IMPORTANT TIMES WITH MOM – A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
My parents lived in Connecticut and were married for seven decades. My father, so intelligent and kind and patient, was an absolute prince. Everybody loved my Dad … little kids, the very old, the neighbor’s dog, the other neighbor’s rabbit. Any creature with a heartbeat just gravitated to the man. He was the head of a large, extended family, and well respected, with some of our relatives addressing my father as ‘the Don.’ My mother was a 4 foot 10 inch mini powerhouse, loving and caring, very strong, with a fierce temper at times, and was the world record holder for non-stop nagging. Consequently, she was not treasured and revered in the same manner as was her husband. My father served as a buffer, as a translator, as a softening agent, between my mom and the rest of the world. More than once when they were in their seventies and eighties, my father would caution the three children, my two sisters and me, by saying “If I die first, you’re going to have a hell of a time with your mother.” Sometimes he would add “Think about it.”
And it came to pass that my father did die first, suddenly, just short of his ninetieth birthday … perfectly fine one day and gone the next. As my sister Janice and I were flying from Tucson, Arizona to the funeral in Connecticut, my sister Phyllis and her family, who lived right around the corner from my parents’ house in Middletown, had things well under control. The day of the funeral, sitting with the immediate family in the limo on the way to the cemetery, my feeling was that my mother was, in some manner, disconnected from the procedure. After a few days, as Janice and I returned to Arizona, the entire responsibility fell onto the ones closest … my sister Phyllis, her husband Jack, and their four kids. The responsibility was, in fact, huge.
Less than a year later, my niece Linda, Phyllis’s daughter, was getting married. It was going to be a posh affair, a very big deal, to be held at their large, luxurious house. Of course, I would attend. I would arrive about a week early and take over ‘keeping company’ with my mother while my sister was inundated with wedding preparations. This was not a casual commitment. Since my teenage years, my mother could and did drive me completely bonkers with her nagging. She could cause an anvil to break down and weep. Therefore, I mentally prepared myself for a trial of some duration and self-generated a good dose of ‘siege mentality’ which I hoped would help me ‘tough it out.’ Angela Rose, my wife, knowing that my mother and I were akin to a fire and dynamite mixture, gave me the following admonition. “The problem between you and your Mom arises, not because of her actions, but because of your reactions. Just pretend she is your crazy Aunt Mildred, who lives in the attic and comes down to visit now and then.”
So that’s the background and the setting for this little story:
My mom was most attentive as I unpacked my suitcase in the small guestroom of her house, making sure there were towels, a washcloth etc. My sister had returned to her house to continue with wedding stuff, leaving my mother and me together for the day. And the day progressed peacefully with no criticism or nagging from my mother. She did ask what time it was, a dozen times in five or six hours. Finally I said, it’s ten minutes before 6:00. She said, “Oh good, my TV program will be on.” And we watched her programs, during which I read. We turned off the TV and she asked what time it was. I told her five minutes after seven. She looked at me, squinted her eyes and asked “But how do actually know that?” I told her I had seen the time at the bottom of the TV screen when it was on. She accepted that explanation. That part was OK, but then she asked “If it’s seven o’clock, is it going to be daytime or nighttime? Are we going toward daylight or toward night?” I answered it would be nighttime. Again, she asked “How can you be sure?”
(Now I suppose that question, and its possible answers, could be discussed by scientists or philosophers for decades, but I didn’t discuss why I felt that night just might follow day. It was just accepted and expected. After all, this was my crazy Aunt Mildred who was down from the attic for a visit. Instead, I changed the subject.)
“Ma”, I asked, “Do people come by to visit you once in a while?” Mom said, “Only your sister Phyllis and her kids, everyone else is mad at me.” I said, “…but Aunt Rose, your sister, lives next door, and Aunt Mary lives just 2 or 3 miles away. And they don’t drop by?” My mom shook her head ‘No.’ I said, “Before it gets dark, I’ll go visit Aunt Rose, will you be OK?” She said, “Oh sure, I’ll be OK. She’ll be glad to see you. She asked about you.” And so I walked across the little bit of grass between the two houses and had a nice warm visit with Aunt Rose and Uncle Sam. Finally, I had the courage to ask why everyone was mad at my mother. Aunt Rose explained that my mom, called on the telephone two or three times each night, at midnight, at 2:00AM, or 3:30 or any other time to ask what time it was. It was driving them crazy. And not just them, but also Aunt Mary, and other people, too. Yes, I thought it would drive anyone over the hill. So it was this ‘know what time it is’ thing. As I walked back to my mom’s house, my thought was to see what could be done to remedy this situation. She was sleeping in the TV chair when I returned. I fell asleep almost immediately in the guest room.
The following morning, I asked my mother about cooking swiss chard or other greens … exactly how did she do it? We spent almost three hours cooking this and that. It was an excellent cooking session for the two of us … except for two little items: salt, and clocks.
First, let me tell you about the salt. As the two of us did some cooking and cleaning, my mother wanted to add a pinch of salt to something. “OK ma, where’s the salt?” “Over there in the canister, no, not that one, the big one, the one marked ‘flour’.” The large canister must have weighed ten or twelve pounds (about 5 kilos), perhaps more, and it was indeed filled with salt, and not with flour. My question was “But why do you need so much salt?” “Oh,” she said, so matter-of-factly, “I use it to put out the fires.” “Fires?” “Oh yes, I start a lot of fires when I’m cooking, so the salt comes in handy, because it puts out fires very quickly.” She continued, “Actually, everyone should have a big container of salt in the kitchen, but most people don’t and that’s pretty risky behavior.” My thought: It’s a different perspective, certainly.
That was the salt. I related the story to give the reader a hint as to what he or she might face in dealing with an elder who is failing. And now, the clocks. A three-foot wide doorway led from that same kitchen to the dining room. On the small wall to the right of the door were mounted three small, but fancy clocks. I had paid no attention to these ‘tchotzches’ (Jewish-American term meaning a bauble, a decorative trinket, a knick-knack). Three clocks, one stopped, one marching to the pulse of a different galaxy somewhere, and the third fairly accurate. Once that morning, I saw my mother looking at the clocks rather intently and then, two or three minutes later, asking me what time it was. Then, it came to me (I can be so dense at times). THAT was why she never knew what time it was. The three clocks … she never could remember which one had the right time. Oh man, I could solve this little problem in a jiffy. Elated, I was, for sure!
“Hey Ma! Let me show you something!” And I was happy in showing her that if we took the accurate clock and placed it on the other side of the door frame, she would always know what time it was. And I swapped another decorative thing from the left side of the door with the good clock from the right side, and moved the good clock to the left side of the door. Thoughts running through my mind … no more calls in the middle of the night, no more asking everyone what time it was, no more irritated family and friends. Proudly, I said, “Now, this clock, the single clock is the one you use … you can always tell what time it is! Isn’t that great?”
She looked at me so steadily and said, “Well, you’re still young. You don’t understand. I LIKE those three clocks together. That’s why I put them there to begin with. So I’ll keep them that way.”
As I said, it’s just a matter of perspective.
July 7, 2015