February 6, 2017
Before I bought my first house, I asked my father if he could “help” with the mortgage. We met in the house I was considering. It was bright daylight outside, but you’d never know it from where we stood…inside, looking out the living room window. The porch was under an overhang and hadn’t seen the sun since the early 1930s. It was a dark little house. Made darker by no electricity. It had been turned off. Actually it had been condemned but I didn’t know it and the real estate agent didn’t disclose.
The conversation at the window – “I’ve not been the kind of father…that…mumble, mumble… In my day you went to work, you came home…mumble…you were gone all day.” But given the times, Eric was a very good father. He took me to work on the cottage while my sister stayed home with my mother. I accompanied him to cricket practices where other players also brought their kids. He let me drive alone as soon as I had my licence at 16-years-and-maybe-a-day.
One time, when Eric was in the car, he told me not to worry that I wasn’t going to university. “Your mother had to quit school during the depression, but she never stopped learning.” Betty my mother, returned to school when my younger sister went off to kindergarten.
Betty became a librarian and until she died, read three newspapers a day, mysteries, non-fiction, stacks of cookbooks and, ok, so she watched Coronation Street too. Her life ended with arthritis and alcohol–her own AA. But she is still remembered in the local library. And yes, that’s a beer in her hand. This was taken the day of the village festival.
A quick aside. Recently, I lost all of my ID. That was the day I went to my own local library and tried to pick up a book I’d ordered. No ID? No book. Holding back visible tears, I asked the woman at the desk to get the head librarian. Again, I explained why I didn’t have ID. And then (I have to confess), I brought the ghost of my dead mother into it. “I don’t have ID, but my mother was a librarian and I know how a library works from your side of the desk.” The lovely head librarian allowed me to take the book. “I won’t tell anyone and thank you…and my mother thanks you.”
Eric, my father, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when he was about 85. When he was 92, he fell in my parents’ apartment and ended in hospital. A nurse there told me how Alzheimer’s would eventually stop Eric’s swallowing reflex and he would starve to death. It would be horrible. The nurse also told me that soon my father wouldn’t recognize me and I should stop coming to the hospital every day.
My husband and I found a nursing home near our house. We took turns visiting daily. At first, the staff encouraged me NOT to visit.
For Jon and I, visiting was a gift. I took in Eric’s childhood and cricketing photos and pinned them on the wall. Eric talked about his childhood, his mother, building the cottage and other of life’s idiosyncratic bits. Eric remembered every cricket game and score when he talked with the cricket-obsessed staff from the Caribbean, Philippians and India. And we all laughed—long and loud. Alzheimer’s could not kill my father’s cricket scores.
And yes, with Alzheimer’s he was a different person–yet with shadows and flashes of his former (real?) self. My head knitted my two fathers together. It was probably the deep, dark, gooey chocolate cakes I smuggled into his room. They made the epoxy. We were all sticky and chocolaty but no one reported us. I’m grateful I had that extra time of being a rebellious teenager with the help of my father. Why don’t nursing homes realize there are some people who want, no, need, to visit? And people who want to be visited. I believe that’s what keeps their few memories of their mother and their cricket scores alive.
My best friend Annette died sixteen years ago. We shared a worldview. We were writing partners. We bounced every emotional and life experience off each other. Annette’s mother had died young and some of Annette’s mothering came from her mother’s sister, Aunt Gert.
Aunt Gert and her daughter Deni, spent two years together, on and off, as Gert aged. One evening while watching TV, Gert turned to Deni and said:
“I’ve loved being your mother.” “And I’ve loved being your daughter,” Deni replied.
Like Aunt Gert, my mother Betty, also had fine points. But unlike Gert, and my father, Betty’s inner self was always under lock and key and in spite of being “well oiled” as the saying goes, the lock rusted shut.
At Annette’s funeral, the Rabbi talked of the gift of knowing another person’s inner life. I was an inconsolable wreck but I held it together. Then the Cantor began to sing. That’s when I understood all those photos of women in other cultures throwing themselves onto the coffin and pounding it with their fists. I understood but I didn’t do it. I really wanted to.
In the Jewish faith, a year after the burial, there’s an unveiling at the cemetery when the headstone is revealed (unveiled) and family and friends join in prayers. Annette’s unveiling was only six months after her death. Too soon. After, I sat in my car, parked near the grave. Everyone else slowly drove off. Then I heard a long ungodly howl. It was me. That howl took me by surprise—it was primordial. I didn’t know I was that person.
I thought I could only look back because forward was gone.
Not true. There’s still that eternal talking in my head.
Annette kept journals. On January 20th, 2001, this is what Annette wrote:
The soul…The soul lives on in memory, in affection.
To sleep in peace, to rest in peace, with one’s ancestors,
That is a transaction of the soul.
Annette knew she was dying and very soon after, she did.
For a few years, all of the souls of my many “resting”, ghostly friends took up a lot of room. Now I smile to myself when I dream of them, think of them and mention them. They are all easily accessible for questions, advice, bits of gossip. I know where to look.
And Annette was, and still is, my perfect confident. That sounds a bit woo-woo but after all these years, I’m still talking to her, just not out loud.
**I paid back Eric’s mortgage loan .