>Not Becoming My Mother

>I’ve never served on jury duty. The only time I was ever asked to was the exact week that our adopted daughter would be arriving from South Korea, in November of 1986. I panicked when I received the letter from the United States District Court ordering me to appear. Thankfully it only took a quick phone call and a simple explanation of my situation for me to be excused. That was 33 years ago. So when a similar letter arrived in my mailbox earlier this week, I thought, “Okay, I can do this now.” But the letter wasn’t for me. It was for my mother. All her official business mail comes to my address since I became her Durable Power of Attorney three years ago. I opened the form and began to fill out the questionnaire:

4. Do you read, write speak and understand the English language? I bubbled in the “yes” circle, although it’s a stretch to say that Mom “understands” much of anything these days. Where would there be a place to explain her situation? Ahh… there it was:

8. Do you have any physical or mental disability that would interfere with or prevent you from serving as a juror? I bubbled in “yes” and turned the form over to the “Remarks” section and briefly explained that Mom is 81 years old, has Alzheimer’s, is in a nursing home, confined to a wheelchair since her Alzheimer’s prevented her full recovery from a broken hip and two surgeries this past fall.

Then under “Grounds for Requesting Excuse” one of three “grounds” was: (2) All persons over 70 years of age. It didn’t say this would be a given, so I wondered if someone was still alert, but over 70, would be excused. At any rate, I filled out both pages of the questionnaire and dropped it on the mail yesterday.

The same day my copy of preserving your Memory: The Magazine of Health and Hope arrived in my mailbox. It’s published by the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. I’ve shared a couple of copies with friends because I find it helpful—short, pertinent, and easy to read. There’s an article about a new book by Leeza Gibbons called Take Your Oxygen First that’s coming out in May, specifically for Alzheimer’s caregivers. Since my maternal grandmother also suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, as did Leeza’s, I’m interested in learning all I can.

All this was on my heart as I drove down to Jackson, Mississippi today for a “pre-Easter” visit with my Mom at her nursing home. (I wrote about last year’s Easter visit here.) Click on the video of Effie’s Bunny Hopper for a laugh. Although I took Mom a basket of Easter candy, she still enjoys watching the Bunny Hopper, a year later.

It was a gorgeous day to sit on the patio at the nursing home. The trees are greening up and the flowers are blooming, birds are on the bird feeders. Just lovely. As I commented on how pretty the courtyard area was, Mom said, “Yes, I’m so proud of everyone. We’ve been doing the work a little at a time. I helped with the flowers.” This is the same thing she told me on my last visit. I couldn’t help but be glad that she enjoys helping with the flowers, if only in her mind.

A young mother with two little girls came by, giving out Easter candy to the residents. Mom was confused, thinking that she should give some of her candy to the girls instead. I guess it is a reversal of roles that one never quite gets used to. Mom was the ultimate holiday person—making a huge deal out of every celebration.

But when we sat quietly for a while, and I managed not to rush to fill the silences, she would stare off into the sky and there’s no telling where she went, as she would say things like, “the numbers are sometimes up, up, up” and her hand would point up, “and then sometimes they are down, down, down.” Later I wondered if she’d been watching the news about the economy, because she added, “I heard something about where we need to put our money. Do I need to be doing something about that?”

“No, Mom. I’m taking care of all that for you.”

“Oh, thank you, dear. You’re such a good daughter.” She was more subdued than usual. The nurses had told me they had increased some of her meds since my last visit because she had become agitated a good bit.

An hour or so went by with only pleasantries being exchanged. She would ask about family members, whose names she doesn’t remember, but her face lit up when I told her (again) that she was going to be a great-grandmother this summer. And that her granddaughter, Beth, was going to travel to Europe this summer. At one point an aide that helps Mom with personal hygiene joined us. She told me how Mom cared about how her slacks and blouses matched and sometimes needed ironing. She talked about how pretty Mom’s hair and skin are, and how Mom had been enjoying wearing a little makeup recently. (I didn’t comment that it was overdone—I think Mom’s roommate gave her some foundation which is two shades too dark!) Anyway, the aid was real attentive, and after a while she asked me, “Has your mom always been so sweet? I mean, was she sweet to you when you were growing up?” This struck me as an odd thing to ask, personal, invasive. But I wondered if she understood that often Alzheimer’s changes people’s personalities….sometimes even for the better. When Mom wasn’t looking, I shook my head, “no.” The aide gave an understanding nod and smiled gently.

A few minutes later the “old mom” peeked back out briefly. A young woman who was considerably overweight walked through the courtyard. Mom looked at her, then at me, and puffed her cheeks out with air in immitation of the woman and said, “They shouldn’t let the big ones in here—they ruin the beauty of it.”

Sigh. So much of my life I felt that that’s exactly what I did—ruin the beauty of her world by being overweight. Her barbs about my weight left permanent wounds, leading to eating disorders, depression, and other issues. But today I tried not to let her words sting. They weren’t directed at me, but at the generic world of imperfect bodies that have always bothered her.

Driving home to Memphis, I thought about a book I just read. A short memoir by Ruth Reichl called Not Becoming My Mother. I received the book in the mail from the marketing department at Penguin Press—it’s actually an advance proof they were giving away on Twitter. Only 112 pages, so I read it in one sitting, and it was refreshing seeing the way another daughter dealt with her mother’s issues—in this case late diagnosed bipolar disease, but also repression by an era and a generation that held women back from their potential. Her mother told her that “once you find out who you are, you will find your beauty. You have to grow into your face.” Ruth’s mother had been told, as a teenager, that she was ugly, and Ruth felt the same way about herself during her own adolescence. She was determined not to pass this on to her own daughter, and her mother’s gift to her was to free her not to become her mother.

I’ve spent most of my life trying not to become my mother. But today, I’m also embracing my own mother where she is, forgiving the past and trying to be thankful for the present. It’s a lot to hold onto all at once… without losing myself in the process.

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