July 21, 2010
Alice has a new friend at The Place, a Viet Nam vet named Lyle. Like Alice, Lyle came to Oregon from the Midwest. When they see each other in the dining room, he talks about the war and about the music from the time of that war, music that still holds meaning for him. She can’t hear him very well, but she tries to listen. One of their lunchtime conversations prompted her to wonder about the music coming from our involvement in current wars. Is it beautiful? Does it have meaning for people?
She was wondering this when I stopped by with her groceries yesterday. She’d pulled the blinds because light hurts her eyes sometimes, especially after she’s had a treatment for macular degeneration, and she just had one a few days ago.We sat quietly after she’d unpacked everything. She’s always delighted with each item, even when she knows what’s coming because she asked me to get it for her. “Cinnamon bread!” “Grapes!” “Raisin Bran!”
When she brought up the question about music and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, neither of us had an answer. She can’t hear well enough to make out the lyrics of songs she’s never heard before, and I don’t listen much to music on the radio.
I thought about the few songs I have heard that were written for the people who have given their lives in those faraway places. They’re mostly country and western songs enamored of patriotism. The lyrics are in service to making a point: right versus wrong, not heart to heart. At the other end of the spectrum, protest music also focuses on the wrongs. If anyone’s listening to songs about this topic at all, they’re probably choosing to hear only those that express their own position on the wars. But, as we know, World War II was different because the country was more united.
I asked my mother what her favorite song was from that era. She mentioned “I’ll Be Seeing You,” but then she told me the song that saw her through the years my father served in the Army in France and Germany was “When My Dreamboat Comes Home.”
She sang the whole song for me. It begins like this (lyrics by Dave Franklin & Cliff Friend):
When my dreamboat comes home
and my dream no more will roam
I will meet you and I’ll greet you
when my dreamboat comes home
Almost all the songs she could remember from that time, she said, spoke to love and longing. My father was drafted shortly after Alice lost her only brother at Guadalcanal. She couldn’t face the idea of losing her love. Her dreamboat was going to come home.
As we sat close together in the near dark, she told me a story I’d never heard before. Read the rest of this entry »
July 16, 2010
Alice told me she needed some “tops”–blouses, shirts, sweaters. We decided to take the new walker out for an extended spin at Lloyd Center, the nearest mall.
She had never heard of Marshall’s and wanted to go inside the moment she saw it, despite my hesitation. Once inside the door she looked around and loudly announced, “These are the worst looking clothes I’ve ever seen in my life.” Nevertheless, she dispensed with her walker and ventured off stiffly on her own, holding onto clothing racks jammed with floral prints and plunging necklines. I followed anxiously behind, pushing the walker, just in case. After a trip down the third aisle with no results, she grabbed it from me and got into position. “Let’s blow this joint,” she said, doing her best Brando from The Wild One.
Sears was next door, but that didn’t please her either. She held up a slinky black top with beaded buttons in a zig-zag pattern down the front. “Am I supposed to wear this?”
But when I found the Land’s End racks she began tossing blouses and sweaters onto the seat and arms of her walker, using it like a grocery cart. I felt awed by my mother’s capacity to keep going. She read my mind. “Aren’t I amazing?”
I agreed that she was. She turned her face up to me and wanted to know if her make-up looked okay. It did. I asked why she wanted to know. “Because,” she said, “I made it myself.”
A woman about a decade older than I hovered nearby, listening. Read the rest of this entry »
July 14, 2010
The leader of the pack of six sisters in Alice’s family was the third-born, Mattie (1911-2000). Today she would have been ninety-nine.
They grew up poor in a little Midwestern village called Carson (pop. 400), and the family was so large (nine altogether, counting the baby, a boy) that their mother needed them to do chores. Some, like Mattie (the reader, the saver, the keeper of memories in the making), took the chores seriously. Others, like Alice (actually Alice alone), did not.
When Mattie was twelve and Alice was eight, Alice’s job was to wash the lunch dishes. She didn’t care for it. One day she traded this task for Mattie’s job, which was to take the large tin milk jug to the dairy a few blocks away, get it filled, and haul it back home. Mattie washed and dried the dishes while Alice played stickball in a nearby vacant lot with friends. When the dishes were neatly stacked away, she brought the milk container out to the lot.
Alice saw her coming and cast aside her stick. She took off in the opposite direction. Mattie, carrying the jug, pursued her. Furious. They ran up and down Main Street, passing the dairy itself several times. Finally, Alice bolted down an alley and into a back yard that contained an outhouse. She locked herself inside. Mattie banged on the door, but no luck. Even sitting locked inside someone’s outhouse was more preferable to Alice than taking the milk jug to the dairy, or at least more preferable than giving up. So Mattie finally turned around, walked back to Main Street, got the jug filled, and carried it home.
Seventy-five years later, Mattie still told this story. Alice always laughed. But so did Mattie. They became good friends, the best of friends, the closest of sisters.
July 12, 2010
Alice has always had a mechanical streak. Roger, my father, did not. Yet, they persisted in pretending that he did, and she deferred to him until one night when the kitchen light switch stopped working while she was making dinner. Like a surgeon, my father asked for his tools, which she, like a nurse, brought to him. He requested a flashlight. She fetched one. And wasn’t there a box somewhere with electrical stuff in it? Indeed there was. She knew exactly where to find it and carried it to his side. Then he instructed her to turn off the power, which she did.
