God Bless Middle-aged Daughters

As I walk into the skilled nursing center where Mom is rehabilitating, I see other women like myself and think, “God bless middle-aged daughters.”

We’re the sensible, competent women who make it all happen.

On the street, we often go unnoticed, although we’re attractive. We dress well, but in age-appropriate clothes. No six-inch heels or short skirts. We may carry 10 to 20 extra pounds, but we’re fit, trim, and solid enough to carry the weight of the world.

On our lunch hour, after work, or during weekend visits, we go see our failing mothers and fathers. We bring them flowering plants small enough to fit on a bedside table/hard candy/clean sox/good cheer.

We comb their hair and smooth hand cream on their veiny hands and swollen feet. Once they could manage a demanding job or their family’s busy schedule, keep track of birthdays, recipes and grocery lists, but now they can’t remember what you told them five minutes ago, so we answer the same questions again and again. The times they emerge from the twilight, smile and say, “Oh honey, I wish you could always be here,” are heartbreaking treasure.

As we go back to the office, drive home, or head to the airport, we sigh at the slippage and blink back tears at the losses. Then we put on our game face because somebody else needs us. We keep moving—plan the marketing campaign, schedule the meeting, throw in a load of wash, or make a decent dinner.

We are careworn. Our lives are not glamorous (and never were—we didn’t aspire to that). We don’t expect much. We can be made happy with so little—a compliment when we don’t feel sexy or a hug from a kid who often seems oblivious.

Photo credit: Bokal @ Vecteezy.com

Photo credit: Bokal @ Vecteezy.com

Sometimes we need to push back our realities for a little while, so we laugh ourselves silly over a stupid joke when we’re out with our girlfriends or sink into the sofa and pour a second glass of good wine.

Middle Age Is The Richest Time

When my husband said, “Middle age is the richest time,” I thought, “No way.” Too often, middle age feels like loss—of youth, of a sense of possibility, of elders I love.

No denying, those really are jowls, and since I’m not inclined to have plastic surgery, they’re here to stay. Lovely.

The big 6-0 isn’t that far off and I meant to have accomplished more—published more for sure.

My 92-year-old Mom is slipping a lot faster. Her short-term memory has gone on strike, so we have the same conversations again and again. “Are you coming for the baby shower? No Mom, I can’t.  I’ll be in Arizona that weekend,” and the next day, “Are you coming to the baby shower? No, Mom . . . ” At 90, she managed her household and finances. Now her kids take care of that. To be expected, but still. I miss her smart competent self.

As Dad, who died three years ago would say, “Aging isn’t for the faint of heart.” No kidding.

So I had to know why my husband, who isn’t prone to positive affirmations or yippee-skippiness of any sort, would say middle age is the richest time.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 9.39.44 PM“Because at middle age, you can see forward and you can see back. We can vividly recall the experiences our kids are having and we can see how it we’ll be in 30 years.” Hmmm, maybe.

As each of our sons approached their senior year in college, leaving college for the so-called “real world” looked scary to them. My 22-year-old self was panicky, “Whoa, I gotta get serious. I gotta get a plan. But I don’t have a clue.”

When each son moved to his first apartment, I recalled how much fun it was to make a place my own.  Like mine, their places were furnished with a combination of hand-me-downs and the discount store shower curtain and towels they chose for themselves.

When they talk about their girlfriends, I remember the low hum of excitement I felt when I was going out with someone new. I know what a milestone it is to realize that even though I had a fight with the guy I was dating, we worked through it and we were still together.

So from the vantage point of middle age, I think, “Yes, it is a rich time. I’ve experienced so many things. I know so much more about life. My guys will figure it out too as they get older.”

Then the glow of that wisdom and those fine memories fades a little. I think of Mom again and dread her loss and the loss of my own capabilities as I age. I tell my husband, “I look at Mom and I’m afraid I’ll be just like her. I forget stuff now!” He wisely says, “Yeah, but your 90’s are a lo o n n ng way off. Don’t waste today worrying about what may or may not happen tomorrow.”

So I pull back from the brink. This man, this life. I am rich.

How do you view middle age? If you’re not there yet, what do you expect?  If you’re already middle-aged, what’s it look like?

