“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner
“…as with many parents, their love proved to be the most lethal thing about them.” Pat Conroy Prince of Tides
Androgynous time doesn’t come after us with a big old scythe. It might have been the late Nora Ephron that said it uses manicure scissors to make tiny snips. Bit by bit, as Marjory Williams related in the Velveteen Rabbit, we are altered and nipped at, rubbed, worn, (and if we’re lucky) loved to death. Should we frequently shout JENGA to acknowledge that everything is falling apart?
We joke about walking into a room and asking, ‘what am I here for?’ Seriously—what am I or you or any of us here for? Was it—is it just to be a child, daughter/son, student, mom/dad, spouse or household technician, career achiever, and eventually, food for worms; or in the case of cremation—a source of pollution? Many don’t hesitate to use an earned or awarded title but why do we shy away from using labels that describe us—like lofty thinker, persistent rebel, trail blazing lover, eccentric entrepreneur, mage/shaman, survivor/thriver, and, ultimately (respected) elder?
To attempt to answer the Y M I question, we visit shrinks—to reduce the vastness of the question to manageable, shoe boxy size. Or we write a memoir, a moment in time dispatch from the war torn trenches and lofty places our minds have visited. The aim—to cement our identity and recollections for posterity. We aren’t supposed to write our own obituary, and yet, that’s exactly what one of my professors told me to do. Whenever I was stumped about what to say, or how to say it, they said I should stop and write an obit, an honest, objective love letter to myself. I should address it to the dead letter office—to be posted and read figuratively by someone I knew who was dearly or nearly departed. It was supposed to inspire and spur me on.
Meanwhile, a few states over, an old woman, against her wishes, was recently relegated to a nursing home and is being visited by ghosts. They are preparing her for a crossing of the bar, a final waltz before she’s ‘definitely done dancing.’ She is half of a pair that once stood sentry over me, my brother, and two sisters. She is a person upon whom, as Simon and Garfunkel sang in Bookends, ‘the years have settled like dust.’ Her other half was reinterpreted in the mid 90’s, his remains consigned to a plot of land a few miles away. Three dimensional time has snipped and pruned, shrunk and diminished the nonagenarian named Jane. Like the Cumae Sybil, she is barely more than a voice now—that for a number of reasons—loops and repeats.
Being temporarily stuck regarding what to write about the old woman, who is also my mother, I decide to create an eclectic obit about someone that should have been a Southern Belle, but was instead born a Pennsylvania Coal Miner’s Daughter. It’s ½ obit, ½ letter—an obitter—sounds about right. Should it be a linear paean about her 90+ years here? Or should it be a realistic farewell highlighting valleys and peaks, more of a raucous Highlights for Adults? It could feature complaints and compliments, pictures of hidden (and missing) objects, stories, a few puzzles and riddles … So much is left out of an obit—like why my sister assumed legal control of Jane’s estate and stuck her in a nursing home when I was willing and able to care for her in my home. What is Jane’s legacy? Why is she here?
I’m no stranger to the art of writing obits, eulogies, roasts, and rhymes. You might say (stealing a phrase from Sylvia Plath) ‘I have a calling.’ This task, however, was harder than it sounded. The woman, who at various times in her 93+ years had channeled Scarlet, Blanche Du Bois, Mommy Dearest, and a Steel Magnolia or two, was as inscrutable as a lump of Pennsylvania coal. As the eldest offspring, I’d known her the longest, bore the brunt of her angst, and was designated, by my father, to look after her best interests should anything happen to him. I had boxes of photos, 1000s of journal entries and letters, and indelible memories. I also had a splendid ancestral tree, painstakingly created by my brother, her only son, her favorite. If you’ve ever tried to trace Welsh ancestry, which is full of repeated, identical first and surnames, you’d know his research was an act of love.
A normal obitter wouldn’t do, though I was initially baffled. She and I had so little in common; I’m an air sign, she’s fire. I obtained a graduate degree; she settled for a high school diploma. I had a career, she was a homemaker; five marriages versus one; one child versus four; pursuit of knowledge versus pursuit of a garrulous social life… Compared to my worldly father, brother, and myself, my mother had lived an ordinary life during a century of vast changes and advances. Born in the mid-1920s, she experienced the depression, an onslaught of technology, and a major world war. She had nothing substantive to say about the Korean and Viet Nam wars. But she was intimate with wars fought—and lost. And there were many scars…
A few years after my dad’s sudden death, I wrote a rambling poem about my mother’s struggles entitled The Conversation. When I read it aloud to her, she cried. “Yes,” she said, “how did you know?” I’ve been listening and observing, I told her. She added, with fist raised, she was still ‘so damn mad at him for dying…and for other things.’
Well dear, I’ve done my best, during this last year
That bent and stretched—since you’ve been gone.
The house is still standing, no thanks to you;
I’ve survived pain and discomfort, terrible loneliness, and the flu;
Received family, friends… it was hard writing so many damn cards
…the kind I thought I’d never send.