All this even though he spent his days in a store working with people, and she spent her days at home, managing a family and house, fixing every appliance that broke in order to save money, and doing things like drilling holes in her bedroom closet floor so she could thread wires from the stereo through to the basement, hook up a speaker on the laundry room wall, and listen to Tony Bennett or Perry Como while doing the wash. She also brought home broken television sets and radios from garage sales, repaired them in the living room in her spare time, and gave them away to people who needed them. We, her children, knew her abilities from close up and expected great things from her. When I was in high school, I once asked her to lift our car out of an enormous snowdrift so I could make it to class on time. When she declined, I felt quite disappointed. Lifting up a couple of tons of metal for my benefit had seemed entirely within her range. In any case, nothing, certainly not a light switch, seemed likely to be out of my mother’s mechanical reach.
They stood close together in the dark. My mother held the flashlight while my father removed the switch cover and examined the innards in the small, dark, rectangular recess in the wall. He raised the screwdriver, but here his nerves and knowledge failed him. Alice, far too deep by then into that no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners attitude that comes steaming in with menopause, couldn’t wait another minute for light to return to her kitchen. Her hand shot up and she tugged at the switch until it came partially out.
There was a pause, and then my father, without looking at her, handed over the screwdriver, took the flashlight from her hand, and aimed the beam at the open wound in the wall. She continued on, removing screws, pulling things out, jimmying the new switch in, tightening everything back into place, and closing up the repair with the old switch cover. The lights came back on. Of course.
I didn’t see any signs of their relationship, a mixture of contentiousness and intense attraction, changing after that. He did buy her a toolbox for Christmas a few years later, and after he retired he would often brag about how she was always fixing this and that around the house.
So it is particularly disconcerting to hear Alice tell me that she’s afraid to try to get her new coffee pot to work, when it simply involves filling it with water and plugging it in. Or that she’s having trouble deleting things using the keyboard of her Web TV, on which she’s written e-mail for the past twelve years. Or that she’s not sure how to follow the directions I’ve written out for her on how and when to take her Fosamax pill. And I think, even Alice. This happens even to her, my powerful mother who could do all things.
These are the kinds of losses we stand by and watch, first with disbelief, and then a long, sad dawning of enlightenment, as age, so relentless in its creeping, steals not only the body, and often the mind, but also the defining qualities that make a person fit into the precise size and shape of the space they have always filled in life’s puzzle. They are leaving us behind and we’ll need to put the pieces together in some new way, some way we’ll have to fix for ourselves.
July 4, 2010
Shortly after she moved into The Place, Alice learned that a 107-year-old woman lived there. Irene once had a dinner partner, also named Irene (aged 104), but the younger Irene had recently died, leaving the older Irene to eat her meals by herself. The staff wanted Alice to join her.
Alice had come reluctantly to Oregon, hated her apartment (“electrical outlets in all the wrong places”), and had so far refused to eat in the facility dining room. Geoff, the director, told me they couldn’t continue to send a caretaker to her apartment three times a day with a tray: Nobody gets that, unless they’re sick. The Place was short-staffed. They’d made an exception because she’d moved all the way from Iowa, but now the jig was up.
I explained this to Alice. She said she didn’t care.
I reminded her that Irene was 107!
Neck stiff, hands in fists, banging her knees for emphasis, she told me No. She twisted her face at me, hoping to scare me away, I think.
The all-female staff of caretakers sent Geoff to talk to her, believing that women of a certain age will always allow men to make the rules. Geoff repeated what he’d told me: Not enough staff. Lonely Irene.
“Sounds like you’ve got a problem but it’s not my problem,” Alice said. Read the rest of this entry »
July 1, 2010
This is Alice’s question to me every night when we have our evening phone call. She’s not asking if I’m in an asylum. She wants to know if my doors are locked.
Whether they are or not, I answer, “Yes, are you?”
One night we forgot to ask one another this question, and she went to bed without removing the key from the lock of her apartment door. She’d forgotten to pull it out after returning from the dining room. Even though she’s ninety-four and pretty much defenseless, she wasn’t upset the next morning when she opened the door and saw what she’d done. Instead she said, “I’m lucky. Forgetting things like that doesn’t happen to me very often.”
A friend’s elderly great-aunt used to come for summer visits on Long Island. The moment she arrived, Aunt Janet ordered one of the three young boys in the house to carry her black leather valise to the fourth floor. She gave the order despite the sweltering August heat that rose up and up and up in the old house until it gathered in a humid, weeping mass on the fourth floor ceiling and stayed there. Aunt Janet told the boys that she chose the highest level of the house because she wanted to avoid what she called “marauders,” in case any came by. Apparently marauders would be too exhausted from pillaging the first three floors to bother with the fourth. She and everything in her valise would be safe.
Alice considered the possibility of marauders back in Iowa after my father died and she lived alone. Every night she stuck a butter knife into the molding next to the knob of her bedroom door. She’d slide the knife into the narrow slit, pat the urn on the dresser that contained my father’s ashes, and climb into bed with a book. Here in this Northwest city where the likelihood of marauders is much greater than an Iowa town, she doesn’t seem too concerned.
I wondered about this lack of concern, especially since she’d made a tireless effort to pass fear of The Dangerous and The Uncontrollable on to me since I was a small child. “Well, it doesn’t make sense to bother with a key at all, really,” she explained. “Those people on the staff, the caretakers and so on, they all have keys and can get in anyway, any time they want. But I’ll lock my door, honey. Don’t you worry.”
I realized that she didn’t understand that anybody could wander into The Place from various unlocked outside doors, but what’s the point in telling her that? She sleeps well, she feels safe, and all the butter knives stay in the drawer.