Photo memories of Mom

All photographs are there to remind us of what we forget.   ~John Berger

Sometimes I have to rely on the lens of memory to see her as the true beauty she once was.

Waiting for the occupational therapist to arrive, my widowed mother is slumped in a chair in her new assisted living apartment. Her naturally wavy gray hair is long overdue for a good cut, and the navy stretch suit she’s wearing is at least a size too large. She looks older than her 81 years.

Mom doesn’t seem to care, which is totally unlike the woman she was before vascular dementia began devouring her pride, her self.

Not long ago, she was the sort of woman who wouldn’t be seen anywhere without a fresh application of her favorite Estee Lauder lipstick.

Not surprisingly, she’s confused and miserable in her new surroundings. She spent a week in the hospital at the end of last year, then another four weeks at a nursing rehab center. She wants to go back to her own condo — now — but I don’t have the heart to tell her (again) that this will be her home for a while.

Working with the assisted living staff, I keep trying different things to distract her. I want to help my mother enjoy what’s left of her life; to earn back her approval. And I desperately hope to see a glimmer of happiness or a trace of contentment on her face. But as I listen to her litany of complaints and watch her struggle just to rise from her chair, I can’t help but wonder if the goal is out of reach.

A museum of her former life

After my visit, I drive across town to retrieve more of Mom’s clothing from her condo. As soon as I arrive, I wander each room tentatively, half expecting to find evidence of intruders. Or ghosts.

Gathering dust in her long absence, the whole place is as quiet as a mausoleum. A recipe box sits next to her blood pressure cuff on the kitchen table, exactly where my mother left them the day after Thanksgiving — the day I drove her to the emergency room. There are plates in the dishwasher and an old grocery list on the counter. With no one else living here now, the condo feels like a museum of my mother’s former life. And every piece of furniture is a relic of our family’s past.

Which is partly why I’m overcome by an urge to dig through Mom’s closet for an album of family photos dating back to her childhood in 1930s.  At first, I tell myself that the photos might trigger some happier conversation with my mother at the assisted living residence.

But in reality, I’m the one who needs to be reminded of the strong, beautiful woman she once was.

An album of another era

Flipping through the album I’d been looking for, I pause at the sepia-toned photo of Mom when she was barely three years old.

I am always moved when I see photos of my parents as children. And while dementia has rendered my mother more helpless than ever, this particular photo shows her at her smallest, most vulnerable self.

In it, Mom is standing bow-legged in a sandbox behind the Indianapolis home of her beloved grandparents, the folks who took care of her while her newly divorced mother was at work. A source of shame in those days, divorce was rarely discussed openly in my mother’s household. Much later, she’d share stories of how her young father abandoned his new family — right before she was born — and how her grandparents helped support her mother during the Depression.

In the photo, Mom wears a swimsuit and a pair of beaded moccasins. Holding a tiny shovel and a rubber ball, she looks as if she were caught off guard; her smile is more of a question than a statement. Still, there’s the twinkle of determination in her dark brown eyes.

The dance of her life

Mom’s stepfather, who came into her life a few years later, was an amateur photographer. His devotion to his hobby, and especially to my mother, is evident throughout the photo album.

In one portrait, my mother is dressed for a dance. Her prom gown flaunts an artful confection of ribbons on one shoulder – a testimony to my grandmother’s talent with a needle and thread. Mom is also wearing a corsage, and I can’t help but wonder if my handsome, black-haired father had presented it to her just before the photo was snapped. (My parents started dating after they met at a Presbyterian church youth group in Detroit.)

Because the photo is black and white, I can only guess that her dress is white, or maybe a pale shade of blue. It’s likely that her lipstick and nail polish are deep crimson, as dictated by the film stars of the 1940s.

But there’s no denying that my mother looks gorgeous and happy in this portrait. The sweet promises of true love, her own home, and a secure family — all she ever wanted — are almost within reach.

It also occurs to me that this album of memories belongs with my mother in her new assisted living apartment, not hidden away in a closet that she probably won’t ever open again. So I pack the book in my car along with another bag of nightgowns and a new package of incontinence products.

