The Third Act Organ Recital

Most Mondays, after my yoga class, I drop in for tea and conversation with my older sister and her husband. We haven’t lived close enough for regular visits since she graduated from high school in 1965. A year ago this month, they moved from Virginia to Washington and live twenty minutes from me. I envy those who have been close to their siblings their entire lives—perhaps in spite of physical distance—but there is no point in dwelling in that particular house, I can only live in this one. Time, now, is growing short. Onward.

I’m tempted to say we have little in common, which would not be untrue (though I wonder, if we all recognized we have humanity in common with every other person and went from there, could this be a better world?). Here’s what we undeniably do share, other than DNA: A childhood (the first act of life) and the fact of elderhood (the third act). It’s interesting that in this last act, recalling the first act and exploring our differing recall and experience is ongoing fascination. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle to piece it all together into something resembling a whole. (Someday, I suppose, it will be all we can remember.)

Last week, over tea, we had our bit of the requisite “organ recital.” I was telling her about the excruciating back pain I’d had the week before, what with hiking—and the seven hours in the car, which the three hour hike bisected—and rebuilding my meadow garden, with heavy lifting (e.g. bags of sand, bark, and soil), along with digging out hardened mole hills and laying down cardboard and landscape cloth between the raised beds. I worked through the pain, determined to finish the job before the rain returned for the next many days. In other words, I did not listen to my body and what it should not do that particular day. For twenty-four hours, I could barely walk, get up from the chair, or turn over in bed.

The interesting thing was my thoughts—as I am drawing my foot back to kick down the gate into my seventy-third year next month—went like this: “Well, this it it. I’m going to have chronic back pain from here out. Hard work is done, hiking is done, this is my forever now.” The next day, when it was much better after rest and an ibuprofen/acetaminophen regimen, I wondered had I known I would get quickly back to normal, might I have been more tolerant of the pain and inconvenience the previous day? Along the same lines, the tendinitis in my hand, which began more than a year ago, took much longer to get better. I was making my peace with it being something I would have to live with. I won’t say it’s 100% pain free, but I’m back to using two trekking poles and everything else I need hands for.

As we talked, I recalled having sciatica in 1980. It never occurred to me at 28 that it was my forever. It was just a “shit happens” thing. Now, everything feels like a potential crisis. That is what I least like about this time of life.

What I am most loving about the third act—so unlike the second act when we are often just trying to get through the days and sometimes looking forward to the far off future—is learning to enjoy this moment, this day, this sunrise, this rainstorm, this hike, this flower, this conversation. As I write this, I’m watching a dark-eyed junco on the deck rail. Is it questioning the empty feeder, or just enjoying a moment in a spot of sun on a dark day?

What I am wondering: what if I approach the set backs with the same kind of observation and interest? Oh, my back hurts today. How can I change my plan for the day to accommodate what is happening in this moment? Maybe I need not clean out the flower bed or power wash the patio, and instead just sit in the sun or take a nap—or both.

I am sensitive to the fact that many do have chronic pain and illness. My father did, both polymyositis and heart disease, along with the complicating effects of the treatments. It was brutal. If you are living with a chronic condition, I hope you have found what brings you joy in whatever your body is able to do.

How are you caring for your beautiful self on the good days and on the challenging ones? Let me know in the comment section. I would love to hear from you. [A note about commenting on a post: Click the subscribe drop down arrow at the top of the comment section and provide your information (it is private) to receive an email when someone replies to your comment. I, at least, will always reply!]

Something Lost, Something Found

My mother died six years ago today, on the eve of Earth Day. She’s been gone a few weeks longer than the time I spent with her. In the interim, we’ve experienced a pandemic, a horrific presidency (and the terrifying threat of a repeat), a world and a country increasingly in chaos and crisis. And the sun keeps rising and the trillium faithfully blooms every spring. Time marches on, through beauty and ugliness, even in the absence of those who once filled our lives.

I won’t say I miss her everyday, that would be rewriting the truth, false sentimentality. Frankly, some days those six years felt like an eternity. But there is an empty space in the biosphere and in my heart she used to fill, and now those years with her feel like a flash. I walk into the kitchen and sometimes see her standing at the counter, back to me, legs widespread for stability, trying—sightless—to measure her oatmeal. The mirage is gone as quickly as it came. At a book talk, recently, someone asked if, in hindsight, I would spend those years with her if I could make the decision to do so again. “Yes,” I said, without hesitation. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And the best.”

She loved the trillium in the woods by our home. In the spring, I would try to get her onto the trail to look for them. She couldn’t see them, but she would point with her cane to the spots they would be when they arrived. She knew where they were by heart, as I used to say of a memorized piece on the piano; a kind of muscle memory. When she could no longer walk on the uneven ground, she started asking me in February if the trillium were up yet. She remembered where they were, but not when they bloom! 

Next month, the bright white trillium will turn pink then purple, then decay to the ground. Over winter the plant will work underground to reproduce for next spring. Meanwhile, the leaf buds in the forest are bursting out to replace that which departs.

Another spring phenomenon is the disappearance of the cotton candy/opal sunrises from my house (my friends have great descriptors), as the upper atmosphere warms. I miss them, but the tradeoff is earlier sun and warmth. Eventually, I can have coffee on the deck with the singing birds, rather than in the study with the electric fireplace.

Yet a further loss when spring arrives is the end of boot season. I love my boots, and I’m sad every year to put them away. But with the change of season came a month-long concentration on feet and ankles in yoga, which is my favorite. Elizabeth says our feet and ankles work hard for us. During boot season, we keep them encased and they don’t get much wiggle room. It’s time to set them free, and get them back in shape. So we’re twirling our ankles, massaging and stretching our feet, spreading our toes. I’m feeling the call of the trail.

