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'Displacement': The Frustrations, Fears And Absurdities Of A Cruise Upended


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When Lucy Knisley offered to accompany her grandparents on the Caribbean cruise they'd signed up for through their senior living facility, she had no idea what she was getting herself into. Her grandparents live in a different city than Lucy does. So the cruise seemed like a nice opportunity to spend more time with them, while escaping winter for a few days. But her grandparents' health was worse than her visits had revealed. They were suffering from dementia, incontinence, asthma and more. Rather than spending some quality time with her grandparents, she basically spent 10 days keeping them alive. That trip is the subject of Knisley's new cartoon memoir "Displacement." It's the second travel memoir she's published in the last year. The first, "An Age Of License," was about Knisley's trip to Europe in her mid-20s and the romance she had while traveling. As Knisley says, the trip to Europe was about independence, sex, youth and adventure. The cruise was about patience, care, mortality, respect, sympathy and love. Lucy Knisley spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Lucy Knisley, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LUCY KNISLEY: Thank you.

BRIGER: So how much time had you'd been spending with your grandparents before this? Did you have a real sense of what their condition was mentally and physically?

KNISLEY: My grandparents lived in Ohio for the past 70 years or so. And I had gone for visits regularly to see them in Ohio, but my grandfather is one of those people that into his late 90s would be sort of up on the roof shoveling snow off of the roof in midwinter. And one time, he was doing this, much to my family's displeasure, and fell on his head.


KNISLEY: So (laughter)...

BRIGER: How old was he?

KNISLEY: He was in - I think he was 95 or 96 at that point.


KNISLEY: And he sort of just, like, took a tumble onto his head. And so, you know, sort of everybody kind of mutually made the decision to try and sort of relocate them to an assisted living facility a couple years ago. And they made this transition, and it was really, really hard on them. And they went from being pretty capable, nonagenarian people to suddenly taking a real downturn. And I've read that this happens very frequently with sort of big life changes like this, with moves. But I sort of - I wasn't aware of how much their condition had deteriorated; nobody in my family was. And we - in order to kind of soften the blow of this move, we thought oh, we'll do something really nice. We'll send them on vacation. We'll send them on this cruise ship. And then everybody kind of realized oh, this is not a good idea. They're not in any shape to do this on their own.

BRIGER: Right, and your grandmother has dementia. And she didn't even know who you were. She - I think she kept calling you Jeanne (ph). Was it hard for you that she didn't recognize you?

KNISLEY: You know, it was difficult as it always is with sort of relations who develop dementia. But my grandmother, as I said, is a retired schoolteacher, and she was very a strict, sort of tightlipped, stern schoolmarm type. And growing up, I was a little afraid of her. She and I always had a little bit of a tense relationship. And now that she doesn't recognize me and doesn't know exactly who I am, she's a lot nicer to me, actually, which is a nice change of pace from the usual what you hear about people sort of turning on you. I actually had the experience where she thinks I'm a stranger, so she's very polite and very sort of cordial to me now.

BRIGER: So you're a pretty experienced traveler. You describe yourself in the book as an airport ninja. Like, you pack light. You make sure you have the right shoes on, so when you go through security you don't have any trouble. When you went to your grandparents' home, what was the condition of their packing?

KNISLEY: That was sort of the first moment when I realized that my grandparents had, you know, progressed to a point where this was going to be a really difficult trip. We showed up at their home having repeatedly explained the whole you have to take your shoes off. You can't have any liquids in your bags. You know, you have to pack light for the flight. And we showed up and they had, you know, 14 carry-on bags and, you know, they were all full of liquids. It was just all liquids and just, like, tie-on shoes. And so we had to go through their luggage and kind of edit out what they had done here. And it started to be clearer from my grandmother's packing, especially, that, you know, she had packed things like a one lone sock and, like, a piece of hardware from the cabinetry. And it just - it was very unnerving.

BRIGER: Like, four thermal shirts for a Caribbean cruise and...

KNISLEY: Yeah, well, she never...

BRIGER: A bunch of umbrellas or...

KNISLEY: Oh, many umbrellas, many thermal shirts, many wool socks.