The following day, when I reintroduce her to the album and its treasures, her eyes light up as if she’s seeing the photos for the first time. Her oldest memories rush forward — they never left her, of course — and she recites the names of all the beloved people and places in the vintage photographs. She pauses at a shot of her grandparents and spins another reverie of their beautiful Tudor home on the river near Indianapolis.

I’ve heard the stories many times before, with or without the photographs, but that’s OK. For the first time in ages, my mother is animated and smiling. And her beauty shines through. — Cindy La Ferle

 

 

Updating my address book

We have too little time to waste it in relationships that are not equal and mutually rewarding. Exchanging energy nourishes our souls.” 
— Sue Patton Theole in The Woman’s Book of Spirit

In addition to getting my mother adjusted to assisted living — still a challenge — I’m devoting the month of January to organizing clutter. For starters, I bought a portable day planner for keeping track of my mother’s insurance info and medical appointments, plus dozens of other notes to myself. 

The new planner now combines my personal data with my mother’s, all in one handy notebook that fits in my purse. While transferring names and numbers to the new pages, I remembered the following essay from my book, Writing Home. It was first published in a local column when I was a younger mom with a school-age child.

Address Book 

August 15, 1999; Reprinted from Writing Home.

Some things will always defy our control. Keeping a kid in the same shoe size for more than six months is one example; maintaining a neat, fully updated address book from one year to the next is another. I’m talking about the old-fashioned (not electronic) address books that keep us in social contact — the dog-eared pages we’ve crammed with birthday reminders, letters to answer, and cards announcing new addresses for relocated loved ones.

My own address book is a bit confusing, even to my husband, but it does have a system. For example, one page might be scribbled with little arrows and codes referencing another section of the book (“Look under H/Hill”). This usually means that someone has remarried and changed her name, or that a cousin has left for college or moved to his own apartment.

No matter how badly it’s organized, my address book is irreplaceable, especially during emergencies. This hit me seven years ago after my father died. One of the first things my mother and I did was comb through our address books to locate former coworkers, distant cousins, and old friends who needed to be notified of Dad’s passing. Each name, each address, was a chapter in my father’s history.

Your own address book is probably a chronicle of your ever-evolving relationships — an autobiography in progress. And since relationships are inherently messy, it stands to reason that your address book is messy too. Flipping through mine recently, I made the following observations:

— Reflecting the national average, many of my friends are divorced or working on second marriages.

— Divorce often forces us to choose between friends who used to be a couple.

— Having kids makes a huge difference in our social circle, not to mention the restaurants we frequent.

— The more people we know and love, the harder it is to send birthday cards on time.

— As we age, the line between friends and family starts to blur.

Catching up on the phone last week, Margaret, my former college roommate, and I decided that our midlife definition of “old friends” covers people we’ve known and loved unconditionally for at least half of our lives. They’re the first ones we call when the biopsy results come back or our kids win the big tournament at school.

That’s not to say I undervalue the various gifts my newer friends bring to the table. Some are skilled counselors or tireless cheerleaders; others are better at listening than advice-giving. One brings comic relief to every party, while another is the perfect companion for a silent retreat at a monastery. All have expanded my outlook and enriched my life, and I look forward to our future together.

But I’ve also found that while most of us change or evolve over time, our friendships don’t always change or evolve with us. One friend and I drifted so far apart in our interests that we might just as well have moved to opposite sides of the planet. Another disappeared without a trace after a heartrending divorce.

While every relationship has its low points, the stronger ones survive conflict as well as change of address. But I’ve learned it’s never healthy to cling to an alliance that has turned draining, one-sided, negligent, or destructive. As Emerson said, friendship should offer mutual “aid and comfort” through all of life’s passages. I think it should be fun, too.

A few people with whom I’ve lost touch or parted company are still listed in my address book. At one time, those relationships filled crucial gaps in my life and helped shape the person I am today. I still feel twinges of regret whenever I pause at the pages showing their names and numbers. And because there are a few good memories also attached to those names, I can’t quite bring myself to erase them. — Cindy La Ferle

Click here to read another column I wrote last spring on the benefits of maintaining healthy friendships.

