Tag Archive | memories

Christmas Trip, Part 2: Ritual and Tradition

Every other year, all through my childhood, we spent Christmas in Ohio with my mom’s family. (On alternate years, my dad had to take his turn as the on-call anesthesiologist.) I looked forward to those family Christmases so much, I think I started counting the days in September. The big family tradition was a Christmas Eve potluck, the whole clan coming together at my Uncle Fritz and Aunt Ellen’s house. I fondly recall my cousin Betty’s delicious pies and singing Christmas carols all together and Uncle Fritz dressing up as Santa to hand out the presents. I remember, as my generation grew up and started having kids, how crowded that little house became — tables laid end to end from the kitchen all the way to the front porch — and how full of love and laughter it always was. I remember falling asleep on Christmas Eve next to my cousin Susan, with her brother camped out on the floor beside the bed so my parents could have his room. “Shhhhh!” he would say. “Did you hear that? It sounded like sleighbells!”

Until this year I hadn’t been back to Ohio at the holidays for over two decades. The torch has been passed to the next generation, and my cousin Frank and his wife are now the hosts for Christmas Eve. Over the years the exchanging of gifts has evolved into its own ritual. Everyone brings one gift and they are passed around the circle as my cousin Robby reads The Night Before Christmas. It was fun to see him in that role, to watch him be Uncle Rob to a whole new generation of cousins.

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After the story and the gift exchange came the carol singing, which has always been my favorite part of Christmas Eve. Songbooks were handed around and, as I heard my family’s voices raised together in song, I realized just how much I had missed being a part of that. I got a lump in my throat when, on a lyric about Mary with the babe in her arms, my eye fell on my cousin with her toddler daughter sleeping on her lap.

I think my favorite moment all night, though, was when the group skipped “O Christmas Tree.” My cousin Shellyn, sitting next to me, tried to insist that we sing it but wasn’t being heard… so I just started belting out “O Christmas Tree.” Shellyn and her sisters joined in, and we drowned out the other song until everybody was singing “O Christmas Tree.” For a few moments I was a teenager again, instigating with my cousins.

Mom loves the singing, too, and she loved seeing the whole family at once. And Betty’s pies are as good as ever!

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Me, Mom, and my Aunt Alice – Christmas Eve

 

I’m a big one for rituals and traditions, always have been. It makes me melancholy to consider that my particular branch of our family tree ends with me, that there is no next generation to whom I can hand down the boxes of my mom’s old family photos or into the toe of whose Christmas stockings I can place the traditional tangerine. But my cousins on Mom’s side are keeping the family tree healthy and I think our traditions are in good hands.

Lucky

We are so very lucky, my mom and me. The family visit was everything either of us could have hoped for. Things went smoothly with all three flights – no delays, no major airport hassles, no lost luggage. Mom did just great with all of it, even waking up ridiculously early to catch our flight out of Denver.

We had wonderful quality time with too many family members to list, including some who we hadn’t been able to see on our last couple of visits. We broke bread together. We spent hours looking through boxes of old family photos (as far back as her grandparents) and sharing memories. We played Scrabble. We paid a visit to the cemetery where several generations of family are buried; holding my arm, since the ground is too uneven to push a walker, Mom walked through the cemetery to visit all of the family headstones. We saw beautiful fall colors, and I took lots of pictures for her digital picture frame.

Here’s Mom resting at the grave of her parents.

Mom at Cemetery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s a favorite of the family shots, a kiss from her grandson.

Josh and Grandma

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I love you” was the refrain that echoed through this visit. I do believe that every single family member told her that they love her before they said goodbye. I think we were all (except for Mom) very conscious that this may be the last visit. I’m so glad that everyone got a chance to hug her and tell her that they love her, but I’m not dwelling on the “last visit” part. She may surprise us all! She is already, at 86, the longest-living member of her immediate family. And she’s showing no signs of being ready to quit!

Those relatives who saw her last spring all commented on how much better she seems now, and it truly is remarkable. Six months ago, she was going back to bed every chance she got, dozing the days away. Now she’s staying awake and alert all day and well into the evening, as long as she gets a nap around midday. She’s physically stronger and able to walk further without tiring, and her memory has definitely improved. Six months ago, she couldn’t keep track of where we were going for the space of a ten-minute car trip. She would ask me repeatedly where she lived or talk about visiting an apartment that doesn’t exist. As soon as something was out of sight, it was out of mind. But for the entire ten-day trip, she not only remembered that she lives in California now (and not Arizona) but was also able to answer in detail when asked about the home where she lives. Everyone cautioned me that once cognitive function is lost, it will never return – so this is an unlooked for, unexpected blessing.

