Somebody’d Better Do Something About It

James Garner first set eyes on her during a muddy brawl in the main street of the fictional frontier town of Calendar, Colorado. Later, he caught her peeking between handfuls of long, wet hair whilst perched in a tree wearing nothing but her drawers. Finally, he threw a pitcher of water on the flaming bustle of her dress when she tried to serve freshly baked dinner biscuits.

This all happened on the same day, and it all happened to Joan Hackett when she was playing accident-prone Prudy Perkins opposite Garner’s unflappable Jason McCullough in the 1969 Old West parody Support Your Local Sheriff. With the back of her dress burned away and flour handprints on her face, she clenched a fist and declared in utter frustration …

I’m sick and tired of these stupid things that have been happenin’ to me, and somebody’d better do something about it soon!

My mother loved that line. Repeating it took the edge off when the universe dished out some ridiculous happenstance beyond her control. Believe me, in her 89 years, Mom had ample opportunities to quote Ms. Hackett.

Somebody Better (2)Probably the worst foible of her senior years happened before Mom set up housekeeping with me in Nevada. She was walking her tiny Yorkshire Terrier on the gravel road in front of her old trailer on the Oregon Coast. Somehow wiry, little Lucy got away, and Mom instinctively ran after her on gravel that was wet from the persistent seaside drizzle. Before she knew what was happening, she slipped and fell hard on her right side. To this day, I can’t tell you how she managed to get herself and her diminutive dog back inside the trailer with a broken shoulder. She recovered without undue drama but duly spoiled and pampered by my protective sister who lived a couple of hours away.

Thankfully, Mom didn’t fall frequently during her 12 years with me in Nevada. There were several near misses but only two incidents that actually put her on the floor. One I wrote about in the column, “Love Always, Mom – Part Two.” Immediately after injecting insulin into her tummy to counteract the lunch she was about to eat, Mom OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAslipped to the unforgiving tile when her combination walker and portable bench rolled out from under her. It was a simple case of not properly setting the brake before sitting. My daughter was nearby and helped break Mom’s impact, but she couldn’t manage to help her stand. Except for an instant of panic when I got the initial call at work, it was all rather ordinary. Mom ate her lunch while propped up with pillows against a kitchen cabinet, I came home and, when our group effort to get her back on her feet failed, we sedately summoned the paramedics. She was bruised but not seriously injured.

The second incident occurred in the living room a few weeks later. My husband and I were sitting on the sofa when Mom backed her walker up to her recliner to watch the news before dinner. She was not in our line of sight, so we were both surprised a moment later when she said evenly, “Laurie, can I get some help?” She had missed the chair by a fraction of an inch and slid quietly to the carpet. After previously watching the paramedics help her to her feet, my husband and I were able to use the same technique to hoist her into the chair. A moment later, the two of them were casually watching the news while I finished preparing dinner.

My heart went out to Mom when she began having “accidents.” To put it delicately, she had recurring digestive problems and sometimes just couldn’t move quickly enough to reach the refuge of her bathroom. Adult diapers, bed pads and rubber gloves became staples in our household. Once I remember being late to work on a critical day involving the State Legislature and our departmental budget. Shortly after I called in, our director dialed me back. I apologized about my tardiness and matter-of-factly explained that I was “cleaning up poop.” Bless his kind soul. All he said was, “Oh,” and began to pick my brain about an issue within my scope of work. Naturally, Mom was mortified that she couldn’t always control her bodily functions but, as long as I was nonplussed, she remained calm, too.

It was especially important for me and other caregivers to keep a cool head when she crashed. If you know anyone who is diabetic, you know that crashing is the frightening result of abnormally low blood sugar. The person gets shaky, breaks into a cold sweat, has heart palpitations and can become confused or anxious. The trick is to ingest some form of concentrated sugar as quickly as possible. Glucose tablets, candy and orange juice were our counter-agents of choice. As years passed and we gained experience with this phenomenon, Mom’s crashes occurred less frequently and were easily resolved. However, in the beginning, we weren’t always prepared for this unexpected and unnerving development. Once after a cardiology appointment, she crashed while I was helping her into the car. The only thing I could think to do was high-tail it to the nearest fast food drive-through and buy her a chocolate milkshake. She spilled some of it on the seat and was horrified because I had just paid a pretty penny to get the old sedan detailed inside and out. “Oh well,” I said. “What are you gonna do? Battle scars.”

