Friday, December 31, 2004
Please be kind to my mother. Please know what it's taken me 46 years to learn -- that her silence doesn't mean she fails to appreciate you. Also, please know how much she relies on your being there every day to do your job. Even though she might not have said "Thank you." Ever. My sisters and I count on you to look after our mother when we can't. With that in mind, I've taken the liberty of preparing your New Years Resolutions for 2005:
1. I will treat every resident as if s/he were my own parent.
2. I will smile and greet residents warmly. I will initiate conversations.
3. I will remember that I will be old and dependent and I will treat my charges the way I hope to be treated at the end of my life.
4. I will learn about the residents' lives before they became old and dependent, in an effort to appreciate them as individuals.
5. I will understand that residents' lives have narrowed to the point that food has taken on new importance. Since food is one of their few remaining sensual pleasures, I will prepare and serve their food with passion and skill.
6. I will be creative in finding ways to provide social interaction for the residents by enlisting the help of school children, clergy and volunteers.
7. I will learn that seniors -- especially elderly women -- may not be skilled in asking for what they want. I will learn to offer help in a way that allows residents to receive help while maintaining their dignity.
8. I will organize with other workers to improve the working conditions at the facility. This will result in a more professional, committed staff and a healthier environment for us all.
Thank you for the care you give my mother and all seniors in your care. May you have health and joy in the new year. May all your kindness come back to you tenfold.
Friday, December 24, 2004
Tomorrow morning before dawn we head out to drive to Mother’s. I’m not sure if she’s glad we’re coming. My sister says Mom’s looking forward to our visit, but I wonder. Is my sister just filling in what she knows I hope my mother would say? Mom’s social skills have never been very good. People who've met her in the past few years attribute her abruptness (okay, rudeness) and lack of affect to her deteriorating health. Those of us who have known her longer know that she is as much a social butterfly now as ever.
My cousin tells a story about her earliest memory of my mother. We were all over at my grandmother’s house for a holiday, probably Christmas. This being my dad’s mother, with whom my mom had a history of bitter conflict, Mom was not happy being there. My cousin remembers that my mother never took off her coat and sat next to the door clutching her pocketbook all evening, while the rest of us visited. See, assisted living social worker? This social awkwardness of Mother’s has a long, long history. Stop worrying.
We’ll be visiting other family in the area while we’re in Arizona. Mom will feel slighted because we’re not spending more of our time with her. She won’t tell me this, but she will hint at it to my sister after we’ve left. It’s a holiday tradition. While we’re with her, she will mostly be silent, waiting for us to fill the gaps with entertaining chatter and occasionally looking at her silent, giant T.V., thinking of the programs she’s missing.
We’re looking forward to the visit.
I can’t find a single picture of my Mom at Christmas and I have just about every picture ever taken of her. Here’s one of my older sisters when they were young, to get you in the spirit.
To enhance the experience, here’s the music that was probably playing in the background when the picture was taken.
Merry Christmas, every one!
Wednesday, November 03, 2004
During our phone call Sunday I asked her if she'd registered in her new state and whether she got an absentee ballot. She told me my sister had taken care of it for her.
"Did you vote yet?"
"Oh yes! Well actually, your sister did it for me."
"Did you tell her which ones to pick?"
"Oh no. She did it."
"She just went through and marked every 'R'?"
"I guess so!"
So that is how my mother voted. My oldest sister (a conservative Republican) made all my mom’s selections and my mom seems fine with this. My sister tends to vote exactly the way her (ultra-conservative, Catholic, ex-cop, ex-Navy) partner votes. I’m not sure she reads her voter's guide. I know she gets most of her "news" from the Fox network, because that’s what her partner watches.
Did Mom know anything about the local or state initiatives on the ballot? No she did not. But she voted!
My sister’s partner effectively got three votes. I became furious when I realized this. My husband quietly reminded me that "There are a LOT of households in America where that’s the rule." Was that supposed to make me feel better? My brother-in-law and his friends with their multiple votes won the election. Mom’s happy that nice Mr. Bush is staying in the White House. She doesn't trust "that other fellow."
