Bringing Grandma back

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family.  Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”  ~Jane Howard

It’s not always easy to be a family. For starters, our troubled job market makes it nearly impossible for relatives to live in the same community — or the same region. And even if they do live nearby, work and other obligations can make it a challenge to forge satisfying connections or offer help when it’s needed.

Earlier this month, my mother was finally sent home after spending two weeks in the hospital and another two in nursing rehab. Getting her settled has taken a team of visiting nurses and a physical therapist — and lots of family support. This week’s column in Royal Oak Patch tells the story of how my son’s surprise visit helped us “bring Grandma back.” Please click here to read it. –CL

Girl groups

There was a definite process by which one made people into friends, and it involved talking to them and listening to them for hours at a time.” – Dame Rebecca West

Nothing tops the power of a girl group. Whether you’re swamped with a crisis at work, unruly kids, or too much estrogen, you can always count on the harmony of other women’s voices to lift you higher.

Girl groups rock. And I don’t mean the musical variety, although I’m a fan of those too. But right now I’m applauding the whole idea of women banding together to form their own circles and support groups. Never in the history of womankind have we been so overbooked, so stressed, and so starved for emotional connection as we are today.

Blogging is, of course, a fine way to discover new friends with common interests. But blogging can’t be compared to forging three-dimensional connections in one’s own community. Like the quilting circles of my grandmother’s era, female support groups provide the personal contact that can keep a gal from unraveling at the seams.

But first, some definitions are in order. A support group should never be confused with a clique, which still has the hollow ring of adolescence. Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines a clique as “a small, exclusive circle of people; a snobbish or narrow coterie.” A support group, on the other hand, has a large collective heart. It is typically formed around a positive agenda – to explore complex issues like new motherhood or breast cancer, for example. Individuality is welcomed and encouraged; sage advice is exchanged to aid the group as a whole. And the conversation is always therapeutic.

Over the years I’ve belonged to several women’s clubs, but the “Second Sundays” circle I helped form at my church is the first to spring to mind. Though the group eventually came to its natural end and has since disbanded, I’ll never forget how that incredible family of women coached me through some difficult challenges, from major surgery to my son’s graduation party. Meeting monthly for several years, we rehashed a variety of topics, including healing and forgiveness, letting go of our kids, rebuilding friendships, caring for aging parents, and caring for our stressed-out souls.

It was an uncommon grab bag of gals. Our ages ranged from 44 to 84, and we represented a wide variety of professions from social work to finance. The generational differences enriched the group. The older women offered their wisdom and experience, while the younger members helped the elders view life with fresh perspective.

If you’re inspired to form your own official girl group, here’s what to do.

Decide on a focus for your meetings. Keep the circle small, preferably under twelve women. If it’s much larger, there won’t be time for everyone to get a word in edgewise. Always commit to a regular meeting time at the same location, unless you prefer to rotate your gatherings at various homes. And for everyone’s sanity, keep the refreshments light, as in coffee or tea and store-bought cookies.

Above all, your support group should be about nourishing friendships and feeding the soul. So, forget the gourmet brownies but be sure to bring an open heart. — Cindy La Ferle

— Part of this essay appeared in slightly different form in The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak. The complete original version is reprinted in my book, Writing Home

Top photo: My beloved soul sisters: Debbie, Norma, and Shirley

A favorite love poem

Then all the moments of the past began to line up behind that moment.” — Billy Collins

fruitOne of the things I admire most about poet Billy Collins is the way he mines the ordinary for beauty, then renders a moment of art. In “This Much I Do Remember,” he recalls a tender moment that most couples relate to: the leisurely hour at the dinner table after a good meal has been shared.  Given the way he depicts the woman in the poem, I’m guessing she’s his wife of many years.

I can’t help but fight tears every time I read it. It underscores the familiar comfort of a longtime relationship, reminding me of my own marriage.

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, I’m reminded, too, that true love can’t be fully expressed (or measured) in gifts of jewelry or flowers or expensive chocolates. It’s all about the quality of the everyday moments we share. Wishing you all a happy Valentines Day! — CL

This Much I Do Remember

By Billy Collins

It was after dinner.

You were talking to me across the table
about something or other,
a greyhound you had seen that day
or a song you liked,

and I was looking past you
over your bare shoulder
at the three oranges lying
on the kitchen counter
next to the small electric bean grinder,
which was also orange,
and the orange and white cruets for vinegar and oil.

All of which converged
into a random still life,
so fastened together by the hasp of color,
and so fixed behind the animated
foreground of your
talking and smiling,
gesturing and pouring wine,
and the camber of your shoulders

that I could feel it being painted within me,
brushed on the wall of my skull,
while the tone of your voice
lifted and fell in its flight,
and the three oranges
remained fixed on the counter
the way the stars are said
to be fixed in the universe.

