In Memory

Door County, WI: Sunsets are earlier. Black-eyed Susan dominates gardens as hydrangea fade. Squirrels fearlessly dart across sidewalks, decks and paths to grab early acorns. Field mice and chipmunks are in the same race for food stores.

Trees are beginning to change. Yellowing leaves increase in numbers each day. Kids still run on beaches and play wherever a swing set is not closed. Young people gather with cases of beer, many without masks. More cautious folks crowd outdoor dining places. Multi-generational families wander about as if it were August 1, not September 1. COVID has changed the normal rhythms of summer while Mother Nature delivers heat and humidity where houses didn’t need air conditioning ten years earlier. Lake Michigan pushes beyond its all-time high water mark, devouring docks and houses’ front yards.

When it already feels as if the stars are out of synch, COVID has taken the fathers of three friends or relatives. Three members of the Greatest Generation, living in three different states, in congregate facilities for three very different reasons. Friends and family called them Jim, Dom, and Marlin. They had eleven adult children among them plus almost four dozen grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Two were veterans and one farmed his entire life. Family photos show them joking with great, tall grandsons, sitting with the newest grandbaby resting on an arm, in wheelchairs by Christmas trees. These were men who loved and were loved.

Thanks to COVID, they died comforted by staff members as their families were mostly kept away. In the heat of August, sons and daughters mourned the once strong fathers who built businesses, walked fields, fixed tractors, painted houses, taught them to throw a ball, sang next to them in church, made the final journey of life without endangering family.

The Greatest Generation is disappearing as COVID ignites within our communities. They fought for our country’s freedom, raised families, built the cars and houses and machines of the 20th century USA, fed the world. In turn COVID has left us unable to protect them, not even gather for proper farewells.

As summer sneaks away, as our elderly pass in the settings meant to keep them safe, as our days of small social gatherings and playing games outdoors with our grandchildren are numbered, COVID is like the spreading black-eyed Susan which left unchecked threatens to obliterate the beauty of other blooms.

In honor of James Armstrong, Dominic St. Peter, and Marlin Hunt. With sympathy to their families and to all who have lost loved ones to this pandemic. Friends, please help friends stay healthy and strong.

Black-eyed Susan

The Family Tree

The Bayside Tavern in Fish Creek, Wisconsin has two buck burgers on Mondays during the off season. There’s a choice in seating– high tops, low tables, tiny booths for two, or stools at the bar. Narrow windows keep the inside dim. It is the place to go before the community Christmas tree is lit across the street, before the high school musical, to watch the Packers or Badgers or Brewers play. Maybe the Bears or Cubs for those brave enough to wear such jerseys. If you are a local, or a seasonal local, they probably know your name.

My Dad preferred a booth and ordered fried onions on his burger. He had haunts in Door County including the best places for good food. He knew the parents of people important in the community—the Catholic priest, the sheriff, a few bar owners.

So it was at the Bayside that my cousin Jeff Frisque and I met for lunch, the first time we had ever talked to one another except at family funerals. We connected through Facebook where many of the cousins have friended each other. Taking a risk, Jeff and I moved from responding to postings to trying a direct message.  Jeff’s father and one aunt are the last living siblings.

In my book, The High Cost of Flowers, the eldest sibling comes to the realization that to have the kind of extended family you want can require effort. And as the elders age, the responsibility passes to the children to do something, or to walk away. My husband and I are the elders of our families. That sounds easier to me than embracing the concept of adult orphans. We value the small circles of those connected to us by birth or marriage. Along with those we love, we have developed new traditions to stay close.

The Bayside Tavern might become a comfortable setting for weaving together the grandchildren of Michael Frisque. In his prime he spent many hours in bars, but I don’t know if he ever sat at this one. I didn’t know my grandfather well enough to say how he felt about his children and grandchildren. None of that was important in sharing lunch with my cousin Jeff.

Jeff is known locally for building and restoring exquisite log homes. We share love for Door County. We both showed up with spouses, a sign of how we value our families and would go to great extremes to protect them. We are not members of the same political parties although we may share a few beliefs. I think we are both tender-hearted about the right stuff. We both love or admire each other’s fathers. We walked away with each other’s email addresses and telephone numbers.

We also both like burgers at the Bayside. Mark that on the family tree.

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The New Peer Group

Recently I joined the YMCA, tried a yoga/Pilate combo class then attended the orientation session required before a personal trainer consultation. I made my reservation, studied group offerings, and put together a few questions.

What I missed was the message that this meeting existed for adults fifty-five and over, complete with handouts and a discussion of course offerings that didn’t require doing anything on the floor. During introductions I shared my interests and mentioned an interval training course I thought might be a challenge. Chair yoga, gentle stretching, and a couple of special aqua classes were presented along with a building tour and treadmill demonstration.

Bundling all adults over fifty-five into one peer group makes as much sense as organizing only one social activity for school children between ages five and eighteen. The year my mother turned fifty-five she decided it was time to sell the house and move into a building built just for their peer group. They were in the prime of their working years, still building retirement accounts, dancing and traveling.  She believed the developer’s advertising about making new friends who were also unencumbered by children and building a rich social life.

