Monday, October 31, 2011

Mother Knows Best

Many imagine the 1950s as a safe decade, an era when kids could ride their bicycles far from home as long as they returned by sundown for supper. My mother was not so trusting, especially on Halloween.

We never traveled alone for Trick and Treat, and we never strayed beyond the block on which we lived and the block our house faced. Dad followed closely behind, usually waiting on the sidewalk near the street. For a few houses that looked just like any other to us, Dad joined us on the front porch. At these, a man answered our knuckles upon his door, and he didn’t smile when we chimed Trick or Treat. He was often sullen and the house behind him very dim, even dark. Somehow Dad always knew this would happen, and he was within reach every time.

I can’t remember any other kids who had to empty their bags of candy for inspection. Anything homemade and handmade went immediately into the trash.

“Why?” we cried. Mother said things about hygiene, kitchen cleanliness, and recipe tampering—none of which made much sense to us. Mother also seemed to know from which kitchen the treats had come. She could hold a plastic-wrapped popcorn ball in her hand, and it would give up a name like a Magic 8 ball.

“Mrs. H?” she’d ask, and Dad would confirm.

Any piece of candy that appeared to have been unwrapped and rewrapped went into the trash. Candy inside any wrapper torn or loose went into the trash. We complained, of course, but we had no effect whatsoever upon Mom’s standards. We stood for inspection, watching our haul diminish.

We couldn’t even enjoy fresh fruit. Apples were the mainstay on Halloween, perhaps because many are autumn fruits, perhaps because of the old Halloween party-game, Bobbing for Apples, or perhaps because of old Eve’s sin. Whatever the reason, several homeowners served up a nice red apple for Halloween. Mother washed them, then peeled and sliced them very thin. Only then were we allowed to taste one. This peculiarity she never explained. Only later did I learn that wicked people might slide a thin, sharp blade into the heart of the apple to maim or kill small children. The newsman told me so, and I gasped, wondering how Mother knew about evil.

Our costumes were homemade. I was often a gypsy because it only required a scarf with fringe tied around my head and another over a long skirt. I carried a tamborine to complete the illusion, or so Mother said. I doubted her assurance since so many people asked me what I was supposed to be. When I outgrew the long skirt, my younger sister became the gypsy, and I was allowed to wear something Mother threw together from picking through the cedar chest. An old letter sweater transformed me into a cheerleader, she said, but no one else seemed to see the transformation.

Still our costumes were designed to minimize any danger to us. The fabrics were not highly flammable, the masks were all done with make-up so our vision was never compromised, and our feet were shod with ordinary shoes so we did not trip or fall any more than usual. Mother thought of everything, even the time of day. We set out at dusk, before full dark, and we were home ahead of the big kids, two words said with dread on or around Halloween.

When I hear broadcasters and advisors issue cautions about treats, costumes, timing, and adult chaperones, I think, “Well, duh. Mother taught me those, and Mother knew best.”

Monday, October 24, 2011

Signs Overlooked

After two people break each other’s hearts, after they stare into the eyes of the truth, wounding each other with last looks, final words, often ugly, they look back over their shoulders to see the signs posted along their journey, signs that warned of a dangerous curve ahead, signs overlooked, missed, now all too obvious. So it is with disease, especially the disease of Alzheimer’s.

Grandmother, a bookkeeper all her days, could not balance her checkbook any longer. Mother tore up five checks before asking me to write it for her. She had forgotten what and where to write.

For Thanksgiving dinner one year, Mother, who was a fine cook for more than fifty years, forgot to cover diced potatoes with water before boiling them. She added just enough water to keep the potatoes from scorching, and I watched her do it, saying nothing. She had been cooking and stirring much longer than I, and she had been my teacher so I trusted that she knew what to do.

I was wrong, of course. Mother had confused steaming vegetables with preparing potatoes for mashing. Just a momentary blip on the radar screen. A brief second. A slight error. Silly to worry or even notice really. Everyone, of all ages, can make a mistake when so much happens all at once—guests arrive, conversations begin, interruptions occur, dressing and sweet potatoes and pies and appetizers need attention. Who wouldn’t make a mistake?

Sometime in the coming year, Mother forgot to close the refrigerator door, leaving it so many hours that several items had to be thrown out. On another day, she thought of something while rinsing dishes, turned from the sink, and wandered to another part of the house. Many minutes later, she heard the water and wondered who had left it running.

