Having a loved one receiving “comfort care” is like being stoned—minus the munchies. Sometimes I forget and become absorbed or distracted or caught up in mindless routine but, mostly, my life glows, now, as if backlit. Ever aware that someone I love approaches death has imbued everything around me with such wonder, such preciousness, such gratitude!
Which, not for the first time, brings me to that wonderful moment at the end of “Our Town”:
“EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”
STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”
― Thornton Wilder, Our Town
Saints and poets, maybe—and those whose loved ones approach death.
My mother isn’t doing well. Despite pain meds and massages and ice packs and the tender, loving care she receives from her long-term-care facility’s excellent staff, she suffers. She weeps. She’s horribly confused. Sometimes she’ll tell me about her conversations with my father (he died in 2010); sometimes she perseverates, “Who’s taking care of him? He’s over a hundred, you know.”!
For most of my life I’ve had a complicated, fraught relationship with my beautiful and brilliant and, until late in her life, unrealized mother. “You know,” she told me years ago; she might have been drinking.”You should have been my mother.” Over time I came to understand why this crazy-weird impossibility was so tragically true. Therapy helped. Al-Anon helped. Having four daughters of my own helped. Getting older—both of us—helped. And for the past three years, being able to drive fifteen minutes to visit her in her private, sunny room surrounded by her own paintings and photographs and books helps. That she receives meds to ease her lifelong anxiety and depression helps. (She pays a pretty penny for this care; an obscenely huge amount. Which she can afford. Until she won’t.)
Yet even on the best of visits, when we’ve “walked” along wheelchair accessible pathways to see how the community gardens’ tomatoes fare, or strolled down to a lovely, little pond to watch turtles and fish and, sometimes, a blue heron; even then, I’d come home and take a nap!
So, last night, worried about her and wiped out by another too-hot, terrifyingly unseasonal day, I lay on my bed, AC valiantly chugging along, and, headphones on, listened to music. I didn’t curate my selections; I just listened to what I love. (Or so I thought.) Like Maria Callas’s “Casta Diva.” Or Faure’s “Requiem” which, the first time I heard it, on my car radio on the way to work, triggered a peak religious experience. Yes, triggered. For having just experienced The Whole, That Which Is Beyond Words, Spirit’s Transcendent Love, all I could think of was “Well, this is highly inconvenient! Right here on Mass Av in Porter Square? Couldn’t I have been in a forest?”
Oh, right, I realized, listening to Faure’s gorgeous mass. Requiem! Ummm, as in death? As in my mother’s tears of pain, certainly, but also her tears of shame and sadness that she’s so helpless and weak; as in her dim understanding of what, possibly, is happening to her? As in, perhaps, that the veil between the living and the dead begins to thin for her; she’s catching glimpses of what I cannot see? Like my father? As in that I am in mourning for my beautiful and brilliant and realized mother; I am in mourning for a Mother Earth who is much too hot, now. (Jeez.)
And that, again, mysteriously, an Unidentified Artist some call Spirit loved me, guided me.
For the past week I’ve been “Grammy.” That this delightful grandma-derivation is both something my beloved granddaughter began calling me one day, but can also mean prize-winning musicality, makes me very happy. Being Grammy makes me very happy— in the same way I feel whenever I am doing what is truly asked of me. Why is that?
What is it about being a grandmother that feels so “in the place just right”? For starters, spending time with the children of my children is a non-stop intimation of mortality! As Grammy, I am ever-aware that, yup; I am going to die. I. Just. Always. Am.
This fundamental realization immediately prompts a couple of questions: Okay, then, Grammy. So how do you want to spend this time with this child? And what do you want this child to remember about you?
So, yes, I am probably My Best Self as Grammy but, honestly? The role—which, for me, blessedly, also means being retired—allows that. Having cleared my calendar of all but the most essential duties and responsibilities when my grandchildren come to visit, Grammy time is pretty leisurely. You want to dawdle over breakfast, spend all morning in your jammies? No worries. (I could go on and on about this! But won’t.)
And what do I want this child to remember about me? My stories. Stories about when this child’s mother was a little girl; yes. Of course. But stories, too, about when I was a child; how different the world was, then. For I learned from my own, gifted, story-teller Grandma what a blessing it is to look at one’s own life as the next installment of an ongoing, mysterious, amazing story. To understand how we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
And, yes, looking into the eyes of my beloved grandchildren, I know I am looking into The Future. And ask myself: what am I, Grammy, called to do?
