Premature

That little pat on the back that I was giving myself was premature. Way premature.

I had gone to the gym this morning to work out. I love working out. Love it, love it, love it. I wish I could get there every day.

For me, exercise is such a key part of my well-being. I feel more optimistic after I exercise. Big ideas come to me while I exercise. My body craves healthy food on the days I exercise. It’s an all-around win-win-win.

So this morning I exercised.

In the course of elevating my heart rate, oscillating ropes, swinging the kettlebell, and dripping with sweat, I started thinking about caregiving and how far I’ve come on this journey. I used to get so frustrated with my mother — but she had a bitter sharpness that my father doesn’t have. She would harp at me, insisting on something that wasn’t, or lash out at one of my children for something they didn’t do. She could be a challenge.

My father, on the other hand, laughs at the darnedest things. He’s happy and content. He works on his puzzles, reads his books, and listens to his music. People stop to visit him. He gets a bowl of vanilla ice cream every day. He watches the Red Sox play nearly every night. It’s a good life, I think.

So I was working out and thinking about all this. I was thinking, I’ve got a good handle on this caregiving thing. I think I’m doing all right.

I patted myself on the back and began mentally writing a blog post of encouragement for other caregivers. I wanted to tell them that they’ll have good days, maybe even a bunch of them in a row.

When I got to the house, Dad was coming out the door with the dandelion-stabbing tool (surely, there’s a better name for it) because he wanted to start getting after the dandelions. I asked him to stay on level ground and checked to make sure he was wearing his LifeLine in case he fell.

As I headed inside, almost as an after-thought, he said, “It was the strangest thing, but I found all this money today. I left it on the table for you.”

“Where did you find it?” I asked.

“Here and there,” he said, waving vaguely with hands to indicate that it was in a variety of places like the dandelions in the yard.

Puzzled, I went to investigate.

My wallet was sitting out on the kitchen table. I looked inside and it was mostly empty. My heart sank.

I found all that money he had been talking about, stuffed like a bookmark into a book. It was a twenty and three fives — $35 that had been in my wallet.

I looked in the garbage and found gift cards, receipts, coupons, a note from Mary, and other papers that only an hour before had been in my wallet.

I grabbed the crumpled papers and marched out to my father who was still standing on the deck holding the dandelion-stabber and looking at the dandelions.

“Did you find the money?” he asked innocently.

I exploded. “That was the money in my wallet,” I said. “And these –” I held out the papers I had pulled from the garbage — “these are mine.”

“They aren’t anything important,” he said.

“Not to you, but to me they are,” I said, far more loudly than I should.

And the argument went on far longer than it should have.

I knew in my head that he couldn’t understand, but I was frustrated.

Gone were back-pats. Gone were my words of encouragement. Gone was any goodwill left over from my workout.

I went in the house and fixed my green smoothie. From inside the house, I watched as he sat in the grass and stabbed at dandelions. I stabbed at writing words of encouragement and this is what came out.

Fellow caregivers, some days are like that.

But it’s still all so good.

The sun is shining.

The dandelions are smiling (unaware of their fate).

The smoothie was delicious.

And I have $35 safe in my wallet — upstairs now.

Y is for Young

In March 2011, I wrote the following post.  It’s a sweet story — and a reminder. I took it out of storage and dusted it off for today.

A number of years ago, I was able to accompany my father on his trip to his hometown.  He was meeting with his siblings and their spouses to inter my grandparents’ remains.  My mother was planning to go with him, but got sick just before they were supposed to leave.  I filled in for her.

I had no idea what a special trip that would turn out to be.  We went to the cemetery and sat on a little knoll while my father and his brother and sister reminisced about their parents.  They each shared memories of how their parents had made their house a home.  They talked about my grandmother making elaborate Halloween costumes for them, her competitive side coming out, so that they could win the town’s contest.  They talked about their cousins and their pets and their school and their growing up years.  Then my uncle said something which I will never forget.

He said, “They were young once.  They fell in love.  They had dreams and passions just like we do.”

I don’t know why that was so profound, but it hit me squarely in the heart.

My grandparents were old the whole time I knew them.  My grandmother had Alzheimer’s.  She smoked and drank martinis.  I have seen her wedding picture and she was once beautiful.

My grandfather had Guillain-Barre syndrome in the late 70’s or early 80’s, I think. (Perhaps one of my siblings has a better memory for these details.)  It transformed him from the robust, fun Grampa that I loved to go see, to a weak man confined to a wheelchair.  I have wonderful earlier memories of him throwing the Hollywood brick (it was made of foam) at us, and tricking us every time with it.  In fact, I think we all (the grandchildren) wanted that brick when they were emptying out the apartment, but no one seems to know where it went.

