Love Always, Mom xxxooo

In previous editions of this column, I’ve referenced a certain card delivered to me in June as the last in a series of posthumous “Notes From My Mother.” The prose acknowledged that difficult times lay ahead but encouraged me to draw on my own strength and that of my friends to get through the journey. It was apropos for a card received during the weekend our family scattered Mom’s ashes. I embraced her final handwritten remark, “On second thought, I’ll think about that tomorrow,” as a light-hearted good-bye.

I discovered this past week that it wasn’t the last card after all. In Monday’s mail was a manila envelope addressed in my sister’s hand. In the two minutes it took to drive between the neighborhood mailboxes and my driveway, I had started to wonder whether the contents had something to do with Mom. By the time I turned the key and opened the front door, I dared to hope it was a message from her.

Christmas 2013 (2)The holiday season had so far proven difficult for me. Mom was my Christmas buddy for many more years than the 12 we lived together and, without her, I hadn’t been able to muster much interest in any of the things we enjoyed as a team. She expressed an almost childlike awe about everything from an elegantly wrapped package, to a tree laden with precious memories of Christmases past, to homes that sparkled like the mythical Griswold abode with its 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights. Everything jolly was multiplied ten-fold when she was involved.

Mom’s pure delight was perfectly symbolized by the dozens of Joy ornaments, holiday pillows, figurines, snow globes, candles and miscellaneous knick-knacks she received over the years from family and friends. No one could resist decorations already personalized with her name. I was the biggest patsy. Every year I would hunt for just the right bit of Joy to add to her collection. I suspected that Christmas 2012 might be her last, so I unboxed every pretty piece she had ever received and arranged them in her room. What could stand on its own was displayed on top of her curio cabinet. What was intended to hang from a tree dangled from the curtain rod or from any other decorative bar I could call into service.

Christmas 2013 (3)A year later, just 16 days before Santa made his rounds, Mom indeed made her departure. It was a no-brainer that we didn’t trim the tree or deck the halls. We were exhausted, numb and not in the mood to celebrate. I thought this year would be better. I wanted it to be anyway. So I kicked off the season by persuading my husband, daughter and visiting cousins to attend the annual open house at a local nursery where guests are welcome to stroll through a wonderland of themed trees while they snack on decadent desserts and sip hot apple cider. Mom always loved visiting the shop, and I was determined to carry on the tradition. Almost as soon as we arrived, I spotted an especially beautiful, hand-painted Joy ornament and purchased it with a lump in my throat. I considered the act a turning point and was sure the holidays would miraculously roll out in a normal, familiar fashion. I was wrong.

As co-workers happily decorated the office and friends talked excitedly about their holiday plans, I noticed that grief was creeping back into my consciousness. I didn’t feel apathetic about the holiday. Rather, I felt lost and unsure what I should do about decorating the house, writing a Christmas letter, sending cards or any of the merry things I was used to doing with Mom by my side. My indecision began to stir up the misplaced anger that I thought was behind me and, deep down, I knew I was over-analyzing customs that should just make me happy. The upshot was that I felt paralyzed and desperately wanted to ask Mom for her advice.

“What should I do, Mom? What would you want me to do?”

As if on cue, the card arrived. Written by Linda Staten for Hallmark, it began with motherly accolades about joyful times and proud moments, dreams for my future and confidence that I could handle any challenge. The prose inside concluded with an invitation to continue to turn to Mom for help and encouragement. In an introductory letter, my sister marveled about Mom’s foresight in choosing the final card. It was written in the present tense. She didn’t want me to think of her as part of my past but as a continuing presence in my life. My sister added that, by the time Mom signed the card, she had only the strength to write a single line. I read it through the tears welling up in my eyes.

Love always, Mom xxxooo

I laid the card and letter down on the counter and looked around the living room. The artificial, pre-lit tree Mom and I had purchased several years before stood in the window but was sparsely decorated with only those ornaments I thought could survive the curiosity of a playful kitty with no prior Christmas experience. On another wall, my husband’s stocking and mine hung rather forlornly from a couple of guitar hooks. Nothing else in the room hinted that the most magical day of the year was approaching. My collection of nativity scenes, scads of stuffed and ceramic Santas, dozens of miscellaneous snowmen and angels, and my mismatched but treasured miniature village were still packed securely in their boxes as they had been for two years. All of Mom’s favorite holiday decorations were likewise tucked away. And, yes, for readers of the “Live Long and Prosper” edition of this column a few weeks back, the Galileo with Mr. Spock at the helm had not seen the light of day. It finally dawned on me that, if I didn’t escape my own inertia, the holiday would come and go with none of the beauty and warmth that I’ve always considered the one redeeming element of our long, frosty winters. In my head, I heard Mom say:

“Don’t overthink this. You don’t have to take everything out. Start slow. Keep it simple. This year just put out whatever makes you happy.”

Christmas 2014 (2)I ventured into the garage and began peering into dusty boxes and Rubbermaid crates stuffed with Christmas cheer. I paroled about a half-dozen Santas – some mine, some Mom’s. I set up the miniature village but decided to let the crowds of little people, trees and streetlights sit this year out. Nearby, I positioned a three-foot Santa and a twinkling replica of a Victorian Gaslamp. On top of the entertainment center I carefully arranged three candles in glittery holders, an equally glittery deer, a tall angel and a wooden nativity carved within the letters J-O-Y. By the time I reached the dining room, my creativity had kicked into full gear. Out of reach for an inquisitive kitty, I turned the light fixture over the table into a pseudo centerpiece that incorporated the hand-painted Joy ornament I found at the nursery’s open house.

