Home Again

Today would have been my mother’s 94th birthday.  As some of you long time readers will remember, she passed away suddenly last December a few days before Christmas.

Her final wish was for her ashes to be returned to California and scattered at sea like my father’s were fifteen years ago.

She and my dad lived in a little 1920s house two blocks up a hill from Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach for about 25 years, the happiest years of their lives.

Mom spent the last fourteen years here in Texas near her family.

Here is a photo my son took from his paddleboard about a half mile out, looking back at the beach at the end of my folks’ street.  He told me it was a calm, beautiful morning when he said a few words in remembrance of Granny (Mom) and then scattered her ashes in the sea, reuniting her with my dad once again.

Happy birthday, Mom.  Welcome home.



Nepenthe and George

Nepenthe:  (Greek: Νηπενθές) is a medicine for sorrow, literally an anti-depressant – a “drug of forgetfulness” mentioned in ancient Greek literature and Greek mythology, depicted as originating in Egypt.

Figuratively, it means “that which chases away sorrow,” or grief and mourning.   So, literally, it means ‘not-sorrow’ or ‘anti-sorrow’. In the Odyssey, Nepenthes pharmakon (i.e. an anti-sorrow drug) is a magical potion given to Helen by the Egyptian queen Polidamma. It quells all sorrows with forgetfulness.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven“:

“Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”

My mother has been living at The Hotel (basically assisted living with nicer furniture) since just before Christmas.  She’s adjusted pretty well, given the fact that she’s not a social butterfly.

More like a reclusive caterpillar who’d like to cling to her favorite chair like it was her personal cocoon.

I visit her every couple of days to pick up her laundry and attempt a chat.  Her memory has been coming and going like the Spanish language Tejano music station signal I try to get on my car radio.

Some days it comes in strong, other days it gets mixed up with a hard rock station.  Makes for some interesting song segues.

So it is with my mother’s memory.  People and places get jumbled up in her mind and some get forgotten altogether in the neural pathways of her aging brain.

Last week she was somewhat agitated and confused when I came to see her.  She asked me if I had a boyfriend.  I’ve been married to the same man for almost 36 years now but even with prompting on my part, she drew a blank.

Didn’t seem to bother her though.  To use her favorite catch-phrase:  “Whatever.”

At that same visit I found her almost obsessively pouring over some baby pictures my nephew had sent her of his new baby girl.  I’d looked at them the last few visits, but she must have asked me about five times during this visit if I’d seen them.

So I got to thinking that maybe she might enjoy looking at some photos of the house she and my Dad lived in together in Laguna Beach for over 25 years.  (No, they weren’t rich.  They bought the house for a whopping $22,000 in 1967 when Laguna was still an artist colony, soon to be a hippie enclave.)

The photos were in some of those horrid magnetic photo albums popular about twenty years ago.  You know, the kind where the cover was all poufy and padded and hand-done in material with lace around the edges?

I’d methodically gone through each one and carefully stripped the photos out before they became permanently affixed to the pages like fossils trapped in amber.

I bought a small, modern photo album with transparent pockets to slide the photos in and brought it and a stack of the Laguna Beach photos over to The Hotel earlier this week when I went to visit my mother.

I handed her the stack of photos and after she looked at each one I slid it into a pocket in the album.

Now, when I was concocting this little experiment, I’d had some twinges of misgivings about the whole thing.

What if seeing the photos of her lush flowery garden, with her and Dad smiling as they sat there together, brings back the sadness she must have felt when he died?

(A year later she sold that house to move to Texas, a place she does not like.)

At first, she wasn’t sure whose house and garden she was looking at, but bit by bit, some of it came back to her.  She recognized my father, but didn’t really comment on him.  In one of the photos of them together, she thought I was her, although we don’t especially resemble each other.  (At least, I tell myself that.)

So I left the album with her and after a couple of days I returned for another visit.

The housekeeping gal wanted to clean her room, so we went out to the spacious living room in the front of The Hotel and parked ourselves on a couch and a comfy wing-chair.  I had suggested we take the album along so we could look through it again.

There was one photo of George, my parents’ cat, who lived to be something like 17 or 18, although his exact age was never known.  My folks had gotten him at the Bluebell Cattery in Laguna Canyon Road, a cat boarding place that was run by a little old white-haired lady who always wore a gray cardigan covered in cat hair.

She looked like a cat herself.  Guess it takes one to know one.

George had been left there by his previous owners who’d gone off on a trip to Europe and never came back to get him.  His former name had been “Sundance,” so maybe that gives you a clue about the mind-set of the people who callously left him.

But The Cat Lady kept him and my parents adopted him and changed his moniker to “George.”  It seemed to suit him.

My father was particularly devoted to George, but my mother was almost as attached.  One time, after my parents had given a small dinner for friends, George went missing.  There were coyote sightings in the hills above their house and my mother was frantic.

About eighteen hours after George disappeared, my mother decided she better put the dishes from the dinner away in the low credenza in the living room.  When she opened the cupboard door, there was George, lying on some napkins, blinking in the light as if to say “What?”

He’d gone in there when she took out the dishes and she’d accidentally closed the door on him.  So he just took a nap until he was eventually discovered.

When my Dad died, George was her constant companion.  She would sleep with my Dad’s bathrobe on the bed and George would sleep on top of it.  I know that cat missed my Dad as much as she did.

During the next six months, George started to lose a lot of weight and the vets couldn’t find a reason why.  Finally he became so weak that my nephew had to take George in to be euthanized.