Then all the moments of the past
began to line up behind that moment
and all the moments to come
assembled in front of it in a long row,
giving me reason to believe
that this was a moment I had rescued
from the millions that rush out of sight
into a darkness behind the eyes.

Even after I have forgotten what year it is,
my middle name,
and the meaning of money,
I will still carry in my pocket
the small coin of that moment,
minted in the kingdom
that we pace through every day.

–From Picnic, Lightning, by Billy Collins, University of Pittsburgh Press; 1998–

Comforts of home


There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.”  ~Jane Austen

My mother was discharged from the Woodward Hills nursing center on Friday. It’s hard to believe it’s been over a month since she was admitted to the hospital for congestive heart failure. Not surprisingly, she missed her familiar surroundings at home, and was often confused during her weeks of recovery at the hospital and nursing center.

She’s very happy to be back home in her condo, needless to add. But now that she is, my hard work begins.

I’m back to dispensing and monitoring her meds, making her follow-up doctor appointments, and driving her to all of her medical visits. Not to mention overseeing a parade of home-care nurses and therapists.

So I’ll be spending a lot more time at my mother’s place until I can determine whether it’s really OK to leave her alone for the long run. While part of me tires out at the very thought of this responsibility, I also remember how glad I was that I’d spent more time with my father in the months before he died. Caring for loved ones helps redefine my priorities.

Yesterday, the visiting nurse discovered that Mom’s blood pressure was dangerously low, prompting an emergency call to the doctor. We were told to change the dosage of Mom’s blood pressure medications. (I cut 14 tiny pills in half.) I’m hoping that the sudden drop in blood pressure explains why my mother’s dementia seemed worse than usual. She kept forgetting what day it was, and the nurse and I suspected that Mom may have overdosed on her morning medications. Earlier that morning, I had noticed an open bottle of pills on the counter, which she’d apparently retrieved from a cupboard. I’ve been advised to hide any pills that I haven’t placed in her weekly pill organizer.

She’d much rather live on coney dogs, ice cream, and chocolate-covered cherries.

Another ongoing challenge is helping her shop for heart-healthy food. After unpacking her belongings back at the condo, I took her to shop for groceries at Hollywood Market, our nearest grocery store. I’ve been trying to show Mom how to make healthy choices, but it’s not easy. Oatmeal and low-sodium foods, unfortunately, are not on her list of favorites. She’d much rather live on coney dogs, ice cream, and chocolate-covered cherries. Not exactly what Dr. Dean Ornish recommends for patients with heart disease.

For Mom’s first meal home, I made a large pot of vegetarian chili — enough to stretch for several meals and to share with a neighbor. Which brings me to the topic of this week’s Royal Oak Patch column. “Cooking for Comfort” is my tribute to simple home-cooked meals. The column recounts how I learned to appreciate kitchen work after years of avoiding it. I hope it will inspire you to make a soul-filling pot of soup or stew to warm your winter night.  Please click here to read it. –CL

Memoir under attack

“Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” — Saul Bellow

Is it time to stop the flow of memoirs? On Sunday, in “The Problem with Memoirs,” New York Times reviewer Neil Genzlinger made what he called “a possibly futile effort to restore some standards to this absurdly bloated genre.”

Then he went on to review four new memoirs to illustrate his points. Genzlinger was pretty brutal. Three of the four memoirs, he said, didn’t need to be written.

Not only did I cringe for the three authors under attack; I took some of what he said personally. For starters, I’ve no doubt that Genzlinger would by bored to tears by my own book — a collection of personal essays celebrating ordinary family moments. And I suspect he’d advise me to discourage the students in my memoir classes to stop seeking publication.

Admittedly, some of Genzlinger’s observations are fair. Bookstore tables and shelves are stacked and stuffed with countless memoirs written by authors who’ve survived cancer, endured domestic violence, raised autistic children, lost spouses or pets, built their own houses, or moved to the country to “simplify” their long-suffering suburban lives. Genzlinger doubts that there’s anything new to add to the genre of personal experience.

If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already in it. Imitation runs rampant in memoir land.” – Neil Genzlinger

Does this really mean that the rest of us leading ordinary lives have no right to write and share our stories?

“If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead, hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life,” Genzlinger advised.

This flies in the face of nearly everything I’ve told my students — and it certainly doesn’t do much to dignify blogging, a favorite second cousin of memoir writing.

In my classes, the majority of new students worry about appearing arrogant when they start writing in the first person. More often than not, my biggest challenge is to assure them that we’ve all learned a thing or two from our experiences; that our stories are worth recording and sharing. So, maybe none of us will make the best-seller list. But I believe we deserve — at the very least — permission to share our history and life lessons with loved ones, if not a wider readership. What do you think? –CL

— “Writer” collage by Cindy La Ferle —