Although I did try to focus on decorations that wouldn’t tempt the cat, I didn’t overthink the project. I kept it simple, and I made sure every choice made me happy. The result was beautiful. Yet, something was missing. Try as I might, I could not seem to find a light string with sockets that would accommodate the plug for the 22-year-old Galileo. The tree, a garland, everything electrical was much too new. The thought of breaking out Mom’s entire collection of Star Trek ornaments and her dated four-foot display tree made me cringe. I knew I wasn’t ready for that. Days went by with no solution.

Finally, just hours before this column was scheduled to go live, the answer suddenly came to me. I walked over to a vintage string of red poinsettia lights that I had found among Mom’s cache and had artfully draped over a wrought iron wall sculpture near the foyer. I held my breath as I replaced one of the lights with the plug that would activate the shuttlecraft. It was a match! I pushed the button and heard Mr. Spock’s familiar greeting.

“Now it’s Christmas,” I announced with childlike joy. In my heart, I knew the solution was a gift from someone dear. It had her autograph all over it.

Love always, Mom xxxooo

Christmas - Galileo 2

 Christmas 2014 - Card 1Christmas 2014 - Card 2

This Hunt Was Dedicated — Wooo-Hooo!

At the end of September, this column irreverently dedicated the 13th Annual Nevada Day Treasure Hunt to my mother – “irreverently” in tribute to her appreciation for the weird and wonderful, the bright and beautiful.  This epilogue is to report that she would have considered the outcome of the game howl-arious.

A dog found the treasure.  Yes, you read that right.  A big, lovable, Chocolate Lab sniffed out the worn leather pouch that traditionally holds the blue and silver medallion encased in an acrylic square.  The pouch was safely tucked in the middle of a tight cluster of trees beside a creek bordering a fitness trail.  A thin layer of pine needles ensured that no one simply walking past would spot it.  But that didn’t stop Eli, our canine contestant.  He nudged it out of its nest and, carrying the pouch gently in his mouth, trotted proudly back to his human companion.  She and some friends had been trying to decipher the daily riddles that held the secret of the treasure’s whereabouts, but she quite honestly described Eli’s find that day as “dumb luck.”  Fittingly, the game ended on the 13th clue of the 13th hunt.

Third Creek by Fitness TrailNever in the years that our family has sponsored and organized this event have we been so surprised by the win.  We’ve occasionally been taken off guard by a speedy resolution.  One year, on the third in a line-up of 15 clues, a hunter with a hunch found the medallion behind a historical marker commemorating Nevada’s mining history.  Another year a forest ranger suspected it was hidden on a trail near the California-Nevada border and presented it after Clue 5.  On the other end of the spectrum, the 2010 game continued all the way to Clue 14, and we were beginning to Treasure Hunt Hiding Spot 2014think no one would find the pouch staked among sagebrush alongside a gravel road abutting the site of an Old West fort.  Eli’s role in ending this year’s hunt will become part of its down-home folklore.

For more than a decade in Oregon our family played a similar game associated with the Portland Rose Festival.  Some of our most beloved memories are rooted in researching possible solutions to cryptic rhymes, exploring unfamiliar roads and landmarks, and wandering down Treasure Hunt Medallion in Hidingnature trails certain that we were about to spot the coveted prize.  We came “this close” a few times, but we were never lucky enough to actually find it.  Make no mistake, though.  The memories we made were no less precious just because we came up empty-handed.

When we moved away from Portland in 1997, my son suggested that we start a treasure hunt in our new home of Northern Nevada.  We could use our experience to design a truly engaging game that would encourage people to learn Treasure Hunt Medallionabout the state, visit new places, and enjoy each other in the process.

Wouldn’t it be fun, he mused, to be the creators instead of the hunters?

To give credit where it’s due, he was largely responsible for the first couple of hunts.  When the rest of the family climbed on the bandwagon, the Nevada Day Treasure Hunt became our personal, cherished tradition.

Some might argue that, when you stage a community event, it can’t be personal.  On the contrary, it is very much so.  For years we have guarded our family outings with the secrecy of an FBI undercover operation.  The grandchildren were indoctrinated from birth and no longer need reminders to “zip it” when anyone asks what they did over a long, summer weekend.  We kick each other under restaurant tables when one of us absent-mindedly starts a conversation about the hunt in public.  If the topic comes up while visiting on our patio, we go inside the house.  A few local businesses have supported the event over the years, mostly with in-kind services, but our family is solely responsible for the game from start to finish.  We have purposely fronted the $1,000 prize because major cash sponsorships too often come with strings attached.  The smaller the inner circle, the easier it is to preserve the simplicity and integrity of the hunt.

Yes, the game is personal for us.  It was even more so this year because it was the first since my mother — the kids’ beloved Grandma Joy — passed away.  As described in my September column, “This Hunt Is Dedicated,” she was the custodian of the opening clue, and her enthusiasm when we unearthed quirky details about Nevada’s past (or present) was contagious.  She never really could walk trails with us, but she delighted in coming along for the ride to scope out the general area around potential hiding places.  In truth, this year’s hunt was not the first we had to organize without her.  Her contribution in 2013 was limited to modest cheerleading; she was enrolled in a home hospice program the week after the medallion was found.