Once upon a time, my beloved grandmother, Florence Moulton Mirick Wild, born in 1877, lived at 130 Beacon Street, Worcester, with her large, extended, closely-knit, and well-to-do family. My brother and I grew up listening, saucer-eyed, to her adventure-filled childhood stories; she was a gifted storyteller of the Always Leave A Story Better Than You Found It School. (When she got to a good part, like the time she almost got trampled by Mr. Jones’ horse and sulky when she’d run into Beacon Street without looking, she’d clutch her pearls. Literally. Not in horror but in sheer, unmitigated excitement!)
Friday I spent a few hours exploring my grandmother’s childhood neighborhood—which, like so many neighborhoods in so many American cities, has “fallen on hard times.” So this will not be a story about my beloved grandmother.* This is a story about brokenness.
This is also a story about how you tell the story. For as I learned at my grandmother’s knee, language matters. Specificity matters. Facts matter. For example, little Florence didn’t just willy-nilly run across Beacon Street. No, she ran into the path of a speeding horse—who, by the way, always sped down Beacon Street—because Mrs. Doane across the street had just invited Florence to come have ginger cake. Of course that little girl, looking like a Kate Greenaway illustration, just “dashed into the street!”
So let’s get real. Let’s tell real stories of real people who’ve lost their jobs. Let’s use concrete language when we talk about poverty, when we talk about the bottom-line decisions to close down factories or to move them elsewhere; let’s admit there’s nothing benign about neglect! Let’s not say “Fallen on hard times,” okay? As if that neighborhood—known (ironically) as Beacon Brightly—had accidentally, clumsily stumbled when, in fact, it was pushed.
An interesting development: Right around the corner from my grandmother’s house, where a spacious and elegant home—maybe two?— once stood, there is now YouthGrow Farm! Where youth from that neighborhood can learn about urban farming, leadership skills, teamwork, and so much more. And are paid to do so.
*As a sign prominently displayed in an antique store wisely advised, “The only person interested in what your grandmother had was your grandfather!”
Short answer: Those of us who identify as female know all about cognitive dissonance. Indeed, most of us have grappled with this profound and confusing and dizzying disconnect our entire lives. (We know about gaslighting, too. But that’s another story.)
I’ll elucidate: When you’re female, i.e. perceived as prey, it’s open season. No matter how old you are. Because hunters hunt. Hunters prey. Stealthily. With winks and whispers and sly smiles. Tragically, horrifyingly, these unwanted advances can be sexual; bewilderingly, they can also be simply a form of male muscle-flexing. But, nevertheless, still unwanted, still creepy. Believe me when I tell you, guys—believing women: talk about muscle-flexing!—that most females on earth have, in a private and secret and secluded moment, witnessed a well-respected member of our family or community being creepy. To us. Alone.(“Wink, wink.”)
So maybe now’s the time to roll out that useful F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Yup. So here’s a Fun Fact: most females possess first-rate intellects since we’ve grappled with This Crap since childhood. Makes you think about Zelda’s mental health issues in a whole, new light, am I right?!
My own story? To my knowledge, I was never sexually abused as a child. Thank God I’ve never been raped. (My novel’s Jewell was, though.) Since childhood, however, I have had countless creepy, bewildering experiences with men. Overly-attentive men. Family members, neighbors, members of our church community. Often, alcohol was involved. (Child of the fifties, I passed around lots of canapés at my parents’ cocktail parties.) Pretty sure that one incident, alone in our rec room with a “Visiting Fireman,” who’d come to our house for drinks and dinner, was egregious enough that my mother and father asked the next day if “something happened.” No, they didn’t elucidate. They didn’t provide useful language, offer guidance about boundaries, touch. But by simply asking that (too-broad) question they tacitly expressed disquiet. Which matched my own. Confirmed my own sense of creepiness when a grown man with Scotch on his breath ardently whispered how pretty I was, how I’d break a few hearts, some day, while my parents were out of the room. (I don’t think he touched me.) My parents’ bumbling question allowed me to begin to trust my own disquiet, my own, wordless Ewww! (As the mother of four daughters, I’ve schooled them to trust their intuition and if something felt creepy, get the hell out of there!)