Between hikes, I’m rebuilding my garden in the meadow. I built a gate for the fence my brother-in-law is helping me build. I’m pretty pleased with my (almost) 72-year-old self, both that I didn’t give up on the garden (yet) and for saying “I can” to the gate. You can read about the gate build on my blog (here). While I am pretty successful at living in the moment, and not looking too far ahead, I appreciate these days and months and—for now—years more fully, knowing that different times are just a few switchbacks in the trail away. And I will learn—hopefully—to accept different abilities.

My friend, writer Christina Baldwin, says the journey of elderhood is to refocus on what remains, while acknowledging what is lost. It’s a good goal, I think, in both nature’s seasons and the seasons of aging. Spring is both full and somehow, for me, a void. I grumble about the outdoor work that needs to be done, and rejoice in the fact that hiking season is here—at least where the snow pack is melted. I love the warm air and the emerging flowers, and miss the cozy fire in the fireplace. I rejoice in rediscovering my strength and my mojo, and want to stay in my father’s recliner under my lap robe. I miss my mother, and I’m glad to be free. I’m especially glad she is free.

What remains are new adventures. Some may be challenging, and we will find our way. I won’t say my mother accepted her losses with grace, or even that she always appreciated what she still could do, but she always found her way. 

 

How is your spring is shaping up? What’s on your mind? What has been lost, what has been gained? Leave a comment below.

🌿

“The world doesn’t need our despair—
it needs our love, kindness, and hope.”

The Shadow & Light of Life’s Third Act

March 19, 2024, Spring Equinox

Ready or not, it’s the first day of official spring. Maybe, though, like me, you like the quiet coziness of winter and are not quite ready to release it to extroverted spring. While others loudly moan about the fickle weather, I quietly embrace a March snow shower. And, I want to get on the trails. It’s a shadow and light thing I grapple with every year.

Each Sunday, I draw a card from my friend Joanna Powell Colbert’s beautiful and intuitive Gaian Tarot. I knew nothing of the Tarot before I met Joanna more than a decade ago at a writing retreat and learned how it can be a useful tool for self-reflection. Which shook my uninformed understanding of tarot as fortunetelling delivered by a woman wearing flowing clothes, a headscarf, and bangles.

A couple weeks ago, I drew the “Builder,” a young man being creative and industrious, from my shuffled deck. “Hmph,” I sniffed, “doesn’t really speak to me.” Sometimes I draw another card if the first one doesn’t resonate, but this time I left it there on the table next to my father’s recliner for the week. Maybe something would come to me.

Later that week, I hosted a first gathering of “women of a certain age.” (Okay, so I was building something.) Eight of us met in a coffee shop to talk about this time of life we, rather surprisingly, find ourselves in: The Third Act. What are we thinking about? What do we hope this season holds for us? What are the joys, the freedoms? What are the fears, the restrictions? We talked about finding purpose, what that looks like, whether simple or complex. We expressed embracing silence, sitting and napping. Are those two ways of being in conflict with one another?

I’ve been reading The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul, by Connie Zweig, PhD. The day after the coffee klatch, I read about “positive aging,” or “successful aging.” The urging by the experts to be productive, to make a contribution. Be the light. In that way, we will age well, the gurus tell us.

But, Zweig writes, there is the shadow side to that. Ideals quickly become “shoulds.” We set ourselves up for failure as we value doing over being. If—or when—we lose the capacity to “do,” we feel shame. Maybe, for any number of reasons beyond our control, we can’t be “productive.” Or maybe we simply choose to slow down. Have we failed to age well? Bought into yet another societal expectation? Beware!, everything screams at us, if you aren’t productive, you are officially “old” and can commence being overlooked by the youngers. My mother (at 100) often said of her day, “I didn’t accomplish anything,” “I was lazy,” “I was worthless.” I was without worth. Really? Should we ever say that about our beautiful selves?

Mary Oliver writes:

“. . . Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing
still and learning to be
astonished.”

I’m with Mary. 

Back to the tarot. The following Sunday, I drew the Elder of Air. Suddenly the Builder made sense. (It’s really quite eerie how often this happens when I consult these cards.) This is a time of shadow and light, between both the seasons of the year and life stages. Sometimes we are gifted with ambition and creativity (the kestrel on the Builder card); and sometimes we are content to create purpose in quiet ways, creating sacred space and accessing wisdom (the luna moth on the Elder of Air card), which is also a gift.

Here’s a question to ponder, perhaps journal. Is there a difference between being productive and finding purpose?

As my yoga teacher says, some days we can access parts of our bodies that other days we cannot. It’s true of all ages, I think, physically, mentally, and emotionally; but in the last third we more often have the luxury of going with the flow day by day.

A true elder, Zweig says, holds the tension of shadow and light. She is both nourished and nourishing. She also says it’s important to practice stillness, even as we are being “productive.” Mary expresses it as standing still and learning to be astonished. In other words, we can’t wait until stillness is, of necessity, the bigger part of our life; embrace it now so it becomes a familiar friend.

When the opportunity calls to build something, I will rise to the occasion–if it brings me joy (the gift of the third act). Other times, I’ll be sitting in my father’s recliner watching the day break in the morning, napping in the afternoon, and watching the birds at the feeders. I’ll be worshiping creation on the trail, examining flowers, and embracing my own slowing pace. 

How are you practicing stillness, whether or not you have an unlimited luxury of time and space? Leave a comment!

Death Cleaning

Like many of you, I read Marie Kondo’s book when it came out and did the “does it spark joy” test with my belongings. (After moving several times and, ultimately, living alone, my belongings were spare anyway, which made the task easier.) I was enjoying my “only what you need or love” home. Then I moved.

I whittled again because I was paying by the pound for what would cross the country. I was “temporarily” moving into my mother’s home and would pay storage for what I didn’t need or have room for in the near term. If you’ve read Mother Lode, you know “temporary” was not what happened. (The lies we tell ourselves for courage to change the course.) I emptied the storage unit eighteen months after the move, purging again.