Somebody Better (3)The thing is, stupid stuff happens to everyone. Admittedly, some of us are more prone to accidents than others. When I was growing up, I earned an embarrassing but deserved reputation as a sloppy eater. Virtually every time I put on a new outfit, I ended up spilling food on it. For an elementary school open house and spaghetti feed, my sister reluctantly loaned me her pretty, yellow party dress and … you guessed it … I came home with tomato sauce splashed down the front. In addition, I’m terribly inept with kitchen knives. My husband is convinced that someday I’m going to end up in the emergency room with a severed finger on ice. Whenever I chop carrots for stew, there is nothing he can do but cringe and look away.

Likewise, when young, beautiful Joan Hackett blustered that “somebody’d better do something about it soon,” she had to know deep down that no one could really prevent “stupid things” from happening to her. Still, you certainly didn’t see her laying low after the bustle burning incident. She got up every day, got dressed and determinedly went about her business in that uncivilized, gold rush town. At the end of the film, one last “stupid thing” resulted in a desperate attempt to stay astride a bucking horse. James Garner assumed his best business-as-usual stance and calmly called out, “Jump, Miss Prudy! Jump!” She leaped off the spooked horse and found herself in the arms of her devilishly handsome beau.

If all’s well that ends well for a headstrong, twitter-pated frontier gal and a reluctant hero whose trademark retort was “basically, I’m on my way to Australia,” then it can also end well for every accident-prone, modern-day Prudy who slips and falls, misses the toilet, spills food or slices fingers. All you have to do is stay calm and carry on. Mom believed it. I believe it. I hope Russell Wilson believes it, too.

Wait. Huh? I can see the double-takes and puzzled stares, and can almost hear a rewind sound effect – something akin to a phonograph needle scraping across an old record. Who is Russell Wilson and what is he doing in Mom’s story?

Mom was an avid football fan and, along with my husband, followed the highs and lows of the Seattle Seahawks. She passed away just two months before the Hawks finally won their first Superbowl in 2014. Last week, they had a chance to take home another Vince Lombardi trophy. In the waning moments of the game, the Hawks were poised to score. Quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass on the one yard line and the ball was intercepted by a rookie who saved the day for the Patriots. Although I’m a relatively new football fan, I was as shocked and exasperated as any 12th man in the country. I must have sputtered “stupid” two dozen times. Today I’m happy to say that I have regained my Garner-esque composure, and I remember that stupid things just happen to everyone now and then. You can’t stop it. The only thing I can do is pull up my Joan Hackett under-drawers and make an offer to beleaguered Mr. Wilson. On behalf of my wise mother, I’d like to loan you one of her favorite movie quotes.

I’m sick and tired of these stupid things that have been happenin’ to me, and somebody’d better do something about it soon!

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

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.”

To The Pretty One

My mother signed off on the 19-year-old farewell letter that was the subject of last week’s installment by pairing two of our most often repeated and beloved axioms.

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

For first-time visitors to this webpage and as a refresher for repeat readers, the words set inside quotation marks are coded messages.  Essentially, they are my family’s encrypted versions of “I love you.”  Like any good catch phrase, there are stories behind these two.  This week I’ll tell you about “the pretty one.”

“The pretty one” is rooted in a tiny little comment I once made to a friendly stranger.  While our family was vacationing in Palm Springs in the late 1950s, someone sitting poolside admired my sister, Leslie, for her intelligence.  As any jealous, bratty little sister might do, I interrupted to sing my own praises.  “And I’m the pretty one,” I said smugly.

That vainly precocious remark drew immediate laughter and a lifetime of teasing.  I know when my mother or other family members have repeated it, they have done so with fond amusement.  The sad thing is that, deep down, I actually believed it for years.  My dark-haired, slightly plump sister was the smart one.  I was the pretty one with blond hair and a slim build.

My sister held me up from the beginning, as seen in this 1954 photo for a 1955 calendar.

My sister held me up from the beginning, as seen in this 1954 photo for a 1955 calendar.

In reality, Leslie and I are both smart, but for the record, she is far prettier than I ever was.  I came to this belated conclusion several years ago while browsing through family snapshots and portraits.  It isn’t because recent images document that I am no longer blond and slim, and she now wears clothes that are smaller than mine.  It isn’t because she won a baby pageant long before I arrived.  It’s because in every photo of my sister, her genuine inner beauty shines through on her kind face.  She has a pureness about her that is rare.

