The Seasons of Our Lives

Early morning fog wafts across the highway. Dawn, like a fan dancer in nature’s club, waves her veils across the land. One more trip to PA to consult with my siblings about our mother’s delusional dementia. Earlier in the summer, she was still mostly Irma. Now when I arrive, she is mostly gone, living inside the weird, funny, sad, unbelievable story her brain is crocheting over her memories. These drives are not fun.

Along the way, I plug in my iPod and crank up my list of favorite tunes. Bob Seger rocks about night moves. Hall and Oates describe the method of modern love. The Dixie Chicks remind me how much I miss their honest lyrics. Then Stevie Nicks slips in beside me, observing the passing of time, asking, “Can I handle the seasons of my life?” Landslide. Right.

The days shift. Each Facebook post brings a smile or a new tremor. The road may go on forever, as Tolkien wrote, but we do not. Our stories have an ending, and the journey there is not always a pleasant one. How to handle the changes that arrive, book-ended by solstice nights, shelved between the C of compassion and the R of responsibility? Decisions loom like headlights, oncoming, shrouded, daring me to stay the course or veer into disaster.

Lifting my gaze to the rear view mirror, I notice my eyes, intent and anxious, checking for impatient drivers. Amid the press of appointments. the phone calls to doctors and lawyers, the weighing of my mother’s express desire to remain where she is against the need to ensure her safety, I find myself standing on Fleetwood Mac’s mountain, staring into the reflection of my own life and wondering how to do this thing called adulting.

The iPod shuffles through the albums. The Eagles fill the car with a new tune. “Do something,” they croon, and I put my foot on the gas and motor on. August is winding down, summer on the wane. Autumn beckons with leafy fingers, stained now with the colors of her time. I drive on, unable to turn back, sailing, along with Stevie, into the next ocean’s wave.

 

Family Matters…

When we set off in early June on our Mediterranean adventure, I had plans to write about the sailing ship, the ports of call, the new experiences. But when we returned, I found myself once more embroiled in elder care issues. My mother, still the life of the party wherever she goes, has slipped deeper into the hallucinatory dementia that has made inroads in her always-fertile imagination. One day back from the trip, I got back on the road and made the drive to Pennsylvania to deal with the need for more care.

As the oldest of seven children, my role has always been well-defined and set in blood. I am expected to make things happen. While the family dynamic revolves around discussion, a tactic my father encouraged and enabled, this does not always lead to resolution. Thus, I bring the hammer, corralling the varied opinions into cohesive action. My resolutions are not always greeted with cheers. Despite the disagreements, need outweighs dithering. ‘Git ‘er done’ is not just a southern rallying cry. It is also the basis for our family matters.

Case in point: When Mom decided she could no longer take care of the large house on Euclid Avenue in Sharon, the process stuttered along until I showed up with phone numbers of electricians, plumbers, and realtors. Five days later the repairs were mostly done and the house listed for sale. To be fair, several of my brothers helped out as much as they could with moving, but the impetus to make it happen came from me. I have accepted this role, settled in to the inevitable second-guessing that occurs after the fact. Like Caesar, I show up, I see what has to be done, and then I do it.

But at some point, I need to return to my life, to those chores and passions that lie on my path. I refuse to feel guilty about this. One does her best, than moves on. I do worry about the brother who has taken on the bulk of my mother’s care. With several siblings unwilling or unable to lend a hand, he bears the burden and the stress. While others may walk away, he has chosen not to do so.

Family matters. Despite the challenges, I continue to love, to care for and about, to worry over, and to encourage. The matters that arose as we grew out of that nuclear home and into the wider world complicate our attempts to provide for the mother who bore us. What bothers me most is how, as Yeats predicted, the center does not hold. No amount of love can offset the pull of illness, economics, distance, personality. Of course, for a writer, this is the stuff and substance of plot, theme, and character development. But it makes for some uneasy family gatherings.

My mother once told me a story about her childhood with the admonition, accompanied by serious finger pointing, that I couldn’t write about it until she passed. Well, at age 94, she is close to the end stage of this worldly journey. Hallucinations rule her mind, providing endless fodder for head-shaking and laughter. She is, she informs us one day, in love again…with a Scotsman. The next day he is displaced by a handsome Hungarian living in Poland. Her birth family members all turn into eight-inch fairies who boarded a plane and flew away. There are moths living in her mouth. The tales, as real to her as they are not to us, fascinate, but they also make us despair. Try as we might, we cannot return her to reality. Nor can we abandon her to the encroaching darkness. So, we argue, wring our hands, discuss ad nauseam the options ahead. And we pray…for guidance, for inspiration, for courage. When it comes to all these difficult times, family matters.

Channeling Grammy

The metal has darkened with the baking. Although I can’t be certain of its exact age, the cookie sheet was a staple of my grandmother’s kitchen long before I was born. Perhaps a hundred years of bread and buns and holiday kolachi have burnished the metal, colored the bright aluminum with a patina of brown and gold, impressed it with the goodness of homemade food. Although I have scrubbed it well since it came to me, the stains remain, ciphers of past kitchens and shared recipes.

