Remembering my mother

It has been one long year since my mother died. On the first anniversary of her death, September 13, I am reposting the eulogy I wrote for her. In loving memory of Carlesta (Geisel) Gullion, the following was read at her memorial service on September 16, 2014.

CarlaheadshotWhen you’re deep in the trenches of caring for a parent who’s battling advanced dementia, it gets harder with each passing year to remember the heart, the core, of the person he or she used to be.

The mother who drove you to the pediatrician becomes a child who requires an ongoing series of medical appointments and countless trips to the hospital. The father who once provided wisdom and advice can no longer make decisions about his own finances or even choose a brand of toothpaste. The mother who once cooked and hosted holiday dinners can barely hold a fork to her own mouth.

So, you find yourself at war with your own conscience, fighting sadness, anger, pity, denial, fatigue, and frustration. And then you feel guilty for feeling all of those feelings — because you remember that your mom or dad would never in a million years want to send you on this part of the journey.

Of course, nobody is ever truly prepared for The Phone Call — the final phone call that carries the mixed blessing. The phone call that announces Mom or Dad is finally at peace or “at home” in a better place. Like everyone else who loses a parent and goes about the somber business of making funeral arrangements, I used the time between that phone call and this funeral to reflect on earlier memories of my mother.

Baby 4

And for the first time in a while, I forgot about my mother’s debilitating illness and remembered instead the beautiful heart and generous soul of Carlesta Gullion – the person my mother was before she lost herself and her memories to vascular dementia.

All at once, my feelings of sadness, guilt, and frustration gave way to a much larger emotion that has guided and comforted me throughout these past few days. That emotion is gratitude.

Looking through sepia-toned photographs of my mother as a young girl, I remembered many of the stories she shared with me about her difficult childhood.

Carlesta’s father had abandoned her own mother before she was born, and later on, her mother and stepfather both struggled with alcoholism. But there were happy times too, and Mom shared those stories just as freely. She wanted me to hear about her maternal grandparents, who took care of her during the Great Depression while her mother worked. In her teens, Carlesta reconciled with her father — and even grew close to her new stepmother.

Mom also loved to tell me about her loyal collie dog, Sonny, and the carefree times they spent playing in her grandparents’ Tudor house by a river in Indianapolis, her hometown. And she often shared stories of her beloved Irish grandfather — a watercolor artist and a great character whose creative talents she inherited.

Recalling the early challenges she had as a kid, I can’t help but feel incredibly grateful for the happy childhood my mother gave me. She was determined to create the stable home and family she’d never quite had – and I have always been proud of her for accomplishing that.

MomXmasAmong my earliest happy childhood memories are the times I sat next to Carlesta on the living room couch, or in bed, with a picture book propped in my lap. We’d read aloud and laugh through the sing-song stories of Dr. Seuss, who was a distant (Geisel) cousin of Mom’s. Thanks to my mother, I learned to read before I entered kindergarten, and literature became a guiding light throughout my youth.

I’m grateful that she chose to marry Bill Gullion, who was the dearest and most reliable father any child could hope for. My dad was born to a sturdy pair of Scottish immigrants, and they were the anchors of my mother’s new family in Detroit.

I like to think that the fine example set by my parents’ marriage – which lasted 42 happy years until my father died – has been a loving influence in my marriage to Doug La Ferle, the love of my life, and my rock.

Carlesta often told me she couldn’t have asked for a finer son-in-law than Doug. She was proud of Doug’s talents as an architect and artist, and she regarded him as her own son.

Likewise, Doug helped me care for her as if she were his own mother. During Carlesta’s long illness, there were many times in the hospital and in the nursing home when Doug gave her the comfort and reassurance she needed after I had lost patience as her caregiver. Surely there is a special place in the heart of heaven for spouses like Doug.

As an only child, my mother also had a close relationship with her sister-in-law, Chris Gullion, and the two of them took turns hosting many holiday dinners over the years.

Baby1Having come from such a small family, my mother frequently reminded me that good friends are “a family one chooses.” When I was growing up, she often advised me to choose my friends carefully. Teaching by example, Carlesta maintained many of her longtime friendships, some dating back to high school. She was also a member of a stock club, PEO, and the Starr House Guild.

I am deeply grateful for all the times my mother helped me become a mother after my son Nate was born. Carlesta loved her grandson more than the world, and I don’t think she ever said “no” when I asked her to babysit him. Just as she had done for me, my mother created many happy memories for Nate, and she couldn’t have been more proud of all his accomplishments.

Such was her love for her only grandchild, in fact, that she became a Notre Dame football fan while he was a student at the University of Notre Dame. Mom wasn’t remotely interested in sports before then – so this was a testimony of their relationship. Going through Carlesta’s papers recently, I found dozens of cards and letters from Nate, which she had lovingly saved, in just about every drawer in the house.

My mother worked as a freelance color artist for several photography studios — including Royal Oak’s Bill Williams — throughout my childhood and teen years. She was among the first “work-at-home” moms in the late 1950s and ‘60s, setting up a home studio in our family room.

-35Later on, when I began my own career as a freelancer writer, I had my mother to thank for teaching me how to strike a balance between work and family. What a role model I had! I remember coming home from school as a kid and finding my mother at work at her easel, leaning over her photographs and mixing her oil paints. She always had time to listen as I shared the highlights or low points of my days at school.

I am forever grateful for that too.

As I type these thoughts, it occurs to me that what defined my mother more than anything was her reverence for home.

Though it’s a small word with just four letters, “home” meant everything to Carlesta. Home was a refuge and a sanctuary. To her, the word encompassed the people inside its walls – both family and friends – as well as its gardens and furnishings. Inspired by our family’s many road trips to historic Williamsburg, Virginia, and New England, she collected antiques and decorated every room in the house with treasures from our trips.

With her gift for hospitality, she entertained with style and care. She brought beauty to everything she crafted, whether it was a birthday party for a large group or a planter on the front porch. Making a home was an art form.

Once dementia had incapacitated her, moving Mom out of her beloved Royal Oak condo and into a nursing home was, by far, the hardest and most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever had to do.

All said and done, of all the gifts my mother has given me – including the gift of life itself – I’m most grateful for that abiding love of home.

This occurred to me not long after I learned that she had died. At the time, Doug and I were on the last day of our vacation. As soon as we got the call (at 5:45 on Saturday morning) we packed everything as quickly as we could and headed down the dark highway back to Royal Oak. It was the longest drive I’ve ever taken, though I don’t think the reality of my mother’s passing had really taken hold in my mind.

But finally, as we turned down Vinsetta Boulevard and our own house came into view like a mother with arms opened wide, the tears came and I felt embraced by something I can only describe as boundless gratitude for my home, my family, and this community – the roots of which my mother had planted inside me years ago.

My father, who passed away in 1992, had always found comfort in the Bible passage (John 14:2), “My father’s house has many dwelling places.”  It was read at his own mother’s funeral. When Dad died, I asked a pastor to read that verse in the eulogy I wrote for him.

And so, with a full and thankful heart, I hope my parents have found their place together in the “house with many dwelling places,” and that they are, finally, at peace and at home.

After this eulogy was read by pastor John Miller, my son Nate La Ferle read my favorite poem by Celtic poet David Whyte, “The House of Belonging.” Please click here to read it. 

Carlesta Gullion’s obituary is posted here.

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