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.

 

Alchemy of a Memoir, Pt. 4: Choosing a Cover

If it’s possible to identify a “hardest thing” about publishing a book—and there are many things that were harder than actually writing the book—I might choose picking the cover. It’s the first thing potential readers see, whether on a screen, in a bookstore, or in the library. It  conveys the genre, the writing style, the book’s personality, and the story  to be discovered. We do choose a book by its cover. No pressure here. This is how it went down.

First step: Input

The She Writes Press cover design team asked for a detailed synopsis of the story from beginning to end  (with spoilers), ten adjectives that describe the book, the main characters and what they look like, the story’s emotional mood, an object or place that captures the themes and tone, the book’s message and how you would like the reader to feel when they read the last page page, photos of book covers you admire . . . Oof!

Second step: Narrowing options

Some weeks later, I received ten possible designs. I opened the file eagerly, interested in what they came up with. Too trite, too white-skinned, not this story, not my mother. Then I got to the ninth one: a ripe, red tomato smashed against a white background, its juice and seeds flying. Now that told the story, and most importantly, got my attention.

I picked four others that were not impossibly wrong and sent them to a few trusted friends and family for opinions. (Which, I learned later, the publisher did not recommend doing.) Family liked Smashing Tomatoes. Everyone else rated it last choice. “Too bloody,” one said; “It was bloody,” my sister said. Some liked the lily white hands reaching for each other. “Too white,” one said. “Too ‘hand of God,'” my sister said.  “Wrong hands,” I said. They were mine and my daughter’s hands. Stock photos don’t include 16100-year-old hands, which I think are amazing but no doubt make many  uncomfortable. Some liked the string bag of tomatoes. Food was definitely a theme in my mother’s and my life together, and there is a tomato story in the book. I could have asked them to start over, but I decided to go with the grocery bag idea.

Third step: Revisions

I use cloth grocery bags; I don’t own a string bag. I needed the cover to be recognizable to my reality—one reason I rejected the two covers that included an elderly woman that was not my mother and the hands that were not our hands. I found a stock photo of a cloth bag of groceries (not just tomatoes) with a hand coming from the top edge, the bag straining with the load, and sent it to the publisher. “Something like this?” I asked. “No place to put the words,” they said. Also, the hand was white, and I really did want to steer clear from making my story exclusive. Caregiving does not have racial bounds.

They sent some options, one with a paper bag at the bottom of the page. I wasn’t crazy about it, but I didn’t like the others. As a new author, I didn’t know how much push they would tolerate, and I was loathe to be the difficult client. I wanted them to like me. I had read that traditional publishers don’t necessarily give authors any input at all, so perhaps I was lucky. I suggested adding chocolate and a bottle of wine, a request they didn’t respond to. They don’t, I supposed, employ actual artists.

Fourth step: Making a decision

I said yes . . . to a paper bag with groceries at the bottom of the page, that I didn’t love. I wanted to love my cover. I asked for a different font for the title; the block letters weren’t doing it for me. They complied.

Fifth step: Living with the decision

And that was it. My book was going out into the world, to be seen across the internet, and hopefully on brick and mortar bookstore shelves, with a baby-blue cover, orangey-red title font, and a bag of groceries. It’s like naming a child. Once you sign the birth certificate, that is their name forever, or until they are old enough to change it. There are no do-overs.

Last step: Learning to love it

It’s been five months now, and the cover has grown on me as I consider it symbolically. The vegetable lode is arranged in a careful balance. One slight tilt of the bag, and they will topple, ripe tomatoes smashing on the floor. And is the loaded bag sinking off the bottom of the page, or is it rising from the depths? You’ll have to read the book and decide for yourself.

When my daughter-in-love was creating art for my book trailer (you can view it here, now it I love!), I asked her to add wine and chocolate to the bag, for my personal use, and to make them clearly not look like a photograph. I didn’t want anyone to confuse it with the real cover. It makes it perfect. Just before the book went to the printer, I made one more plea to the publisher to include wine and chocolate. She said no, it couldn’t be done to match the rest of the image. Yes, it could have, with artist skill and an amazing computer program, it could look indistinguishable. I let it go.

The Beginning

A book is born, with a cover! Coming October 18 (officially)  and available now for preorder wherever books are sold. (See special offer and links here.)

For posterity, here is my working cover (and title) for years, and the cover with wine and chocolate (as featured in the trailer opening). You can view the trailer, which I really love, here).

Alchemy of a Memoir, Pt. 3: Choosing a Title

The title of my blog was “Daughter on Duty,” and I laid bare on the screen how difficult both caring for my mother and living in her home were. I wasn’t shining a very good light on myself, but that was not my point. I was on duty, I was trying to stick with it, and I was tired of an adult lifetime of stuffing my feelings. I didn’t care who thought I was a terrible daughter.

When I dreamed that my story could be a book (read that story here), Christina Baldwin, creator and facilitator of the writing retreat I signed up for my first winter, gave me the title: Mother Lode. I loved the double meaning, the play on words. The load of caregiving brought me to tears on a daily basis, and turning the experience into a vein of gold was the carrot dangling in front of me, compelling me to see it through.

As I worked on the book over the next ten years, including at four alumni writing retreats with Christina and the new and old friends I met there, along with a magical week at Hedgebrook, another women’s writing retreat center on Washington’s Whidbey Island, I kept the title in the header of every page, reminding me of my goal, both the experiential one and the writing one.

As the manuscript took form, moving beyond strung together blog posts, the narrative arc revealed itself. I added the subtitle: Finding Myself in My Mother’s House, and a second subtitle so potential readers would know what the story was: A memoir of caregiving. It was a little unwieldy, and I knew I was getting way ahead of myself, but I needed to envision that this really could happen, that it wasn’t just another of my pipe dreams let go of mid-development. I began writing toward the idea of finding my Self.