Mother has always voted Republican and does it "because my dad was a Republican." She says this as if it's a complete explanation. My own father was an old Roosevelt Democrat. Each election he cracked the same corny joke: "I have to go vote -- I need to cancel out your mother's votes!" That is, until the year of our very first political argument, the year he voted to re-elect Richard Nixon. I was never as disappointed in my father as I was in the moment I learned of his betrayal. I didn't speak to him for a full day. I gloated far harder and longer than a good daughter would when Nixon left office in disgrace. If Dad were still alive I'm almost sure I'd still be saying, "I told you so!"
In all fairness, I think all of Mom’s daughters should get a turn to vote for her come election time. Next election, I'm volunteering.
Tuesday, October 19, 2004
We moved into the three bedroom house in 1967. I was nine. We moved because my mom decided we needed a bigger place, even though two of her four children were gone or leaving soon. My second-oldest sister was getting married in a few months and her fiancé’s parents were going to stay with us. Mom was embarrassed, I think, to have them see the old place. I also think she’d wanted to move for quite a while.
Dad loved the old house. He’d planted rose bushes around the perimeter of the back yard and took loving care of them for ten years. He and Mom had a nice vegetable garden in the back. There were lilac bushes back there, too. Dad cried the day we moved. Mom was all smiles.
The new house sits on about half an acre in a nicer neighborhood. Mother had a vegetable garden there for many years. Each year she’d till up a little more of the lawn. She’d freeze and can the surplus harvest every year. Dad built her shelves in the basement to store all the canned goods (and the year’s supply of food their religion requires members to store).
Mom decorated the house in the fashion of middle-class families of the time: Rust and brown furniture in the living room, Danish Modern dining room set. The décor never changed. The chairs got recovered eventually, in new patterns of rust and brown. Her children all moved out, her husband died. Dogs came, dogs died. New cars parked in the garage. Neighbors moved away.
For years the house has been too much for her. She fell into the shrubbery last summer while turning on the sprinklers. She couldn’t get up and lay there for about an hour before finally crawling to the steps and pulling herself up. She had automatic sprinklers installed shortly after that. Her doctor told her to stop going into the basement. My sister and I emptied her food stores and moved everything upstairs. She slipped in the shower, so a cousin installed a hand shower and shower chair. Year after year, we’ve made adaptations to her changing body. She’s made adaptations. In the end, they’re just not enough. Last winter her doctor told her she can no longer live on her own.
Now, her house is going to belong to somebody else.
I’ve been “in charge” of the house sale, contacting the realtors, signing the papers, dealing with inspections. I think my oldest sister asked me to handle the sale because I’m meaner than my sisters. It can’t be due to my home-selling experience; I’m the only one of Mother’s four children who has never bought a house. For over 20 years I’ve yearned for a home of my own. My life’s been full of twists and turns, none of them leading to home ownership.
I talked to my mom about the sale over the weekend. She doesn’t want to lose her house. She doesn’t want to live in someone else’s home. She wants to go home. I feel that, deeply.
May the new owner of my mother’s house enjoy many years of health and happiness there. May her family always have plenty. May they share great love.
Saturday, October 16, 2004
“Do you ever regret that you didn’t keep up with the piano?”
Now this is an odd question for a number of reasons. I can’t recall the last time my mother asked me a question about myself that had any depth. Always self-absorbed, her world has narrowed even more in the last few years. Maybe she didn’t realize this one had depth. Because it came from my mother, it could have any number of Real Meanings:
Your father and I paid for piano lessons for over 10 years and went to countless recitals to hear you (and other little prodigies) play. Why are you wasting our investment?
I had hopes you’d become a famous pianist one day. My dreams are dashed.
I wish I’d kept up with the violin and I miss music. I hope you don’t feel that way.
Why don’t you own a house yet, for heaven’s sake? You keep living in these second-floor apartments too small for pianos. When are you going to grow up?
Or, simply, Do you regret not playing?
My mother studied violin from a very young age. Her father was an accomplished violinist and also played viola and piano. And ukulele. He taught me the ukulele when I was young. He made his first "violin" out of a cigar box when he was a little boy. He and my grandmother met when they were both playing with a little dance band in southern Idaho – she on piano, he on “fiddle.” He wouldn’t teach my mother violin so she took lessons from someone else. She played in the orchestra at school. She loved classical music, especially Chopin piano concertos.
