Sunday, March 09, 2014

Mother Love And Resentment

One of my greatest blessings in life has been my mother. And the fact that I have been able to provide a home for her for the past 15-plus years has been great for her, for me, and especially for my two girls.  They grew up with her love, her stories, her cooking, her humor.

She's 88 now, and still living on the third floor of my house. The doctors say the stairs are good for her, and she has always loved the Far Away And Yet So Close proximity. She calls it her "aerie", an eagle's nest. She's always been independent, was widowed at 52, worked till she was in her 70s. A case of shingles, which attacked her spine, was the first blow to that independence. She was no longer able to walk confidently, had given up her car keys due to hearing and sight problems. Some major and minor health issues. Now she seldom leaves the third floor.

It's so easy to write about the wonderfulness of my mother. The downside is the awfulness of me.
I wonder about my life and how it might have been if I had been mistress of my own house.

I was distanced from that title initially because I worked in the city, commuting by train, bus and foot for thirty years. My husband the artist works out of our home and has always had a far more nurturing and organic approach to life. When I would return from a day of work, I would immediately head for the bathroom to lock myself in and decompress for a while. He would head for the kitchen and see what magic he could toss together. This worked for us through the early years of marriage and kids.

We moved to a big fixer-upper, my mother left her home with her older sister  and moved in with us. Over the years, the main conflicts were when she and my husband stepped on each other's toes in the kitchen.

I'm in my 60s now and this is The Decade of Reflection. I lost my 50s (The Decade of Things Fall Apart) due to depression and have woken up to see how much I've missed. My girls are grown and, while they aren't "settled", they are doing a pretty good job of managing their lives. I no longer work, having discovered I'm not that good at playing with others. I think I've developed a form of PTSD and my brain no longer functions when stressed. Performance anxiety. But I have woken up! I'm re-energized - some days. Until I interact with my mother and am once again in the pit of despair.

She's difficult. She can't hear. She's cranky. And the worst: My beloved and well-meaning brothers bought her a laptop so she could communicate with the world. (The telephone is a problem due to deafness.) However. They bought her a PC and we are Mac people. 100%. Do not know or understand the PC. They bought it, ran through it with her, then left for opposite sides of the country. I have no patience. She wants nachos. I feel bad. She feels bad. I leave.

I retreat to the couch, where I spend FAR TOO MUCH TIME. I'm thinking bad thoughts about how much I suck.  I think of the fact that I've never had my own home. She ran my childhood home and she's still in many ways running this home. And you know what? Her mother did not live with her. She had her own home. And now she's had mine.

Then I think of this space and hope my story resonates with someone out there.
And my husband passes by the door to change her password yet again. With a bag of nachos.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Never The Same Again

Fifty years ago. That sounds like Abraham Lincoln, not John F. Kennedy.

The very look of that name in print calls up images of cool, clean '60s...Route 66, not Tobacco Road. Young now, not old, like presidents were before him. He had a beautiful wife in the time of Barbie. No more Mamie Eisenhower, with no chin; and Eleanor Roosevelt with...They were Excellent Women, but, Ladies, You were no Jackie Kennedy. The Kennedys were youth and beauty and elegance. They stoked the dreams of little Catholic girls like me.

Although I was only in third grade when JFK ran for president, the election was a big thing at our small Catholic school (at its peak, 800 kids, K-12). He was a Star and he was Ours. I remember calls of "Kennedy, Kennedy, he's our man! Nixon belongs in a garbage can!" from one side of the playground, and the Nixon supporters answered on the other side. They must have been the Rich Kids...

I had a scrapbook of clippings of The First Family, which was just the three of them then, with Perfect Caroline perched prettily on their laps, and her little pony. Yeah, I was a little jealous.

The short reign of Camelot was, through my little girl eyes, a succession of beautiful color photos in Life Magazine.  Of presidential balls, evening gowns, and tours of the White House on TV with Jackie showing us how pretty she had made it for us.

