Pluck: Lost and Found
May 20, 2013
“My mother went downstreet all by herself today,” a friend who lives in a small town in Vermont wrote on her Facebook page. Mary’s mother is 90 years old. “I was in too much pain to accompany her and she was very determined. Everyone knows her down there at T-Bird and that general area, so they will be on the look out. I feel like a nervous mother waiting for her teenaged daughter to come back.”
Yes, I know this feeling. In fact, when I retyped this for the post just now, my computer automatically changed the Vermont colloquialism “downstreet” to “downstream,” and I pictured Alice stepping into my kayak and paddling down the river for a little adventure, leaving me standing on the deck, arms folded tightly across my chest while I waited to see how this journey would turn out.
Mary and I, along with countless other women in our 50s, 60s, 70s and even beyond, find ourselves in the position of being Mother’s mother.
The karmic gods are probably choking with laughter as we puzzle over how to parent well, especially those of us who never got any practice with children of our own. At times our elders, fragile in some ways, try to exercise too much independence. But some situations arise and, even though perfectly capable, they exercise too little.
Those contrary forces play happily together within Alice. Sometimes, for example, if she’s been sitting for a while and it’s time to get up and move, she fiercely waves me aside when I try to position her walker in front of her so she doesn’t stumble. This is more likely to happen when we’re in a public place, such as a waiting room. “I can do it!” she claims, and she grabs the contraption by one of its handles, pulls it closer, grips the other handle and yanks the walker roughly in the direction of her legs. “Good grief,” she mutters. “Do you think I’m helpless?”
Other times all her pluck seems to have drained right out of her. I’m much better at being shooed aside than I am when this happens. I see it for what it is: another kind of trip downstream. Do I let her go or try to call her back?
Last week, for example, she told me that her housekeeper had not shown up for the second Tuesday in a row, which meant she was now cleaning her own apartment. I asked when the housekeeper would be coming around again.
No idea. How was she supposed to know the mysterious inner workings of The Place?
I offered to find out was going on.
“No,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll tell us.”
“They haven’t told you for two weeks. Why would that change?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Don’t you dare call. They’ll get mad at me.”
I reminded her that she’s paying more than three times what she’d pay for an apartment. “They’re supposed to do certain things in exchange for that money. Like clean.”
I knew that the housekeeper was probably getting paid next to nothing, that I’d walk out too if some other Place had offered me higher wages. All this made sense to me, but so did taking care of Alice.
“Now don’t you go calling anybody,” she said.
I thought about it and finally decided to see what happened the following Tuesday. But the very next day, while I was eating lunch, Alice phoned me in a panic. “You have to call them,” she said. A new floor manager was on staff and she’d sent out a notice announcing that she’d changed the cleaning schedule. Alice’s housekeeping day had been moved from Tuesdays to Sundays.
“It can’t be Sundays,” Alice said. “Sunday is a shower day.” She had once fallen in the shower. Now, under doctor’s orders, she wasn’t allowed to shower on her own. An aide had to help her.
“But what time is the housekeeper coming on Sundays?” I asked. “Your shower is scheduled for the morning. Maybe the cleaner is supposed to come in the afternoon.”
“I don’t know what time she’ll be here. I never know exactly when the shower person will be here either.”
“Can’t someone be cleaning the other rooms in your apartment while you’re getting a shower?”
I reminded her that many times she hasn’t even been at home while her apartment was being cleaned, so why did this matter so much?
She couldn’t explain all that, she said. “Just listen to me. You have to make them change the day.”
I put my sandwich aside. I wondered how the mother of the teenaged daughter I never had might have handled a similar problem. The mother (me), who hates to iron clothes as much as the more mature daughter (also me) hates making phone calls, would be holding up a freshly ironed blouse of a certain color, say green, and the teenaged daughter would be breathing hard and rolling her eyes and scolding her mother (again, me) for not understanding that she could not possibly wear a green blouse to school on a blue blouse day, and the mother who had pressed the wrong blouse (still unfortunately me) would then take a deep breath and in a calm voice say…
The parental me spoke wisely but faintly, too low and far away to hear. The daughter me felt a headache coming on.
