Many of you know because you have read my first book A Bird and the Dragon: Their Love Story: A Memoir that I mention my mother Jordan Elizabeth Sanderson in a few places but spend most of my time on the relationship with my second husband, Sy, and with the antics of our combined family of five teenage daughters. Today I want to talk more about my mother, especially from the angle of Sy and I being part of the sandwich generation and having to make major decisions.
When my second book comes out Sissy’s Story: Inside a Child’s Long Term Illness you will spend plenty of time with my mother because she is the secondary character in that story. Of course if I could find a sponsor or a couple of sponsors to help defray the costs of publishing, Sissy’s Story could be coming out this year. –But enough of that. (Part of the proposed cover for Sissy’s Story is the picture to the right.)
Back in the 80’s it was becoming clear that my mother could no longer handle the details for running her own senior community apartment in Shaker Meadows, Shakerton, Massachusetts. Her building consisted of four apartments with my mother having one at the back on the first floor. During one visit, as I stepped out into the hallway to round up the laundry she had started in the laundry closet, the women from the upstairs apartment came to the top of the stairs and yelled down, “I hope you’re gonna go through her refrigerator. She’s gonna kill herself one of these days with what’s living in there.” I thanked the woman knowing she was a friend looking out for my Mother’s safety.
Our next signal came in the winter when Mother talked about having to back her
car in the snow so that the plows could plow out her spot. “I’m so scared that I’m going to run someone over because I can’t see out that rear window anymore and the mirrors are all fogged.” (If you watched closely you could see her hands shook as she spoke.) The next clue came when she admitted to me that she had gone to the closest city to do an errand and it took her three hours to make a thirty minute trip. She’d gotten lost! It was at that point that Sy and I conferred. He said, “I will ask her for her car keys and get the car ready to sell.” I talked to her about the snow and what would it be like if a child darted out from between two cars when she was driving. She looked very forlorn but admitted she wouldn’t be able to live with herself. Sy asked her for her keys and she handed them over with a thank you. This was the last straw of independence. Because of her pride and the layout of the town she would have to take the Senior Bus and we both knew that would never happen. Her final move would be into our home on Honey Lane, Nerme, Connecticut.
That happened in April of 1981 and she spent the next seven years in our home. I
told you last year about the vegetable incident when she offered to help in the kitchen and when I put out a set-up for peeling vegetables, she said she couldn’t and walked away. Mad!! Yes, I was mad. She had asked to help! But what I had to learn was that when working with a senior who is losing mental capacity it is like working with a three year old. You have to always be “ahead of the curve” and you have to stop a sudden reaction and think about the event from the three year old’s point of view. Getting outwardly mad and making a production out of the incident doesn’t help. Upon thinking, I realized she always stood to prepare vegetables and I was asking her to sit. She had always used a certain type of peeler; mine was different. With an essential tremor in her hands she was afraid she would cut herself. –She did get out of kitchen duty!!
Mother settled on doing the family laundry once I had sorted and pretreated the clothes. I limited her to doing one load a day and it was usually done in two days’ time. She also folded all the family laundry and she would have ironed things except I never showed her where I kept my ironing board. In my first marriage I came home from delivering my second child to find Mother was ironing my first husband’s boxer shorts. Second time around, I wasn’t going to give Sy that luxury, although he really would have deserved it.
When a parent lives with you it is important that they have duties to perform because they need something that can give them personal daily pride. All the
accomplishments of their earlier life have become distant. My mother in her prime was a 4-H leader, taught Sunday school for the church, and secured the building to provide hot lunches for my generation of children. In the next phase of her life she was the newspaper correspondent for my town and then became the “girl Friday” for that newspaper, writing a weekly column called “The Woman’s World,” working the front office, and anything else that needed doing. She covered big “doings” in my small town for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette and ended her working career as secretary to the superintendent of schools for the two towns that later became a school region.
The downhill mental and physical slide is hard to watch. It helps if both you and your parent can keep your sense of humor, hence the title “When the Wheels Come off the Wagon.” That was the expression I used with her one time when she opened her mouth to speak
and all that came out was gibberish. She was frightened and the funny phrase helped her to calm. I’m glad I had these years because I discovered discrepancies in what she had told me and what I actually saw. For me she was bigger than life and pushed the need to get out there and meet people. What I saw was a facade for the fears of doing what she was telling me to do. It helped me to relax. It also made me angry that I had lived under this unnecessary pressure for all of those years. When my children clear my house they will find the letter written after my mother died telling her the things that had bugged me. They will find it–unless I burn it first.
It was indeed a time of watching the wheels fall off the wagon!