There was a day when I recall riding down the street in the car with my mother and a family friend. The street was noticeably quiet, with no other cars on the road or people outside. One of them commented that people were scared...Later I realized that was during The Cuban Crisis when everyone expected Russian missiles in their living rooms at any moment.

I was in Sister Theophila's sixth grade classroom that morning in 1963. Suddenly the intercom from the principal's office was on, static and sounds of tuning a radio ripping into the quiet. Somehow the words came together:  The President had been shot. Sister's hand flew to her mouth, and I, sitting in the back of the room, started bleeding from my nose.

I dashed from the room to the restroom across the hall, followed by a friend who had seen my dilemma. We still talk about this moment we share. Our little piece of history, only for us.

The days that followed were dark. I watched Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald live on TV at a friend's house. I said, Good. But I was told, no, it's not good. Now we won't know what really happened. But nobody said, A young girl shouldn't say such things. Shouldn't feel such things. Shouldn't ever have to know about such things.

The funeral was the worst. Watching The Beautiful Jackie shrouded in heavy black veil. Any brief glimpses behind that curtain revealed such pain, you had to look away. Walking the funeral procession with Bobby, his brother and best friend, shrunken but protective beside her.

And the children. Caroline was perfect, but you knew she was old enough To Know. That hurt. But that little boy and his salute to his father's coffin as it rolled past...

I did have a moment of glory when a poem I wrote was considered good enough to parade me in front of the Older Grades to recite it. I only remember the beginning:

                         Three shots ring out into the air,
                         People in the streets are weeping,
                         And in Parkland Hospital,
                         Doctors their vigil are keeping.

I know. I was eleven. There was more...maybe I'll find it somewhere..

Life really was never the same afterwards. The shift from "America's Royal Family" to Beverly Hillbillies was cruelly sudden. LBJ was not pretty, and Lady Bird was another Excellent Woman.
He conducted business with the toilet door open, not yachting at Hyannisport.

Then came the riots. The assassinations. We were numb. At my Junior Class Picnic, we got word that Bobby Kennedy was dead. Another brick in the wall.

Skip forward to the 25th anniversary of the assassination. I watched an entire day of coverage as it happened on November 22, 1963. The ancient equipment, black and white film, crewcuts and all. I cried the entire day. I sat by myself in front of the TV and watched the whole day unfold just as if I were there again, and I cried non-stop.

I still idolize JFK and Jackie. I know that time has revealed human frailties in both of them. But on my daughter's much-anticipated Golden Birthday, she was upstaged by 9/11, which happened on her 11th birthday. I wondered in my daze, should we have the birthday party? I thought, WHAT WOULD JACKIE DO? You may recall little John had a birthday just a couple of days after his father's murder, and Jackie went ahead with the celebration to keep some normalcy for the children. Party went on as planned.

And he was so young and handsome. Sigh.

But I've steered away from the media coverage for the 50th anniversary. Too much. Still too sad. And 50 EFFING YEARS AGO.

Who needs to be reminded of that?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What A World, What A World...

I'm melting.

There is Just. So. MUCH going on in the world right now. Daily existence is a frenzied, fever-crazed pinball game. "Worst Ever" catastrophes leap into our paths on a daily basis -- natural disasters, terror from home and abroad, economic hardships, frustration with a Washington gone mad...  We crash into obstacle after crushing obstacle again and again.

What bubbles to the top of this current universal Miasma of Misery? For me?

The increasingly fragile health of my mother who is 87.

The recent MS diagnosis of my best friend.

My perfect daughter suffering from a mysterious illness or disease or syndrome or something scary.

My world is now about the size of us, huddled together for strength.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I'm writing this in the wee hours of my birthday. When I wake up I will officially be That New Age. It's a Big One. But I stopped having Little Ones a long time ago.