Unfortunately, my mind doesn’t always go back to happy memories.  I remember my grandfather weeping in a wheelchair when I came to visit when I was pregnant with Philip.  I remember my grandmother smoking and sniping.

“They were young once.  They fell in love…”  I chose, then and there, to replace my memories with happier ones.

Yesterday, I caught a little glimpse of that with my mother.  We were sitting at the table, with a full plate of marmalade sandwiches.  She had made ten or so before I got there — for the others.  She looked up at a window ledge, and asked my father, “What’s in that vase?”

Now, you need to know that my mother has always a way with plants.  Her home was filled with them.  She had the most beautiful Christmas cactus I have ever seen.  She would take little pieces of the Christmas cactus, stick them in a cup of water, wait for them to send out little roots and then move them to pots.  She started so many plants that way.  And the house is still littered with pieces of Christmas cactus stuck in water.  That’s what was in the vase.

My father looked up at the milk-glass vase with the sad little piece of Christmas cactus drooping over the edge. “Well, that’s a genie in a bottle,” he said.  “If you rub it, he’ll come out and grant your wish.”

My mother giggled like a schoolgirl.  She looked at him and smiled.

When he left the room, she said, “I’m so lucky I found him.”

Oh, Mom, you have no idea.

“They were young once.  They fell in love…”  She was back to that point in her life.  I want to remember her that way.

W is for Work

“Compulsive” — That’s the word my father used to describe himself when I asked him about the detailed lists he kept of his expenses and his earnings.

“My parents didn’t have much money, you know, but it was important to them that I go to college. I wanted them to be proud of me. I wanted them to know that they weren’t wasting their money,” he told me.

I see proof that he worked very hard, even from a young age.

One year for his birthday, my sister gave him this framed picture:

My father and his brother had both worked at the Brookside Store — which was also a gas station — and was also the post office. And may still be a post office.

When my father went to college, he carefully calculated out all his finances.

Expenses for College Year

Earnings for College Year

He also, week by week, noted all his expenses and all his earnings. Here’s one page from that packet:

I asked my father about the names in the right-hand column. Many he didn’t remember, but Mr. Johnston’s name elicited a very warm response — “Oh, I remember Mr. Johnston! He was such a gentleman. He was always very kind to me.”

“When you wrote ‘working for Mr. Johnston’ or ‘working for Mr. Bennett,’ what did you do?” I asked him.

“Yard work or whatever they needed help with,” he replied.

“And ‘waiting at fraternity,'” I asked, “is that waiting table?”

“Yes, I did a lot of that,” he said.

The detailed pages bore witness to it.

“I was so compulsive about keeping track,” he said again, laughing.

I see all the work.

 

T is for Turtle Eggs

When my father was a little boy, some bigger boys gave him a bag of turtle eggs. They looked remarkably like chestnuts that grew on some of the trees in their town.

“Take these home and keep them in a warm place. Turtles will hatch,” they told him, probably guffawing to themselves at the naiveté and gullibility of this little boy.

He brought them home and showed them to his father.

“You take good care of those,” his father said.

For days, he checked the bag. Nothing seemed to be happening.

Eventually, he forgot about them, caught up in other little boy activities, like baseball and playing with his dog, Mugsy.

A couple of weeks later, his father said, “Have you checked those turtle eggs lately? I thought I heard something in there.”

He ran to where he had stashed the brown paper bag holding the chestnuts. The bag was moving! Scratchy sounds were coming from it!

Cautiously, he opened the bag to see what was inside.

In the bag were some little turtles, their shells about the size of a silver dollar.

How did his father know they were in there?

S is for Siblings (a pictorial essay)

First there was my father —

Ocean Grove, 1930

Actually, before my father, there was Janice Aline, a daughter who lived only a day. Little over a year later, my father was born.

Then his brother, Stewart, came along.


I showed my father the picture today and asked him to identify the person.

“That’s my brother, Stewart. He’s really smart!”

He went on to become a Supreme Court Justice in the state of New Jersey.

Next came Polly — except that wasn’t her name at first. Her given name was an old family name and she changed it to Polly.

Isn’t she cute?
I remember as a little girl thinking she was the most beautiful, most glamorous person in the whole world.

When I found out that she traveled to Yugoslavia in 1960 and worked on a road crew for the summer, she became even more legendary in my eyes.