The plumber cost much more than we thought; our
Toilet broke, the sink went on the blink;
Course toilets and sinks are mortal concerns,
Part of the “every damn thing that turns and turns . . .”
Do you have a clue what you left me to fix?
I hope where ever you are, you’re getting some kicks. Where was I?
I had the crumbling siding replaced; new paint and scrubbing—
Same old house, just not quite so grubby.
Some of the kids and I repainted the deck; sold the rusty ol tractor–no regrets.
That hole you called a workshop saw my vacuum and a broom;
I sold your noisy ol machines and most of your power tools;
You’d be amazed–at all the extra room.
I still take trips into town; there’s less to buy, who wants to cook?
More to look after, all by myself…me without you, dust on a shelf
So I boarded planes west and south…party of one, no spouse.
Did I mention I ache, can’t tell if I’m healing or something else’s bout to break.
Finally went on a pleasure cruise; danced every night—so there;
Never mind that during the day, had to rest both feet on a chair
Came back again to the house built by Joe and son—
Something was triggered, though no one fired a gun.
The car needs work, faucet still leaks…nearly two years of grief; toes
Are cold in wintertime; I’m no spring chicken in my prime
I hope you’re enjoying the view—gravestones, sky, mountain dew
It’s terrible awful, living daily without you;
Those singers don’t know a thing about the blues.
Well dear, I’ve something to say—a man asked me to dance today
Maybe I get a second chance—at passion or romance?
It would be most kind, if you gave me a cosmic wink or a sign…
Or another visit by the buck and his doe—no one but us has to know.
Did I mention I’m moving, selling the house and the land?
Kids are all right, on their own; now it’s my turn…my
Time to fly…my turn to…never mind, ‘Ffarwel’ Joe, goodbye.
She can no longer say, still I wonder, would she want me to stop describing her life after a particular year? Was age 69, when her husband died, the end of Jane? Was it when the towers fell and she stopped trying to understand the world beyond US borders? Or would she want me to blow on the dice and keep rolling until she’s literally ‘done dancing?’ As a child, she watched airplanes dotting the Pennsylvania Poconos sky where she grew up. Some planes flew across the Atlantic, carrying US made goods, war supplies, and passengers. A trip to Europe or her family’s ancestral home near Cardiganshire, Wales wasn’t a dream she ever attempted to wish into existence. She never journeyed outside the US, except for a quick trip to the Niagara side of Canada on her honeymoon, a few Caribbean cruises and a vacation with her granddaughter and nieces, and a day trip with her son to Agua Prieta, a small Mexican border town.
Passports weren’t required then to cross the border, shop, or dine. She bought some woven baskets and a teapot there, but wasn’t impressed when her son told her Pancho Villa had attacked the town in 1915 and rode his horse up the staircase of the Gadson Hotel. Nor was she tickled that Carlos Castenada was rumored to have written one of his Don Juan the Yaqui wizard books in Agua Prieta or nearby Douglas. She was mildly interested her intrepid son had stayed at Vision Quest’s base camp in Elfrida, preparing for wagon train journeys with troubled teens, covering 20 miles atop a horse most days. Jane climbed atop a saddle twice, once as a child and once for an adult photo op.
My mother, according to what she told me during informal interviews and gab sessions, was interested in superficial things, except where family was concerned. She commented it was ‘too bad’ they didn’t put designer labels on the outside, and disapproved of the public lives of certain movie stars. For her family, she was willing to roll up her dainty sleeves and dumpster dive, or use spatula, wooden spoon, or scalpel to dissect and correct the behavior of her offspring. For my father, she served up hot tongue and cold shoulder—but mostly hot tongue. His response, unfortunately, was often heavy handed. To paraphrase Pat Conroy, ‘if my father hadn’t been a violent man, he would have been a splendid husband.’ She probed and goaded us until she found a scab or bruise. After mopping up the carnage she created, she’d lean in with a hug and a platitude. Occasionally, she’d shed a tear. Eventually, I learned it was less painful to rip off the bandage pre engagement—as I’m doing now.
She has become a time traveler of late. From her living room in Maryland, she told my brother she was at the Jersey shore, in Wildwood, and had been flirting with the fellows, strutting from beach to boardwalk. Or, she’d just returned from lunch at upscale Wilkes-Barre cafeteria Percy Brown & Company (demolished in 1993) with her dad (who died in the 1950s). The many books on the subject say never correct a person with middle stage dementia or 4th-7th stage Alzheimer’s. Acceptable alternatives include agree with, assure, distract, keep the conversation simple… Be prepared for a lengthy, woeful goodbye while your parent is still alive. Be prepared to learn how to detach. The cliché ‘don’t get too close. I’m fragile, not like a flower, like a bomb’ aptly describes my mother—then and now. Just ask anyone at the nursing home where my sister dumped her. Just ask…
It’s unfortunate my mother didn’t move to the Deep South years ago. The South is proud of its crazy eccentrics, who are never hidden away. Was my mother’s life, like Lemony Snicket’s, a series of fortunate and unfortunate events? There are hilarious and dark humored similarities between the writer’s story and Jane’s family. There’s an ugly relative trying to steal the Baudelaire children’s inheritance; issues of trust and trusts; tense transitions from the innocence of childhood to the reality of greedy adult relative ruses; and a general muddying of morals and manners. The plot and themes of the book is lost on my mother, lost as a canary in a coal mine, a saying she was familiar with. She didn’t like to talk about her coal miner father, or acknowledge how hard his life had been.