I have a framed print in my bathroom/cocoon - it's actually a greeting card that my husband matted and framed for me. The artist is Mary Engelbreit, who I just love. It shows a little girl with a hobo stick over her shoulder,  at a crossroads with a sign marking each path: Your Life and No Longer An Option. The little girl is bravely marching up the path to her future.

Such a simple and beautiful image, but it says everything. You keep choosing Your Life and and you keep moving ahead.  Getting stuck in the past, crying over what was, what wasn't and what might have been is No Longer An Option.

That's easy, right? 

Being a glass-half-empty kind of person on Those Kinda Days, I ponder over other things that are No Longer An Option. Realizing you'll never again have the body you had when you were 35. Or 45, for that matter. Finally coming to grips with the fact that the person you see in the mirror is actually YOU, the person that other people see, and not just a temporary detour from the 25 year old face that you have permanently imprinted in your mind's eye.

Hot young me is No Longer An Option. I can be an acceptable 50+, and I can even blow out the curtains  with a red pump or a slightly lower decolletage. But going out with that feeling that you know you look hot and anything can happen...gone, daddy, gone. I am no longer In The Game.

There are tradeoffs, however. When you go out, you're not preoccupied with hair and makeup and with who might notice. You actually enjoy the moment in real time. The opinions of others matter less now, and you feel free to let loose with whatever you're thinking. Within reason.

And you don't have to pretend to be able to walk in stiletto heels! Last time I wore heels to a wedding, it took  about six months to recover. Since then, it's a (reasonable) heel for pictures, change into flats as soon as possible thereafter.

So this was a big one, ain't gonna lie. I fully anticipated feeling like crap, and I did for most of the day. But hearing from friends and family on facebook and by e-mail (I even got a couple of genuine snail mail cards!) helped. And a walk with the Good Husband and sitting in the sunshine with a healthy beverage was a good thing. Yay, Vitamin D!

Birthday angst is real. But silly. Really. I know this. Still, I sputter and make a huge deal out of not saying The Number, thereby drawing a big neon arrow to it. I was telling a friend that I thought this year I was ready to actually comfortably reveal my actual age. My friend paled and told me, No, you can't. Her mother had told her a lady never reveals her age. So, back in the closet again.

Happy Birthday to Me!!

Monday, April 30, 2012

My Life As A Sandwich

At this point in life, many of us are still dealing with kids, having learned that just turning 18 or 21 does not mean our children are adults and no longer our problem. Many of them are still in school, or trying to find a job in this jobless world. At the same time, those of us who are still lucky enough to have our parents are having to incorporate their care and well-being into our daily life. They call us The Sandwich Generation.

My mother lives with us, and has for the last fifteen years or so. She was widowed in her early 50's and never remarried. We have a big old house and it was bought knowing that she would move in with us at some point, since she had sold her home when my dad died.  She moved to our city and lived with her sister for many years, working until she was in her 70's. When my aunt passed away and my mother finally quit working, she moved in with us.

There are so many wonderful things about her living with us. First, there is the satisfaction of being able to pay her back in some small part for being my mother. I love that I can provide for her the security that she provided for me.

My girls have benefited enormously from having their granny live with them. She is a bit of a character, and has always been the "fun" grandparent. They had a built-in babysitter when that was necessary. And she has always been a great cook, cranking out brownies and cookies and pot roast at the least suggestion. Her room on our third floor that she calls her "aerie", is a refuge from all life's problems.

So many wonderful things....      BUT............!!!

Having your mother around 24/7 for most of your adult life has its...issues.

I've never been the cook in our family. I worked in the city, and my husband works out of our house. He is a nurturer and an excellent cook, and he naturally took over those jobs. When my mother moved in, there were two great cooks in the house, and I wasn't one of them. He cooks healthy, she is an old-fashioned Southern "comfort" cook  He puts things away in one place, she puts them in another.  A little bickering ensues. Sometimes I intervene, mostly not. It's not my room.  She's older now, and cooks less.  But there are always things to bicker about. That's life.

