“NanaNana, Hey Jude”

A story of long haul caregiving.

I finished reading Mother Lode this week amid a hail storm of memories. My mother is 96 and living with Alzheimer’s. I have been her part-time caregiver for about fifteen years. Like so many mothers of the Greatest Generation, she is a survivor. Having fought life-threatening cancer three times, starting at age seventeen, it is a miracle she is here at all. Her last battle with cancer, including CyberKnife therapy, left her frail and dying. Her oncologist said to call hospice and that she had four to six months to live. That was almost twenty years ago.

My mom’s memory loss had such slow progression we could almost believe it wasn’t happening. When paranoia and confusion started popping up, I took her to a neurologist. I was with mom each time she was given a memory test so I was able to note the changes along with her doctors. I was with her in the difficult times when she thought someone stole her purse (lost and found at Safeway), stole $50 (found hidden in a tissue at the bottom of her tool box), stole her false tooth (who steals a tooth?), stole her hearing aid (only the right one), etc, etc, etc. . .  I was there when she wandered off at night and was found sitting on a bench outside, lost and cold, in the dark. I was there for hundreds of hilarious and completely maddening “who’s on first” conversations similar to those related in Mother Lode. I was there when she when was taken to the hospital multiple times because she thought the cancer had come back. I was there and made the difficult decision to move her to memory care.

Although I didn’t live with mom, I have been on call day and night for years. Now that she is in a 24-hour memory care center, the chaos has leveled out. We both have some breathing space. Sometimes I worry about my parents’ savings being eaten up to pay for her care, but I believe that’s the best use of the money, and I feel fortunate that she can afford it. If she’s still here when the money runs out, we will figure out what to do. It can’t be harder than what we’ve already been through.

My mother calls this time she is living in now her “grace period.” I think of a grace period like a coda in a musical piece that finishes a song. “Hey Jude,” the Beatles song, has a coda that repeats “nana na na” for four minutes. Mom’s coda happened to come with Alzheimer’s and coincide with my retirement, my buying a new house, moving myself and my mom, and Covid. The last two years have been like a record stuck on “nana na na.” And just when I think I’m going totally crazy, I start singing along.

—Jane W.

(Not) Boston Brown Bread

We pass on what we know. From one generation to the other, we want to share the best of what we knew growing up.

The Story

Every Saturday when I was a child my mother made Boston baked beans, the recipe on page 427 of the tattered 1945 seventh edition Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook that is still on the shelf in her kitchen that is now my kitchen. I can still smell them on slow bake in the oven in the brown bean pot with turquoise glaze inside, the molasses, apples, and bacon filling the house for hours. Along with beans, she always served Boston Brown Bread that came in a can, B&M brand. The can was opened at both both ends and the moist bread slid out and sliced into rounds along the indentations formed by the tin can, served with a generous slathering of cream cheese.

We ate that meal on the floor in front of the fireplace, sitting on the worn and faded pale blue and white plaid “school blanket,” so named because it was my older sister’s nap blanket when she was in kindergarten. All kinds of wonderings come up now, questioning my memory of this tradition. I suppose that’s how it always is as we age and come to know our family members as adults. Did my mother really let us eat in the living room? It seems an unlikely meal to eat on the floor. Every Saturday? I never asked her to confirm, and I’ve never asked my older sister who has more accurate memory from her childhood vantage point of the elder sister. I don’t want to know. I want to keep this story.

I made the beans a few times for church potlucks back in the day (infinitely better than canned pork ‘n’ beans); and I found a recipe for brown bread that I still make every year for New Year’s Day snack supper. It’s delicious with cream cheese, but I love it with sandwich-sliced bread and butter pickles and soft cheese, like Gouda or Havarti. It’s not Boston, which can be homemade in a can and steamed and sounds like way too much work, but it reminds me of childhood and my mother.

The Recipe

1 T quick-cooking oats (I use regular oats, because that’s what I have)
2 ½ cups graham flour (wheat, or ½ wheat, ½ white)
½ cup quick-cooking oats
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
2 cups buttermilk
¾ cups light molasses (or whatever you have)
1 T quick-cooking oats

Heat oven to 350º. Grease 2-quart casserole generously and sprinkle with 1 T oats. (A round casserole is nice. I used a Pyrex one until I broke it, now I use my mother’s that matches the bean pot! But a bundt pan works too.)

Mix flour, ½ cup of oats, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Stir in buttermilk and molasses just until dry ingredients are moistened; pour into casserole. Sprinkle with 1 T oats. Bake until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool completely.

(This recipe and the beans from my mother’s 1945 Fannie Farmer Cooking School Cookbook can be found in the 25th edition of Story Circle Network’s Kitchen Table Stories 2022: Sharing Our Lives in Food.)

Worrying in a Snowstorm

It snowed last night and it’s floating lightly down still. I feel enveloped in beauty and solitude. I haven’t seen Mama since Friday and now it’s Wednesday. I was sick Saturday and I didn’t want to expose her on my way to Seattle for childcare on Sunday. She’s expecting me today and I have no way to let her know I’m not going to venture down the hill. We do need to get her a phone; I’m sure she feels isolated.

I go for a walk in the woods leaving virgin footprints on the trails, but for the deer and rabbit tracks. It’s a wonderland in black and white. In mid-afternoon, though, the weak sun breaks out, melting the sidewalk and steps to the carport; and, according to the forecast—which is not necessarily trustworthy, since it missed the snow event entirely—the temperature is to be above freezing for a little while. I decide to try driving down the hill just before early dinner at the Manor when Mama will be up from her nap.

Rebecca checks in to see if I have been yet. I tell her I’m going shortly. She texts again. Mama has gotten an aide to call Rebecca on her cell phone so Mama could talk to her. She’s “worried sick because no one has come,” Rebecca texts, adding an eye-roll emoji.

Skidding in the driveway, I get to the road. It is not clear, of course. It may not melt for days at the curve under the trees with the temperature in the twenties at night. I have all-wheel drive, but my car is old.  This was a bad idea. When it comes to driving in snow, I’m a worrier too.

When I reach Mama’s room, she practically falls into my arms.

“I was so worried!” she exclaims.

“That’s why I was staying home,” I say. “I thought you would understand I didn’t want to come down the hill in the snow.”

“Have you been home?” she asks.

“All day,” I say. “But you told Rebecca you were ‘worried sick’ so I decided I would venture out. And I wanted to see you,” I add belatedly.

“But I thought you were coming back from Seattle today.”

“I came back yesterday, Tuesday, like always. I left early, in fact, because of the forecast.”

“I didn’t know that,” she sighs.

Rebecca tells me later she told Mama yesterday I would be home last night, but Mama forgot. When Rebecca told her I was “on my way,” she thought she meant from Seattle, so she hadn’t stopped frantically worrying even then.

And she had thought Rebecca was going to the dentist at eight o’clock, twenty minutes away on two-lane roads; an appointment Rebecca canceled. “I had visions of you both stranded on the road, sitting in your cars freezing!” she says.

“You only have to remember one thing,” I say, knowing she won’t: “neither of us will drive out of town in snow and ice.”

I can’t keep her from worrying, she’s been doing it her whole life. But dementia exacerbates it and I will drive myself crazy trying not to be the cause of it. I don’t know if a phone in her room will help or not. I can think of a dozen pitfalls: she won’t hear it ring, she won’t take a nap for fear of missing a call, she’ll fall hurrying to get to it, she won’t remember how to use it, she won’t be able to hear, she’ll misunderstand, she won’t remember, . . . I don’t know what to do. I guess what we’ve always done, my father too: let her worry. It makes my stomach hurt.