Today, if all goes as planned, my mother will be discharged from the hospital to the Memory Care unit at the retirement community where she and my dad live.
It is a monumental day in that this will be the first time in more than 63 years that my parents will live apart. This move probably should have taken place a year ago, when her ability to interact appropriately became evident, but my parents resisted.
Not knowing why, I felt compelled this morning to polish the four-piece silver coffee service that I inherited from my parents, who inherited it from my dad’s parents, who inherited it from my dad’s father’s parents. My great-grandfather was a minister; his congregation presented the set to him and my great-grandmother to honor his 25 years of service to the church.
I stood at the kitchen sink, polishing away and thinking about how my mother kept the set, which sat on her dining room sideboard, shining brightly. I tend to let the big urn go nearly to black before I dig out the Haggerty’s, but my mother kept the pieces looking perfect all the time. She was of a different generation, where women mostly stayed out of the workforce to care for their homes and families.
To say that my mother and I have never really gotten along is an understatement. I’ve never figured out if it’s because we’re too much alike – perfectionists to the core and pig-headed about the way things “should” be – or too different. She chose a traditional life and was determined that her three daughters have the same. But I sought freedom from the expectations of my small-town upbringing and went after independence and opportunity in the big city. I’ve never regretted that choice, but it’s put me at odds with my mother more times than I care to remember.
I’m not sure my mother has ever accepted my choices. When in my early 20s I was pursuing a career as a journalist and was uninterested in marriage, she liked to remind me that I was “too damn independent.” When I moved in with my boyfriend, she cut off all contact, saying she wished she could divorce me. That estrangement led me into an ill-advised, short-lived marriage. My parents welcomed me home when I separated, but only for six weeks. They pushed me to get back out there – to find work to support myself and look for another husband. (I swore I wasn’t going to date for at least five years!)
I did find my wonderful husband not long after. We’ve been married 34 years. And yet, even after I got married for good, my mother seemed to have issues with my life. She kind of threw up her hands after I gave birth to my third boy. With no sons or brothers, she felt she didn’t comprehend my household at all. “I don’t know anything about boys,” my mother would say by way of explaining why she didn’t spend much time with them. She overflowed with gift ideas for my sister’s three daughters, but when it came to ideas for my boys, the well was dry.
My mother opposed my working when the boys were small, even though I worked only part time and as a way to care for myself so I’d have more to give to them. She never really seemed to love visiting, and sometimes left prematurely. Gene and I often traveled the six hours to visit my parents, but it was usually stressful, trying to keep three energetic little boys happy and under control in a house designed for girly girls, with precious antiques, boatloads of breakables, and pale, perishable fabrics. My boys could sit still for only so long.
When David got sick, my mother seemed to pull away even more. His cancer was an affront to the perfect life she’d strived for, and she couldn’t figure out how the God she knew could allow it. It brought her to a crisis of faith, I was told. I’m not sure how, or if, she resolved it. I only know she distanced herself from his illness and then his death by focusing on other things. Her life of gardening, church work and meeting friends for lunch seemed to continue as before, on an entirely different plane from the one on which my family lived. She did plant a memory garden for David in her yard and cried when she talked about it. But she didn’t invite me to talk about my loss and seemed to have little patience for my grief.
I just got a call from my sister. Our mother is now in her room in Memory Care. She’d been adamant about not moving there – but now she thinks she’s at the White House. She told Shari that she feels so privileged that she has a room at the White House, where she can stay until her interview.
“What interview?” Shari asked.
“My interview with the paper,” Mom replied. Oh, boy. Here we go, off to another new normal.
While I was polishing the silver earlier, the soundtrack of “Fiddler on the Roof” was playing in the family room. Soon I heard a familiar refrain:
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears.
That song was written about children growing up, marrying and leaving home. But it strikes me that those words apply to our parents, too, as with every season they fly closer and closer to the sunset.