I didn’t find out Mom played violin until I was about 10 or 11. She was in her mid-40’s by then. I was shocked to find out that her violin had actually been IN OUR HOUSE for all those years, tucked in the back of a closet. It was a little like finding loaded gun under the bed. A violin?! In that closet?! So out it came. Inside the case, it was zippered inside deep blue velvet. Mother took it out and tuned it, tightened up her bow and rosined it. I sat at the piano and asked her to play something with me. We settled on “Go Tell Aunt Rodie” since it was one of the few songs we both knew. She played like someone who hadn’t played in about 25 years, but the tune came out clear and sweet. I started crying.
“Why are you crying? Am I that bad?” she asked with a laugh.
I didn’t know. I just couldn’t stop.
I've had dozens of alternative explanations as I remembered this, over the years. I think it comes down to this: It was the first time I realized my mother had a life before marriage and children. She was happy in that life. Then she left it behind.
Monday, October 11, 2004
This week’s call was mostly about lost treasures and teeth.
“The thing that hurts the most about this root canal is what it’s going to cost me! Imagine! I have to go to the regular guy, then the root canal one, then back to the other one!”
“Did you think to ask about getting a bridge for those lower teeth?”
“You know, you might find you enjoy food more if you could chew it.”
She laughed. Every tooth conversation with my mother ends with her chuckling at my, what? My humor? My silliness? The sheer insanity of the suggesting she get a bridge? Yes. That one. See, she’s getting ready to die. She’s been preparing for this journey for every one of the 46 years I’ve been alive. Now she’s 80. She is ready to reunite with my dead father. And her parents. And her younger sister, who died years before it was her turn. But evidently my mother’s god has other plans and here she is, with two or three teeth left in her bottom jaw.
She’s not poor, my mother. She has dental insurance, Medicare, the works. But, “It doesn’t pay for everything, you know.” And given her fervent hope that she’s dead next year at this time, dental work just doesn’t seem like a sound investment.
“You might live to be 100, Mom!”
“Oh, I HOPE not!”
We have that conversation every month or two. Sometimes it’s 90 she doesn’t want to see, sometimes 81.
I grew up hearing a lot about the fluoride in Idaho’s drinking water. Every time I got a cavity, I heard about that fluoride. My mother had beautiful teeth – bright white, hardly a cavity. Mine? Rotten. Virtually every one of my baby teeth had a filling. So crooked they required years of orthodontia. “Your father’s teeth” she’d pronounce. “But the water in Idaho was fluoridated. We all had good teeth because of that fluoride.” Now her teeth are darker. Yellow, slightly gray. They are even a little crooked now because of the loss of bottom teeth and because it turns out she grinds her teeth when she sleeps. That’s a habit I’ve had all my life. Only in the past few years did we see evidence that Mom has the habit.
Maybe she’s grinding over her lost treasures. On the phone I asked her about the weather in Arizona – a weekly joke that still makes us both laugh. “Sunny!” she tells me, week after week. She talks about being homesick. “When will I start feeling better?”
“I don’t know, Mommy. I am just starting to feel at home here and I’ve been here six years. It can take a while.”
“I keep thinking of things I miss!”
“Like, my camera.”
I laugh. I don’t mean to laugh, but the laugh escapes before my brain can stop it. Mother has Macular Degeneration. She’s legally blind. She can’t see well enough to drive or to care for herself any longer. That’s why she’s living in an “assisted living facility” in the desert. “How would you see to take a picture? And after you took it, how would you see it?”
Now Mom laughs. “It’s not that. There were still some pictures on there. I don’t know what they were. I think there was about half a roll of film left.”
Honestly, I don’t know where the camera is. I’m fairly sure we didn’t sell it at the massive garage sale in July. And I don’t remember any of her kids or grandkids taking it. Did we pack it up with her stuff? Doubt it. We probably thought we were sparing her some pain by making the decision for her. Better not to remind her of her disability. So she sits in the desert and wonders what happened to that camera and what was on those undeveloped pictures, lost forever.
I’m sure she’ll ask me about the camera again when I call next weekend.
Mom's beautiful teeth, circa 1948