Up early again this morning, early as in never slept early; it’s 3:11 a.m. I tap the nanny cam app on my phone and watch as she sleeps, as always, snoring slightly. Unstoppable, inevitable, ancient and always. The wheel is turning, whether I want it to or not.
Mary-Annie-Sophie-Kerrie-Annabelle, as far back and forward along the line as we can name. Five generations of women moving into the world and then, out of it.
My mother, daughter of Annie, granddaughter of Mary, stood as witness to the seasons and the power of nature. Planting and harvesting, preserving and putting away, tilling and tending, small beneath the sky. *
Growing children, like food, has always required considerable effort.
She teaches us how to precisely pare and chop, preparing the soup made by her mother and her mother before her. We watch and remember, one generation feeding the next.
I am a mother, and a daughter too, sandwiched between maiden and crone.
Sometimes literally, ferrying us to appointments whatever the weather: Gramma in the front seat and baby in the back. We see our optometrist ever spring, waiting until we are called, oldest to youngest. to see what we can see.
This year it’s just me, reciting a nonsensical alphabet, blinking back the last time, the three of us, a year ago. There’s a photo on my phone, before we bundled back into the car: my Mom and daughter, voguing in monstrous dark sunglasses to shade their dilated blue eyes.
I can clearly see the last time we were all here.
In our family, women of a certain age develop deep lip lines. Tiny at first, they feed on disapproval, judgement, or too many straws, a dry riverbed heading south, hellbent on draining a juicy cupid’s bow.
In addition to what I’ve come to think of as the wrinkle moustache, my mother, like hers before her, has started to sprout sudden, sizable hairs. (think Octogenarian Jeff Goldblum in The Fly). She brushes her good left hand over her face, like a cat stroking its whiskers, an unhappy cat. A fierce cat who hates its whiskers. Sporting new glasses, I wheel her over to the natural light falling in through the window. Tweezers raised, I move in. She grimaces, I pull, she flinches. There are many Love Languages; this, as it turns out, is ours.
Nose hair (too cruel to be tweezed) requires a more delicate touch. Luckily, London Drugs sells exactly what I am looking for: discreet, well designed and with a powerful little flashlight on the tip, so you can easily see what you’re doing in a dimly lit hospital room, or (surprise) in the bathroom mirror at home. I buy two.
No amount of sun screen is going to prevent what genetics have already decreed.
On my desk, upstairs in the small office, there is a photo of my Grandmother wearing an oversized straw hat, little defense against the relentless Saskatchewan sun. Radiant in a home-made sun dress, her clear blue eyes stare right at the photographer, as if someone she loved had just called her name.
Next to “Granny in the Sun Hat”, is a small black and white square with a squiggly white border. Granny, face and lips unlined, is holding a plump, curly haired toddler. Leaning in beside us is my mother, no trace of baby weight, smartly dressed, hair as long as I have ever seen it. Three generations of a generation ago, before the wheel turned the last time.
Certainly, there are similarities; curly hair and great complexions that, as it turns out, will require vigorous tweezing. But what else do we inherit from our mothers?
Granny, widowed at 40, is already re married when this photo is taken. My mother, I imagine, is holding out hope things will change in her own dissolving marriage. She is headstrong, stubborn and surprisingly guileless. By the time I start school and my younger sister is in kindergarten, she is also the sole breadwinner.
She knows how to survive, stretch a dollar, grow a garden, fill a freezer. The idea of divorce, like social assistance, is coloured in hot shame. She works two jobs, saves her money, and, with the help of her mother, invests in a rototiller.
As impatient children, we watched her oversee the “tilling” of the double lot behind our city home, churning grass and weeds into startled clumps of earth, destroying any hope of a back yard for cartwheels or tag.
Row on row, the smell of gasoline and city dirt, six madly spinning blades eradicate the lawn, leaving trails of shredded sod and blind, panicked earthworms. Ideally, tilling and planting happen the same weekend, taking advantage of the temporarily defeated weeds and the newly exposed dark chocolate soil. Good weather was a nice to have, but gardens, like dreams, are often planted under cloudy skies.
