Cranberry Chutney

The Story

Mama kind of liked this cranberry sauce alternative. She couldn’t digest whole cranberry sauce—or at least imagined that she couldn’t, and she understandably was not going to chance it—so I always offered the canned cranberry jelly she had been eating on holidays for years. But yuck. Chutney cooks down to something between whole sauce and jelly, and eventually she stopped eating the canned stuff. But there’s a bigger story than that.

Many years ago, on my first Christmas that my children were spending with their stepfamily, too sad to be home alone without them, I drove out to the Atlantic coast for the day. Though I did it on a couple occasions after that year, it was only that first time I found a seafood restaurant that wasn’t exclusively serving a buffet of a traditional Christmas feast. The traditional meal without family made me sad! I wanted different.

I ordered salmon, served with cranberry chutney. It was delicious! I asked the wait staff if it would be possible to get the recipe. Now I could have Googled it and found something close, but in the early nineties that wasn’t so much an option. A few minutes later, the chef came out and sat down at my table and told me how to make it! Of course, there wasn’t really a recipe, just the ingredients. I went home and experimented until I got it right. It’s been a holiday specialty ever since.

The Recipe

1 pkg cranberries
1 cup vinegar
2 cups sugar
1 T cinnamon
1 T allspice
Water to cover fruit*

Combine all ingredients in saucepan and boil down, about 30 minutes. Don’t overcook. Chutney will thicken as it cools.

* It’s hard to cover cranberries with water—they float. Be conservative. Try one cup.

Shopping: A Special Place in Heaven

October 2014

I hate to shop. Mama loves to shop. She’s a 98-year-old clothes horse. She bought “well-made” clothes from places like Frederick & Nelson (Seattle’s now defunct subsidiary of Chicago’s Marshall Field’s, also gone). F&N was Frango Mints, the basement Paul Bunyon Room with hamburgers and ice cream sodas, and the animated windows at Christmas of my childhood. It was the top floor Tearoom with white tablecloths where I met my mother for lunch when I was in college. It was also the home of the well-made if not faddish clothes she bought for me and my sisters on our annual school shopping trip to Seattle.

“They just don’t make clothes like they used to. They don’t last,” she told me the other day, for the 4 millionth time. “No one cares if they last 40 years,” I’d said. Mama keeps her clothes—almost every purchase she ever made—in three large closets, three dressers, a cedar chest, and plastic boxes under the bed. Her closet shelf holds dress shoes in their original boxes, relics of the days she wore anything other than sturdy-soled Merrill’s black or brown walking shoes. The rod is filled with dresses, jackets, vests, and fancy blouses she hasn’t worn in a decade or more. In the guest room, even older ones are in plastic garment bags.

She’s been on the hunt this fall for shoes, a warm jacket, and a sweater to replace the Icelandic knit that fell apart winter before last. She brings her purchases home, then takes some or all of them back. It’s a familiar pattern, dating back to my childhood. Michelle took her jacket shopping last week, putting several on hold, then Mama dragged me to the store to see what I thought. She tried on three styles, three sizes of each, with much discussion of the various colors and hats she owns that might go with each. She bought one. She returned it two days later. It wasn’t warm enough.

She finally decided on a pair of shoes—of the six pairs she brought home two weeks ago. When we go for a walk at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, she doesn’t wear her new shoes. Apparently the old ones are good enough. I don’t ask why she got new ones, she can’t answer why questions.

After the walk, we go to REI to look at jackets. It needs to be water resistant, although she no longer walks in the rain. It needs to be big enough to wear over two sweaters, but then it’s too big if she doesn’t need two sweaters, and the sleeves on a jacket that large are too long, which seems to outrage her. She got a down jacket I am sure is warm with modern materials, but because it’s not weighty, I know I will be returning it.

Today Michelle takes her to the outlet mall to look at sweaters. She comes home with one, along with a pair of wool pants. If they aren’t wool, they aren’t well-made. She refuses to have pants custom made because she doesn’t want to pay for it, but every year she drags Rebecca (who has warned me against engaging) in the search and failure to find a pair of pants that fit her specifications, including nothing tight around her abdomen, so she buys them so big they droop around her hips.