Mom’ s Closet: Treasures and Surprises

While helping move Mom last month, I unearthed a number of artifacts from bygone eras—hers and mine.

P1030680How can you not love polka dots? They’re whimsical. Cheerful. And in the 1960s when Mom carried this clutch bag and wore these gloves to church, they were a stylish accent to her navy blue spring coat . . . and perhaps a reminder that she hadn’t always had four kids, dinners to cook, and laundry to do.

P1030674If you’re not a Baby Boomer, you probably don’t recognize this item. I didn’t recognize it either because math has never been my forté, but it’s my slide rule (look closely—you can see my name on it). Before pocket calculators were invented, we used them for logarithms and trigonometry—skills that I’ve completely forgotten after high school.

When the Apollo 13 space module malfunctioned, Mission Control engineers used slide rules in the calculations needed to get astronauts back to earth. Slide rules! One of the best-known Mission Control engineers was Gene Kranz, the flight director whose famous line in the Apollo 13 movie was, “Failure is not an option.” When Mom and I were talking about slide rules and the near disaster of Apollo 13, Mom mentions in an offhand way, “Yeah, I went to high school with Gene Kranz.” What? Why hadn’t she ever mentioned that before?

hankyMom knows I collect and use handkerchiefs for my watery eyes, so she offered me this one from my grandma. Mom never carried hankies. Instead she keeps Kleenex in her pocket. If she doesn’t have a pocket, she tucks a Kleenex up her sleeve or in her waistband—something you have to be at least 80 years old to do.

I love old hankies. Before Kimberly-Clark marketed Kleenex in 1924, people relied on handkerchiefs—elegant linen ones for good and simpler cotton ones for everyday. But even after Kleenex became commonplace, the humble hanky remained popular, especially among little old ladies. They were an accessory carried for show, not hygienic use—something that could be embroidered or bordered in lace—a little bit of pretty in a workaday world.

This Thanksgiving, I hope you’re blessed with the treasure of fond memories and stories shared with family over a second cup of coffee and piece of pie.

Paying It Forward . . . And Back

Blue weavingThis past October, my 92-year-old mother and my Aunt Corinne, her 88-year-old sister, both needed to be moved. Mom was moving from the house in Ohio where she’d lived for more than 30 years to a seniors’ apartment. After breaking several vertebrae, Aunt Corinne has been in a rehab center for months. It’s unlikely she’ll be able to return to her costly assisted living apartment, so her belongings had to be packed up and put in storage.

Each move involved some emotional upheaval. And there was the usual packing process—coordinating with the movers, wrapping precious items in bubble wrap, and figuring out what to do with quasi-useful stuff (Is this worth keeping? Will she ever use this again?).

Since both moves had to happen within a week of each other, my siblings and I divided up the work. I organized Mom’s move from her house while my sister and brothers emptied out Aunt Corinne’s apartment.

We’re hardly unique. Many middle-aged people are called on to help elders, often while still raising children. We feel the pull of threads woven when we were still children—unaware of how we mattered to our family.

When my siblings and I were kids, Aunt Corinne and Uncle Bob were fun to visit. He owned a vending machine business, and they always gave my sister, two brothers and me candy, pop, and snacks from the supplies stored in the basement. Although they didn’t have children, they knew what kids liked, and they always remembered our birthdays with nice gifts. Thank goodness they had a poodle to play with, because we quickly grew bored and squirmy when the grownups talked in the living room. Aunt Corinne had a beautiful flower garden but never fussed if the ball or the dog got into it. So when poor health got the best of Aunt Corinne, we stepped in to help.

Similarly, my husband, his sisters, and brother began helping their uncle manage his affairs this year. He is fiercely independent, never married, generous to a fault, and blind since he was 40. He finally agreed to move into a nursing home after his last fall and hospital stay. At 92, he has Parkinson’s, cancer and a failing memory—too many issues for him to continue going it alone. When my husband was a teen, his uncle gave him a job in the cafeteria he managed. Since they have that history, he was better able to accept my husband’s suggestion that living alone was no longer a good idea.

From the vantage point of middle age, I can now see how we weave each generation into the sturdy cloth we call family.