BRIGER: So even the trip to the boat seemed pretty hard for you guys. I mean, you had to take a plane to the boat and you had to spend the - overnight at a hotel before you got on the plane. And in that process, your grandfather had two accidents. He soiled his pants and he didn't seem to really notice or care that much. And you get on the boat and you show your grandparents to their room. And you say, OK, you unpack. I'm going to go unpack. And then you go back to their room and their stuff is just, like, everywhere. I mean, like - from the drawing, it looks like the clothes have just been strewn all over the place.

KNISLEY: Oh, yeah, it was a murder scene.

BRIGER: Yeah, your grandfather can't find his eye drops, though. I think from the packing it looked like he had at least four boxes of eye drops. And your grandmother's crying 'cause she thinks that you and your grandfather think she stole the eye drops. And that's really the moment, I think, where, like, you step up and take charge, is that right?

KNISLEY: Welcome to your dream vacation.


KNISLEY: I mean, it was just descending into complete chaos, and I had this week stretching ahead of me of realizing that I had to keep these two people afloat, literally, on the sea. And, you know, I wasn't going to do that by retaining this old relationship that we used to have of sort of cordial obedient granddaughter and grandparents. I had to kind of step up and take a different role with them.

BRIGER: So this book is a travel log and in between the sort of your own entries, you intersperse excerpts from your grandfather's memoir that he gave - he wrote and just gave to his family - his children and his grandchildren. And it's all about his time in World War II when he was a sky pilot. So why did you add those parts of his memoir in yours?

KNISLEY: Well, something I've really noticed about the act of writing memoir, or the act of writing autobiographical stories, is that the other people in the stories become characters. And it somewhat robs them of this central character aspect that everybody has in their own life. And, you know, you always want to be careful with that. You know, you never want to step on anybody's sense of self. So much of that happens when people get to that age, get to that point, where they're sort of out of control of their own life. And I wanted to underscore this idea of my grandfather as the storyteller of his own stories. And also point out how much of that is lost because he doesn't remember much of that stuff anymore. And I wanted to reread these stories while we were traveling to kind of talk to them about it. They're great stories. My grandfather has really good war stories. And I wanted to bring that up with them and sort of mine the stories a little bit and find out some more details from them. And also sort of place my grandfather back into this role of storyteller.

BRIGER: When you were reading the memoir on the boat, did you compare a lot about how your grandfather was at the present moment and what he was like in World War II?

KNISLEY: Certainly. And, you know, he's this very placid, sweet, kindhearted person, and still is. You know, he wrote these stories about when he was this really vibrant young man, and a lot of the stories are a little bit, like, lascivious and, you know, make allusions to, you know, various brothel kind of doings. And it's - you know, it's something that's always really appealed to me, this idea of this really sweet, kind, family man who also has this sort of mean wife. I mean, I love my grandmother, but their relationship has always fascinated me. They've been married for almost 70 years, and they're sort of opposites in personality. It's so interesting because they're this symbiotic force. It's impossible to kind of separate the two figures.

BRIGER: So you have the book separated into chapters in terms of the days that you were on your trip, and each chapter has a page break. On the top it says day one, day two, and there's this image of a horizon line on the ocean. At first, I thought they were all the same, but as I looked at the book again, I had noticed that each day the water keeps rising, and it's a little higher and it's a little higher. And by day 10, like, the whole page was just this wall of water. It's almost like you were drowning. What were you conveying with those?

KNISLEY: Well, part of it was the idea of displacement, which is the title of the book. I liked the double meaning of sort of the way that my grandparents were displaced from their home in Ohio and the way that they were displaced aboard this cruise ship, which is very unlikely place for them. And the nautical terminology of the weight of water that is displaced by a boat, which is a measurement of the ship's weight and things like that. So part of it is this sort of, like, more and more they're in a foreign situation and more and more we're sort of, like, finding ourselves aware of their mortality, of the progression of their dementia, of their health. And little by little, you sort of start to feel underwater by - or I do. I certainly did start to feel underwater. And, you know, we sort of found equilibrium, but by the end of the trip, I - you know, I had such a new appreciation for caregivers, for nurses and people who take care of the elderly.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview that FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Lucy Knisley, whose new illustrated memoir about her cruise with her grandparents is called "Displacement." We'll hear more of that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview that our producer Sam Briger recorded with Lucy Knisley, whose new illustrated memoir is called "Displacement." It's about escorting her elderly grandparents on a cruise they never should've signed up for.