Personally, I think George died of a broken heart.

When my mother saw the photo of George, in his cat collar and I.D. tag (which was still in my mother’s jewelry box when we packed her things), I thought there would be a rush of recognition and sad feelings.  I cringed, waiting.

But, nothing.  “Oh, a pussycat,” was all she said.

I asked her if she remembered George at all, the cat she and Dad had for so long, but again she drew a blank.

She just went on turning the pages.  She did remark that the neighbor just down from them was drunk most of the time.  That she can recall!

Maybe it’s just as well.  You can’t be sad about something you don’t remember.

Dementia, for her, is not unlike Nepenthe:  “That which chases away sorrow.”


The Mother Who Didn’t Cry “Wolf!”

Sometimes my Mother can be a four-foot-eleven bundle of paradoxes.  Having come of age in the Depression Era, often she views things as either black or white, with very few shades of gray. 

If I had a dollar for every time she told me that “a family should be able to live on just the husband’s salary,” I might have been able to do just that.  But then I would have missed out on the joys of cleaning other people’s teeth for a living. 

Hmm….I’ll get back to you on that one.

Despite all of her firm traditional values, she (and my Dad) could be surprisingly open-minded at times.  For twenty-five years, until my Dad died, they lived in Laguna Beach, California.  (They weren’t wealthy, just lucky to have gotten a home there before it became the place to be for folks with tons of dough.) 

Laguna had always been an artist colony and was increasingly becoming a mecca for the gay community—a San Francisco South, in other words. 

So for people who believed in things being done the way they were supposed to be done, my folks were remarkably accepting of all that. 

In fact, my Mother, a frustrated interior designer wannabe, embraced the male “ho-mo-sex-u-als,” as she called them–rarely using the appellation “gay”–with fervor because they were living her dream.  They had the best homes and gardens; when they bought a fixer-upper, you could be sure it would turn out spectacularly. 

(Not so much the lesbian couple across the street—they were more into motorcycles.  As my Mother often says:  “Whatever.”)

With my Mother, you never know who’s going to turn up–will it be the Lifestyle Critic or the Libertarian?  Live as I say–or live and let live? 

That’s what makes taking her to doctor appointments such an adventure.  I never know if she’s formulating some criticism in her mind which she’s suddenly going to articulate out loud–often in the middle of a crowded waiting room. 

It’s like when my kids were toddlers and they would ask in a loud voice “Mommy, why is that woman so fat?” within earshot of what usually turned out to be a very pregnant lady and a store full of bemused shoppers. 

Only with my Mother, you can’t stick a cookie in her mouth to shut her up.  Well…not very easily or inconspicuously, anyway.

So it was with some trepidation that I sat in the crowded (is there any other kind?) waiting room of the eye doctor with my Mother yesterday. 

She, along with half the population of our town, was waiting for her pupils to dilate so the doctor could finish her exam.  Patients would disappear into the dark recesses of the office and come back out to the waiting room to quietly sit and dilate.  We were there for two hours before the process was completed.    

She’d been doing pretty well, given the wait.  There was no repeat of the time she stuck her tongue out at me at her regular doctor’s office while the nurse was taking her blood pressure. 

That was brought about by the argument we’d had earlier because she’d neglected to take her blood pressure medicine before the visit. 

I knew the reading wouldn’t accurately reflect what her pressure normally is, and I was afraid the doctor would change her medication.  The last thing we needed was her passing out at home because her BP was too low. 

So, of course, her BP reading was higher than normal.  But she made up for any scolding the nurse gave her by telling her we’d just had an argument, so it really wasn’t her fault.  Big smile aimed in my direction. 

Which left me sitting there feeling like I had the words “Elder Abuser” written across my forehead in blinking neon.

But anyway, this visit was going quite well. 

Then a large elderly man in a wheel chair was brought into the room by a young woman who must have been his granddaughter.  They stopped directly across from us and the woman sat down in a chair next to him.

Now, unlike my Mother, I try not to scrutinize people too closely in situations like this.  First of all, I don’t care that much.  Second, it’s none of my business. 

But with this young woman, it was hard not to notice her.  She was kind of plump, with long brown hair.  She was wearing jeans and a stretchy sleeveless tank top, which exposed her arms and shoulders.  When she bent over, there was an abundance of cleavage on display. 

But the most noticeable thing about her was her tattoos.

Tattoos on women have certainly become commonplace nowadays.  It’s not unusual to see them prominently displayed on just about any visible body part. 

This gal was no exception.  I tried not to spend too much time observing her, but I couldn’t help but notice that, among the several tattoos I could see, there was a rather large head of a wolf on her upper left arm near her shoulder. 

I remember thinking to myself “Why would a girl choose that?” 

But then, again, as my Mother says:  “Whatever.”  

The Tattooed Lady spent some time texting on her phone, but every once in awhile she would smile and talk to her grandfather and pat him on the arm in a reassuring way.  He seemed to appreciate her company and would smile warmly back at her.

Finally, we were released from our ophthalmological purgatory and I escorted my Mother out to the parking lot.  After we got into the car, she turned to me and asked “Did you see that girl with all the tattoos?” 

Thinking to myself “Here we go—she’s going to blast away at how the younger generation is going to hell in a handbasket,” I replied that, yes, I did notice her but I try not to stare at people.

To my surprise she said “I thought it was wonderful the way she patted that man on his arm.  That was really sweet.  It just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover.” 

And sometimes the mother whom you feared would be wolf-like in her criticism, instead turns out to be–a little lamb.