My father noted the assistance bars in the bathroom, the lack of entertainment space in each unit, people my grandparents’ ages in the lobby. He refused to move into a senior citizen facility called something more attractive. And continued refusing for the next quarter century.img_5048

It appears that decades after my mother’s attraction to the advertising of an over fifty-five condo, marketers are still lazy about how to identify the needs of those who check the last box in the age question. How about adding a few more boxes? I am glad to be beyond tampon days but am not ready for Depends. I just wanted to know if a personal trainer would think that the interval course was going to be too much of a challenge.

The Care Giver Relay

Baby Boomers ran the first relay race known as working and maintaining families without help or comprehensive policies from our government.  Day care, sick child care, after school care, elder care. Home or facility based? Who takes the call when the plan falls apart? Who helps the cared one feel comfortable?

I’ve run all legs of that relay using strategies that worked in the moment for our kids, ourselves, our parents. We had wonderful experiences, and days I hope no one remembers. The cry of a toddler dealing with separation anxiety, a sick child asking a parent to stay with them, the whine of a school kid not wanting a babysitter, all disappear as a family matures.

The set of sounds that haunt me is a fragile parent demanding you stay, forgetting anything else exists in your world because they are anxious, the suggestions of hired caregivers that maybe dad would feel better if you walked out of a work meeting to come spend an hour. When you are carrying the heaviest responsibilities of a job that provides for the family you created, those calls tilt the world. Different, but equally difficult if you live miles away or states away.

Our local newspaper is running a series of stories about family elder care providers, also known as adult children. Just like searching for quality child care decades ago, individuals quickly discover there is no safety net or logical system to access when an elder family member needs help. It isn’t there so don’t do an online search. Network, know the finances of the person depending on you as well as their needs, then do the best you can. And do it right now. The hospital plans to discharge the individual tomorrow afternoon.

It isn’t an employer’s responsibility to expect less of you because an ill spouse or parent has doctor appointments, physical restrictions, emotional insecurity or a string of emergencies. Increased longevity does not equal decades of quality living. Without a safety net, it will be you standing on one foot balancing too many glass balls.

Elder care was the most difficult leg of the relay. Unlike an expected due date, elder + care can become part of your life any day or in a few months or years. That relay leg is run on a special course with more rocks than cushion. The vulnerable one can have physical needs but be capable intellectually and aware that they have become a burden. The vulnerable one may be physically capable but wandering in dementia. There is no known end. Your loved one will not enter kindergarten in twenty months. This part of life has no schedule for the refrigerator. You will have days that vaguely resemble television commercials where adult children chat with a professional provider and mother is wearing pearls. There will be more days that you lift a fragile loved one off the toilet in a bathroom that could use a better cleaning. You do the best you can.

No need to continue. Many of us have run the race and placed somewhere in the standings. Some finish their caregiving with shaky finances, some with high blood pressure and anxiety of their own, some with a scrapbook of treasured memories. As a Baby Boomer, I fear the end of life years for many reasons. Not the least that there is no national forethought about caring for the coming gray tsunami. Maybe like the baby boomlet of the 1980s, we’ll just let the Gen Xers and Millennials stumble through working long hours, raising their own children, dealing with deep debt, and caring for a couple of vulnerable elderly parents.

It isn’t going to be pretty.

 

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Are You My Mother?

In the classic children’s picture book Are You My Mother? a newly hatched bird falls from its nest and wanders about asking that question of a kitten, a hen, a dog, and a few inanimate objects. He is clueless about his own identity and terribly lost.

You may have been nurtured by a mother possessing all the perfection of Caroline Ingalls or struggled through childhood with a parent who took lessons from Hamlet’s Queen Gertrude. For most people growing up in Mom’s kitchen fell in a more safe and boring middle ground with measured opportunities to learn about yourself and the world. A place where Mom, trusted adults, books, television and other kids helped answer questions whether insignificant or intense.

The maker of peanut butter sandwiches, enforcer of daily tooth brushing, comforter of physical or emotional injuries, was just a woman who happened to be older than you. She wasn’t gifted by the gods with amazing knowledge, a graduate of a secret parenting program, or anywhere near perfect. She didn’t know why 9/11 happened, how to stop social injustice, who to call about global warming. Her job was to make sure you felt loved and protected, often difficult work in an imperfect world.

Discovering that your mother has a masters in labor economics, hides a bag of bodice busters in the closet, holds strong feelings about mutual funds versus annuities, was married before she met your father suggests a richness in this woman’s life that has nothing to do with your existence. This is the school where she learned the mirepoix that flavored every scold, joke or counsel.

Even when the person who mothered you becomes too old or fragile to cook a really good dinner or read a favorite author without help, there will still be unknowns to explore in the woman who taught you to fake burp, to connect cables on a sound system, to ask your boss for more responsibility, to speak in many voices so your child giggles as you read Are You My Mother?.

 

Reprinted from cynthiakraack.com May 9, 2015