My mother has been gone nearly six years, and I’m still in her house with her lifetime of belongings. This would be the ongoing “load” part, the part that didn’t evaporate with her death. She, vaguely, didn’t want to leave it to her children to do, but—despite my delusion that I would get the house cleaned out with her in it in one year—she did leave it all behind. I can see why.

My father was busy keeping up the property. (I wonder, now, if there were even conversations about needing to clean out. I wish I’d asked my mother if there was a plan, and I know it would have burdened her to be reminded that she was leaving a burden.) She was nearly eighty when he died and left her everything. How could she even consider leaving this house? It was overwhelming; and at that point, she also had to take care of the house, the finances, the everything.

Since Mama’s death, I have disposed of, given away, sold, and donated boxes upon boxes of stuff. And there is so much more. I’ve taken a break the past two years to promote my book, but it’s time to return to the task. I don’t want to leave it to my own old age, nor to my children, nor until the last minute. Am I resentful that I have it to do when I’ve done so well with my own treasures? Yes, a little. It is what it is. And now, having been in this house for twelve years—longer than I’ve been in any house in my life—I need to death clean out my own stuff again.

I read The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, a few months ago, and it strengthened my resolve. I’ve been trying to figure out how to leave this house, but I can’t until it’s cleansed of the past. I recently shifted my thinking to trying to figure out how to stay, rather than how to leave, while—unlike my mother—being ready to leave. All maps, regardless of the destination, follow the road of death cleaning.

And so I am back at it.

You can read on my blog about my inaugural foray into the squillions of slides my parents took. Leave your own story of death cleaning (your parents’ home or your own) in the blog post comments or on the comments page on this website. I would love to hear your story.

Over the Hill

A few weeks ago, visiting my two young grandsons and their moms, I emerged from my bedroom for an outing wearing makeup, including tinted lip moisturizer. I rarely wear makeup, and it didn’t go unnoticed. “Why are you wearing lipstick, Gigi?” the nine-year-old asked. “Um, I guess so you won’t think I’m old,” I floundered. “You are old,” he replied.

I knew my grandsons—and anyone under the age of thirty (at least)—see me as old, with or without make-up. They accept that and would not have said so had I not appeared looking different. My mother always wore bright red lipstick (there are still several tubes in the bathroom cabinet), that was how I knew her and she looked odd without it. And when I caught a rare glimpse of her without her glasses in my young years, she didn’t look like herself. In the end, she wore neither lipstick nor glasses, giving in to her face being old and her vision unimprovable with corrective lens. Is that giving up or acceptance of what is? Is there a difference?

So why do I sometimes wear makeup? All I can come up with is that when  I look in the mirror, I don’t want to look old to my own eyes. I don’t feel old. I feel like forty or fifty, decades both difficult and empowering when I was learning to live my own life and truths. Now I want to look my inner age, at least to myself. Looking “old” scares me a bit, truth be told, especially after watching my mother’s transformation. It’s about fear, not vanity. It’s my own inner ageism.

I’m in the last third of life, there is no denying that and I am determined to live it mindfully. I’ve started reading The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul, by Connie Zweig, PhD, which addresses the issue of how we see ourselves as we age. 

I’m also reading Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life, by Louise Aronson, which is more about how society views elderhood. The author tells of a med school professor who asked his class to quickly, without filtering, write down the words that come to mind when they hear the word “old.” And then to do the same when they hear the word “elder.” Try it! She continues in later chapters to talk about how medical professionals discount and disrespect elders. I think I’ve found a new passion.

Words like “over the hill” reinforce our inner stereotypes about aging. I recall telling my family, planning my fortieth birthday celebration, “no black, no ‘over the hill’ references.” Even then I knew my mind about that. Forty sounds so young at 70! Thirty years ago, I never gave a thought to being 70. But thirty years from now, if I’m still here, I will be the age my mother was when she died. And I think about it a lot.

But for now, I tell people I’m “restoryed,” not retired, which sounds too much like “done.” I’m not done by a long shot. I’m preparing for an epic road trip in October through California, planning to hike in eight of the state’s nine national parks. “Are you going by yourself?” I’ve been asked with incredulity. “Yes, yes I am.”

ReStorying a Life: I Can See Clearly Now

(This story first appeared in “Sage-ing with Creative Spirit, Grace & Gratitude: The Journal of Creative Aging”
Number 45, Summer 2023
 http://www.sage-ing.com/sageing45.html)

My north star as I became an adult was conflicted. I grew up in the fifties and sixties with my mother’s gender-typical role model, along with those I saw in Father Knows Best, Donna Reed, and Leave It to Beaver. But as I came of age I also witnessed Marlo Thomas’s “working girl” Ann Marie in That Girl, along with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and bra burning.

I went to college—an expectation of me and my two sisters—but I had been left on my own to uncover passion and develop gifts, and I hadn’t done it. With no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, I chose a major by process of elimination. Post-graduation, I got married and became a full-time wife and mother, if not choosing my mother’s path, falling into it.

At Mt. Rainier, c. 1959

Everything changed when, at forty, my marriage ended. I went to graduate school, but, degree in hand, I still didn’t know how to be a career woman. I floundered as I looked for my niche. I wish I could say I began watching my mother more closely, but the looking glass I kept her in remained clouded by my obstinate refusal to see her beyond my childhood years, or across the 2500 miles that physically separated us in my adulthood.

In my growing up years, my mother had been the action behind the face, hiding behind her introversion and in her understanding of women’s and men’s roles. She was the elected PTA president and did the work, but my father led the meetings. She did the work at our church, but declined to be on a leadership board. She was a Girl Scout leader and Sunday school teacher, mingling with children where she felt more confident and competent.

