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I’ve never had patience for big family gatherings, probably because I grew up celebrating holidays with just my parents. That helped keep planning and bickering to a minimum. I have particularly happy memories of Thanksgiving, enjoying a humble but delicious meal and watching The Twilight Zone marathon throughout the day.
This year, thanks to the contentious election, I’ve come across several articles offering tips on how to survive the holiday with relatives. While I get that family stress is real, and kept my own visits home as an adult to a minimum, it is a bit sad that we need instruction guides on how to navigate a meal without suffering a nervous breakdown. Winning an argument or criticizing someone else’s viewpoint is more important to some than recognizing common bonds and accepting the imperfections in all of us. (That being said, I do not believe toxic family members should get a free pass; repair relationships where you can but move on when necessary.)
Over the last several years I have been preoccupied with family caregiving, and I witnessed the best and worst from my parents, and from myself. For those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, the holidays are a mixed bag of emotions. I am grateful for the memories of simply, happy Thanksgiving meals with my family, and I hope that all of you find those moments this week with your family and friends.
Unfortunately, I never was able to meet either set of my grandparents in person. Technically, my mother was pregnant with me when my parents paid a visit to my mother’s family farm in Tennessee. She didn’t know at the time that it would be the last time she would see her beloved mother alive.
Of course, my mother was full of childhood stories, and she adored both of her parents. Her dad was more stern, a hardworking farmer who supported a large family on the fruits of his labor while being a diabetic, which was much harder to medically manage at the time. He worked until his dying day.
Her mother was equally hardworking, helping in the fields and managing the household. She was an amazing cook and helped keep the peace with eight children with her kind heart and patience.
One of my favorite stories that my mother told about her parents was when grandpa tried to get rid of a farm dog that wasn’t pulling its weight when it came to herding. He tried to take Scott up into the hills and abandon him in the woods, but the dog returned, with bloody paws, determined to remain part of the family. Grandma intervened on behalf of old Scott and grandpa backed down, sparing the lazy but loving dog’s life. Mom certainly adopted grandma’s love of animals.
Both parents had a good sense of humor as well, which my mother certainly inherited. That’s why I love this photo, one of the few I have of my maternal grandparents together. Grandpa is letting just a hint of a smile cross his face, while looking pretty satisfied, and grandma is laughing with pure joy.
Simple people, with love of family and life.
I stumbled upon this photo of my mom and my aunt Helen, and it made me laugh out loud. I’m not sure if they were trying to look mean or not, but they look like two tough gals you wouldn’t want to mess with!
My aunt Helen preceded my mom in death by about a year. She was tough. She had survived cancer, back when Cobalt was the primary treatment method and it apparently had brutal side effects. Helen soldiered on, raised a family, took care of her husband (my mom’s brother) when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and outlived him to a ripe old age. Even though she was afflicted with painful conditions as she neared the end of her life, she continued to travel the country and Canada with her family.
Born in the 1920s and 1930s, Aunt Helen and my mom knew tough work from a young age, but they also knew the love of a strong family.
Aunt Helen and my mom grew closer as they grew older, no doubt because they outlived many of the other members of the family. But the two also could talk for hours, with Aunt Helen serving as my mom’s eyes and ears back home in Newport, Tennessee where most of her family lived.
It was a big loss for my mom when Aunt Helen died, as she lost a key connection to her family. Younger generations prefer to text or email, something my mother never did. The phone grew silent.
Now I feel the same way with Mom gone, and the silent phone. I don’t miss it ringing to be honest, but the severed connection cannot be replaced. At least I have this outtake photo, showing the toughness and sense of humor our family have.
It seems strange not picking up the phone today and wishing my mother a happy Halloween.
Even though we never spent the holiday together after I was grown, my mom always went out of her way to make Halloween special for me as a kid. That included a nifty handmade “Planet of the Apes” costume when I was very small. As I got a little older, my parents faithfully took me to a nearby park for a community event which was like a carnival, complete with games and you guessed it, candy!
Every time I passed a Halloween card display this month, I felt a pang in my heart. Never again would I pick out a Halloween card for my mom. And never would I receive another one from her.
But, I also have kept the cards she sent to me over the years. So I pulled a few of those out, and read the messages from happier times. This lifted my spirits.
I have no shortage of written memories from my mom. Much of the correspondence may be of the mundane variety, but there is her writing, her words, her expressions of love.
So perhaps there are more treats than tricks this Halloween after all.
I was on a business trip in Pittsburgh over the weekend. I don’t get to travel often, and certainly not over the last several years, when caregiving duties required me to be on call at a moment’s notice.
So it was a nice change of pace, and it just happened to be a perfect weather weekend in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh skyline at sunset from the Roberto Clemente (aka Sixth Street) bridge.
I had a chance to talk to locals on my Uber trips from my hotel to my workplace. While I am definitely not one to initiate conversation, like my mom was, I usually end up enjoying my conversations with strangers and often learn something along the way. Pittsburgh proved to be no different.
I know often in the midst of a caregiving crisis, I would look around at others who seemed to be carefree and envy that they weren’t saddled with so many heavy responsibilities. But as it turns out, most of us are shouldering more than we’d like, and we’re just trying to do our best to survive.
One of my Uber drivers was an immigrant who is working towards a college degree and hopes to go to law school, but an unplanned child that just arrived in the world threatened to derail his plans. Another driver is a father of three kids, and juggling parenting with a full-time job that required him to get up at the crack of dawn, then works Uber whenever he can to earn money to pay for all of the activities his kids want to be involved in.
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in our own problems and dismiss other people’s struggles. A 10-minute Uber ride reminded me how so many of us are dealing with unexpected detours in our lives, and we’re doing our best to navigate uncharted territory.
My mom and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, and sometimes she drives me crazy. But while these last several years have been difficult for our family, they have also highlighted my mom’s wonderful qualities.
So on Mother’s Day, I want to honor my mom, who was such a tireless and loving caregiver for my dad. I took for granted all of the things she did for Dad. It was not until I became my mom’s caregiver that I appreciated all of the sacrifices she made.
This is a sketch of my mom done while she was in the Navy, in the early 1960’s. It was then burned/engraved into a wood canvas. It is really a unique work, and captures my mom’s cheerful spirit.
Easter makes me reflect on pleasant childhood memories. I wasn’t big on dressing up, but I guess Mom managed to finagle a dress on me for some Easter photos. I’m glad that she did, because I do love this photo.
Easter makes me think of lovely springtime weather, and plastic eggs filled with jelly beans. I can still remember the scent they had. I remember racing through grass looking for hidden eggs at hunts at the local park.
Happy Easter for those who celebrate, both religious and secular versions of the holiday. I know that this is a holiday of hope and renewal for many. Those are two concepts we don’t often associate with Alzheimer’s and dementia. But as caregivers and family members of those with dementia, we need all of the hope we can muster.