To drive home my point re perceived prey, I want to end this with another useful quote, this one from Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
For decades I’ve been following a “kamish broit” recipe I got from an ex-husband’s step-mother, Sarah Lohman. (Got that?) These walnut biscotti are delicious and ridiculously easy to make. So, Friday, company expected and running late, I automatically pulled out Sarah’s recipe.
Sarah, I suddenly thought, grinding a half a cup of walnuts in my mini-cuisinart. (Which, with a couple of taps of my index finger, reduces the nuts almost to a paste—although her recipe merely calls for “chopped walnuts.”) Who was she? When I was married to her stepson, I never once asked her anything about herself; in my self-involved twenties, I wasn’t interested.
I am, now. A Google search produced a skimpy outline. Her maiden name: Axelrod. Her birthplace: Odessa, Ukraine. The whiff of a story: At age nine months, she and her mother, Ida, arrived in Quebec on June 2, 1907, and moved on to Toronto. (I’d actually remembered she’d grown up in “Canada.” Period. Canada.) And a picture:
So many questions I’d love to ask her. Did your father, Abraham, join you and your mother? (Well, she had two sisters so maybe he did?) Did you experience anti-semitism in Toronto? Tell me about that hat you’re wearing in this picture; what you’re wearing around your neck! What brought you to New York City and The New York Times? (Where she met and married Sidney, my ex father-in-law.)
But here’s another discovery unearthed by keywords and links: The words kamish broit tell another story. After the Diaspora, after years of migration, Jews who found themselves in Italy learned about twice-baked/biscotti. Subsequently, Jews in Eastern Europe made mandel broit or “almond bread”; Jews in the Ukraine made kamish broit or “rushed bread”—but it’s the same recipe! (Well, okay, as you can probably guess, mandel broit is usually made from almonds. Which I will certainly try the next time I’m rushing and company’s coming!)
So when Sarah served kamish broit every time my ex and I visited, she replicated a regional recipe from a country she never knew. I find that strangely touching. And other Jews now in the New World are making basically the same, well-traveled mandel/kamish recipe. (There are many such recipes on the Internet: word for word, Sarah’s follows.)
So when I next dip a kamish broit into milk or coffee, I will both thank Sarah Axelrod Lohman—whose parents’ names I now know—and consider the long journey that biscotti has taken!
1/2 cup oil
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
2 cups sifted flour
Combine ingredients in order given—flour last. Divide into two loaves [meaning two round, patted-down mounds about a quarter-inch thick each] and bake on cookie sheet in 350 degree over for about 25-30 minutes. Light brown color. Remove, slice while hot [meaning quarter-inch slices, top to bottom. You could make an equator slice, too, but my family likes their kamish broit long.] Put back into hot oven (turned off at this point.) for about 15 minutes. There you have it!
Sunday, chilled, rainy, very windy, I’d almost wished there’d been a fireplace fire in the meetinghouse fireplace. Surely a hearty blaze would brighten my spirits? But, no, I realized. If there were to be any cheering up going on that gloomy morning, it would have to come from within!
And I remembered something someone in my yoga class had said on Thursday. (Actually, this was at our pre-yoga class, when we discuss a poem someone has brought in, or the Sutras, or a piece of writing our gifted teacher wishes to share.) One woman talked about sadness, hard times, grief and loss; how we’re sometimes too eager to be happy. “There’s good reasons to feel sad,” she said.
So I let myself sink into despair. Not to “wallow in it,” as my father always cautioned when anyone in our family dared to be sad. (You were allowed to be sad in my family for about five minutes. Then you had to get over it.) But to be honest! To honor the countless reasons we all have to feel sad.
And, mysteriously, after way more than five minutes of sitting in silence and letting myself “feel the feels,” as my daughter, Hope (!) says, Something happened. As if something inside me had been decluttered, de-cobwebbed, dusted or lemon-oiled or rearranged. As if I’d cleared a space within me to hold this sadness. And it was okay. More than okay. It was exactly what I was supposed to do.
Yesterday, spurred on my my oldest daughter’s curiosity about my beloved “Grandma,” I spent a couple of hours in the Schlesinger Library perusing Florence Moulton Mirick Wild’s alum folder. (Some people go to spas for self-care; I go to the Schlesinger!) A “Special Student” at Radcliffe College from 1897 until 1899, Florence never graduated but, apparently, felt warmly enough about her college experience to at least continue filling out alumnae forms.