LucyOn a recent Saturday night, the family gathered around the dining room table to enjoy buttery squares of freshly baked cornbread and steaming bowls of homemade beef stew, which I learned to make under Mom’s tutelage.  The conversation turned to the recently ended treasure hunt and what she may have thought of Eli’s triumph.  She loved animals of all sizes, shapes and species … more than she loved most people.  She was rarely, if ever, without a dog by her side, on her lap or snuggled up beside her in bed.  She considered her Yorkshire Terrier, Lucy, who died in 2007 to be her true soulmate, and animal rescue organizations were her charity of choice.  To me, even her cheers sounded like the yelp of a happy dog or the spirited howl of a wolf.  We have no doubt Mom would have taken great pleasure in this particular shaggy-dog story.

After dinner, my son read aloud a selection of comments from the social media page we established for the hunt.  Some were intriguing posts from hunters comparing notes with each other or sharing suggestions with us.  Some were petulant but harmless comments added by unsuccessful hunters expressing their frustration with the outcome.  To our dismay, there were also over-the-top tirades published by angry competitors whose online road rage was startling.  They cruelly cursed everyone and everything for their loss except the plain fact that they did not correctly decipher the clues.  We pondered whether these attacks are evidence that the hunt has grown beyond our capacity as a family to continue in the same simple manner of the past 13 years.  Attracting a grim, hardcore fringe is a sign of the times, it seems.

Our story hour ended on a decidedly positive note when my son read a long, humorous, inspiring tale submitted privately to him by a family that drove, hiked, explored and otherwise scoured nearly all of the seven counties that comprise the broad search area.  Their description of midnight research sessions, determined excursions to places near and far, and toting a tired daughter piggy-back reminded us of well us.  Though they didn’t find the medallion, they said the things they learned about Nevada and the memories they made are worth far more than the cash prize.  Aaaah.  Such a sweet amen.

Wouldn’t it be fun, my son mused, to be hunters again?

As mentioned in some previous columns, Mom harbored a long-standing fear that she would not be remembered.  Unique hits on the Treasure Hunt’s main webpage and our social media page indicate that upwards of 20,000 people participated in or at least followed the hunt this year.  With those statistics, being forgotten is not an issue.  Mom would be both humbled and pleased, I’m sure.  But, trust me, I knew my weird and wonderful, bright and beautiful mother.  The smile spreading across her face and the gleam in her eye would be more for the goofy Chocolate Lab named Eli than for anyone or anything else.  I can imagine her raising a fist in the air, as she so often did when rooting for her favorite football team, and howling, “Wooo-Hooo!  Go, you little devil, go!”

There once was a doggy named Eli

Who could follow a trail with an eagle eye

But it was his nose

That outsmarted the pros

All hail to that four-legged furry guy

Accept Gifts Graciously

Just before my 9th birthday in 1963, my father paused his maritime career and took what he referred to as a “shore job.”  He often recalled, with a wink and a smile, that a comment I made led to this regrettable decision.  I barely remember it, but I did look up at him one day while he was between voyages and innocently asked, “Why don’t you come home at night like other daddies?”

The decision was regrettable because, within a few hours of clocking in on his first day at a dog food plant, he was seriously injured in a freak accident. He and a co-worker were moving a large, heavy meat cutting machine that suddenly tipped over, trapping him underneath and breaking multiple bones.  We were told he would have died instantly had he not thrust out his arm and, with superhuman effort, kept the contraption from crushing his chest.  For weeks he was hospitalized; immobilized with one leg in traction.  My birthday was celebrated at his bedside.

Daddy - Broken Leg - 1963When my father was finally released, he came home in a full body cast and with an arsenal of medical equipment. A hospital bed equipped with a trapeze bar took over one corner of the living room, and a pair of wooden crutches leaned against the wall nearby.  Parked in the covered breezeway between the garage and the house was a long, flat gurney outfitted with over-sized rubber-rimmed wheels for manual propulsion.

Mom was not employed outside the home at the time of the accident but, as soon as the shock subsided, she began applying for bookkeeping jobs in medical offices around the area. She was quickly hired by a team of orthopedic surgeons, and my paternal grandmother began to spend weekdays at our house in the San Fernando Valley so she could look after my father, sister, brother and me.  Most weekends, she returned to her tiny apartment in downtown Los Angeles.

One Friday evening, without any forethought, I asked if I could spend the weekend with my grandmother. She was 75, decidedly puritanical and not inclined to engage in active pastimes that would interest a fourth-grader.  Nevertheless, the two of us got along quite well in those days.  Within minutes Mom was washing my hair over the kitchen sink and telling me to be a good girl.  She handed me a one dollar bill (about $7.50 today) to pay for a treat or a toy in case we went shopping.  At first, I politely declined.  “You don’t have to do that,” I said.  More than 50 years later, I still recall her reply.

 “Learn to accept gifts graciously.”

During that weekend, my grandmother and I rode the original Angels Flight rail cars up and down the steep incline between Olive and Hill streets, listened to evangelist Dr. John McGee preachGrandma Samsel and Kids - Easter 1962 (2) at the colossal Church of the Open Door, and sang hymns in a nearby park with a few of her friends. At one point, we wandered through a cluttered five and dime where I picked out a thick coloring book and proudly paid for it with the gift from my mother.

My memory may be fuzzy on some childhood moments, but the lesson involving the one dollar bill is vivid. It was a singular comment made by an ordinary mother to her young daughter; not taken from a book of etiquette or borrowed from an illustrious poet.  She never said it again.  She never wrote it down.  Yet, it was so powerful a message that it is permanently etched on my heart.  Mom’s words have reminded me to practice being gracious many times over the last five decades.  However, it wasn’t until preparing for this week’s column that I suddenly saw it as a piece of advice that could have helped me through the sometimes grueling years as her caregiver.

