’s hula hooping in the aisle next to the books and glasses with her arms in the air like she just does not care.

The cold tears run down my cheek as I look at this picture. I can’t tell the difference between the sad tears and the joyful tears. The picture itself is happy, but the baggage that comes behind it: the thoughts, memories, sadness of the future, are present as well. Like life itself, this photograph is bittersweet.

The picture, taken in 2005, is of a wonderful moment captured by my mom. She, my sister, grandpa and my mom were shopping around Pamida when my grandma stopped in her tracks and glanced at the hula hoops. My grandma of course had to brag about how good she was at hula hooping, and being the carefree, fun spirit that she is, she put one around her waist and began spinning it around. My mom got a picture of it while she was smiling, twirling around in the toy aisle.

Although I wasn’t at the store that day, I feel like I was there because the memory comes up often when my family is talking about my grandma. It’s joyous, and anytime I see it I tear up. It was seven years after this photo was taken that my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The day before Mother’s Day, 2012.

Many people associate Alzheimer’s with forgetfulness, memory loss, and while this is not wrong, there are numerous other aspects of it. Not only does one lose their memory, they begin to decrease in their thought age. The last time my grandma visited, she thought she was about 25 years old. I think she may have thought she was this old when the picture at Pamida was taken or she at least acted like it… but then again, ever since I can remember, she always has had a young spirit. Things like this, like the loss of identity, are what comes to mind when I look at this photograph of my grandma.

I think of my grandma often; memories come up multiple times a day. The thoughts vary from sadness, guilt and grief to happiness, and crying due to laughter. I have so many happy memories that the sadness of her disease is highly outweighed by happiness. Memories like when she baked us homemade bread, cookies, or pie. When she would sing a made up song about whatever she was doing. One that stands out is when she sang a song about dishes while putting them away.

On the subject of dishes, one of the funniest memories I have of her is that she used to put our dishes away at our house when she would stay with us. This is somewhat normal for grandmothers to do I think, but when she did it, she would rearrange our dishes. She would put the cups where the plates were, the plates where the bowls were, and no one else in the house would know she was doing this until we went for a bowl for our cereal, and it took us 10 minutes to find it.

The words I would use to describe my grandma a few years ago would be jubilant, carefree, hilarious, and most definitely spunky. She was one of the sassiest grandmas I know and the picture of her hula hooping proves it. If she wants to pick up a hoop and swing it around in the middle of a crowded store, gosh darn it she will do it and you can’t stop her!

Her name is Olivia Thelma Drewes, and I was named after her. My middle name is Olivia, and my mom always tells me that I was perfectly named so. Being told I resemble one of the most influential people in my life is the greatest compliment. I hope I continue to be like her, and even with the disease changing her personality, I will never forget who she truly is inside.

Whenever the sadness of the disease comes to mind, whenever I want to scream and say it’s not fair, I look back at this picture. Although she may no longer recognize me, or even know who she is, I will always remember her as a free spirit. She will always be a loving woman, who speaks her mind, lets her heart shine through, and sees the good in everyone and everything. If we live life allowing the sadness to be more prominent than the good in the world, we aren’t truly living. That’s the paradox of life.

When I first looked at this photograph, I decided I had to write about it. I didn’t know it would elicit so many different emotional responses. Photography has been such an important part of my life, and I love how much one photograph can affect someone. The picture of my sweet grandma hula hooping is bittersweet and I could continue to go back and forth about how the photo makes me feel but altogether, it makes me feel good. That’s why I have the picture with me at Wartburg, taped to my wall in front of my bed so I wake up to that photograph every day.

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