But I’ve been known to try to juggle just one more ball and make a colossal mistake. Recently, I left the hot water running to scald the dogs’ huge water bowl while I scooted around the corner and down a short hall to collect two scoops of dry grain for them. As I bent to scoop, I noticed a spider carcass that the cats had left for me to find so I decided to use the handheld vacuum and suck the evidence into an environmentally-friendly bag. The vacuum cleaner’s motor blocked the sound of the water as I widened my target to give the utility room floor a quick once-over. Then, I remembered the water and ran back to the kitchen.

The force of the hot water had sealed the stainless bowl over the drain. The water now ran from one deep sink into the one beside it. So much for environmental awareness. So much for multi-tasking awards. So much for my keen mind. Surely Mother’s mistakes were simply caused by trying to accomplish too much at once.

Rationalization and empathy only prolonged the inexorable reckoning, however. Mother could not finish her sentences. She struggled for words, often substituting the wrong word for what she wanted. She stopped calling friends and neighbors because she couldn’t remember how to make a call. Occasionally, she tried to speak into the listening end of the telephone. Recently she took an icy cold shower, telling me later that something else in her home needed repair. I soon learned that she simply forgot how to turn on the hot water, and when I taught her again how to turn on the warm water, she looked defeated. She realized in that moment that she had lost something quite basic and once well-known. My heart ached for her. She isn’t safe with the thermostat either. I arrived to find her overheated, the thermostat set at 98 degrees on a hot Oklahoma summer day. I had to advise the companions to teach Mother to put on more layers rather than change the thermostat.

I try to take these errors in stride, to let Mother off the hook, telling her that anyone can make a mistake, but she knows she’s lost ground. She knows she’s lost in a pathless wood much of the time, and I know now that the accumulation of errors is Alzheimer’s. The signs were there. I just didn’t want to believe them.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Gingerbread Houses, Holiday Trees, and Dreams

For several years, Mother and I toured a local museum the day after Thanksgiving. The exhibits included marvelous gingerbread houses created by amateurs and professionals. I liked the contrast between walls that tilted, held in place by great gobs of frosting, and carefully aligned, beautifully appointed turrets laced with frosting and candies.

At the same time, artists, hair dressers, and designers competed for the year’s great honor: the best, most original holiday tree. We saw coil upon coil of green garden hoses spiraling upward, clock radios set within the coils, each tuned to static so that a low hiss echoed from the green bowels. We saw stark trees made of driftwood forming angular limbs projecting upward. Dried bone hung from dried polished branches, a testament to Nature’s stark truths about winter, seasons, and cycles.

Other trees were more traditional, but the effect was a Land of Enchantment, of endless possibilities and art. One was decorated in feathers, beads, and masks in the colors of Mardi Gras: purple, azure, and green. On another, a tree heavily flocked, hung ornaments of white, eggshell, and ecru. Around the corner stood a Victorian tree with violets and cardboard cut-out dolls in fancy dresses.

Mother and I walked slowly, commenting upon each, enjoying most, and admiring the effort and imaginations in evidence. The real treat was in the final room: the quilt that many women had worked together to create since the first month of a new year. The museum docents raised money for the museum by holding a raffle for the quilt. A mere dollar bill bought a ticket and the promise of carrying home that quilt, always in a pattern that evoked home, our state, its heritage.

We never won. Our number was never called. The quilts warmed other hearts in other homes, but we never tired of dreaming—of sugar plum fairies, of holiday joy, of art, beauty, and a wonderful wrap for just $1.

I hope Mother still dreams of such gifts. I hope she still dreams somewhere inside the labyrinth that Alzheimer’s has made.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Mother's Stitches

Everyone laughs, remembering my maternal grandmother for her TV dinners and needlework. Never one in love with housework or cooking, she reduced demands on her time by keeping a house free of knick-knacks and buying frozen meals to heat. If they had made frozen breakfasts then, I’m sure she would have served food on a tin plate round the clock.

Needlework, on the other hand, was time well spent in her opinion. She embroidered three Trees of Life, one hanging now in my mother’s home, my own, and my sister’s. The colors have grown out of fashion; after all, she embroidered these decades ago, but the beauty of the stitches—uniform in size, shapely and precise—make it art.