Our paternal grandmother used to say, with a slight Texan accent, “Don’t be ugly.”  She meant, “Don’t be mean.”  Well, my sister could never be “ugly” if she tried … on the inside or the outside.  To finally, fully understand this beautiful truth, and to profoundly appreciate her presence in my life, is as powerful as it is humbling.

As noted in last week’s installment, Leslie was the daughter who was seemingly destined to take care of our mother in her last years.  Destiny laughed in our faces, but she was always just a telephone call away.  Whenever I was frustrated, tired, confused, scared, feeling sorry for myself, or otherwise in dismay about the sometimes leaden weight on my shoulders, normally all I had to do was talk to her to regain balance.  When that didn’t quite do the trick, she was knocking on my door within 24 to 48 hours.

Over the years, she sacrificed hundreds of hours of sick leave and vacation time to travel from Oregon to Nevada and camp out in our guest room for a few days, a week or longer so I could have an occasional break.  She took charge the moment she walked inside; determined to minister to every adult, child, dog or cat within her loving reach.  I practically melted into her arms with each hello and, of course, Mom was always overjoyed to see her O.D.D. (Older Darling Daughter).

Together the two of them would check things off the “honey do” list Mom assembled between visits.  Whether it was a special shopping trip, adding information to the family tree books or whipping up a mouth-watering new recipe from a magazine, they accomplished things that I typically did not have the time or energy to tackle.  I often told Mom, with a good-natured chuckle, that I felt like the proverbial custodial parent because the non-custodial parent racks up points for doing the fun stuff.

Christmas 1960 -- Still holding me.

Christmas 1960 — Still holding me.

Yes, the three of us made an unbeatable team.  We were blessed with support from other family and friends, and I will mention them as this story unfolds from week to week, but today is all about my sister’s unselfish devotion to Mom and to me.  My ardent prayer is that every primary caregiver everywhere has someone like her on their side.  She was there through the good and the bad, until the end.

There are certain pivotal moments in our lives that we can never forget.  Willingly or unwillingly, we relive them as if they happened yesterday.  For me, one of those moments was Mom’s final breath.  The funny thing is, I didn’t actually see it.  I knew Mom’s breathing had become more ragged that icy December morning as she lay immobile in her hospice bed.  Regardless, it took me by surprise when she suddenly drew a deep, shuddering breath, exhaled loudly and then was utterly still.  Hastily, I beckoned Leslie into the bedroom.  Neither of us moved a muscle or breathed ourselves until Mom’s breathing suddenly resumed.  I stepped into the hallway and turned on my cell phone to anxiously try to call our brother back from an errand.  It was in that instant Leslie ended up being the one sitting at our mother’s bedside when she finally did take her last, trembling breath.

No one would blame me if I said I felt guilty, cheated or disappointed that, after caring for Mom so many years, I should miss those last few seconds.  On the contrary, I find it poetic that Mom’s firstborn was alone with her.  The pure, unrehearsed beauty in it breaks my heart.

The family gathered at the Oregon Coast six months later to share memories, sing songs, and set Mom free at one of her favorite spots.  At dusk, I realized I had forgotten to scatter the pale pink petals I had collected from Mom’s Nevada rosebush.  Leslie and I drove alone to the seashore, walked barefoot out to the waves, and gently let the water and wind carry the petals away.  I stepped back a ways and, without her noticing, took several of the most precious photographs one could hope for on such a solemn day.  They capture my pretty sister in the fading light saying good-bye to our sweet mother on a serene beach with a company of seagulls on patrol.

If you haven’t already come to this conclusion, the title of today’s installment is not just a reference to my mother’s coded message at the end of her farewell letter.  It is my heartfelt dedication of this essay to my sister … our mother’s Older Darling Daughter … and my hero.

“To The Pretty One.”

Leslie 2014

Leslie 2014

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.

Note 3Note 4

Nothing Left Unsaid

The sympathy card my mother sent to me posthumously, through my sister, sent a wave of cleansing grief deep through my heart and soul.  As quoted in last week’s column, the only original words from my mother, aside from her name and a string of x’s punctuated by one o, were:

All my love to the wordmeister … queen of the spreadsheet

Those 10 words may not seem enough to trigger a flood of overwhelming emotion. For me, though, they were a reminder of everything intimate and personal my mother and I shared. Every pet name, every private joke, every endearment we so often repeated were distilled into that short string of words, scrawled with herculean effort during her last days on Earth.