I tug it free from its dark hiding place in the cabinet and spread my granola across the surface, inhaling the oat and pecan and coconut smells of the present. Other aromas intrude: yeast and butter, eggs and cinnamon. Closing my eyes, I’m carried back to early Lenten mornings when, fresh from her baking chores, Grammy would deliver the hot cross buns to our door. At Christmastime she would carry in the nut and poppyseed kolachi, each crust bronze from the oven, each roll  lush with orange-spiced filling. For more than forty years I have tried to match the splendor of her pastry. My attempts are adequate, but they don’t match the memory. I’m good, but I’m not Grammy.

When I spent nights at her house, she would counsel me on the proper way to knead the dough, the correct way to fold the pastry, the proper temperature to wash your hands before and after baking. Scalding. To kill the germs. Tender child hands rebelled but she kept them under the running stream, insistent on a cleanliness essential to the process and to the era when she learned the craft.

Grammy grew up in a restaurant family. Her parents ran an establishment that served the workers from the steel mill. Breakfasts for the working man, lunches to fuel their return to an environment that demanded constant toil and caution. One slip and the molten steel would claim you for its dinner. One of my high school classmates died that way, losing his footing as he walked above the open hearth, disappearing into the mix as the liquid boiled up. When I read about his death, I remembered my grandfather returning from the mill at night, climbing the hill with a blackened face and clothes saturated with the smell of oil and fire. Grammy, standing in the doorway, her own hands flour-dusted with the goodness of the evening meal, offered him the only gift she had to counter the danger. Fried chicken. Pot roast. Pork chops. Not food for the tray I use now, but meals to fill the emptiness in the belly and soothe the turmoil in the soul.

I take her recipes from the box in the cupboard, the ones I pried from her memory before she died. The amounts are not definitive. A cake of yeast. Do they sell yeast like that these days? A handful of this and a pinch of that. A secret ingredient forgotten or deliberately omitted. She was proud of her handiwork, my grandmother. Widowed young and left with few resources to cover her expenses, she turned to the only skill she had, supplying baked goods for the small groceries and family restaurants in our industrial town, baking for individual households that  no longer wanted to bake for themselves. Then the small mom and pop stores fell out of favor, victims of the new grocery stores and their ability to buy in quantity and sell cheaper. The restaurants too became fewer. Chains arose and the hearty meals served family style also fell from grace. The demand for her baked goods dropped off. She went to work in a ladies’ clothing store. But she didn’t stop baking.

Once a week she brought her loaves to our chaotic household, a small bungalow bursting with the energies of my six siblings, a father who worked three jobs to make the ends meet and a mother who was not a cook too busy with other chores to bake daily bread. If I close my eyes, I can see the crusts gleaming, still warm from the oven. If I concentrate, I smell the warm yeast aroma of the freshly baked dough, the creamy butterscotch pies and meringue tarts. My mouth waters as my memory replays a moment when the world seemed all about the goodness of bread, the warm taste of family.

I run my hand over the baking sheet, cool now, scraped free of the stubborn granola bits, and wipe it dry. Each pass of the cloth is a caress for a grandmother, long-gone but still remembered. Each time I bake my own goodness, I bring her back to me, stringing my own recipes along the thread that binds us together.

And Now We Are Six…

Spent the past weekend visiting my mother in Sharon, PA. Descriptive words for the area include depressed, economically abandoned, sad. The flavor of old-world sensibilities persists…festivals featuring Polish sausage, Italian meatballs or Hungarian cabbage rolls. The flattening of vowels represents the immigrant parents and grandparents who shared the homes or watched the children or came together for family celebrations. Driving up State Street, I sense time and history withdrawing from the present, abandoning the town to its uncertain future.

I never lived in Sharon. By the time my parents moved there from Struthers, Ohio, I had married and moved out of their world. But my six younger siblings – four brothers, two sisters – remained in my parents’ home for several more years. They share a history I know only through their stories. Listening to them at our gatherings is like opening a present…Or a time capsule, one I didn’t help fill. I feel a void. What they experienced together I will never share. They have anecdotes and adventures, wild tales of escapades conducted without me. And they have secrets…every once in a while one escapes during conversation, reminding me of all I missed.

My sister Kathy, third in line, served as the bridge between me and the others. A typical middle child, she bore the brunt of their teasing and the weight of their trust. When we were little, I hated that she followed me everywhere, begging to be included in my life. Since her swift, unexpected death last fall, I have wished many times that I could have her back for one more conversation.

For many years we concluded each family gathering by toasting our good fortune – that we were all still together, that no matter how much we argued, at the end of the evening we were still brothers and sisters, still friends. That tight group of seven has been shattered. Getting back together means more now than it ever did, overshadowed by the knowledge that now we are six, that our moments tick away and only love survives, manifest in the hugs and laughter and love you’s we give as we depart.

I never lived in Sharon, but part of my heart resides there, still invested in my first family and the bond we will always share.