It’s Easter and I’m looking out the window of my home office as the sun goes down. There was something that happened to me several years back that broke my heart, and I got some advice; to symbolically bury my feelings and grow something sweet instead. Under this upstairs window is a large raised planter on the sunny side of the house. On my hands and knees; like a prayer for healing, I planted stock, sweet william and a lilac bush.
I’ve since discovered that stock symbolizes a happy life, and contented existence. Sweet william represents finesse and perfection. The purple lilac symbolizes the first emotions of love. Slowly my heart healed.
Today through lack of trimming and neglect these past few years, the lilac bush is now more like a tree, having grown to a pithy height that reaches just under the second floor of our house. The stock and sweet william are no longer blooming but as I look through the frothy heads of lilac blooms swaying gently in the breeze, their perfume wafts in to where I sit and suddenly I am reminded of my mother, Grace.
We did not have an easy time of it, being related. I bet she had as difficult a time being my mother as I did being her daughter, from my early teen years on. In the end it got sorted out as part of my letting go. Alzheimer’s Disease is a lengthy process, so from 77 to 85, although communication was no better than it ever was, we were blessed with a few sacred moments, when we made a kind of peace before the light went out in her brain. These moments were scattered throughout those last 8 years of her life. Here are some.
To someone whose only real locus of control was being amid familiar rooms and objects, we knew packing her things up, including her two cats, and taking her from her last home would be upsetting. There were many comments she made while she followed us around such as pointing out “the stove is broken”, “the toaster is broken”, which relieved some of my guilt. She could no longer even operate a toaster. Surely we are doing the right thing? An attempt by her to cook something would be dangerous. We found a carton of milk in the freezer, 20 bags of kitty litter in the closet, and cartons of cigarettes waiting to be smoked; but she could no longer remember how to light a match.
As I cleaned out a drawer in the nightstand next to her bed, I pulled out a picture of “Harold”, and a pair of white cotton gloves, carefully preserved in a plastic bag. He was a handsome young man in a dark uniform with a white cap. I had seen it before. The gloves were hers, and I think she must have worn them the last time she saw him, and touched him. She saved them for at least 60 years. This was a man she regretted not waiting for during World War II; instead she had married my father. I had heard her talk wistfully about Harold in the past. She would go on about how “the uniform makes the man”, and the last time she saw him.
That evening my sister and brother-in-law would drive her 4 hours to their house for one night before placing her in a graduated care facility. Just before they started their drive, I made one last dinner for her at our house. Before we all sat down, I assured her, I’d adopted her cats, and they’d be part of the family. Just before that, she and I were upstairs in my bedroom. She looked at something on the mantel and said “That is the most beautiful vase I’ve ever seen.” About a minute later she looked up and said again “That is the most beautiful vase I’ve ever seen.” After a few repetitions she looked at me directly and said in a plaintive tone “You have no idea how terrifying it is to be losing your mind.” This was also repeated several times. I touched her and said “Don’t worry, you’ll be taken care of, fed, you’ll be warm, clean and dry. You’ll be comfortable, we love you, we’lI make sure.”
I had a few phone calls with Gracie in the next several months and during one, although she was confused about many things, she actually made sense. With this opportunity to really talk to my mother as I remembered her, I decided to ask her about Harold. “Oh, why do you want to ask me about Harold? That was so long ago.” Then the floodgates opened and I had a glimpse of a young romantic woman, and a confession of something poignant. In the midst of all that was frightening and confused in her mind, deep in the darkness that was coming for her; Harold, for whom she had pined all these years, was still one beacon shining brightly. Her brain flickered like a light bulb and turned on for a few minutes. I was able to see how difficult her choices had been, “With the war on, there was no guarantee he’d even come home.” She chose with her mind instead of her heart, and that made all the difference. She regretted this one choice bitterly.
Soon the lucidity was gone. Soon there was to be little light at all. In mere months she could look out the window of a car and announce things that she saw; just a few words strung together. In a year she would not be able to put together a sentence and finally her communications were just tittering, or laughter. In truth, it was a twisted blessing for a woman who had been so unhappy, and depressed, believing herself trapped in a loveless marriage, to be so happy and carefree now.
I remember her penchant for color; she took risks with wildly colorful upholstery on the couch and chairs in the living room, painted the baby grand piano white, and she had lavender walls in her bedroom. My brothers’ room was bright turquoise, my sister and I had wallpaper splashed with clusters of roses with apple green accent walls. Imagine purple again in the kitchen and bright pink in the dining room! Gracie sewed, made fabulous hats with her millinery club, cooked delicious, but not too healthy meals as was the standard in the 60’s and 70’s, and was a fashion maven. She would have called herself a “clothes horse.” If there was a party and she had a chance to dress up, she was beautiful with a womanly figure, perfect hair-do, wearing a knockout dress. And so she sewed as often as the housework would let her; a mostly-stay-at-home-mom. We’d get home from school and she’d be at the sewing machine, smoking a cigarette, or send me looking for the lost cigarettes. That could have been an early symptom of her waning memory in her 40’s. She would rip out a seam, or sew a dart and then look out the window into the lilac bushes and the mulberry trees...sweet, her favorite fragrance, and lilac or lavender, her favorite color.
Today these purple lilac flowers are the same color and fragrance, their sweet scent wafting through the window taking me back, reminding me today of how much she loved us, what she sacrificed and how little her desires, hopes and dreams were understood or fulfilled, just like so many women of her generation. She delighted in us as children, but troubles were on their way, coming at us as our parents were so unhappy that they divorced in their early 50’s. A favorite quote of hers, intoning the bitterness surrounding her feelings of hopelessness and dependence: “Never forget, it’s a man’s world.” She lost everything in the divorce and went back to work full time.
I will remember warmly those dishes and meals she made, we loved so much; the ones that nurtured us, like “Texas Hash”, her spaghetti sauce that was made from scratch, better than any I’ve tasted since, and her special meatloaf, or bolar roast. The cakes, pies, and cookies all made from scratch, showed she ruled the kitchen, even if she could rule little else. She made a beautiful home, and made us go to church. She taught us manners and ethics and corrected our term papers. She took a part-time job every fall so she could spoil us with presents at Christmas. She made all our holidays so special and festive.
After my fits of teen rebellion, to symbolize my independence, I called her Gracie after that. It’s not like I never said “mom” again, but she never objected to being called Gracie, and that’s really who she was; Grace.
I like remembering these sweet things like the lilacs, more than the bitter. As time moves on the edges around the harsher moments and sad moments soften now that she has been at rest ten years.
I kept the gloves and Harold’s photo. I hope they find each other again.
Did this touch your heart, like it touched mine? Post a comment; something that takes you back and touches your heart, I'd love to hear from you.
Dr. Karen J. Krahl, D.C. owner/doctor Synergy Health Group. The link to one of my blogs is www.synergyhealthgroup.com, click on "Health News" on the banner at the top of my home page and pick a topic.
More from parenting