Every year the same plan: Carrots and peas in the first rows, hardy plants: chard, spinach and potatoes, toward the back by the strawberry patch. Temperamental asparagus, green stalks and white, create a fairy forest sprouting against the bowed back gate. Enchanted by its verdant taste and alchemical properties, we crunch raw spears, anticipating the naughty promise of the next big pee.
Across the sidewalk, on the south side grazing the slumping fence stood the berry patch, a scratchy fortress defended by bees and tiny white spiders. Picking raspberries and later, blackberries required courage and long sleeves, even on the hottest of days.
Between the berry patch and the remaining square of actual back lawn lived the most optimistic and tender: corn, pumpkins, vegetable marrow, improbable choices given our sub alpine growing season. Our mother, an unlikely optimist, shone confident in her ability to coax corn from 64 frost free days. Like her mother, humble and focused, she hovered over plants in too short shorts and well-worn halter tops, bent at the waist, embracing the work of feeding her family.
Kohlrabi, kale, Swiss Chard, today’s “It” produce was yesterday’s strange. Rain barrels, a compost pile and, the annual family line dance of seed potato planting, set us apart from our quiet and curious flower growing neighbours.
We recycled long before it was de riguer. Sticky ice cream buckets breathed under the kitchen sink filled with pea pods, carrot peels, or beet tops. Egg shells good, potato peels bad…carriers of darkness and disease. A farmer’s daughter, Mom’s early survival depended on good dirt. In our family, composting, like cooking, is epigenetic.
We learned to blanche and freeze, can, make jams and jellies. She bottled home-made root beer and, for a few years, crab apple wine. (which her husband would drink long before it was fully aged). Sharp vinegar stung our senses during pickling season. Occasionally, we would be allowed to skim jam from steaming pots or use a straw to suck extra air from plastic bags filled with scalded greens. See through bags were lugged to the large deep freezer in the garage. Turning the key and lifting the lid revealed a cryo-bounty of carefully labelled plastic.
Glass jars, packed with crab apples, strawberries and rhubarb, pearl onions or pickles live below ground, in a dark, damp space we referred to as “The Pit”. (Imagine if Hades lived in the root cellar under your parent’s double garage). Instead of the trail of pomegranate seeds that tempted Persephone, we accessed The Pit by pulling a trap door in the garage floor and descending down a home-made six-foot ladder. A single 60-watt bulb hung naked from the ceiling; we searched for the pull string by frantically sweeping the cobwebs above our heads. The esthetic was Uber Underworld: pink fibreglass insulation under wet plastic, hard damp dirt floor and rows of dark shelves filled with dusty Gem jars. “The Pit” invited you to travel back in time, down in time, to the very beginnings of time. In a time when children were expected to mow the lawn, vacuum, dust and clean the bathroom, “going to The Pit” was off the charts scary. The youngest members of our family, my sister and I were dispatched together, begging the other to go down first, promising never to close the trap door. Which, of course, we did.
Time passes, my sister and I transform into unruly teenagers, no longer willing to descend into the darkness. Or rather, we want to choose our own darkness. (boys, cigarettes, lemon gin mixed with Tang). Our parents drag us to a new house in a painfully new sub-division, scraped bare of trees and lawns. There is no garden, and although they build another garage, there is no Pit.
Our father works hard to live less and succeeds. My sister and I graduate and immediately move away. With her children grown and her husband newly dead, Sophie strong arms the still unsodded lot, planting a different kind of garden: fruit trees and perennials, especially peonies. Hardy, fragrant, and showy in a lazy sort of way, they require little tending. Languid blossoms fill her house, like a French painting.
Long dormant desires are awakened: she takes piano lessons, auditions for a play, studies French and Greek. And, after years of supporting and raising a family, she finally travels. Both my sister and I piggyback on her cross-Canada adventures; I accompany her once by train, my sister, by Greyhound bus. She develops an obsession with Greece and devours historical fiction, mythology, Greek for Dummies. Like Demeter, generous in spring, she books tickets for her mother and me, under the guise of celebrating my college graduation. We’re really celebrating her liberation. Twenty-three years after the black and white “Three Generations on the Couch” photo, my grandmother, mother and I are reunited to visit temples, ride camels and hike in the desert. The journey, once unthinkable in this life, unfolds like a miracle.