When my father retired from his illustrious career, she seemingly decided it was her time. She threw herself into activism, changing the persona of the person I thought I knew. She jumped into peace initiatives and gun control, speaking passionately to church and civic groups. She led a charge to save the second growth forest adjacent to our home, defying her “trees are a natural resource” husband before bringing him along with her. Slowly I began to see her in new light as she discovered creative ways to express her long-buried (or undiscovered) passions and overcome her fears.

At the Million Mom March in Washington, D.C. 2000

As I struggled to put together a life and a living, I took my first writing class and started a blog about restoring the garden at the house I bought on my own, honing in on my love of writing. I found a job I could shine in. I re-storied my life. I was thriving. I was busy when my father died, and still not watching my mother courageously continue living on her own. (Later she would say her eighties were her favorite decade.She was seventy-nine when she became a widow.)

And then, at the apex of my own newly discovered confidence and creative living, I moved.

Leaving the garden I had created and returning to my childhood home—and my mother’s garden—on the other side of the country was an act of courage. My mother’s grit as she re-storied her own life after my father died had begun to seep into my consciousness. At ninety-six, though, she was in need of a companion traveler—not that she would admit it. It was a move I had longed for since I left the Pacific Northwest nearly four decades earlier, but I hadn’t envisioned it like this.

Watching her up close for the next six years was an education I could not have gotten in a classroom. As I read letters she and my father wrote to one another from opposite sides of the ocean during World War II, her intrepidness and creativity in putting together an unexpected life as a young woman moved her out from behind the mirror. All these years I had been seeing only my own image in the glass, and yet she was there all along. Through the years we had together until her death, we battled to hold onto the independence we had each come to in the fullness of maturity, unwilling to cede it to the other. They were hard years.

Writing down the story in a new blog was my life-saving outlet. It was where I intersected with the world beyond a stifling existence. As in the garden blog, it was a sharing of my hands-in-the-dirt education with readers.

At home, 2014

Following my mother’s death, I finished transforming my blog posts and journal into a memoir. It was published as autumn morphed toward winter in 2022. Now, for the first time, I am engaging in volunteerism and social activism as I support family caregivers and educate others about the unsung world of family caregiving. Readers of my memoir are finding the courage to take control of their own self-care, even as they care for another. They are giving themselves permission not to do “all the things” alone, to ask for help. They are talking more openly about the struggle that is family caregiving. Perhaps they are writing down their own stories.

In celebration of my 70th birthday in 2022, I turned my passion for hiking—and my newest blog about my outdoor adventures—into a volunteer position at Mt. Rainier National Park, helping others discover and protect the beauty of the natural world. And who modeled that re-storying for me? My mother. She has become my clear and shining north star.

When I returned to my mother’s garden at age sixty, I thought maybe in whatever time we were to have together, I could find the mother I had always wished for: one who would cheer me on with praise, admiration, celebration—pompoms even. Instead, she just kept being who she always had been: the unflinching woman I hadn’t seen clearly any more than I felt seen by her. I began shaking those pompoms for myself, cheering myself on, just as she had quietly championed herself. I look in the mirror now and I see her smiling back. Maybe even a hint of pompom cheering me on.

My mother thought I returned to my childhood home so she could take care of me, rather than vice-versa. And maybe she did. Even now, five years after her death, as I continue living in the home she created, I am still learning from her.

 

 

The Labyrinth

“I begin to see our connected lives like the intricate path of a labyrinth. My mother is spiraling inward toward the center,
the still point of the turning world. . . . I am following the outward way toward assuming the reins of care,
trying not to step over the bounds of the path in front of me.”

(Mother Lode, p. 65)

One of my first getaways in 2012, two months after my cross-country move to begin my care-partnering sojourn with my mother, was a one-day writing-in-nature workshop at the Whidbey Institute on Washington’s Whidbey Island. It was there I met Christina Baldwin, who would become my friend and writing mentor. Attending that workshop—discovered quite by chance and registered for on a whim—changed the trajectory of my life, ultimately leading to becoming a published author.

I walked the Institute’s Chartres labyrinth for the first time that autumn Saturday. As I made the eleven circuits to the center and back out, I didn’t yet see it as the metaphor for my life it would become. Returning over the years, both to Christina’s writing retreats and to the labyrinth, I began to recognize the increasingly familiar pattern my mother and I were in, she circling toward the center and her eventual death, I winding back out toward a resumption of my life that had felt on hold. The predictably unpredictable labyrinth path—as we passed near to each other and then more distanced—became a trope, or theme, winding through my memoir.

When I walked the labyrinth again last week, I realized the path is really a metaphor for all of life. It looks deceptively ordered from some points, chaotic from others, but it’s only when focusing only what is just ahead that way opens up. You can, of course, step over the dividers, taking a short-cut. When you do, however, it isn’t clear which direction leads to the center and which to the exit. You really just have to stay the path and move headlong into whatever presents itself.

I noticed (in retrospect) that on the hairpin turns, my mind and my body came back to attention to the path. I looked at my feet and shortened my stride, taking care not to step over or on a stone. In the gentle curves of the circuits, though, I returned to noticing the bee on the daisy, the smell of the air, the singing birds. It was then I could let my mind wander to what has been, what is, what might be. Both kinds of attention have always been present in my life, though it can seem—especially in times of crisis—it’s all one and never the other.

Leaving the labyrinth, I walked to the apple tree garden, remembering sitting in it at the workshop to do a writing assignment. The sprinkler was running this visit, so I didn’t go in, but I remembered—per the assignment—I had a conversation with the apple tree. My essay was focused on two trees, a young one and an old one. Now the young one is becoming the elder, just as I am in my mother’s absence.