The main thing I worry about is how has this sandwich position effected MY life, and therefore my family?

The good things are embraced and celebrated. But I know I have not blossomed into the Mature Adult that I should be. Since I am no longer working and am just a citizen of this house, this town, this world, I've been retreating more and more from my former life, and have cobbled together an existence that works for me. Maybe.

As long as your Mother lives, you are her Child. You continue patterns that you started in infancy, probably. When you move away from your parents' home and start your own life, you build your world in your own way. You are Mistress of Your Domain. Your mother may come to visit, but she is visiting Your House.  You are happy to see her, happy to show her how well you've made your world. You are on your best behavior, you commune as Wives and Mothers. But if your mother is already there, she sees you in all your frailty. She sees that you are not the Perfect Housewife because you don't Keep House like she did. If she was a mere visitor, you could whip things together for a short time and fool her into thinking you are the Perfect Housewife and therefore the Perfect Daughter. If she were just an occasional visitor, she would see you and your husband at your best as a couple. But as a full-time housemate, she's there for all the squabbles and ugliness that rear up in the best of marriages.

The worst thing for me is that when I Act Up or Act Out because my mother has hit That Button that releases the Angry Adolescent remaining inside me, my daughters see a side of me that I would prefer that they not see. I lose Mom Credibility when I act like an Angry Brat. We all have many characters inside us.  We would like to think we control who comes out to represent us.  Sometimes we just don't.
The soul-crushing minutiae of Senior Life that my mother is faced with every day -- from doctor's appointments and prescriptions to Medicare choices and on to infinity -- is also my life. Sometimes I resent that I'm being forced to live life as an 80 year old before my time. I should of course look at this as an early heads-up and learn how to deal with all this now when my brain is still somewhat agile.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have daughters who are beginning their adult lives and are becoming fascinating people. Unfortunately, they are Daughters With A Mother also.  This means that they are growing away from their parents as they forge their own lives. Any interest I have in my younger daughter's new romance is construed as Stalking.  It's now my advice on everything from life to clothes  that is hopelessly wrong. I hear myself repeating things my mother said to me and I'm horrified. I imagine them sitting in shrinks' offices in the future, relating stories about their crazy mother. I wish I could be there to show them the view from here, but that's not the way it goes.

Growing up is hard, especially those awkward years. When you hit that sandwich stage, you are once again a Tweenager. Let's hope that the mantra they use for troubled kids also applies to us older folks: It gets better.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

And Another Shoe Falls: Snoring Is Your New Reality

Hey angry ladies!
Just returned from a trip to visit family for Thanksgiving and wound up sharing a hotel room with my husband plus my older daughter...the younger one chose to sleep with my mother in another room. She said it was because of my snoring. Well, hello! As if my mother hasn't raised a few roofs in her day! I distinctly recall sleeping in the bathtub when I had the misfortune of sharing a hotel room with both my mother and my aunt in my Golden Youth. Truly one of the most frustrating and sleepless nights of my life.

As for my husband and daughter roomie, he had brought a good supply of earplugs and offered her one of his spare pairs. They slept better than I did. And the second night my husband bravely ditched his plugs and told me I didn't snore. At least not that night. So there.

Yes, it's one of those things like skin tags and crow's feet. If you're not snoring now, you will be. Or maybe you already do and your partner is kind enough to not tell you.

I have also developed an ugly snort when I'm sleeping sitting up in the car or in front of the TV. I wake up to the sound of a farm animal grunting, realize it's me, and then I look hopefully to my husband for reassurance that no one else heard. He gives me a sympathetic smile.

My husband snores sometimes, too. I don't kick him or wake him. I know he'll stop eventually. But somehow snoring is not so ugly on a man. He's expected to be a growling beast at times.

It's just one more way that our dignity and our illusion of feminine beauty is compromised. Women won't generally 'fess up, but their partners will often bring it up in a social setting. Guys like to out us on our snoring.