Catching up on the dementia caregivers message board, I realize anew just how lucky I am that my mom’s personality is thus far mostly unchanged, despite her dementia. She’s not angry or paranoid or delusional. She’s not regressing to childlike behavior. She still knows all of us and retains the emotional connection of the relationships even if she’s lost some of the specific memories. Her essential nature is the same as it has always been – kind and loving and easygoing. For this, and for the gift of a loving family, I am truly grateful.

Precious Moments

Last weekend Mom got a surprise visit from her oldest granddaughter, my niece Sarah, who is a freshman at a university about 30 miles away. Mom was absolutely delighted to see her and just lit up like a Christmas tree.

We went to my neighborhood nail salon for some pampering (manicures for Mom and me, a pedicure for Sarah) and then back to my apartment, where I cooked us dinner. It’s the first time Mom has come over to my place since last Thanksgiving, when we had to haul her up the front steps in her wheelchair, one step at a time. I’ve been concerned about how she would manage the eight steps, but holding the railing on one side and my arm on the other, she did just fine. She loved being there, and I loved being able to have a quiet family dinner together.

Sarah and her mom spent last Easter with us, while in the area doing college visits. At the time, Mom was only recently out of the hospital – still on oxygen 24/7 and using a wheelchair. After we brought her home on Saturday evening, my niece kept telling me how impressed she was by how healthy and happy grandma is now. And it was very validating to hear Mom tell her “This is a wonderful place to live.”

On Sunday we all went to church together, which I know was really special for Mom. In the middle of the service, she put her arm around my shoulders and gave me a squeeze, saying softly in my ear, “I’m so glad I can go to church with you.” After the service, we went out for brunch and indulged in some fantastic pancakes with real maple syrup.

I am so thankful for these special times together. And above all, I’m grateful that Mom has returned to such good health –six months ago I thought that might never happen, that the only way she could go was down. In two weeks we will be flying to Ohio to visit family and make some more memories to treasure.

Mom Me Brunch

Mom Sarah Brunch

A Great Day with Mom

Two weekends in a row, due to first car trouble and then illness, I’ve had little to no time to spend with my mom. But we made up for it yesterday! It started like a typical Sunday. I took her to church, which she particularly enjoyed after a three week absence, and then out for brunch at a new-to-us restaurant.

Mom ordered a Belgian waffle with strawberries and whipped cream. Putting butter on the waffle was serious and messy business, as she had to keep moving the strawberries with her fingers to get the butter evenly distributed. I kept waiting for her to dip her sleeve in the whipped cream. When she took her first bite, she made a face and said “These strawberries are sour.” After liberally dousing the waffle with syrup, she dug in and seemed to enjoy it… but after 1/4 of the waffle and 2 cups of coffee loaded with creamer, she was done. It’s no wonder she’s still losing weight. In the time it took her to eat that small amount of food, I polished off two pancakes, two scrambled  eggs and two strips of bacon.

She was tired at brunch and not very talkative. She told me she hadn’t slept well. I’d been telling her all week about the free concert in the park that my friend and I wanted to take her to on Sunday, but when I mentioned it at brunch she said she didn’t know if she would be feeling up to it. When I brought her home, I suggested that she take a nap and she readily agreed. I kissed her goodbye and told her I would call in a couple of hours. Luckily, she had a good nap and the extra sleep revived her. When I called at 3:30, she was perky and enthusiastic about going to the concert.

It was a good thing she got some rest because it ended up being a pretty big outing for her. I picked her up at 4:15, to be sure to get her out of the house before dinner time. We stopped at Panera Bread on the way to get sandwiches and iced tea for our picnic dinner, then headed for the park where my friend was already waiting with chairs set up in the shade of a big umbrella. Not long ago, just the trip to Panera might have worn Mom out, and I was a little concerned about whether she’d last through the concert, which didn’t even start until 6:00. She only picked at her half sandwich, eating the turkey and a little bit of avocado out of it and leaving the rest, so for the rest of the evening I kept offering her a few more potato chips or another bite of blueberry scone. She was fascinated by the shaved ice truck and asked me to go get her a small one.  When I came back with a cup filled with shaved ice liberally doused with strawberry syrup, she looked confused and said that wasn’t what she was expecting… but she enjoyed it anyway and finished every last drop.