I visited the big fenced garden next. It and the one at Aldermarsh—site of my first week-long writing retreat two months later—were the inspirations for my own meadow garden. I am quite sure in 2012 it was a working kitchen garden, with an eagle-protected chicken run around it. The run is gone now, and the garden has gone wild with meandering paths.Finding an old photograph of the front yard of my mother’s house, I remembered there used to be roses along the driveway curb, now there are azaleas. She was a pantser gardener like me. I don’t know why I didn’t realize that. Her gardens morphed from this to that, as happens when pantsers create. I’ve been feeling like I have let her down, unable to keep the grounds around the house looking as they did under her care. I’ve been thinking about starting over in the front of the house, sowing wildflowers and letting it do what it will. It may or may not happen. Also, I’m not sure how that will be different from now. Every year something comes up that wasn’t there before and something that was present is gone. This year it’s dotted loosestrife I’ve not seen before. Just one stalk. Last year the previously prolific campanula bellflower was gone, this year there’s one stalk. Wild field daisies have joined the planted Shasta daisies (not yet blooming).

As I wander through the former kitchen garden at the Institute, I wonder what discussions were had to let it be what it wanted to be. I wonder if I have the courage to let my meadow—the former horse pasture—return to nature, as one of my sisters suggested some time ago. The bees would love it, and so would my wallet. There is probably an art to letting a long-mowed meadow revert to natural, and without becoming the tangle of blackberry vines—both native and not—that it would want to be. Maybe I’ll begin with a test plot, taking a lesson from the labyrinth: don’t look too far ahead, start with what’s right in front of you.

Back at home, looking for a photo of the kitchen garden in 2012—which I did not find—I found the conversation with the apple tree on my old blog. The insight is remarkably similar to the one here about the labyrinth. There is nothing new, I guess, just a lot of rediscovery. You can read that post here.

We don’t always see where way will take us to get from here to there. I thought my married-with-children life was all set when I met my future husband fifty years ago. Instead, I have walked an eleven circuit labyrinth, one that brought me back to the place I started. Life is not a straight line, but takes unforeseen turns. One way or another, it always comes back to the beginning point. The 107th anniversary of my mother’s birth is today, my 71st is next week. I don’t know if I will have three decades left as she did, but I’m excited to see what is around the next curve. I think I won’t have expectations beyond that.

“You will take it as it comes, and figure it out as you go. That is what you have done all your life, and it has always worked out. . . .
It is what we all must do. It is the only way there is.”

—Writing workshop, 2012 

A Eulogy for My Mother

For our mother’s memorial service, the weekend of her 102nd birthday, my sisters and I each eulogized her by focusing on the trait(s) of hers we most thought we embodied. Mine were courage and love of the natural world.

The past nearly six years were some of the hardest of my life. That I thought I was sacrificing my independence to take care of my mother, and that she seemed to think I was coming to be taken care of, was a constant source of conflict. It was only later I realized I had disrupted her independence too. And while I would get mine back, she would not. She was fighting her last battle: old age. And it would take massive courage.

When I arrived, she had been intrepidly navigating her life alone for the seventeen years since my father died. True, Rebecca had been helping her for the last ten, and grandson Joel lived with her briefly. I wonder if she lived to nearly 102 because she had all these darned children to take care of.

But her courage did not begin in 1995 when she suddenly lost her husband. It began back in the 1930s rural south when she survived childhood in a challenged family, spoke out against racism in a “senior sermon” at her church, and was the first in her family to attend college.
She hiked in a skirt in her beloved Smoky Mountains with her girlfriends, and later with the Michigander who would become her husband. When I unearthed and read the six hundred surviving letters they wrote to each other during WWII, I learned some new things about her pluck.

__________

She didn’t expect she would marry, didn’t think anyone would want her. Then along came George, handsome and smart and kind. And completely smitten with her. As I sat in the early morning dark, I read letter after letter in which he agonized over her refusal to say she loved him. Finally, at wit’s end, he nearly ended the relationship because he figured she must not.

“Why wouldn’t you tell him?” I asked her, aching on his behalf seventy-five years later, fifty-one of which they were married.

“I guess because we hardly knew each other,” she finally said, after a pause so long I thought she wasn’t going to respond. “He was the first man I’d dated; and we had never been on a date alone. A courtship by mail seemed artificial.”

Wow, I thought, here was her ticket to a better life than she ever dreamed of, and she had the wisdom to take time to examine her own heart and be sure before she leaped.

While George was at New York University in officer training as the war in Europe escalated, Stellajoe decided she needed to leave her job as secretary to the director at the Tennessee Valley Authority and do something she felt would contribute to ending the conflict.
She had long been fascinated with the territory of Alaska. She studied for and took the Civil Service exam, then requested an appointment to an air base in Alaska or Washington. She didn’t consult her best friend, her parents, or George. When she was assigned to Geiger Field in Spokane, she announced her plan, packed a footlocker, and adventurously crossed the country by train at the age of twenty-six. She arrived knowing no one and with no place to stay. She found a room in a rooming house and went to work.

She hated Spokane, so seven months later, when George finished school and was stationed in Dallas, where he figured he would sit out the war, he made a rare phone call to her.

“Do you wanna get married?” he asked. She said yes, bought a wedding dress, packed her footlocker, and boarded a train again. They were married a week later. I guess she decided she loved him.

Six weeks after the wedding, he got marching orders—he was going to Europe after all.

Stellajoe moved to Michigan to live with his family. It took a new kind of courage to live with the strong mother-in-law she barely knew, but she loved his family, including her young niece and nephew. They listened to war news each evening gathered around the radio. She and her sister-in-law Ruth embroidered pillow cases and wrote and received hundreds of letters that took weeks to crisscross the ocean between them and their husbands.

Stellajoe got a position at the University of Michigan School of Forestry where George had been a student, until once more she decided it was too frivolous a job in the face of the turmoil her husband, brother, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law were in the midst of. She got another Civil Service job at the Housing Authority nearby. After a year in Michigan, driving George’s Ford on rationed rubber tires, she moved to Florida to live with her parents, working at another air field, where she remained until George returned.