More follow: she wins a shiny SUV in a lottery, which keeps her travelling to Saskatchewan, when the roads are good. She taxis the “old ladies” around, plays competitive Scrabble and darts, gets a job as a Mystery Shopper.
All this she calls to tell me, and I barely register, deeply consumed by my own career and small family. I dodge her offers of dinners and afternoons out, or avoid answering when she calls. Undeterred, she leaves long newsy messages about people and places I barely remember. Favourite foods find our front porch, or books she has read and recommended. These love offerings are thoughtful and constant; I believe it will always be this way.
Mother’s Day 2012 she demands we join her for an afternoon of bowling and picks us up, clad in track pants and a bowling shirt heavy with logos and pins. Parking next to a Handicap spot, she shoos us out of her car and into the bowling alley like an impatient hen. The cacophony of pins and balls is overwhelming. We follow, chicks in her wake. At her Personal Locker she produces mauve bowling shoes and a matching purple bag bulging with custom balls. She bowls for free but insists on paying for my husband daughter and me. The rental lady hands us our shoes and free drink tickets, “Here, you’re Sophie’s family, right?” My mother works the lanes as if it were an election year, smiling, waving, offering up her famous hugs. Clearly, Sophie Penney is in a league of her own. She waits as we tie up our retro and suspicious smelling bowling shoes, then deftly and without apology, wins every frame.
Even my daughter is impressed.
The winter she agrees to be pried from her home is a turning point. The house is dramatically gutted and sold. Modest assets are liquidated, and legal documents updated. She sheds the stuff of a lifetime, consenting to a new life at the Seniors Lodge. We finally go for lunch and shop for new shoes. Although she buys the bright red ones, it’s clear she’s slowing down.
Her cane is upgraded to an Aegean blue walker. Our doctor secures a Handicap Parking Pass, which she hates but I refer to as Rock Star Parking. Days take on a different cadence, punctuated by maintenance appointments: hair, hearing aids, and of course, glasses. On our way to my daughter’s 15th birthday brunch, a routine doctor’s appointment ends in an ambulance ride to Emergency. She spends nearly three weeks in hospital, as cardiologists wonder why her heart is racing and how to slow it down. What I come to think of as Upside/Downside thinking takes root. Upside: she has a bed that is near a window. Downside: her roommate is middle aged man named Danny, who calls her “old Grandma” as he sneaks outside for a smoke.
Upside: We caught the heart failure in time! Downside: big tickets drugs are needed to retard the rhythm. The kind of drugs they don’t give young people. I stuff the “Downsides” into a messy mental file. One I don’t really want to sort through. Relief washes worry when she is discharged at the end of February.
After nearly a month away, neighbours at the Senior’s Lodge crowd her at meals, in the hallways, after chair exercise class. A return from the hospital is very rare. Emboldened by this second chance, she auditions for and gets the lead in a play. She signs up for a trip to the Opera at the end of March, the first group trip she’s taken since moving in. She’ll wear the red shoes of course.
I accuse her of catastrophizing when she calls to say that, if anything should happen, to make sure someone uses her ticket. “It’s paid for”, she repeats.
In hindsight, everything is foreshadowing.
I rarely drop off her medications; the pharmacy delivers. This day though, after picking up my daughter, we stop at the store to grab something for dinner. The pharmacy is on the way past the checkout; its easy to piggyback the monthly supply of blister pack pills. Back in the car, I ask my daughter to dial Gramma.
No answer, but not unusual. We call again from her parking lot. Twice. “Stay in the car”.
Outside her room I call again. Still no answer. Dodging walkers and the odd wheelchair, I race walk through the lodge. I hadn’t planned to drop in and have forgotten my key, so circle back to the front desk. The receptionist is on the phone, motions for me to leave the prescriptions with her. Me: Big Frown. “Leave it here” …she fake whispers, hand over phone. No. Nope. No Way.