She Writes Press accepted the book for publication (read that story here), and I learned they had just started changing titles of their authors’ books. Another case of “killing your darlings,” I supposed, a well-known editing trope, “If you love it too much, it probably needs to go.” I held my breath, waiting to hear from them.

“We like the title,” the publisher wrote, “but we don’t think the subtitle says enough.” The team sent several possibilities.

I really hadn’t wanted to let go of Mother Lode; I was relieved. I supposed it could use a catchier subtitle, but none of the suggestions they sent felt right. I made a list of the themes in the story. I talked to my writing group who threw out ideas. She Writes sent another idea or two, which I rejected. I finally came up with “memoir of a reluctant caregiver” and they accepted it, maybe to get rid of me. I didn’t love it, but it would do.

A day later, “confessions” popped into my head. The publisher liked it a lot, and so did I. We had a title. Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver.

 

Next up: Choosing a Cover

 

Alchemy of a Memoir, Pt. 2: To Self Publish or . . .

What would you do if nothing were standing in your way?” I would be a writer—you know, spending my day in a turret with a 360º view, writing best-selling novels. I probably should have turned down a different path long ago. Since I didn’t, I am lucky to have lived into the age of internet. I started writing a blog in 2009. I sat, not in a tower every day, but in cafes on Saturdays, faithfully publishing a weekly post about life lessons learned from my garden.

I left my job and my home in 2012 to return to the Pacific Northwest to support my already very old mother. With the time not spent supporting a living, I thought maybe I would put together a book based on my garden blog*. Mama thought that was what I was going to do too, maybe it’s why she “let” me come and live with her. Then I switched paths.

When I began blogging about life with my mother and attended a week-long writing workshop armed with a few posts, I began dreaming for the first time of a real book, a memoir. Sitting in a circle with other writers, reading aloud, receiving their encouragement, is much more sustaining than the turret idea. I went home and devouring memoirs and books on the art of memoir.

Though it was too tender an idea to consider back then what I would do with a finished manuscript, I learned about arcs and themes and the heroes journey. I turned the back room of my father’s workshop over the carport into a writing studio and wrote on sticky notes that I stuck on the wall, moving color-coded story stickies around under the theme stickies. I looked for the narrative arc, the reason for the book, aka why anyone would want to read  it.

I have long considered myself a dabbler, and made my peace with it. I get interested in something—anything from various crafts to a career as a school counselor—and then lose interest and move on to the next thing. But I became uncharacteristically determined to see this book idea through. However, I was not confident enough to believe I could successively navigate the increasingly impossible odds of traditional publishing; nor did I want to subject myself to the endless cycle of writing pitch letters or attending conferences with an elevator speech in search of an agent and receiving rejection letters. You’re not good enough rang in my head, in spite of encouragement by my writing workshoppers. I  assumed I would self-publish, it was just more practical and felt more doable. And I wanted to be successful. I felt lucky again to be living in these times when such opportunity is available to ordinary humans, those of a “mature age” to boot.

In 2019, at a the fourth writing alumni retreat for attendees of the one in 2012, I read about She Writes Press (SWP), a small hybrid press (a cross between traditional publishers and self-publishing) that in a bit of serendipity was born the same year I moved across the country and began writing my memoir. I was intrigued. They offered manuscript assessments. I wanted to know if my work was even worth pursuing, and it seemed like a good way to get to know what they were about.

I had a finished draft, that is I had something with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I made a snap decision to submit it, knowing if I waited I risked continuing to edit for months or chickening out altogether. On the last day of the retreat—on my father’s birthday—I sent them what I guess I’ll just call the first draft (though it was more like the 100th). Bottom line: The publisher (and co-founder of SWP) said yes! There were several suggestions, chief among them to cut at least 10,000 words. At 115K it was already down from 138K a year earlier.

Over the next year, at the beginning of the pandemic, after cutting thousands of words until I no longer knew what to cut, I hired a SWP editor and also sent the manuscript to several people who had agreed to be beta readers. I cut more words and made some major changes to the opening chapters that had been the first words I’d written seven years earlier. In October 2020, I signed a publishing contract.

It was very expensive, but unlike self-publishing, it came with support, professional designers, knowledge of the book publishing world, and traditional distribution. And not least, a group of sister authors—some first timers, some experienced—who meet (online) to share ideas and high fives, like my writing sisters had. I had inherited some money that, practically, I should save for old age, but I decided to invest it in my dream instead, in my present rather than in a future that may not even come, because who really knows? The publication date of Fall 2022 seemed so far away. It has, of course, flown by, the time filled with professional copy editing and proofreading, many of my own read-throughs (including aloud), negotiating cover design, writing synopses and bios, decisions about where or if to spend even more money, and learning about marketing. Lots and lots of learning.

And now it’s nearly here. October 18, officially Pub Day, is also the 47th anniversary of the day I was married. That was a happy day, and I am pleased to repurpose the date with the fulfillment of another dream.

 

Why this book? You can read Part One of Alchemy of a Memoir here.

 

* I did put that little book together, during the Great Pandemic.

You can receive the PDF as my gift for your pre-order of Mother Lode!

Details coming soon.

 

 

Alchemy of a Memoir, Pt. 1: Deciding to Write a Book

Maybe you won’t like me. That’s what I thought when I started my “Daughter on Duty” blog about life with Mama. It was private at first, just my whiny journaling going out to a few friends who wouldn’t judge me. Then I decided what the hell, and I made it public. If my words offend you, don’t read it. I’m not writing for you. Caring for my mother—living with her again, for gawd sake—was the hardest thing I’d ever done, including raising children, and I thought that was hard. I was willing to risk vulnerability to tell the truth of how it was, or my truth anyway. Read more