Writing Home can be purchased at Amazon.com and is available at the Yellow Door Art Market in downtown Berkley, MI. —

Ancestor art

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way — things I had no words for.”  ~Georgia O’Keeffe

One of the many things I appreciate about my artist-architect husband is that he’s always encouraging me to push my own artwork to the next level. Given that our family has been in a crisis mode (my mother’s health) for the past year, it’s not easy to make time for art, let alone enter our work in competitions.

Regardless, earlier this month Doug printed out the forms for the Anton Art Center‘s 38th Michigan Annual Art Exhibition and nudged me to enter one of my new pieces.

I’d been working on a mixed-media assemblage (mounted on canvas) that was inspired by a post-Civil War photograph I found in my Granny Bee’s family album. The woman in the photograph isn’t identified, so, sadly, I have no idea who she is. Yet her pensive expression and confident pose always intrigued me.

In my assemblage, the woman’s photo is surrounded by found objects — twigs, feathers, part of an old leather Bible cover, and vintage fabrics. In the background, you’ll also see a scrap from a notebook of shorthand that Doug brought home from a thrift shop.

Titled “The Importance of Ancestors,” this piece pays homage to the “stuff” we leave behind — and how tokens from the past can influence our memories of a person. It also plays with the idea of having roots and family trees.

Thanks to Doug, I entered the piece in the Michigan Annual Exhibition, and was pleased to learn this week that it was accepted. The opening reception is on January 27th, 6 – 9pm. The exhibit runs through February 24th.

One final thought: Athletes typically have their own cheering sections, but most artists and writers labor in solitude. If you practice any of the arts for business or pleasure, it’s important to have close friends and advocates who keep you encouraged and inspired. (Of course, a supportive spouse is invaluable.) Cherish those people — and try to schedule more time with them. Avoid the naysayers who trample your dreams or spend most of their free time watching mindless games and shows on TV.

Seek out the company of other creatives, and be sure to applaud their efforts and talents.  — Cindy La Ferle

— For a larger view, please click on each photo. —

Moving Mom

Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” — Maya Angelou

Yesterday, while labeling my mother’s clothing and underwear, I had a surreal moment in which I felt as if I were moving another kid to college. In reality, we’re getting ready to transfer Mom to an assisted living residence, where she’ll soon have her own studio apartment.

Doug and I spent the past week moving pieces of Mom’s furniture (her apartment comes with some basics) along with decorative accessories, photos, clothing, TV, microwave, and toiletries. We also shopped for a bedspread and items for her kitchenette.

The new apartment looks traditional and beautiful — the style my mother is accustomed to — yet we know, deep down, that all the elegant things in the world won’t fool my mother into thinking this other place is superior to the condo she’s grown to love so much.

When Doug and I aren’t consumed by the moving process, I’m usually on the phone with a social worker or a physical therapist at the nursing center where my mother is undergoing rehab now. The social worker is concerned about my mother’s delusional behavior this week. Mom doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with her health — nor does she remember last month’s visit to the ER at Beaumont Hospital, which ultimately led to all of this. Sounding like Dorothy on a broken record, she just keeps asking to go home. To her real home.

While I know this move is inevitable and right, I still feel twinges of guilt for uprooting my mother from everything that matters to her.

And I don’t know how I’d survive the stress without Doug, the world’s absolute-best husband. It breaks my heart a little, too, when I remember that Doug plowed through a similar scenario less than two years ago when his late father (who had Alzheimer’s) had to be moved several times until he and his mother found the right nursing home. (Ain’t midlife grand?) Doug’s experience with lease agreements and medical/legal paperwork alone has been invaluable, not to mention his willingness to sit with me and write my mother’s name on dishtowels and socks with a permanent marker.

The big move from the nursing center to assisted living is scheduled for Sunday. What a long and winding road it’s been. While I’ll be relieved to get my mother in a safe place, finally, I know there’s a boatload of emotional work ahead of me. Mom will need time and patience to adjust. And so will I. –– Cindy La Ferle

— Top: Our family with my mom on Christmas night, at Woodward Hills nursing center cafeteria. My mother has been recovering at Woodward Hills following a week at Beaumont Hospital last month. Bottom photo: A detail from Mom’s new apartment at a local assisted living residence. —