In a past column, I described how Mom earned the nickname “The Only One” by periodically lamenting about shouldering more than her share of the responsibilities in our family. The rather unflattering moniker grew into a term of endearment over the years but, speaking as a recent graduate of the caregiver corps, I think it should have been an accolade from the beginning.  Imagine a 39-year-old with three children ranging in age from 4 to 11, a seriously injured husband facing a lengthy rehabilitation, and a household budget blown to smithereens.  Pulling the family through that dark period probably ticked off three of the four requirements for sainthood … and we weren’t even Catholic.

To be fair, though, Mom could not have brought us through it alone. Gracious acceptance of her mother-in-law’s generous gift of weekday homemaking was critically important.

Grandma Samsel and Jesse - 1963In a plot twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan, the partnership prevailed despite the fact that Mom and my grandmother were never particularly fond of one another. Their relationship was guarded at best.  As the story goes, my grandmother never thought any woman could live up to the high standards she set for her only son.  My mother, in turn, viewed her as a Class-A critic and meddler.  Regardless, they managed to set aside their differences to achieve a common goal.  The two of them orchestrated a relatively uncomplicated tag team to ensure that the four people they both loved most – my father, sister, brother and I – had everything we needed … and more.

Clean clothes drying on an outdoor line, the aroma of freshly-baked apple pie, southern truisms repeated with a lingering Texas drawl, and black-and-white episodes of the inaugural season of General Hospital became staples of weekdays with our grandmother.  When Mom returned home from work in the evening, she was greeted with a warm dinner and a mostly contented family.  Weekends were spent swimming in our backyard pool, enacting Wagon Train on the wheeled gurney that was supposed to be parked in the breezeway, and playing with the puppies that came along after our Collie had an unchaperoned visit with the neighbor’s German Shepherd.  My sister, brother and I were not necessarily oblivious to the hardship that had befallen our family, but the blow was softened significantly because of the commitment Mom and our grandmother made to each other.

Mom and Jesse - 1963 (2)If this story was a made-for-television movie, it would conclude with Mom and my grandmother becoming best of friends through shared adversity. Real-life isn’t always punctuated by Hallmark moments, though.  The two of them remained wary of one another for the rest of their days.  That in no way devalues their temporary alliance.

Photos of Mom from this difficult chapter of our lives provide a hint of the exhaustion she could not entirely escape. I can only imagine what would have become of her, and those of us who were depending on her, had she not joined forces with a rather unlikely partner and followed the same, simple rule she passed on to me.

Learn to accept gifts graciously.

Christmas 2012

It’s All About Me, Al Franken

Remember the bushy-haired, bespectacled comedian from Saturday Night Live who was certain the world revolved around him? He sat at the sardonic news desk; ever interested in how current events would affect him (dramatic pause), Al Franken.  He declared the 1980s the Al Franken Decade and drolly imparted tips on what viewers could do for him.

Being a care recipient is a little … no a lot … like being Al Franken. Your needs come before anyone else in the family.  Your routine dictates everyone’s schedule.  Your crises, medical or otherwise, each become a crisis for the entire household.  As appealing as it may sound to be the focus of attention, I’m fairly certain most care recipients don’t revel in driving the “Frankenbus.”  The route is fraught with tricky twists and turns that could tip that big, unwieldy thing on its side at any time.  There are no seatbelts, no power steering and, worst of all, no power brakes to bring the crazy ride to a screeching halt.

On dozens of occasions during the years my mother drove that bus, she voiced the concern that she was a burden. One day she would worry that she was tiring me out and ruining my health.  Another day she fretted about keeping me from participating in activities with friends and family outside the four walls of our home.  She apologized repeatedly because we couldn’t go out to eat without sitting in the restaurant parking lot for 15 minutes while she carefully tested her blood sugar and injected insulin to counteract the meal she was about to order.  She was troubled that I was whittling away at my sick leave to take her to medical appointments and missing work to tend to her when she was ailing.  As many times as she verbalized her worries, I’m sure she silently turned the same thoughts over in her head hundreds more.

It's All About Me

Farewell Christmas Card 2013

Our modus operandi was generally to find humor in otherwise dismal situations, so eventually her concerns turned into one of the coded messages I’ve often referenced in these columns. If one of us was fussing about something and began to lose sight of the big picture, the other would interrupt and say,

“It’s all about me, Al Franken.”

 It was always good for a chuckle and a quick reality check. Once in a while, we would add Al’s simple reasoning to this narcissistic phrase.  “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like me.”

Mom commemorated this coded message in the Christmas card my family was entrusted to deliver after she passed away last year. She died just a couple of weeks before the holiday, so there was little decorating or celebrating in our household.  The best gift I received was that card, the first in a secret series of posthumous missives.  Some I’ve already shared with you; others will make appearances as this continuing saga unfolds.

Mom and Me 2003

Vacation – 2003

“It’s all about me, Al Franken,” was not a signal reserved exclusively for Mom’s low moments. She was known in our family as “the only one,” but she was not the only one to periodically feel trapped by our circumstances.  I was never tired of her; just tired and, as the years passed, it began to show.  As Sarah Ban Breathnach wrote in her 1995 daybook, “Simple Abundance,” it is not the temporary pressure of work (or caregiving) that causes burnout.  That, she says, “comes from living unbalanced for years; when what was supposed to be a temporary situation becomes a lifestyle.”