Is there hope? I understand that losing weight often helps. Gee, isn't that the answer to all our problems? Failing that, there are all kinds of things to buy at the drugstore that claim to stop snoring. I tried one once, but it was icky and it didn't work. Maybe you'll be luckier.

Another indignity we share. The good news is our daughters will join us one day, and their daughters will complain about their snoring, too.

So there.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Time Flies And Leaves You. Period.

To borrow from a very wise person (B. Kliban?), Time Flies Whether You're Having Fun Or Not.

This concept was made very clear to me last night when my husband managed to get me out of the house to venture downtown to a gallery show. We took the scenic route, through neighborhoods that, when we were actually living downtown, had been pretty much wastelands of empty warehouses and scary dark corners. Now the streets are full of hipsters and traffic. We had to move so slowly that we were able to look at all the shop windows, full of high fashion and quirky objects, crying out to be touched and won, nestled in slick packaging, cradled in our arms, guaranteed to Change My Life. Sidewalk cafes begged us to stop and luxuriate in the Hot.

But I also felt an uneasiness, a sense that I was The Other. I looked at all the people milling around the fun places, standing in line to get into bars with cool names, going in to the shops which were, of course, open fashionably late. And I realized that all these people were Beautiful and Young. And the phrase that keeps flashing through my head: I Am Almost 60 Years Old.

We made it to the gallery. It was on a dark street in an industrial area, or what used to be. Now it was gloomy brick warehouses that seemed to be abandoned. My husband bounded fearlessly down the street with me close behind, and into one of these places with a couple of young people standing outside, talking and drinking a beer. We trudged up a couple of flights of stairs and into the space with signs proclaiming that This Was It: "Exquisite Corpse". Inside the brightly lit white box of a room were some art pieces that were clearly designed around the theme of the evening. There was a respectable-sized crowd huddled at one end, surrounding a Performance Artist who had been painted red by a cohort and was rolling on a sheet of paper on the floor to Create Art. I was not impressed, having just seen the same party trick on an episode of Real Housewives of New York. But again, the feeling of The Other, as I looked around and saw that, of all the people in the place, maybe two were in our 50+ demo.

It seems like such a short while ago that my husband and I were in this set, gallery-hopping on the first Friday of the month, popping in to whatever restaurant was In that week. When I worked downtown, we were oriented to play there, too, coming home only to restore our batteries and get ready to come back and attack the Big City again the next day.

Now I find that I leave the house so seldom that my doctor put me on a super dose of Vitamin D because I'm never in the sun. Days melt into each other, with my biggest achievement being making the bed and filling and emptying the dishwasher in the same day. I used to take a bus and a train to get to work, put in a full days work and then some, go to after work functions, commute home to a growing family, and end the day surrounded by the people I loved and energized to go back and do it again. Five days a week. And the weekends were filled with activities that were planned to make up for being away from home for that five days. Or with contented nothingness, rewarding myself for doing so much the rest of the week.

While I've been hibernating, mentally and physically, time has inevitably passed. Time Waits For No Man, and for women maybe Time cheats and runs way ahead, making it impossible to keep up. In the years since my "retirement" (i.e., being kicked to the curb once I hit 50), I've been trying to re-create who I am, a person who is no longer defined by her job. I'm so envious of those who've managed to fashion a second life, just as full and meaningful as the first. For whatever reason, I've failed at that.

I have not been present in my life for a long time. Periodically, like last night, I wake up and realize that while I've been stuck trying to figure out what do with the rest of my life, my life has been marching on, without me in it. That voice comes out sometimes to tell me that I Am Almost 60 Years Old.

I haven't been able to contribute to this space for a very long time, although I think of things that I should be sharing every day. I am so pleased and humbled whenever someone writes in about their experiences in The Journey, and I always make sure to publish their thoughts. I think people do benefit from hearing about the path others are taking.

I'm going to try again to participate in my life, maybe working toward taking charge of it. If anyone cares to join me, welcome aboard.
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