“Call them,” Alice said, “and then call me right back and tell me what they said.”
We hung up. I made the mistake of finishing my lunch. The phone rang ten minutes later. “Haven’t you talked to them yet? I want to know what they say.”
“It’s only Wednesday,” I said. “This change doesn’t happen until Sunday. What’s the hurry?” Maybe the lunch and washing up hadn’t been a mistake after all. I’d had some time to think. Where was the woman who could break her hip at 94 and still be walking around the grounds of The Place at almost 98?
The woman who could get eye injections and then go to Starbucks for cocoa? Where was my mother? Was it right to do this sort of thing for her, or should I urge her to exercise the strength I’d witnessed so often in the past?
“Why don’t you talk to them?” I suggested. “When you go to get your mail, stop at the office and ask them to change the housekeeping day.”
“Ask who?” The softest hint of a whine.
“Who signed that notice about the change?”
Papers shuffling, finally a name: Michelle.
“Okay,” I said, “ask for Michelle and tell her you’d like the day changed. Or tell her that the housekeeper has to come on Sunday afternoons because your shower is in the morning.”
Long pause followed by pretty much a repetition of the entire conversation above.
“Oh, you do it! I don’t want to,” she said.
“Look,” I said, “it’s your shower, your apartment, your idea that the two things can’t happen at the same time. And you know how to fix it.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You just told me how to fix it a few minutes ago in our first phone call. And then I told you. Just now.”
We said good-bye, but she called back five minutes later. “I went out into the hall and ran into Laundry Edie,” she said. “She told me that Amelia is in her office right now. She said you should call Amelia and tell her to change this.”
“Amelia? What about Michelle?”
“Edie says no no no. It’s Amelia. Amelia’s the nurse and aide supervisor. She’s the one to tell. Do it now before she leaves her office for the day.”
“Nurses and aides aren’t housekeepers,” I said. “Michelle…”
“Call now.” She hung up.
The kayak slipped around the bend, out of sight. No adventure here. Simply retreat.
I gave up and phoned The Place to talk to Michelle. She was a new employee. We hadn’t yet met.
She was in a meeting so I left her a long, meandering voice-mail message. Highlights: Hello. Daughter of… About the housecleaning notice…Uh-oh. Sunday. Shower Day. Conflict! Must not clean then. Impossible!! Another day? Or change Shower Day? Aides do showering. Amelia manages aides. Talk to Amelia? Me talk? You talk?
By the time I hung up from this rambling it seemed the only thing to do was move Alice out of there and start over some place else.
Then, not more than half an hour later, my phone rang. I couldn’t imagine that Michelle had come out of a meeting and put that message at the top of her to-do list.
It was Alice. “It’s all straightened out,” she said, voice bright as a lark’s. “Thanks to me.”
There was my girl. In the fading light she’d turned the kayak around, paddled upriver fighting the current all the way, and made it to port. By herself.
“And just how did that happen?”
“Well!” Alice said as if about to impart the story of the year. “I just decided I can do this. I went to the front desk and stopped to see the little short man, you know who I mean, he sits there all day. I told him about my problem. He took me into Michelle’s office and then she came in and I told her about my problem and she said she’d take care of it. Then I came back and sat right down to call you.”
I felt as proud as the mother I never was would have felt if her teenaged daughter dared to wear a green blouse on a blue blouse day. And then some, because it’s even harder to call forth pluck when you’re old. Sometimes you have to fight for it. Every day, as I see and feel old age approaching in myself, I know this to be true.
Nancy came back to Mary from downstreet Bellows Falls. She didn’t have any exciting news, like the time she’d stopped at the Penguin Mart and happened to run into the Governor of Vermont. But she had gone out to see the world again on her own and made it safely home.