My grandad began working in the Pennsylvania coal fields as a breaker boy. His obit states he worked for the Glen Alden Coal Company for 40+ years. Decades of harsh working conditions resulted in his death at age 70 from black lung disease (and he smoked a pipe). Breaker boys broke and separated slate & other impurities (silica, alumina, iron) from coal 10 hours a day, 6 days a week for ~25-50 cents/day. They couldn’t wear gloves & the slate often cut their hands. Eventually hard calluses formed. Rapidly moving conveyer belts sometimes caused finger or limb amputations. Dry coal dust made it hard to see and the coal was treated with sulfuric acid, which burned their hands. It’s estimated there were 18,000+ breaker boys in the early 1900s.
Today Jane is free of the encumbrances of an ordinary life: a house to keep, bills to pay, friends to visit, and opinions and judgments to make known. She has become the epitome of a Jane Doe, too often not remembering the places she lived, or the names of her children and grandchildren or their spouses. There’s a fine irony here, for in her newly assumed role and vocation—to travel to a new plane of existence—she has become extraordinary. She tells me the staff at the nursing home say she is their very best patient. The woman who long ago aspired to sing and dance on a stage has become the star of her own Truman Show. There’s actually a syndrome called Truman delusion in which a person believes he or she is being watched on cameras by millions of interested viewers. The temperamental avid soap opera, TV, and movie watcher, with little more than a fading voice and ever shrinking countenance, has achieved a sort of fame.
On recent phone calls, she has been, when not forgetful or sundowning, funny, confused but adamant, indignant, and engaging. I remind her who I am and she asks if I am an only child. During another conversation, she says she’s a nurse and her patients are misbehaving. She’s thinking of quitting her job and taking a drive to visit her boyfriend, who is home on leave. At other times, she sounds like Mrs. Malaprop, full of Freudian slips. She scolds me for bringing up the woman’s lubrication or literation movement and she replaces the word memory with mammary. My mammary is fading, you know…she intones four times in five minutes.
Back in the 70’s, when I’d escaped, with gingerbread agility, from the mountain where my parents lived, and was inbetween husbands two and three, I changed the title of a Paul Simon song to 50 Ways to Leave Your Mother. She would often call me at work, constantly ask when I was bringing her granddaughter to visit, and not let me hang up until she had chastised me about working, or my hair or weight, or my flippant tone. I used every one of the 50 ways to separate and distance myself from her over the years, including refusing to talk to her for an entire year. But while there may be 50 Ways to Leave Your Mother, there’s far fewer ways for her to leave you. That might be a good thing, although no one would purposefully choose to leave mentally via dementia.
I keep a generous handful of good memories separate from—other shared memories about my mother. I’ve figuratively canned a few, created Time in a Bottle or Reflections on a Gift of … That reminds me of two preserved memories I still savor. In the first, we were living in a suburb outside Philly the year I got my driver’s license and permission to use the car. While my dad was away (business trip), I snuck off to a popular steakhouse to watch Jim Croce perform. I stayed out past curfew and snuck into the house. My mother was waiting in her robe smoking a cigarette. She extended her arm and I handed her the keys. She stood and smelled my minty fresh breath, sniffed my smoky clothes, and exhaled dramatically. ‘Go to bed. You’re lucky your father’s not here’ was all she ever said. She didn’t ask where I’d been. The woman I swear got a vicarious thrill ratting me out to my father and never liked to play games gave me a ‘get out of jail’ card. She never said why. The following year Croces’ song Time in a Bottle became a hit.
In the other memory, it’s also late, nearly midnight. I’d left my daughter’s wedding reception and was about to drive from Maryland to my home in Virginia. But I couldn’t—it was raining tears, sad, mad tears, not a single happy one. I’ll only say the reasons for the tears are between me and the people that precipitated the waterworks. Somehow my mother found my car amid 100s of vehicles in the parking lot. I rolled down my window and she handed me a green wedding cocktail napkin and said ‘blow.’ Without a word of recrimination, she praised me and said she understood. She suggested it would get better and the worst was over. Though in hindsight, it wasn’t and it didn’t get better for decades, her words and intuition that cold winter night, made me want to save and savor her compassion and empathy. In a poem by John Tobias, he talks about being glad he savored a memory, ‘for the bites are fewer now.’ He is joyful a memory of a time ‘that perhaps never was’ was captured in a jar. Every so often, he unscrews the lid, and ‘lets the memory linger on his tongue.’ I don’t know if I will write a Jane-Part Deux or the actual obituary. For now, as Jane descends into a horizon I can’t see, I shall savor my sweet, bottled memories.