It wasn’t until the last few years of Mom’s life that the feeling of being constantly tired erupted into full-blown caregiver burnout; the kind that Ms. Ban Breathnach calls the “soul snuffer.” Thankfully, I remained fairly skillful at exposing only surface frustrations in Mom’s presence and censoring my deepest feelings of anguish.  As far as I know, she was unaware that occasionally the weight of our arrangement overpowered me, and I would pour my heart out to anyone who would listen in person, on the telephone or in an email.

When I worried, aloud or silently, it was about many of the same things Mom did. The culture at my workplace was genuinely “family first,” but I still felt anxious about my dwindling sick leave and postponed projects.  Sometimes I imagined what it would be like to go on an outing and not have to heft a wheelchair in and out of the trunk and patiently help Mom slowly transfer back and forth.  I wondered how long God expected me to go on, especially since I was approaching my 60s and couldn’t help noticing that the time to pursue my own lingering dreams was slipping away.  Worse yet, I watched my two grandsons’ childhood racing past, and I couldn’t be present for milestones like holiday pageants or Cub Scout ceremonies.

Every time I lapsed into self-pity about our circumstances, I would inevitably feel guilty for my selfishness. My paternal grandmother’s admonishment, “Don’t be ugly,” would drift through my head and I would, indeed, feel ugly all the way through.  My sister, my daughter and my closest friends would reassure me that it was natural to feel frustrated when holding down a full-time job, caring for someone who was completely dependent on others, and trying to capture a moment now and then with the rest of my family.  At the time, their kind words didn’t make me feel any less ugly, but as with so many things in life, the image in the rearview mirror is crystal clear.  Just looking at the photos posted with this column — from 2003, 2008 and 2012 — I can see the physical changes in both Mom and me, and I can truly understand the multiplying pressures of our years-long journey.

New House - 2008

New House – 2008

Indeed, caregiving and care receiving is a journey … and it’s not for the fainthearted. It is the most advanced course of study anyone will ever take on earth, regardless of whether you are the one providing care or the one receiving it.  The highest level of trust, commitment, patience, compassion, love and forgiveness are prerequisites for both parties.  How else could one get through the ugly moments and gladly return to the arduous path?

Somewhere in Mom’s last year of life, I realized that our time together was growing short. My periodic pity parties came to a halt.  I knew what I had always known — that the only way I was ever going to be released from my caregiving obligations was to lose Mom.  The finality of that solution was no longer an abstract idea in some distant, foggy future.  Suddenly I felt like Diana Prince spinning into Wonder Woman or Popeye consuming a can of fortifying spinach in one gulp.  I heard myself saying repeatedly, “I would take care of Mom forever if she would just stay.”  And I meant it.  The price of freedom was far too high.

In the end, there was no way to pause the journey or avoid the divergence of our paths. Mom was headed to an ethereal destination, and my name was not on the guest list.  Instead, I was advancing toward a new beginning here on mortal ground.  Our separation was inevitable and heart-wrenching.

So many months later, I am no longer constantly tired, my accrued sick leave is growing, and I have the freedom to go just about anywhere I please, anytime I please. Yes, it’s nice, but I would give it all up if I could have Mom back here with me.  As I write this, I can hear her whispering the double-edged truth … that today and every day … whether I like it or not, it is now …

“… all about me, Al Franken.”

Al Franken left Saturday Night Live and went on to become a U.S. Senator from Minnesota. I probably will not pursue politics (the thought makes me shudder) but I am confident that I can do anything I want.  I can become the person I was always meant to be because, just like Al Franken, I am “good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like me.”  More than that, I’ve got my invincible gold bracelets, my can of body-building spinach and Mom’s enduring love in my heart.  Nothing is more powerful than that.

This Hunt Is Dedicated

Last week when you read “the only one,” you were no doubt left with the impression that my mother’s principal attribute was a deep sense of responsibility tempered with a splash of endearing vulnerability.

Perhaps some of you, though, caught the passing reference to her ability to poke fun at herself (and others) with a “woe is me” gesture reminiscent of French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt or her finger-to-thumb symbol of tiny violins playing a tragic song. Happily, my mother’s great appreciation for the weird and wonderful perfectly balanced her more serious qualities.

The note Mom left behind that inspired this column is not actually one she left for me. Every year for 13 years, our family has sponsored and organized the Nevada Day Treasure Hunt, a popular event held in honor of statehood day, October 31st.  We choose a spot to hide a commemorative medallion and write 15 clues that are published online and in the capital city newspaper until someone solves the riddles and retrieves the prize.  Mom was president of our organization’s board of directors and traditionally wrote the first clue.  While preparing for this year’s hunt, my son found a slip of paper that was Mom’s unfinished working draft in 2012.

To the heroism of the military men and women — past present and future – this treasure hunt is respectfully dedicated. Don’t be the last —- —-, the shadowy past, unknown future and present.

ClueSome words are crossed out on the note. Other lines are incomplete because she was still searching for just the right combination to pay tribute to the over-arching Nevada Day theme that year.  What the note called to mind was that Mom had a definite affinity for the unconventional.  Every year one of us would gently offer her a hand in adjusting her clue so that it met the accepted idea of meter, form and rhyme.  My daughter’s handwriting is also on the little slip of paper because, apparently, she was the one trying to coach Mom that year.  In the end, Mom agreed to cut down the number of lines, but she wouldn’t compromise on anything else.  No matter how many times I’ve read the final version, I can identify no real rhythm or meter and certainly no rhyme.  It is simple, to the point, and free form at its best.

