Thursday, September 3, 2015
Conversations with Mom
My mother will turn 96 next week--September 9. She now lives in a stages-of-care place in Lenox, Mass., not far from the weekend/summer home (an old farmhouse) that my brothers own in Becket, Mass. She is in the assisted living unit now (barely, I fear) and dreads--as do and will we all--the prospect of her next move: to the nursing unit.
Mom used to be adept with a computer. She had one of the first in the family, actually--an old Apple II--and until just a few years ago she could still handle email. She also became more credulous and even gullible, though--passing along wild Internet rumors and even falling prey to a scam that ended up costing her about $10,000 before my younger brother caught onto it. I am opposed to the death penalty--but I might reconsider for folks who cheat the elderly out of their dwindling funds.
Anyway, I used to keep in touch with Mom regularly via email, but her fingers failed her (arthritis, making it difficult to type), as did her memory (she just could not remember how to turn on her machine, how to get to her email page). We tried all sorts of ways to help, my brothers and I, but all in vain. Her laptop still sits on her table, unused for several years now, though her grandson Rick occasionally does the updates. Kind of him, very. But pointless, too.
So now communication with Mom is difficult. I write her letters a couple of times a week, call several times, too. But she cannot write back. And the phone calls are a different kind of difficult because her vocabulary is fleeing her (as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote) "like bandits from a burglar alarm." She struggles now for the simplest words--but, miraculously, has retained a sense of humor about it all. The other day she was trying to say "appropriate" (a word whose negative she often had to apply to me!) and just couldn't do it. She dissolved into laughter.
It must be horribly frustrating for her. She was a brilliant, very active woman. A career teacher (later, professor at Drake University). She exercised regularly--hiking, swimming. Well into her 70s she was hiking (with her friends) portions of the trails along the Oregon coast, where she and Dad were living at the time.
Here's one of the most amazing things about her. While she was teaching high school English at Garfield High School in Garrettsville (Ohio), she decided it was time for a Ph.D. So she enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, and twice a week--Tues and Thurs--she would leave school at the end of the day, drive to Pitt (about 100 mi away), go to night classes, drive home, then get up and teach the next day! She also took summer-school classes there but would stay in a tiny apartment in Pittsburgh for the week, come home for the weekends. When, at last, we would eat well again.
Her adolescent sons were, let's say, a wee bit less than understanding about it. (We Three Jerks.)
Here's something else: This occurred in the early 1960s, and my dad was totally supportive and did his best to "hold down the fort" (as he always liked to put it) while she was gone. He was profoundly proud of her. Dad died in 1999 (after a very long decline); he was six years older than she.
Mom was a ferocious reader, fluent in French, taught herself modern Greek so that she could take groups of teachers to Athens in the summers. She was something ...
Now ... she's confined to a chair or a bed all day and needs considerable help to do the most mundane things.
Mom always had a sharp tongue. It's one thing she has not lost. Not long ago I was telling her on the phone that her great-grandson Carson had been in a kindergarten skit about the alphabet. I told her that Carson had portrayed the letter C. Then I joked: "That means I would have been a D, Mom. And I had a couple of those on my transcript."
And Mom shot back, her voice nearly melting the phone line: "That's not funny."
(Okay, probably not. One D was one marking period in Algebra II, the other in my major in college--Romantic Poetry. I was lucky I even passed. It was spring quarter my junior year, and I basically decided attending class was optional. Turns out it wasn't. But I got better ... really ....)
So ... Mom will be 96 next week. Born on September 9, 1919. (Lots of 9's in 9/9/1919.) The Great Gatsby had not appeared. Woodrow Wilson was president. It was the year of the "Black Sox" scandal. Babe Ruth set a season record: 29 homers. And on and on ...
Mom's not mentioned in the lists I've seen of notable events in 1919. She should be. My brothers and I know what an immense debt we owe her.