Other than the six weeks in Texas, she had seen him three brief times since he enlisted three-and-a-half years earlier.

__________

I know all of this, of course, only from story. My experience of her until I returned to live with her, was not of a courageous woman. Sadly, I hardly knew her during the three-and-a-half decades we spent on opposite coasts. It’s only now that she is gone and the hard years for both of us are over, that I recognize the courage she continued to have.

She was an introvert, and yet when she saw something that needed to be done, she summoned strength from deep inside and, with great humility, did it. She spoke out for world peace. She became an advocate for issues faced by the aging. And she often defied George in her passions, or dragged him along for the ride. We all know how she led the charge to save the hill behind our home, standing up to her “trees are a renewable resource” forester husband and facing city officials. She joined the Sierra Club, which George abhorred, putting a bumper sticker on the car. Born before women gained the right to vote, she voted her own conscience in every presidential election from Franklin Roosevelt to Hillary Clinton, often canceling out my father’s vote.

I had one more question about going against her husband’s beliefs, and I asked it: “Would you have been so accepting of your gay daughters and grandchildren if he had not died?” “Oh,” she said, uncharacteristically quickly, “he would have come around. I would have persuaded him.” I didn’t know she had that kind of influence. After he died, she left membership in the [Presbyterian] church they had known for decades to join [the Methodist church] because of its passion for equality and social justice.

After George’s death—I only recently realized because I hadn’t been paying attention before—she did not ask her daughters for help in negotiating the river of things that have to be done when a loved one dies. As my sisters and I did the tasks together following her death, I could not comprehend how she did it alone. Later, she did not ask advice about staying in the house, nor for decision-making help in its maintenance. She never asked us to come home and help her. I’m sure she didn’t want to disrupt our lives; and she was a do-it-myself person. Apparently I inherited that trait too.

She called her eighties her favorite decade. “Why?” I asked. She was seventy-nine when my father died, so it was curious to me. She didn’t use these words, but the sentiment is the same: “I got my mojo back when I was alone and had to fend for myself.”

I don’t think she thought of herself as brave, and—as Queen of Worry— there was much she was afraid of. But as she arrived at each daunting task, she faced it down and beat it. Not the least of which were the health issues—literally from head to toe—that dogged her and that she dogged many doctors about, refusing to accept that they were a product of old age. She wanted a name and a fix, preferably without drugs or surgery, and she was, by golly, going to get it. She railed at doctors who told her she was “doing well for her age.” One of the last recorded books she listened to, at age 100, was a two-parter on the life-styles of the world’s oldest living people, hoping to learn something. My sisters and I express our gratitude to every health care professional over the decades for their patience in her pursuit of the fountain of youth.

Losing her vision was the most significant of her health issues. Last month, I ran across one of her prolific notes in which she wrote many years ago that blindness was the thing she most feared. Indeed, she worried about it for three decades. Consuming foods containing vitamin K, wearing hats with visors, and using brand-name only preservative-free eye drops probably held off complete loss as long as possible. But when she finally outlived her eyes, which would have put most of us under, she faced it with courage. Not without constant talk about it, but she kept on keeping on. If she had had her vision at one hundred, she would have been unstoppable.

__________

I also learned love of the natural world from her. From the dish gardens we made together when I was a child to selling American Seeds and planting nasturtiums in my first childhood garden, to my love of hiking mountain trails, to my finally-developing curiosity about what is happening in the woods behind our home—and writing about and photographing it all—I have her to thank.

She loved spring, not only because of the stark contrast to the Pacific Northwest season called Grey, which she detested, but because of the persistence of each bird and blossom to bounce back to life in hopeful exuberance. She always bounced back then too. I’m glad she left us just as her beloved dogwood and trillium were in bloom, as the lilacs filled the air with sweet scent, as the fiddleheads on the sword fern unfurled. I hope she can see them now.

She loved the Pacific Northwest and her beloved Appalachians differently—and she instilled in me a love of both. She reveled in hearing stories of my hiking and camping adventures, while admiring—and fearing—my courage to go it alone. “Got that from you,” I would say. Her love of nature and these two ecologies is a love she passed to me, to my children, and is being gifted to theirs. I hope my own great-grandchildren will learn the story of their ancestor’s love of this beautiful world and carry on with her in their hearts.

In my mother’s courage to face whatever came and to watch carefully the natural world, though only a part of who she was, she had an overarching curiosity about the world and everything in it. I read this quote by Elizabeth Gilbert to her some time back, because, I told her, I thought she inhabited it:

“You might spend your whole life following your curiosity and have absolutely nothing to show for it at the end—except one thing. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you passed your entire existence in devotion to inquisitiveness. And that should be more than enough for anyone to say that they lived a rich and splendid life.” —Elizabeth Gilbert

She had much to show for her life, but by that definition, my mother did indeed have a rich and splendid life, and she thought so too. She claimed in recent years, not to believe in heaven. “I’ve had an abundant life,” she told me, “I don’t deserve or need anything more.” My father didn’t believe in a life after death either. When he died without warning, I wanted so desperately to know I would see him again. I asked my minister what happens when a person who doesn’t believe in heaven dies. “I guess,” he said, “they are surprised.”

I hope my mother is hiking through wildflowers and old growth forests and stream-laced mountain meadows with her true love.

Where is Home at the End of Life

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
― James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

__________

The rural house sat at the end of a fork of the south bay of Puget Sound. It was an unremarkable house, but exiting the backdoor, like the closet door into Narnia, my first childhood home was anything but ordinary.