To the heroism of

The military men and women

Past, present, and future

This hunt is respectfully dedicated

Free form was Mom’s personal rebellion against life’s sometimes rigid structure. Every spring and summer, I thank the good Lord for the example she set when I stroll slowly in my rose garden and take in the unique beauty that surrounds me.  I had originally decided to emulate my favorite bouquet de jour and alternate a light yellow variety with ivory, but Mom was horrified.  She yelped something akin to:

 “Why in the world would you want to do anything as boring as that? Plant lots of different colors!”

Because I took her advice, the garden is a rainbow of red, pink, purple, orange, pumpkin, gold, yellow, and white. Some blooms are multi-colored and may start out a cool shade of lemonRose but, as they open, transform into a warm ruby sunset.  My garden is a bold splash of vibrant color in the middle of the dull shades of tan and brown that dominate the high desert.  And so, my friends, was my mother.

Long before I was born, she was wild, free and unconventional. She rode motorcycles when it was still an oddity to see a woman on a bike because, in the 1940s, nice girls didn’t ride.  She ferried her friends around in jalopies with rumble seats and, in a jam, could repair them herself.  After she passed away, an old friend wrote a letter of condolence and reminisced about breaking down in traffic in downtown Los Angeles and holding up the Red Car trolley.  Mom hopped out of her stalled coupe, popped the hood, jimmied something with the long end of a rat-tail comb, hopped back in and fired up the engine.  Everyone on the Red Car cheered.

No matter what life threw at her, she never lost her sense of humor or her zest for life. In the 1960s, I remember her striking a Hollywood glamour pose with a long, shiny, gold cigarette holder perched in her hand.  I can imagine her, at that very moment, altering her voice to imitate film star Gloria Swanson and murmuring, “All right, Mr. De Mille. I’m ready for my close-up.”  In the early 1970s, when seatbelts and vehicle safety were still emerging concepts, my younger brother and I squeezed into the narrow passenger seat of Mom’s 1952 MG so she could happily ferry us 250 miles across Oregon for a summer swimming meet.  No radio; just the songs we sang at the top of our lungs.  No air conditioning; just the wind whistling through the non-existent windows.  It was magical.

TheoFast forward to the 1980s and Mom still knew how to have a good time. She bought a second-hand stuffed gorilla the size of a large child, named him Theo, dressed him in a shirt and pants, and let him routinely ride shotgun as she ran errands around town.  For a local pioneer parade, she decked him out in a fringed vest and cowboy hat and propped him up on the float entered by the nursing home where she worked.  It amazes me that she ever parted with that scruffy old beast.

Around the same time that Mom was audaciously carrying on her friendship with Theo, she also was enjoying her growing brood of grandchildren. With them, she could be as silly as she wanted without raising any eyebrows … not that she cared about such nonsense.  One of my favorite memories from 1984 is my 60-year-old mother leading a giggling band of giddy grandchildren around and around the coffee table in her living room while wearing a multi-colored fright wig.

Mom Wearing Fright WigNine years later, during a group trip to Universal Studios, she was the first in line to have her photo snapped against a green screen, later to be merged with a still from an old film. Others opted for romantic shots with their favorite leading man or asked to be dropped in beside fantasy film characters.  Nothing so demure for Mom; she chose an action scene from Dracula that allowed her to show off her talent for melodrama.

Even after her body gave up on her, she didn’t give up on humor. She was always game for a moment of spontaneous gaiety.

Picture an 80-something woman riding in a wheelchair in a home improvement warehouse picking out accessories for our newly redecorated living room. Boxes of this and that completely cover her lap and the footrests of her chair, and plastic bags hang from the handles in back.  There is absolutely no more room for one more thing, but she still wants the blood-red lampshade over there on that shelf.  Moments later, she’s wearing it on her head, smiling from ear to ear as we make a spectacle of ourselves on the way to the checkout counter.

I hope I never lose the appreciation for the weird and wonderful, and for the bright and beautiful, that Mom instilled in me. Shortly after she died, my slightly serious brother asked my slightly silly sister and me, “Do you think you got your wild and crazy side from Mom, or do you think she got it from you?”  My sister and I answered practically in unison, “No.  We definitely got it from her.”

The 13th Annual Nevada Day Treasure Hunt begins on Monday, October 6th.  To say the least, it has been bittersweet working on this year’s clues without her unconventional contributions.  As our family prepares to hide the medallion and kick off the search, we wonder how it will all turn out in her absence.

The 2014 hunt is respectfully irreverently dedicated to her colorful memory.

To the bizarre this is dedicated

To humor and glee it is predicated

Here’s to Mom, our inspiration

And this last line doesn’t rhyme or fit the meter … because she would hate that

Mom and Dracula 1995

The Only One

Last week I was proud to use a fragment of the signature line from my mother’s farewell letter to share my heartfelt appreciation and love for my older sister, Leslie.  I may be “the pretty one” Mom was referring to in her parting line, but I will forever think of Leslie when I read it.

All my love always to “the pretty one” from “the only one.”

To the pretty one from the only oneOf course, “the only one” in that line is Mom and, like “the pretty one,” it comes with a story.

Once upon a lifetime ago, Mom was … well … kind of a “woe as me” person.  At least, that’s how she appeared to me.  As I write this, I can hear a mournful, protracted rendition of an old gospel song running through my head.  You know the one.

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow.”