Grandmother was also a genius at the sewing machine. She specialized in dolls’ clothes: tiny sleeves, delicate lace at the neckline, wedding gowns of net and satin, bonnets, and coats of corduroy with small, perfect button holes. These required patience and precision, the same talents she used as a bookkeeper.

Mother inherited her mother’s talent. Mother mended our clothes so well that the flaw became invisible—as invisible as her hand stitch, the truest testament to her sewing skill. She could mend a seam without a machine, the stitches so small, so tight, so perfect, that it held better than one executed on a machine. She hemmed garments with such a light touch that no trace appeared on the outside.

I remember her, head bent to the cloth, a bright light showing her the way, picking up a thread, pulling it tight, dipping the needle into the weave again. She seemed to take great satisfaction in such a perfect, tiny stitch, the kind that quilters of old strove to achieve.

Once, as a new bride, several hundred miles from her family, making a home in a Colorado oil town, she set out to sew a button on her husband’s suit coat. She wanted it to be perfectly secure; she wanted to complete the task so that she and he would be proud. She struck upon sewing it in place using the small needle holes, then making a perfect circle around it by extending the thread from the inside holes over the outside edge of the button to the inside below, up through the holes, over the edge, again and again until that button was absolutely stationary, covered in thread. She smiled, I imagine, when she was through, pleased at the perfectly spaced threads. Only when Dad tried to put on his coat and button it in place did she and he realize her error. In her quest to correct the errant button, she had overworked the problem and overworked the thread until she created a brand new problem.

Many years later, she laughs as she tells this story and so do I as I remember it, but I also see that it is a parable for her life. She once had intensity and focus. Now that Alzheimer’s has taken those, I like to remember Mother’s stitches because they endure.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Feuding in the Grocery Aisle

Mother loves the movies. She used to follow Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs-up and down into theaters, seeing each film and endorsed performance. Now I take her to see movies as a special outing, and recently, I purchased small popcorns for each of us. Her eyes brightened, and she wondered aloud how much time had passed since she’d eaten popcorn. She ate every buttery, salty kernel. Thirty days later, I took Mom to another movie, offering to buy popcorn for her. She asked me what it was and then told me she never liked popcorn. This has become her pattern. If she no longer remembers a food or drink, she refuses to try it, declaring that she never ate or drank that item in all her days.

Perhaps this is why Mother has lost weight in the past month. Perhaps she thwarts the best efforts of her caregivers who have not known her long and try not to quarrel with her. They just believe her when she says, “I don’t like that” or “I won’t eat it.”

She tried this tactic with me when I took her with me to the grocery store. At the celery, as I tried to pick a stalk, she told me she doesn’t need celery. I countered that foods with moisture and fiber are great choices for her because she has become more sedentary. She shook her head, as toddlers do, and declared that she would not eat the celery if I bought it.

She tried the same with lettuce, apples, cabbage, and avocadoes. I said, too sharply, that I had no intention of arguing about every item up and down the aisles of the store. I asserted again that she needs fruits, vegetables, and water, lots of water. She changed tactics then, declaring that she will never eat all of the supplies before they rot. I told her that cereals and canned goods, full of preservatives good and bad, will endure into the next millennium. She squinted her eyes at me. Widows of her generation believe they have a moral duty to consume everything they buy, to work leftovers into subsequent meals, and freeze the smallest bits that no one consumes for soups and stews. Nothing should go to the waste bin.

Later, Mother voiced her fears that she cannot afford such luxury—so many foods. She can, but one of her worst fears is that she’ll run out of money. She’s asked me what will happen then. I have promised her we’ll cross that bridge together when and if that time comes, that she will never want, but the future is as blank and terrifying for her as her lost past. Alzheimer’s may take much from its sufferers, but it does not take fear.

Mother’s last argument was that she has no appetite. This, I believe. Still, whatever I prepare for her—large meals and small—she consumes. She enjoys the food and has room in her tummy for it all. She just can no longer remember what she likes, what she should eat, or how to prepare it. Everything, especially a grocery store with all its choices, its length, depth and width, is overwhelming and confusing. Mother just shuts down, and in doing so, she risks her well-being more than she understands. She wants to live in her own home for as long as possible, and we want that for her. We have caregivers there daily to prolong her days in her own home, but I know that if she grows weak and sick, caregivers may not be enough. And so I fight with her while shopping for food. I simply want the best for her for the longest stretch of time allowed.