Through the wooden screen door and down the steps, past the lattice-fence that divided the tamed yard from the less-tamed yard—the posts catching falling snow in a pot to be mixed with sugar and vanilla in winter and disappearing under my mother’s trailing roses in summer—beyond the huge homemade swing set and the outdoor brick fireplace my father built, between the log cabin playhouse and the muddy flats of the bay at low tide, lay the woods. I spent long summer days in that strip of trees where make-believe flourished. In the front yard, my sister and I waited for the bookmobile, the borrowed books flaming more imagination. Kids and fathers played softball in the field next door and little girls played restaurant in the neighbor’s abandoned chicken coop.

We left that home when I was eight, the thirty miles of interstate between it and my second home bisecting my life into its first before and after. I lived in the new house on the side of the hill the remainder of my childhood. But the home by the bay remains irrevocably my soul home, the one I will remember when memory eludes me.

__________

My mother lived in fourteen houses with her family of origin, her father following work and running from creditors. She moved, alone, across the country for a civil service job as World War II began and relocated several more times, waiting for her new husband to return. Her dream, she tells me decades later, was to stay in one place.

She got her wish. After the war, she and my father bought the house I was born to and lived there until we moved to our hillside house, where she stayed for fifty-five years.

__________

My own nomad years began in adulthood. I had five brief stays between college and moving across the country as a newlywed. I moved nine more times before returning to my family home to care for my mother, where I’ve lived again for a decade—as long as I lived here the first time, longer than I lived in any house in the forty-two years between.

I was sixty-four, when, after four years of accompanying my mother, I reached the end of my line. I couldn’t care for her in her home any more, a role I had reluctantly taken on in the first place. Would she have to leave the place that, like my first home on the bay, was the one locked in her soul? If we moved her to assisted living, did that make me a disloyal and selfish daughter? Would I be breaking a promise I hadn’t made? I had already stayed three years longer than I committed to. Was there another way? My one hundred year old mother struggled with me living with her, I think; and she battled against the few hours a week paid caregivers were in the house. Was it harder to have someone in her own home—where she had been queen of the castle for more than five decades—than it would be if she moved one more time? Nearly five years after her death, I’m still questioning myself.

When Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, resigned unexpectedly in January 2023, she said, “I am human, politicians are human. We give all that we can for as long as we can. And then it’s time. And for me, it’s time.

Ardern’s resignation made me think about caregivers, the limits of our service. What happens when we realize we no longer have the energy to continue? Can we resign? Are we obligated to continue in the way we had been? For how long do we pressure ourselves not only to physically but emotionally sacrifice our lives in favor of a parent’s or other loved one’s perceived happiness? I knew what I needed. I needed my life back. Did I have the right to reclaim it? I decided I did.

Moving our mother to assisted living seemed like the best of problematic choices. But my sister and I didn’t abandon our mother. Caregiving is a group project and children can continue to be project managers without being responsible for all the tasks that are necessary to provide good care at home. The job became more equal between us. My mother adjusted. I got my life back.

After more than six years of accompanying her towards life’s end, my mother and I finally were approaching the closer relationship that I had hoped for when I moved in with her. But it’s only been recently that I realize all the forward movement, every bit of it, happened after she moved, when I became just her daughter again. If I have regrets, it’s not that we moved her from her forever home, it’s that we didn’t do it sooner. I wish there had been more time.

I have been sad we didn’t bring her back “home” to die as we promised ourselves we would to get us across the decision bridge, but is it practical and how does one time that? In retrospect, I think it would have been disorienting and stressful. The hospice nurse said she was home, the place that had become familiar; and she was in her own bed, the one she had shared with her husband.

Everyone says they want to die at home. What does that mean? I am contemplating the question for myself, to make known my hopes to my own children. And I am considering it now, at seventy, while I am, hopefully, far from the need. I’m considering it in the light of having been the giver of care. I hope not to be in a hospital, with bright lights, beeping machines, an unfamiliar bed; but if that is what happens, I can live with it . . . or die with it. I don’t want my children to sacrifice their living to keep me in any particular place. I want to free them to be my beloved children.

They are my home. Home is inside me in all the places I’ve been and the people I’ve known; playing in the woods, rolling down slopes of grass between beds of pansies and violets, waiting for the bookmobile.

I think my mother was home too. I have made my peace.

__________

“For many patients, ‘home’ isn’t the physical place. It’s a metaphor for a place that’s not medicalized, that’s comfortable and full of love.”
— Dr. Haider Warraich, author, New England Journal of Medicine study

The Book of Regrets: A Braided Story

On this date, seventy-nine years ago, my parents were married.
In the parlor of the biggest church in Dallas.
It was the only available venue my father could find on short notice.
It was very short notice.

I don’t dwell in the Land of Regret. My mother did, only she called it guilt. “I don’t want you to feel guilty for years like I have,” she would say, referring to not understanding that her grumpy mother’s complaints and inability to be appreciative were because she was old. “I don’t do guilt,” I said, wondering why she didn’t put her efforts into acting less like her mother rather than in shaming me.

Found in a box. Notes on her mother’s transgressions, written perhaps before a doctor or therapist appointment, or for a letter to her far away brothers.

Guilt: Doing something that violates one’s moral compass.

But she didn’t really mean guilt. She meant regret, wishing in the look back she had done it differently. Semantics. But what I meant was that I don’t dwell on it like she did.

Stellajoe had migrated from Tennessee to Spokane, Washington to work on an Army Air Force base.
Neither her job nor her boarding house accommodations were ideal.
George, a newly-trained wartime meteorologist, was in Dallas. 

November 12, 1943. “First I’ll come right out and admit to you that I made a mistake. I should have married you. The fundamental reasons for not getting married haven’t changed. But other things that I foresee have cropped up to at least balance them. I guess I’ve told you enough about Hensley Field for you to realize that we aren’t far from a peacetime organization. And I guess it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that I might hit just such a place overseas, even. If such a thing should come about, I wouldn’t be haunted by the fear that I’d come back to a young wife crippled or disabled. . . . I know your belief that if you love me you’ll never love anyone else. Frankly I don’t believe it.
Time is a great healer and over a period of years I know you could forget me.” 