To understand where that kind of anguish could have originated, you need a glimpse of Mom’s world as a young mother.  The seed, to be fair, was probably planted even deeper than that, but this is what occurred in my own lifetime and what I know to be true.

When my sister, brother and I were young, our father would spend months away from home working as an engineer on mammoth ships that transported oil and other commodities to foreign ports.  The ocean called often, and he obediently answered.  He would periodically drop into our lives, bearing hugs and toting presents, and drop out again, leaving tears and loneliness in his wake.

During our father’s absences, Mom was the quintessential single parent, far ahead of her time.  She worked as a bookkeeper in medical offices, kept the cars and household operating relatively smoothly, and raised us with support from our two grandmothers.  It was a heavy load to manage in the era of television role models like Harriet Nelson and Donna Reed who kept the home fires burning while their husbands navigated the halls of business.  When the weight became overwhelming, Mom often would lament,

 “I’m the only one who ever …”

You can fill in the blank with a broad range of grievances from “feeds the dogs” to “cleans the house” and everything in between.  She repeated it so frequently that eventually, and with youthful disdain, we sometimes did fill in the blanks.

As an adult, I get it.  Her marriage was hardly the stuff of romance novels.  She had no consistent partner to depend on and no real balance in her life.  The latter was true even when our father was home.  He didn’t know how he fit in to the family between voyages, and she didn’t know how to temporarily create a place for him.  The stress mounted when our father tried to transition from a sailor’s life to a shore job.  He was seriously injured on his first day and spent months in a body cast.  His lengthy recuperation and loss of income threw even more responsibility onto Mom’s plate.

As I said, as an adult I get it.  As a child I did not.  I loved my mother with all my heart but, while growing up, the opinion I formed of her was tainted by the burden she carried.  I came to view her as something of a martyr.  By the time my sister and I reached our teens, we were bold enough to threaten carving “I’m the only one” on her tombstone whenever she dared recite it.

Thank goodness that our irreverence gradually changed the flavor of that tiresome phrase.  It evolved from a symbol of self-pity, to a vehicle to tease her, and finally to a term of endearment.  Even Mom eventually began poking fun at herself.  Sometimes she would throw the back of her hand up to her forehead in dramatic fashion to mimic an exaggerated stage gesture of the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt.  Later, her favorite way to lighten up pity parties (her own or someone else’s) was to rub her thumb and index finger together and say in a high voice, “I can hear the tiny violins playing.”

When I began to take on my own adult responsibilities, the periodic crying jags and bouts of depression I had witnessed as a child started to make sense to me.   However, because I had a front row seat to some of her most vulnerable moments when I was at an impressionable age, the perception that she was fragile and perhaps a bit unstable was difficult to erase.  It wasn’t until we moved in together, and then began our long partnership as caregiver and care recipient, that I finally saw her in a completely different light.  She was far from fainthearted.  On the contrary, she was remarkably strong to have served as the head of household in a generation of June Cleavers.

It took nine years for Mom’s heart to fail after her health began to seriously decline.  Her list of diagnoses included kidney, heart, thyroid and acid reflux disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and osteoarthritis.  Her list of medications was so long that I had to create one of my legendary spreadsheets to keep track of prescribing doctors, doses and special instructions.  In addition, Mom was dependent on a rather rigid meal regimen and four daily insulin shots to control her diabetes, was constantly tethered to an oxygen machine, and frequently suffered from diarrhea, bladder infections and external yeast infections.

The osteoarthritis probably affected her quality of life more than anything else.  It ravaged virtually all of her major joints and eventually robbed her of the ability to walk more than a few steps.  She graduated from a small aluminum walker, to a snazzy Cadillac model with a basket and seat, to a wheelchair.  Since anti-inflammatory medications are processed through the kidneys, she was limited to less effective narcotics to manage the debilitating pain.

I lived through all of that with her.  Yet, seeing it in print is incredibly powerful and only serves to reinforce the point of today’s installment.  Mom was a soldier with amazing courage and strength.  Dutifully, she pricked her tender fingertips four times a day to test her blood sugar, dialed up insulin shots, repeatedly drove tiny needles into her bruised tummy, and ate the mostly well-balanced but sometimes monotonous meals I served her.  She shook dozens of drugs out of her pill case twice a day and counted them to make sure none were missing.  Her life was entirely organized around her medical needs and, quite frankly, she hated it.  Yet, she paid the price day after day because it bought her more time to enjoy her family, her dogs and the birds that visited the garden outside her window.  With each sunrise, she could read another chapter in the book by her bedside, check one more movie off her must-see list, cheer on her favorite football team or identify an obscure answer for a crossword puzzle.  She rarely had time to complain; every moment was precious.

After wasting so much of my own time being unfairly critical of my mother, it was a blessing to have the opportunity for a wake-up call of epic proportions.  I firmly believe that things happen for a reason.  Mom coming to live with me was serendipitous and undoubtedly opened the door to lessons we both needed to learn. For me, none was more profound than the gift of seeing my mother as the remarkable person she truly was.

“The only one” is a nickname that my mother most certainly earned through the hardships I’ve recounted here.  However, in closing, I must add that she was also MY only one.  She was my Momma — the only one who knew and loved me from before the day I was born.  Other kindhearted adults drifted in and out of my life as circumstances changed, but she was the only one whoMom at Reunion 2007 was always there for me.  She was the only one who could calm my fears with a gentle hug, heal my wounds with a magic kiss, listen assiduously to my changing hopes and dreams, and inspire me to be strong even as she was slipping away from me.