“It’s not what I was looking for,” she says of the sweater. “It isn’t warm, and it doesn’t close in the front, except for two hooks.”

“Why did you get it then?” I ask, stupidly, knowing she can’t answer why questions.

“I thought it would look dressy with black pants,” she says.

“It would,” I agree. I should not have asked if she needs another something dressy to wear places she doesn’t go. Of course I do anyway.

“I wonder if I have a hat that matches?” she says, ignoring my question.

“It’s blue and black. You have a blue and black wool hat,” I say.

“But is it the right blue,” she says, more of a statement than a question. “Is it a summer sweater, or a winter one?”

“It’s winter colors and summer weight,” I say, trying to answer her questions now without the commentary in my head, pretending I am a witness in a trial, which it feels like.

The next day I’m at lunch with a friend when Mama calls to tell me about more sweaters and pants she and Michelle found that morning. She asks if I could take her back to the Pendleton store to look at another sweater she hadn’t gotten. Two days in a row? I groan soundlessly. “Yes,” I say, brightly.

“I don’t know if I look good in stripes,” she says when she tries it on for me.

“It looks nice on you,” I say, “but what do you want it for? This is more like a jacket and I thought you wanted something warm and cozy for in the house.”

“That’s right,” she says, remembering her mission.

She tries on a burgundy cardigan and the sales woman points out the mirror. “I can’t see it,” Mama tells her.

“Well, how does it feel?” I ask.

“I never liked red,” she says.

“What matters is how it feels,” I say. She takes it off.

I feel amazingly patient. She likes to shop. She likes to buy stuff she used to need. I will get my reward: there will be no shopping in my heaven.

I find a wool cardigan she hadn’t been shown this morning. Zippered. Pockets. Even has an Icelandic-type design like the worn out one. “It’s perfect,” I tell her. She decides to get it. As the sales woman puts it in the bag, Mama says, “I can return it, can’t I?”

From now on, Rebecca—cut from the same cloth—is on shopping detail.

________

You can listen to me read this here!

Generational Caregiving

I have just read a wonderful book titled Mother Lode – Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver by Gretchen Staebler and I want to tell you about it.

I have been in her shoes with both my mom and dad, so I can relate to many of the things she went through. Although my parents did not have dementia, they were a challenge to care for at times. My mom died much too young at age 74 after having a stroke that paralyzed her on one side. Although at that time my dad was her primary caregiver, at age 77, I was there every day to help take care of her and help him.

My dad was another story. He had always been very independent all his life. He started having problems at about age 96, about the age Gretchen was starting her journey with her mom. I seemed to have the same “love/hate” relationship with my dad as Gretchen did with her mom at times. It was good to read that I was not alone in that feeling. It validated how I felt. My dad passed away peacefully at age 99.

I think all the insights and experiences Gretchen had and her way with words will be a comfort to all who read her book.

My husband and I are on the receiving end of the caregiving journey, where we need some care ourselves. We have 2 daughters and a son in that position now who are reading Gretchen’s book to help them navigate this journey. We are still able to do most things ourselves so far but both being in our mid-80s, there is much we are not able to do. Our health is hit and miss, so that is a challenge also.

I whole-heartedly recommend this book and hope you also will find it very helpful if you find yourself in this position. It is said that 1 in 5 people [are caring for an adult family member], so you see you are not alone.

—Beth Nygren, 85

Opening the Door to Family Conversation

When I wrote Mother Lode, I didn’t give much thought to it being a good read for anyone other than current and future caregivers. Now that it’s out in the world, I am hearing from two other groups of readers. Those for whom caregiving is in the rear view mirror say it has helped them forgive themselves and their care recipient for not being their best selves in challenging times, re-storying their relationship into healing memories. And readers like Ray and his daughter, Bonnie Rae, report that the book has opened conversation between aging parents and their adult children about what is coming down the road and what to do now to prepare for it.
—Gretchen

I am not much of a reader, Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver is a must read for everyone, caregivers and care recipients. Most of us will either be a caregiver to our aging parents or be that aging parent, or both, in our lifetime.

