Alzheimer Ornaments

by Leif Tystad


The organist folds up her sheet music and I hear a bee

fly towards the altar. Today is my grandmother’s funeral and I’m beside her daughter—

my mother—facing away from the family, bent

over the side of the pew to pull a tissue from her leather bag.

We can hear the waves break, there in the La Jolla Presbyterian Church, which smells of 


but is frosted by beach sand and sits only a mile up from the ocean.


It was summer and we walked the crest of the Pacific Ocean

past Torrey Pines, towards Del Mar, where I stepped on a bee.

“I told you to wear sandals,” she said, letting sand trickle through her fingers like ashes.

I met her in North Park that summer, the middle child of three daughters

in a superstitious, perpetually nervous family. She had us lug our bags

and our beach chairs as we walked through the rocky bend.


We drove to the record shop where I bought two albums: Chelsea Girl and The Bends.

Between outings, I’d visit my grandmother in the nursing home, a mural of the ocean

painted along the walls. My grandfather would bring a tiny purple bag

of clippings to try jogging her memory. We sat on the patio until the bees

swarmed around the agave. Sometimes she would ask “where is my daughter?”

as the sun overwhelmed her poor eyesight, gleaming on worn skin, dry and ashy.


Death promotes morbid conversations: my brother asks if I’d rather be turned to ashes

or buried when I die. My grandmother’s voice comes to mind as I imagine the crooked 


of a smile when my mother—her daughter—

would say “I’m right here.” I tell my brother, bluntly, to “throw me in the ocean,”

but it makes me more upset, assuming I can predict who will outlast who. “Bee!”

our six-year-old cousin cries out from the pool. We fish it out with a plastic bag.


It becomes the longest weekend of my life, bags

beneath my eyes. Specks of dirt fly across the windshield like scattered ashes

in the headlights. We take a frightfully long route: up through Bee

Canyon as the sun begins to set over Malibu. We’re the only car on the narrow bend.

Trees loom so high, you’d never guess our proximity to the ocean.

The radio gently plays as my mother dozes off—the Beach Boys’ “Farmer’s Daughter.”


My grandfather calls a week after the funeral and talks for a moment about his first 


my mother’s late sister. He tells me that someone left a bright blue pool bag

and asks if it’s mine. It isn’t, but his description of its hue as “oceanic”

makes me blue in turn. I pass the phone to my mother so they can discuss grandmother’s ashes

and the delay with the house payments. She’s sipping iced tea through a bendy

straw, looking through old photographs from college, dressed as the Blind Melon bee.


She had on a bee-yellow sweater when she said “I remember my daughter”

staring into the textural detail of a bent photograph, everyone half in the bag

smiling into the camera on Halloween, campfire ash by a moonlit ocean.



back to University & College Poetry Prizes