It’s been 10 months since Mom left the shackles of earthly life behind, and I am slowly transforming her bedroom into my own peaceful sanctuary.  One of the things I will never remove from the wall is an award that the family presented to her at a reunion in 2007.  We all laughed when we handed her the “I’m the Only One” award.  It was not a joke that we added,

“The only mother and grandmother the Samsel clan would ever want to have.”

For However Long Forever Lasts

Two installments ago I described a letter my mother left for me to read after she was gone.  The two-page missive, handwritten on yellow ruled paper, was still in draft form with some words scratched out, edits squeezed in, and notes in the margin.  She had tucked it into a sheet protector in a three-ring binder that also contained her last wishes.

You may remember that I was disappointed in that letter because it was written 19 years before her death, originally as a thank you for a special gift I assembled on her 70th birthday.  It contained no references to the dozen years we had just spent together.  Indeed, that chapter of our lives was still far in the future and not something we ever would have dreamed would happen.  If Mom’s destiny was to live with anyone, we always assumed it would be my sister, Leslie, a truly unselfish and very capable soul who tirelessly takes care of everyone.  Well, you know what they say about that tricky word – assume.  It can turn out to be the ultimate “gotcha.”

Our “gotcha” began to germinate in 1997 when my husband, Pete, our adult children and I left the rainy Pacific Northwest behind to create a new life in the high desert of Northern Nevada.  Every winter for four years, Mom closed up her trailer on the Oregon Coast to snowbird with us in the land of year-round sunshine.  Sadly, a couple of months before she arrived in 2001, Pete and I separated after 27 years of marriage.  Our daughter and her husband were building a home in a nearby township, so I rented a duplex in the same neighborhood.  My intention was to stay there until I was ready to make more permanent decisions about my future.

Mom couldn’t have been with me for more than a week when my sister called from Oregon with devastating news.  Hurricane force winds and pelting rain had damaged Mom’s trailer beyond repair.  While most of her belongings were intact, she had no home to return to in the spring.

Picture a heartbroken, newly single 47-year-old and an equally heartbroken, financially challenged 77-year-old sitting in the sparsely furnished living room of a rented duplex, staring at each other in shocked silence and wondering what to do next.  Let’s just say, it wasn’t pretty.

What came next was actually rather pretty … most of it anyway.

Mom and I partnered up and forged ahead like all of the other fiercely strong women in our family lineage.  We found a house for sale just a few blocks away that had a good vibe, bought it and stuffed everything we both owned into it.  Over time, we painted the bland gray exterior a cheerful shade of yellow and picked an eye-catching periwinkle as the color for our fancy new door with a beveled glass insert.  We nurtured the old roses in the front, planted young trees in the back and together watched the seasons pass.  Joint vacations, leisurely Sunday drives, newly released films, final episodes of beloved television series and premieres of new favorites added flavor to our routine.

To the untrained eye, that description of our life as mother-daughter roommates probably sounds idyllic.  To be fair, though, it was not without challenges.

When we first moved into our little house, the adjustment was difficult.  She was grieving the loss of her trailer and independence.  I was grieving the loss of my marriage and the promise of independence.  For a while we both walked on eggs, trying not to say anything that might upset the apple cart.  I slipped occasionally and made comments I wanted to take back but couldn’t.  So did Mom.  We put away our belongings with a “this is mine, that’s yours” mentality that resulted in assigned cupboards and drawers in the kitchen and assigned rooms in which to arrange furniture and display mementoes.  That separatist attitude eventually changed, but it was palpable in the beginning.

Caring for Mom when her health began to fail brought even greater challenges.  One of the first consequences was that she had to stop driving.  I suspect she was irritated with me for at least six months for enforcing that.  Meanwhile, I periodically held pity parties mourning my loss of freedom which, of course, were always followed by immediate attacks of guilt.

Overall, though, I think Mom and I did a pretty good job at a difficult task.  Our mutual tenacity and purposeful effort to look for the good in each day made our years together a blessing rather than a curse.

These are the kinds of memories I had expected to read about in Mom’s farewell letter.  I wanted validation that she felt as I did – that our 12 years together had been priceless.  When the letter turned out to be 19 years old, I was crushed.  Today I realize that no validation from Mom – or from anyone else for that matter – was ever really necessary.  Those 12 years were unquestionably priceless.

And so, in the end, was the letter.

That old letter is the only tangible evidence I have of the way Mom viewed me before our circumstances changed; before our respective losses hurled us into co-habitation and before our roles reversed.  Those two pages of unpolished lines are the musings of a mother who expected nothing from her middle child except to share a lifetime of memories, both good and bad, and to laugh together with wild abandon at things few others found funny at all.  I know our last 12 years are worth cherishing.  The letter reminded me that our first 47 were as well.

 And then there is Laurie. What can a mom say to a daughter who writes books? She knows all the words and strings them together in such a way that all the right buttons are pushed and maudlin sentimentality reigns.  My Laurie – I’ve always called you the last of the great romantics, and you are.  We’ve shared much laughter, pain and tears, sadness and love. You and Leslie and I have all shared the same weird sense of humor and need only a glance to send us off to la-la-laughter land. I remember the little girl (big now but still the same) who got really weird and funny when she got tired. Who was always the buffer between older sister and younger brother. Who was always loving and understanding and still is. I know your father was as proud of you as I am.  You kids are the best things that ever happened to me.  Thank you for the 70th BD book.  I will always treasure it. Always – for however long forever lasts.

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