A nephew on my husband’s side of the family recently got married. He’s a chef, so preparing wonderful food for the wedding was his gift to the guests. Unfortunately, at the last minute, some of the people he had counted on to help weren’t able to come. So his parents, grandmother, my husband and I, along with a handful of others, helped him and his fiancée pull together the many details of the wedding. We cooked, washed up, ran errands, and made decorations. The main entrée was a whole pig that needed to roast all night and most of the day. Our sons agreed to monitor the roasting pig during the middle of the night. That way, their cousin was able to grab a few hours of sleep the night before he got married. His parents rested easier, too.

Through their willingness to help, our sons deepened their relationships with their aunt, uncle, cousin and his bride. John and I reinforced our ties with our nephew and new niece.

But more than that, our help affirmed how families pay it forward . . . and back. Giving and receiving are the warp and weft that create the enduring fabric of family.

Leaving Elmview

As I do the messy tiring work of moving my Mom from her 3-bedroom home to a senior apartment, what is surprising to me is that I am so dry-eyed. But this isn’t the house I grew up in. It’s the smaller, all-on-one-floor place my parents bought when they retired at  52 (!!!—so envious) after my siblings and I had all moved out.

After more than 30 years of being houseguest here, I have these memories:

Wide awake at 5:38 a.m.

Wide awake at 5:38 a.m.

Lying awake in this guest bedroom. Up too early. Up too late. Anxious. In 1979, this unfamiliar room still felt like a refuge from Minnesota, where I was homesick and overwhelmed in my first year of teaching. In the summer of 1982, I spent several weeks here after my Minnesota teaching job ended and before my Missouri teaching job started. I was heartsick, missing a guy who was no good for me. I felt trapped and scared. I didn’t want the Missouri teaching job, but it was tenure-track and I needed a job. I schemed and schemed but couldn’t come up with any alternative, except unemployment and living with my parents until I found work. I didn’t know I would meet my husband in Missouri. In 2011, I could barely sleep after my Dad died. Grief wound me up and I made lists for the funeral, sent emails, and worked on the eulogy my husband would give because none of the rest of us could do it. Today, I again sit in this bed with my laptop propped on a pillow. It’s 5:38 a.m., and I’m up for the day. Soon enough I’ll get up and resume packing.

I have good memories of this house, too.  The sunny dining room where I have spent so many mornings with Dad and Mom, drinking coffee and reading The Blade. Placemats and breakfast crumbs scattered. Dad and I (the morning people) were up before Mom, and often we had some of our best talks then. Every morning when Mom wandered in sleepy and a little dazed, Dad gave her a big hug and kiss, and then patted her rear, a ritual that made them both laugh. Mom and I still take our time over coffee every morning.

Coffee with Mom and Margo

Coffee with Mom and Margo

The dining room was the scene of many spaghetti and meatball dinners made especially for my sons and husband. When we visited in the summer, Dad grilled steak/hamburgs/pork chops to go with the sweet corn and tomatoes. When we ate here, my guys had to remember to pause to say grace before eating, something we are lax about at home. For years, my guys peeled 10 lbs. of potatoes on newspapers spread over the dining room table, so there’d be enough mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner at my sister’s. On birthdays, the table stretched to accommodate 10, 15 or more as the birthday person blew out candles and cut and passed cake.

During visits, my sons slept on sleeping bags in the small warm office—one guy with his head under the behemoth of a desk Dad made (his first attempt at furniture). The other guy slept wedged near the closet door. Both guys slept surrounded by their Gameboys/iPods/cell phones/laptops (their electronic toys evolved over the years). One wall of the room is filled with shelves where Mom stored board (I’m bored) games, dolls and toys for when grandkids visited. Though the space was crowded, especially lately, now that my boys are men, they didn’t seem to mind. Or maybe they did, but they didn’t complain.

Countless times during visits, one of us heard a tap on the door of the only bathroom and someone said, “I really need to get in there. Are you almost done?” desperation clear in their voice.

porchSome of my favorite memories are of sitting on the screened porch in my nightie on summer mornings while the air was still cool and fresh, drinking coffee and reading. I also loved eating dinner with the sun filtering through the blinds, while an occasional breeze lifted and resettled them. After dinner, Dad would sit in his black rocker while the rest of us sat in miscellaneous lawn chairs, drinking wine and talking as the heat gradually left the day and crickets began their evening song.