BRIGER: So one of the problems with the cruise is that there's not many activities that your grandparents seem like they can enjoy. And as you said, you know, they're not going to gamble. They can't sit and read. They can't sit for very long. So you finally find something for them to do that your grandmother, who's a pretty tough customer, really enjoys. What was it?

KNISLEY: Yeah. We were - you know, it was really warm and beautiful out, and I thought, you know, there's not a lot of stuff they can do physically. But my grandmother, you know, she's in pretty good shape, physically, at least. So you know, I kind of snapped at one point. There was, you know, too much sitting around doing nothing. And I said OK, we're, you know, we're here. It's warm. It's beautiful. Put your bathing suits on. Let's go swimming.

And you know, it was like pulling teeth at first, of course, to get them there and get them to the pool. And I sort of figured that they would hate it just like they sort of hated everything else and that we would be, you know, slinking back soaking wet and miserable. But once they got into the pool - my grandmother especially really enjoyed herself, and you know, I think it probably freed her up a little bit. And she sort of paddled around and relaxed.

And you know, we had really lovely moments of sort of me holding her in the water and her kicking her legs. And she stayed in for much longer than we thought she would. And my grandfather and I were kind of looking at her like she'd grown another head. She was actually enjoying herself (laughter) at a certain pastime. And so it was really nice to sort of have this somewhat authentic experience aboard this ship of inauthentic experiences.

BRIGER: I think that you felt pretty frustrated with your family. I mean, here you are. You're a generation removed from your grandparents. You're not the person who's, you know, primarily in charge of their care, and yet, they send you on this trip. You call them a couple times, I think, exasperated, and you ask, you know, we're on, like - we have a stopover flight on the way back. Can you get us a nonstop flight there? I mean, this was hard on them, and they don't change the flight. I mean, were you frustrated with your family?

KNISLEY: Yeah, I was really frustrated. Like I said, the, you know, the Knisley family is a little reserved. And my Uncle Michael and Aunt Jean are very good. They live close to the assisted living facility that my grandparents live in, and they take really good care of my grandparents. But they also work full-time jobs. And I had only recently moved to New York City. And I'd just finished my book after, you know, a long sprint of drawing and writing and editing, so I was the one with the free time. And I was the one that volunteered to go on this trip.

And you know, I wanted - I didn't want to have to tell them, you guys can't go on this trip that we've bought the tickets for, signed you up for. You're not allowed to. So I wanted to kind of give them this and sort of give it to myself as well. And in that, I wanted to be the good, doting granddaughter who did this for them and had this connection to them. But yeah, my family should've known better. I think they should've known better.


KNISLEY: I shouldn't have been on my own with my grandparents. I think somebody should've come with me. My father, perhaps, would've been a nice addition, just somebody else to kind of help shoulder the - shoulder my grandparents in helping them get through this trip.

BRIGER: So a lot of the trip was really hard, and a lot of it was just, you know, keeping your grandparents alive. But were there some nice moments where you just sort of enjoyed spending time with them?

KNISLEY: Certainly - my grandfather especially, and I had a really lovely connection throughout the trip. I had, as I mentioned, been reading his war memoir and sort of trying to find stories that I wanted more details from. And so every day, I would kind of ply him with various stories and try and draw him out. And a lot of it, he didn't remember, so I had to sort of go about other ways of finding these stories and sort of finding more details about it. And one of the ways that I did that is - he was stationed in Britain when he was being trained. He was stationed in the U.K. when he was being trained for being a scout pilot, and he spent, you know, a year or so there.

And so I found out that they were doing, like, a British pub lunch on the ship, and I brought my grandparents to the British pub lunch to try and jog some memories of that time. And through that experience, he remembered a bunch of war songs that he used to sing when he was in the pubs in Warminster. And so there were really nice moments where I got kind of some insight, I got some lovely individual moments with them.

BRIGER: Well, Lucy Knisley, thanks so much for being with us.

KNISLEY: It's my pleasure. Thank you, Sam.

GROSS: Lucy Knisley spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Knisley's illustrated memoir is called "Displacement." Coming up, our TV critic, David Bianculli, reviews the return of Louis C.K.'s series "Louie" and the premiere of the new series "The Comedians" starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.