Regret is typically based on the degree to which your ideal self (what you believe you COULD BE) diverges from your actual self (the person you are in reality).

I knew when angry words left my mouth, I would later wish I had been more compassionate. I also know if I had it to do over, I probably couldn’t have been more understanding in the moment. The words flew out of mouth in frustration, or bubbled up from my own hurt at the way she seemed not to appreciate my efforts; they weren’t from a lack of compassion. Or maybe the angry words were a cover for my own heart-deep pain at watching her decline. What I regret is that I didn’t apologize more. But I would have been apologizing constantly.

“I know I’ve bungled this business very, very badly, and it would be no more than I deserve if you didn’t want  to get married now. I can’t offer you any assurance of a week together even.
But I’m ready to get married.”

It’s been four and a half years since there has been a chance for a do-over or an apology. I am doing exactly what she thought she could spare me: regretting. I knew I would have regrets, I knew it then; but caregiving perfection was not in my grasp any more than it had once been in hers. So what to do with the expanding list? I am discovering that naming them, apologizing in absentia, forgiving myself, forgiving her, makes the vow I did make—not to dwell there—a promise to myself, and to her, that I can keep.

The long, rambling letter was slow to arrive.
On November 16, he sent a telegram, saying he was going to call.
The connection was bad. He proposed on the phone.
She must have told him she would write her response.

As I name them, though, I find a second distinction: not only guilt vs. regret, but regret vs. grief. It’s an emotion I’m still unpacking. Perhaps after the Book of Regrets is written—or at least begun—I will understand it better. I have a feeling grief is not as easily dismissed. Grief is a thing that, over time, we learn to embrace as part of our Self.

The Book of Regrets

❧ Soon after my arrival at my new old home, my mother told me she had asked the yard person to clear out the salal, Oregon grape, and blackberry vines at the landing of the steps to my father’s workshop to create an opening to duck under the vine maples to reach a small wild dogwood tree. She thought I might want to sit there. “Why would I want to do that?” I asked, my voice dripping with dismissal. It was long later that it dawned on me that she knew I was missing my home in North Carolina, and the brick patio I had made under a huge dogwood tree. She was doing what she could to help me find home again.

It’s been ten years as I write this, and the grief of my lack of understanding wallops me anew. I wanted to apologize, to tell her I finally recognized what she was trying to do. But I didn’t do it. In the last days of her life, I remembered again. I knew she was going to be gone and I knew would regret not saying I was sorry, and still the words wouldn’t leave my mouth.

I talk to her now at Staebler Point, in the city’s natural area she so loved. I speak the words into the breeze and hope she knows.

November 19. He sent another telegram saying he hadn’t gotten her letter
and would call when it arrived.

❧ I regret I couldn’t keep her in her beloved home, but the grief doesn’t reach so deeply. I couldn’t, I know that. What I regret is that she didn’t leave the earth before the move became necessary. And I had no control over that. She lived in the house longer because I was here. She lingered in this life longer because I was here. She didn’t die in a hospital, she was in her own bed, I was in the room. I try to let that be enough.

November 22. Another telegram saying he couldn’t get a call through, (after trying for five hours);
but yes, he wanted her to come, the quicker the better. 

❧ I wish I hadn’t asked her tell me how it felt to be old. It was not her responsibility to satisfy my curiosity. I’m glad I didn’t push. It wasn’t really what I was asking anyway. I was asking her for the first time in her life to be in touch with her inner self. I was asking her to share her Self with me. So I could share my Self.

November 23. He writes another letter and is waiting again for her reply, by mail or telegram,
hoping he wasn’t putting her on the spot.
He was sorry he wasn’t clear in the previous letter that he was definite about her coming.
“Maybe I did have too many ‘ifs’ in it.” But he needed for her to decide for herself,
knowing she might arrive and find him gone, deployed.
With no way to let her know. 

❧ A memory: She drove me back to college after some holiday and walked with me from visitor parking to my dorm. She held my hand as we walked. I was uncomfortable and embarrassed. But I didn’t pull away. One thing I saved myself from regretting much later.

November 27. She got her blood test, a wedding dress, and a train ticket. George writes his parents that Stellajoe was leaving Spokane that night, Saturday, and expected to arrive in Dallas at 8am Monday morning, November 29, after some thirty-six hours sitting up on the train. “Probably we’ll get married Tuesday afternoon.”

❧ We gave her Alexa for her last Christmas. She loved Alexa, and astonished us by being able to summon her. Mostly she asked Alexa to tell her jokes. Alexa kept her company, a voice in the silence. I regret not learning to program her to do more than tell bad jokes.

They “tied the knot” at 6pm, November 30, 1943.
With, in spite of rationing, a handful of rice for the four attendants and guests to throw. 

❧ After she died, and I was going through boxes of her notes and partially used journals and unsent letters, I found one in which she wrote her longing to have a different relationship with me. I didn’t know. We never said the words. We couldn’t let each other in. That is what I most regret. And the well is deep. And maybe it was always too late to pull up that bucket, neither of us were raised to bare our souls. I regret something that could not have been different.

Six weeks later, George deployed. He returned April 25, 1946. 

“I thought I’d come back to give my mother another chance.
I’m starting to think it was so she could give me one.”

JODI PICOULT

❧ I wish I’d taken better advantage of this second chance. And I was too tired just trying to get through the days. But maybe just having a second chance was enough, maybe it was everything. Someone said to me had I only stayed the year I expected, I would not have gained what I eventually found.

She told me, years later, he insisted she use birth control, which she didn’t believe in.
“He was afraid he wouldn’t make it back home from Europe
and didn’t want to leave me with a child to raise alone.
If he didn’t come back, I wanted a child.
To keep a piece of him.”

I am one of those pieces. I wasn’t perfect. But I was enough.