She enjoyed the Jack Lantz Big Band very much, tapping her toes and waving her hands in time to the music. When that music was popular, my mom was a dance instructor at Arthur Murray. That’s how she met my dad, who came to take lessons. I grew up hearing those songs coming from the three foot tall speakers in my dad’s stereo cabinet, and I can remember coming downstairs and seeing my folks waltzing in the living room. They could still cut a rug at family weddings well into their seventies. She tried to teach me ballroom dancing when I was a teenager, but I had no patience for learning the steps. Now I wish I had let her teach me while she could.

When the band took a break, Mom said she would like to get up and stretch her legs. We set out at a snail’s pace, her walker difficult to maneuver over the uneven dirt path through the park. Mom enjoyed seeing all the people, especially the small children climbing on the playground equipment or playing catch. She smiled at everyone we passed. To my surprise, she made it all the way to the far end of the park before she had to sit down.

We were close to the restrooms, so I suggested we stop and use them after she’d rested. She didn’t think she needed to go, but agreed — and thank goodness, because she DID need to stop. Helping her in the bathroom is something I’m still getting used to, and it was especially tricky in a park facility with dirty concrete floors and insufficient toilet paper. I made a mental note to start carrying baby wipes. Honestly, I probably should just get a diaper bag. I’m sure I could find one that doesn’t LOOK like a diaper bag.

She made the return walk, all the way across the park to our chairs, without stopping once. I’ve been noticing lately that she seems more steady on her feet and her gate has improved; she doesn’t shuffle as much. I think the Sinemet (the Parkinson’s drug the neurologist prescribed) is really helping now that she’s titrated up to a therapeutic dose. She sank gratefully into her chair and propped her feet up when we got back, happy to relax and listen to the music. But when the band finished, she asked if we could go down to the stage and tell them how much we enjoyed their performance — and another walk didn’t faze her in the least. I was really impressed!

It was dusk by the time we packed up and got on our way, and Mom and I were both yawning on the drive home. “That was an adventure!” she exclaimed happily. “Thank you for taking me.”

My pleasure, Mom. Truly.

 

Not Much to Her Life?

She has fallen twice this week, once in her room and then yesterday in the dining room. Because a urinary tract infection is one of many things that can cause muscle weakness, I bought some UTI home test strips at the drugstore and took them over to her first thing this morning, before I went to work. She was in bed, of course, but I don’t think she had been sleeping. I sat beside her and held her hand. When I leaned over to kiss her on the forehead, she stroked my hair with shaking fingers.

“I’m lucky to have you,” she said. “There wouldn’t be much to my life if you weren’t in it.”

I hate that it’s come to that. I hate that I had to take her away from her life – her friends, her church, her community – in Arizona and bring her to a place where she has nothing but me. I hate that she seems content to doze through the hours between my visits, showing little interest in meals or activities or anything.

People tell me it’s not my job to make her happy; my job is to keep her safe and ensure she gets good food and appropriate medical care. But when it was her job to take care of me, she did so much more than that. My father provided the comfortable home in a good school district, the medical care, the food on the table… and Mom provided the TLC. She held my hair when I was sick and let me crawl in bed with her when I’d had a bad dream. When I was too shy to join Girl Scouts, she became a troop leader to encourage me. She instilled in me a love of books and music – reading to me every night, teaching me the old songs that she sang with my aunts and uncles around the campfire. My childhood is full of happy memories and my mom is at the heart of most of them.

I don’t know how much time she has left in this world, but I don’t want her dozing it all away, just placidly waiting for the sun to go down. I want it to be filled with happy moments, even when I’m busy elsewhere and can’t be with her, even though she won’t remember those moments later. I just don’t know how to make that happen.

In the Moment

I just got off the phone with my mom. She’s really enjoying life in assisted living. She told me her roommate is becoming a good friend and that she’ll pass on moving into her own one bedroom for a while because she’s comfortable where she is. “It’s a whole new lifestyle,” she told me. “There’s always something to do here. If you’re not doing anything, it’s because you won’t get off your butt!” She’s been sampling a variety of activities, trying to find things that she will enjoy and meet people with whom she shares common interests.

