Time Traveling

toll road  Last week, I traveled back in time while driving to Ohio to visit my sister, brothers, and their families. The 12-hour road trip called for lots of tunes, and I found myself craving oldies that I could sing along to, even though I don’t usually like the oldies stations when I’m in Minneapolis.

Reeling in the Years” by Steely Dan sent me back to college, when I hung out with my wild boyfriend, partied with his buddies, and took midnight dips in borrow ponds on hot summer nights.

The Fifth Dimension brought back high school and sleepovers in a girlfriend’s basement rec room. We danced to the “Wedding Bell Blues” and sang it at the top of our lungs. At 14, we yearned for love and passion, but for most of us, that was still a ways off.

As I drove through the neighborhood where I grew up, Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” took me back to my best friend’s pool and her mother snapping off the radio when she heard his sexy growl. She thought it was unsuitable for our 10-year-old ears.

Several times I got lost while bumping along Toledo’s crumbly blacktop roads that are scribbled with tar. I’m no longer as sure of my way around—I’ve been gone 30 years—longer than I lived there.

But inside my sibling’s homes I found myself. I became the middle sister again, the one who loves Bruce Springsteen like my sister and the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival like my brothers.

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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

The Half-Life of Family Heirlooms

Recently, when I served dessert to women friends around my grandmother’s dining room table, we described our uneasy relationship with the objects the women of our families treasured.

Now when we have homemade cookies, we store them in Mimmie Shriner’s Depression glass instead of saving it for good.

Women of the Greatest Generation, like my mother, cared about “good” china, crystal, and real silverware. They hoped to get full sets of it as wedding presents, and they cherished their mother’s and grandmother’s things. For them, the hope chest tradition was alive and well. They collected china and linens before they married and instilled that value in my Baby Boom friends and me. But our Millennial kids don’t want to fuss with handwashing goblets or ironing tablecloths. Not that I blame them. I don’t either. Nonetheless, my friends and I are distressed about what to do with the tableware and linens we’ve inherited. Let alone the quilts, furniture, and photographs.

We were brought up to value them, but the tableware really doesn’t make much sense in our lives. Where do you keep it between holidays? Wouldn’t holiday meals be less work if all your dishes could go in the dishwasher? And yet, this stuff mattered so much to our mothers. How can we just donate it to charity? But people do—Goodwill is full of 12-piece place settings with dainty floral borders. I’ve seen Waterford crystal goblets there too.

Articles like,No One Wants Your Stuffhave taught me to rethink my assumptions. The popularity of books like The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaningand The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up make clear that either I can purge my stuff or my kids will.

Mimmie Shriner’s table where she served her out-of-work relatives on Sundays during the Depression

I’m becoming reconciled to the half-life of memories. When my siblings, first cousins, and I—the last people to remember Mimmie Shriner or Grandma Pleitz—are gone, my grandmothers will become “ancestors” instead of the vivid people they are in my head. Mimmie’s dining room table will just be an antique table, and Grandma Pleitz’s crystal goblets will just be wine glasses. Their significance is in my memories; my sons and any future daughters-in-law don’t have those associations—they never knew my grandmothers.

Many evenings, I sip wine from one of Grandma Pleitz’s eight goblets.

Yet the objects are a visible reminder of past generations—hardworking, loving women who wanted pretty things in their lives. How can I honor the memory of these women without feeling burdened by their stuff? One way I’ve chosen is to use the good crystal and china even if it isn’t a holiday. When it chips or breaks, I throw it out. That way my grandmothers come to mind and are more present in my life. If their tablecloths get shrunk or stained—so be it. At least they got used and enjoyed. Likewise, I honor my grandmothers by keeping a few things I really like so I can look at them often. Finally, I remind myself that heritage doesn’t reside in the objects alone. It’s also passed down through our family’s recipes, traditions, stories, and values.

Mimmie put hairpins in this small handpainted dish. I never put salt Grandma Pletiz’s salt cellars, but I still like them.

I accept that my sons and future daughters-in-law may not care about my stuff—whether inherited or chosen during 30+ years of marriage. If they do, they will have different memories than mine. I hope they only keep what they care about.

Reduced Focus

For the past four years my eye prescription remained relatively unchanged. Unfortunately, my glasses haven’t remained unscarred through an infant’s grabbing hands, a puppy’s curiosity, and life in general.

I took advantage of a coupon to buy an emergency pair of bifocals for $250. During a recent week of travel I wore that pair. My eyes never adjusted to the left lens, the one the optical tech said was stronger than my old prescription. Each afternoon I found it difficult to zip through messages on my phone, enjoy a book, or read small print on a menu. Headaches started early in the day. I panicked about fulfilling writing obligations and tried to not think that maybe my eyes were in trouble.

This is the kind of bad decision I made because of a high deductible health insurance policy. The $175 eye exam would be out of pocket so spending $400 for the security of back up glasses felt prohibitive. I shopped around and spent less. Fortunately, my discomfort ended when I returned home and put on the old glasses. Scratches and all, my vision cleared, and the headaches stopped.

Others are making more difficult decisions—taking the gamble of not purchasing an asthma inhaler for themselves to make it possible to pay for a partner’s insulin, cancelling necessary lab work or tests to pay for their child’s asthma inhaler, not following a physician’s directions in using an expensive medication to stretch its use, staying in a hated job to hold on to health insurance, not replacing bald tires on the family car because of a health emergency.

Most of my adult experience was in a health maintenance organization. We groused about wait times for appointments, lack of choice in the optical area, going to a hospital across town, but we never faced decisions like today. If we hesitated about taking a child to clinic for a possible ear infection, it was about traffic or workload and not about the $125 bill.

These decisions are made in all zip codes throughout our wide metropolitan area. Only the very wealthy or very fortunate are exempt. We don’t comment on a good friend’s darkened tooth, push a neighbor to join in a night out, or question why a kid’s wheezy cough doesn’t improve. We’re all too polite to talk about the healthcare monkey choking America’s sense of comfort and scared about what’s coming next.

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