I don’t like this feeling, control the urge to pull her across the reception desk. Alpha female engaged. Major. Ursa. Mama Bear’s Daughter. I need her to let me in. She hangs up, follows me to Mom’s door, puts the key in the lock and silently walks away.
Everything unfolds in jump cuts.
Fumble-phone- Emergency Cord-911. Yelling. Address? Emergency! Nurses. Choking, Struggling. Breath. Ambulance. Questions. Answers. Yelling.
Does she smoke? Did you find her? How old is she? Does she smoke? Does she use oxygen? Is she a smoker? What drugs is she taking? Family doctor? Health card?
Hot anger to cold calm in a second. Sounds blur. She’s lifted, struggling to breathe, onto a stretcher as wide as a cutting board. Moving, quickly, frightened- eyes like Grandma’s after her stroke.
Is it just a day ago I was asking them to hold still- my Mom and daughter in their dark glasses?
After our eye exams, we drop my daughter back to school and go for lunch. She’s still wearing the thick sunglasses as we enter her fav French bistro. It’s late for lunch, and we’ve missed the rush, which is great as it’s easier to store the walker.
We order the quiche special, a tradition. Upside: My mom and I love good food and wine. Downside: she’s still wearing those sunglasses. Mais non! I reach across and remove them.
We talk politics. She’s effusive about the recent election, I do not share her optimism. And of course, we review the year that was: letting go of her old house, learning to love the new Lodge, and her near miss. Raising our glasses, we toast to good fortune and good health. Remembering her fortnight in the hospital, I call her “Old Grandma” in Danny’s rough smoker’s voice. It feels good to laugh.
“Let’s order dessert”, she suggests, eyes bright as a child’s, and a crème brulee with two forks appears.
Upside: we talk about meaningful things: family, politics, new heart meds and the miracle of modern science.
Downside: It’s the last time.
The stroke has changed almost everything. My opinionated, opera going, book loving Mom can no longer read, talk, or walk. The cheerful blue walker has been replaced by a dour black wheelchair. Her brain is firing, but how to express those words and feelings, desires and fears? Her right frontal lobe has been blown apart by a microscopic clot.
I drink more than I should, and desperately grope for upsides.
It’s taken a year to move from Code Red to something else. My brother and younger sister visit often. Our mother surprises everyone, working hard to rewire. The most amazing therapists offer hope and much needed help. We rely on an unknown shorthand, a strange psychic connection that allows for deep, quiet communication. There’s six months of hospitals and exhausting, aggressive rehabilitation. Discouraged and exhausted, she knows return to the Senior’s Lodge is impossible. We are now untethered in the world of “complicated medical care”. We explore every available option, fill out applications and wait to see who will take her.
Upside: her room has a window that opens
She requires help with the smallest things, showering and tooth brushing, getting dressed and “toileting”. Communicating “yes” and “no” is critical. Her face is still expressive and lately, there are words.
Upside: She says, “I love you” and we get it. Repeat it. It becomes our mantra.
There is a pause now, a reprieve from the sharp stab of emergency rooms. It’s temporary though, the wheel is turning and we all know it. There is space for the briefest of moments to focus on other things that need tending: my daughter, my husband, myself.
Downside: Last year my mom had a profound and debilitating stroke.
Upside: It’s spring, the time of rebirth and renewal.
A time to “bloom where you are planted”, as my mom would often say. Her gardening days are behind her, but mine aren’t. The garden tethers me to the earth and the peonies I transplanted from her ersatz garden appear to be painfully pushing their way through the soil in mine. Encouraged, I dig in compost from my own messy bin. From decay… delight. Or at least, not defeat.
I know I will lose her, this Mother of mine. She is finishing as my daughter is just beginning. And I walk forward, uncertain and frightened, into the true underworld. My mother is teaching us about dying and it’s one more lesson, like composting.
There is no way but through it, and it will take as long as it takes. It’s true, grief is the price we pay for loving. We grieve for what is lost, and what will be lost. And we grieve for our own lost selves. Child to adult. Mother to elder. Elder to ancestor. End over endless over time.
* small beneath the sky” is a gorgeous prairie memoir by my Mom’s favourite Canadian author, the gracious and ferociously talented Lorna Crozier. A highly recommended read.