I learned many months later, after more cards turned up at certain meaningful moments, that Mom conspired with my sister, Leslie, and my niece, Rachel, to emulate a film in which a young widow receives a series of letters from her late husband. “P.S. I Love You” was not my mother’s favorite movie. She preferred science fiction, fantasy and whodunits. However, I’m sure the concept appealed to her because she often worried aloud that she would not be remembered. A few weeks before she died, she asked my sister to jot down a list of her favorite sayings and family nicknames, and she allowed me to shoot a video of her repeating many of the same for posterity.

Since Mom and I were almost inseparable for 12 years, she knew her absence would be particularly difficult for me. My niece later revealed that Mom had sent her on a mission to select just the right cards, and my sister described how she had expended virtually her last ounce of energy secretly signing them. Meanwhile, I had been trying periodically, without success, to persuade Mom to write notes in the Christmas cards I had purchased for family members on her behalf. She just couldn’t muster the strength. In the end, I signed them for her, tucked in the cash she had saved over the preceding 12 months, and composed a personal message commemorating her special relationship with each recipient.

For Mom to conspire with my sister and niece to single me out in such a beautiful, heartfelt way was an honor that I’ll remember until I, too, take my last breath. It doesn’t matter that the handwritten note in each card was brief. It’s absolutely true that the thought is what counts.

One evening, when I was contemplating her precious gesture, I suddenly remembered the “read me after I’m gone” letters I wrote in 1990, 1994, 2003 and 2011. I scolded myself roundly for not thinking to give Mom her set when it became clear that I would outlive her. Surely, I thought, my letters were filled with deep insights laced with my famous maudlin sentimentality, as cited by a long-ago book reviewer. Surely, they would bring a tear even to my usually critical eye.

Like a treasure hunter, I dug into my files and pulled out the letters written to my mother. I opened them carefully, one by one, and was momentarily stunned. The first two obligingly thanked her for being a wonderful parent, but they were primarily vehicles to document some of our favorite axioms.

May 1990

Be good – and if you can’t be good, be careful. And remember, when you’re poor you have to take what you can get! Because life is just a bowl of cherry pits! (Didn’t we have fun!?!)

 

March 1994

Just a short update from my letter of May 1990. Remember these rules of life:

1) Life isn’t always a bowl of cherry pits.

2) Just ’cause your poor, you don’t have to take what you can get.

3) Live long and prosper.

4) I’m the pretty one.

5) You aren’t the only one.

(Because I will always be with you.)

The third and fourth letters were a bit more lengthy and descriptive of our life together. But in the fourth missive, one line spoke volumes. I blinked and read it again.

Nothing left unsaid.

Those three words had come to mean everything to Mom and me. Over the 12 years we lived together, we had more good-bye talks than most people could ever bear. Every time one of her doctors diagnosed a serious new condition or illness, we would fear the end was near. All of the appreciation, love and kinship we felt for one another would spill out and, ultimately, help get us past that fear.Note to Mom (July 2011)

Over time, “nothing left unsaid” became central to our parting ritual whenever I would travel for business or pleasure, or she would leave to spend a few weeks with my siblings in the Pacific Northwest. It’s no wonder I included the line in my last “read me after I’m gone” letter. It’s no wonder that her brief messages in posthumously delivered cards held so much significance for me. We had already said everything. Her messages were like code words that spoke of a companionship so close we sometimes could read each other’s thoughts.

As I ponder those three words, I am reminded of other coded messages I share with loved ones. “Blah blah blah,” I say to my friend, Mary, and she breaks out in laughter as she remembers an irreverent moment while preparing to testify before state lawmakers. “Sisters, sisters,” I sometimes sing to my sister, Leslie, and she finishes with, “there were never such devoted sisters.”  The most precious code in my repertoire is the one I share with my husband, Pete. “11:08,” he writes in a mid-day email at least once a week, and I write back, “Love you, too.”  No, it’s not a time; it was the number of our favorite room at a seaside resort thirty-plus years ago.  Nevertheless, twice a day every day, the clock reminds us of our love for one another.

I’m betting that almost everyone reading this column can think of at least one coded message they share with a family member or friend.  And, if you don’t have one, then Mom and I will loan you ours … that is, as long as you promise to have the conversation that makes it true.

Nothing left unsaid.