Stewart, my father, their mother, Polly

 

Family portrait

Back row: Stewart, Polly, my father
Middle row: Penny (Stewart’s wife), my grandmother, my grandfather, my mother
Front row (and laps): my cousin Wendy, my sister Donabeth, my brother Stewart, my brother Peter

Back row: My father, my mother, Polly, Penny, Stewart (my father’s brother)
Middle row: Stewart (my brother), Peter, Donabeth, my grandmother, my grandfather, Wendy, Stewart (my cousin)
Front row: Me and my cousin Jeff

Everyone… my grandparents; my father and mother, his siblings, and their spouses; all my siblings and all my cousins

Prolific

Siblings — summer of 2016

As Brad Paisley sang, “All because two people fell in love.”

 

Q is for Questions

My father asks questions all the time.

“What does holy mackerel mean?” he frequently asks.

One of his friends explained the origin of the phrase — eating fish during Lent, etc, etc — but the next day he asked the same question. And the next.

“What are heebie-jeebies?” he asks, “and who ever thought of a word like that?”

“If something is ‘pretty good’, does that means it’s both pretty and good? And what about ‘pretty cute’?”

“What do dogs think about?”

To my children who go barefoot in the house — “Why don’t you wear shoes?” “Why don’t you wear socks?” “Aren’t your feet cold?”

To my tattooed son — “Why did you get those tattoos?” “Were you drunk when you got those?”

When we moved from Cheyenne, WY back to NY, our oldest son was just shy of 3. He asked questions ALL THE TIME. We planned to drive through the night to Kansas, and thought Philip would sleep the whole way. However, he talked for hours during that late night care ride.

I remember telling my sister about it when we got to Kansas because I was so tired.

“What did he talk about?” she asked.

“Mostly, he asked questions,” I said.

“Can I touch the moon?” “Can I hold it?” “Can I play with it?” “Where is that car going?” “What’s in that truck?” “Does the moon like me?” “What are you eating?” Where are we going?” “Why are you crying?”

The emotional and physical exhaustion of the preceding days had left me numb, and yet here was this little person I loved asking me questions.

Do you see the parallel?

It’s like deja vu all over again.

Undoubtedly, Philip is asking my father questions here.

 

P is for Presbyterian

Cooperstown Presbyterian Church

Both my mother and father were deeply involved in the Cooperstown Presbyterian Church.

From my mother’s obituary:

Perhaps most central to Elinor’s life was her steadfast devotion to the First Presbyterian Church of Cooperstown, for it was there that she faithfully blended her love of family and God. A member since 1969, Elinor sang in the Chancel Choir, served in church leadership as a Deacon and an Elder, as Treasurer and Clerk of Session, volunteered as a Sunday School Teacher, was a member and/or chair of numerous committees over the years, and participated fully in the women’s association. A generation of young people will remember Elinor as the one who prepared the food for the weekly Thursday school gatherings at the Presbyterian Church.

I was going to say that my father did everything my mother did at the church and then some — except he didn’t sing in the choir, and I’m not sure he taught Sunday School, and he certainly didn’t participate in the women’s association. He didn’t prepare meals either.

But he WAS a  deacon and an elder and the Clerk of Session (I think). My sister, who is much more entrenched in the Presbyterian Church, could tell you what that all means.

I simply knew that he went to meetings there. A lot of them.

And he sold hot dogs at the annual Ice Cream Social.

From an old newspaper clipping on the refrigerator

The birthday cards from the church people often talked about his leadership, like this one:

My most powerful memories about you relate to the leadership you gave when several times over the years we found ourselves between pastors. You helped keep the ship floating and moving forward…

This was my favorite church story:

My most vivid memory … is of the congregational meeting relating to the arrangement of the pews in the sanctuary which were to be reinstalled after being removed for refurbishing. The temporary chairs used while the pews were worked on were arranged in a semicircle, and some church members wanted the pews to be arranged like that. Other members were determined that the pews should be placed in straight rows as they had been in the past. Supporters of both views expressed strong feelings, but you did a masterful job as moderator in keeping order, giving everyone opportunity to express their opinion, and guiding the factions to a compromise whereby the two center sections of pews were replaced in straight lines as before but the two side sections were angled to give an overall sense of a curve.

I can picture my father, patiently listening, patiently giving everyone a chance to speak, gently leading the way to compromise. Attentive listening is one of his super-powers.

Today, I stopped by the church to see the “curved” pew arrangement.

from the back

from the pulpit

The angling is so slight that it’s barely perceptible. If I felt strongly about the curve, I might have felt cheated.

Or not.

Sometimes it’s enough to be heard.

In any event, the church stayed afloat and moved forward, thanks, in part, to my father.