My own caregiving experience is limited to supporting my wife Beth during her bout with breast cancer and her MS (Multiple Sclerosis) diagnosis. Both of my parents wound up in nursing homes. As Beth and I age, and become more dependent on our children, we have a greater appreciation for caregivers. This book provides insight into what we can expect as we age, and hopefully helps us be emotionally prepared for what lies ahead. Please consider reading this book. You will not be disappointed.
Ray Nygren, 86

When I started talking about Mother Lode, my parents both took an interest. Intrigued, they ordered their own copy and started reading as soon as it arrived. They each had a bookmark and took turns during the day, reading. And then something remarkable happened. We started talking.

As they got deeper into the story, we had almost daily conversations about what they were reading. Gretchen’s story became the springboard for a lot of new conversation. We talked about what it was like for them to care for their parents and for each other, but then we started talking about their own experiences this past year when they each encountered a health crisis of their own. [As we navigated their need for more care], reading this book led them to a new appreciation for those of us partnering with them.

Somewhere between Gretchen’s story and their own personal story, we started talking about really important things. We talked about the kinds of care they could receive at home and the possibility that as those needs change, so might the need for a different living situation. We have had talks about downsizing and about help with errands and chores. We’ve reviewed their advanced directive and spoken about other health documents like POLST [Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment] forms. Not easy or fun conversations, but another way to love one another.

The most meaningful thing about all of this is that it has helped bring us all closer together. Mother Lode is much more than a memoir. It is a doorway, a hallway, a window. Or maybe it’s a key that unlocks something beautiful.

Read it. Share it. Talk about it.

—Bonnie Rae Nygren (www.insearchofthevery.com)

“I’ll Eat the Chicken Wing”: My mother the martyr

November, the first year

Mama’s back has been hurting again this week. She’s been in bed for two days—days neither Jill nor Michelle were here—and suffering in nothing near silence.

After finally agreeing to a Tylenol with codeine, she feels better when I help her out of bed for breakfast this morning. Once up, though, she plunges into pitiful again, lest I forget she isn’t feeling well. She asks if I have made coffee.

“I’ve had mine,” I say, “but I will make some for you.”

“The instant is in the freezer door,” she says.

“Would you like to have real coffee?”

“Mix it half decaf and half regular instant. It will taste better.”

“Would you rather have brewed coffee?”

“It will take too much of your time.”

“So you would prefer instant?”

“Not really.”

“Then I make will make you real coffee.”

“It’s too much trouble,” she says.

I make it anyway.

 

After breakfast I suggest a shower. “I don’t want you to spend your time doing that,” she says. I sigh. Graceful, enthusiastic acceptance is not a burden, these conversations are what consume my time—and me. I read that when a person feels like a burden, they make sure they are one.

“I want to,” I say.

“Maybe I’ll lie down.”

“Wouldn’t you feel better to be clean?”

“The bathroom isn’t warmed up,” she counters, daring me to back down.

“I can turn the heater on.” I want her to feel good and I know it’s what she wants too. She can’t allow herself to be cared for, except on her own terms.

“Thank you for making breakfast,” she says, ending the battle.

 

When I go to the bedroom to check on her after cleaning the kitchen, thinking she is lying down, she’s sitting in her chair in the corner. She asks if the bathroom is warmed up. I don’t bother to remind her she didn’t agree to a shower.

I turn on the heater, and she bathes.

“Oh, that felt really good,” she admits, showered and in a clean nightgown.

“It’s okay to say yes to pleasure,” I say. “Maybe 96 years of self-denial is enough.” She laughs.

“Shall I wash your sheets?” I ask.

“Weren’t they washed not long ago?”

“I don’t know, but you’ve been in bed a lot. Now you and your nightgown are clean. Wouldn’t you like fresh sheets?”

“It’s too big a job,” she says.

“Fine,” I say, “you win.” I can’t fix her.