Yesterday she showed up for something called Chime Choir, without having a clue what that was… and now she’s going to be IN the chime choir, which is rehearsing a song to perform for the rest of the residents. That made me smile. Mom grew up in a musical family and some of my fondest childhood memories involve singing around a campfire. These days her voice isn’t very strong and she’s forgotten how to play the piano, but I know she still loves music. When I was packing up her apartment I found dozens and dozens of cassette tapes – Big Band music, gospel and homemade cassettes labeled “classical FM”. I think making music will be good for her.

I’m trying not to worry so much. When I was in school Mom used to tell me that I wasted too much time worrying about things that might never happen. A lot of what I worry about now will happen – my mom will continue to lose her memory and her faculties as time goes on and eventually she will die. Worrying won’t stop that from happening, it will just sour the time we have left together. She’s safe. She’s eating well, taking two showers a week, getting her medication on schedule. Most importantly, she’s enjoying her life. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is one of my New Year’s resolutions this year. I’m also working on living in the moment, appreciating what I have now and dealing with what’s right in front of me. That’s plenty. I don’t need to borrow trouble from the future. Mom can teach me something about that, I think. She’s so “in the moment” that she often can’t remember what she was doing an hour ago. If I talk about the future, she gets confused and sometimes agitated. So we’ll just stay in the here and now. As long as her moments are happy, that’s what counts.

Christmas Past and Christmas Present

Watching “A Christmas Story” on TBS today, I started thinking about everything my mom did to make Christmas special when I was growing up. I can’t remember a single Christmas of my childhood when what I wanted most wasn’t under the tree on Christmas morning. She encouraged me to believe in Santa Claus, even buying (and hiding) separate wrapping paper after I commented innocently at age four, “Mommy, Santa uses the same wrapping paper you do!” We baked Christmas cookies together. She rarely baked, but once a year she made a special Christmas bread with candied fruit and nuts. (I keep hoping I’ll find her recipe for that bread as I go through the kitchen things.) Christmas dinner was always something special – turkey with dressing, or occasionally ham or Cornish hens, fluffy mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, and at least two kinds of pie – all made from scratch. The rest of the year she took shortcuts in cooking and was all about convenience, but not at Christmas.

Every other year we went to Ohio to spend Christmas with Mom’s big extended family. I remember Christmas Eve dinners at my Aunt Ellen’s house, a happy chaos of noisy kids and Uncle Fritz dressing up as Santa Claus. I remember watching The Waltons Christmas specials and calling out to each other from our beds on Christmas night, “Goodnight, Mom. Goodnight, Susan. Goodnight, John Boy.” I remember the year that my cousins and I snuck out of our beds in the pre-dawn to inspect the gifts that “Santa” had left under the tree and the year that we finally deduced, beyond reasonable doubt, that our mothers were really Santa Claus.

The years in between, when we spent Christmas at home because it was my dad’s turn to be on call at the hospital, Mom went overboard with the presents. She’d wrap up silly things like packs of gum and packages of cookies just so there would be a mountain of wrapped gifts beside the tree. There would always be a tangerine in the toe of my Christmas stocking – a tradition left over from her childhood in the Depression, when tropical fruit was a rare treat.

No matter where we were, my mom made Christmas magical. Now it’s my turn to make Christmas special for her.

Last night I took her to the Christmas Eve service at her church. Singing “Silent Night” I put my arm around her shoulders, felt her arm slip around my waist, and then the tears were streaming down my cheeks and I could hardly sing the second verse around the lump in my throat. I was keenly aware how precious this time together is, how blessed I am to be sharing this Christmas with her.

I planned a traditional Christmas dinner. I had to take some shortcuts because, with Mom moving next week, it didn’t make sense to buy all the ingredients to make things from scratch or to have leftovers for weeks. I bought a ham steak instead of a whole ham and a pre-made pecan pie. But I went to three grocery stores looking for Yukon Gold potatoes to make the perfect mashed potatoes. I finally settled on something called Klondike Gold potatoes, thinking they would be close enough. I was wrong. When they turned out gluey instead of light and fluffy, I could have cried. This may be the last Christmas dinner I ever cook for my mom, and I so wanted it to be perfect. But she ate them anyway and she raved about my candied sweet potatoes. And when we said goodnight, she hugged me tight and told me that Christmas was special because of me.

I love you, Mom. Merry Christmas.

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