[Before taking a brief look at two ah-hahs from yesterday, a warm, hearty Shout-Out to the Schlesinger! Thank you, insightful and wealthy people, for realizing that the lives of women are important. And that women’s letters and ephemera and papers et al. should be preserved. Yes.]
“Number of servants.”Not sure what surprised me more; that Radcliffe College wanted to know—or that my grandmother reported in 1931, at a time of great financial struggle for millions of people, that the Wild family employed one servant. I am guessing that servant was female, young, Irish, “right off the boat,” as her son, my father, would say. And I wonder: where is this nameless “One”‘s story preserved? (Sadly, I think I know the answer.)
“Excellent for the times“: In my grandmother’s breezy response to a question about how much she earned as “Supervisor for Public School Music” (for the Webster and then the Worcester, MA school systems, 1907 -1912) I detect both her WASPy squeamishness to talk about money and her justifiable pride. How horrified my grandmother would be that in 2018—her first grandchild now a Grandma, too—when it comes to women’s incomes, there still is no parity.
(What would Grandma make of today’s #MeToo movement?)
Years ago, for about a year, I was my Quaker meeting’s First Day School Coordinator, i.e., the principal of a pre-K—12 school open one hour a week and taught by volunteers. Dimly, very dimly, I understood that, for example, when I met with newcomer parents, I spoke for not only my meeting but, in a sense, the entire Quaker world: its history, its faith, its practice. (Yikes.) So, silly as it sounds, now, when a peach-colored scarf mysteriously appeared on my coat rack one day, I decided that I’d use that scarf to, ahem, ordain myself. If called upon to, indeed, be A QUAKER, that castoff scarf became my stole or vestment. Praying for guidance, praying for the right words, praying to listen with love, praying to be open to Spirit, I ceremoniously draped that scarf—which, luckily, went with everything I wore—around my neck. (Writing this, I still feel its soft cotton warmth against my skin.)
More recently, when my Quaker meeting offered training to become a “pastoral caregiver” I was, at first, not interested. “Why do I need training to do what I am already doing?” I thought. (and, yes, frankly, am doing pretty well!) But, again, dimly, I intuited that this seventeen-hour training, created by The Community of Hope International, was exactly what I was supposed to do.
How right I was. For not only do I get to explore delicious—and challenging— subjects like pastoral care and Benedictine spirituality and humility and healing (and lots, lots more) with others from my faith community but when, girded and guided by this training, I do pastoral care, every month I will have the opportunity to talk with others about “God in the Hard Places.”
One evening last week, after a full day of swimming and story-telling in the hammock—just she and I—and playing with her cousins, my granddaughter crawled into my lap.
“Show me a video,” she asked.”Please?” (Here’s one we both love.)
I thought a bit, Dear Reader, for, truth be told, as a Facebook/don’t own a TV kinda grandma, I watch a fair amount of videos! And then I showed her this one. “Blue jeans!” She loved it.
Because her parents were apparently content to let her keep watching and Youtube being Youtube, she and I watched other such videos, conveniently grouped and accessible: the first time a mother hears her son’s voice. The first time a blind child sees his mother’s face. The first time . . . And in every single one, tears. Copious tears. “It just wells up, doesn’t it,” notes a Brit technician to a weeping young woman who has just experienced sound for the first time.
When you’ve traveled around the sun as many times as I have, and been blessed, as have I, to know a host of lovely people, you’ll want to send off a LOT of Season’s Greetings* cards, right? I do. And, because I am human and, this season, easily overwhelmed, by Hour Three of writing and addressing cards on Saturday, I hit the wall. Only up to the H’s in my address book, I questioned my sanity; I doubted that a pretty card touting “happiness”—ordered in sunnier, cheerier, pre-election August—was even the right thing to mail!
But, wait, there’s more. I heard it. That ginormous web. Just for an instant. I heard its hum. Like the sound I remember from my teaching days when my writing students silently, happily settled into their individual work.
Yes. I heard that sweet “Mmmmm.” I’ll end by offering another sweet sound:
“The secret of the mountain is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.”
― Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
*Although I celebrate Christmas, many people do not. I respect that. It’s that simple. End of discussion.