“I’m in an exercise class!” my Mom announces excitedly one day, as we chat on the phone. “Do you want to come and see it?”
Mom is 84. She uses a walker to get around; she has mild dementia and lately, she’s been sleeping a lot.
Until my stepfather’s health began to fail, my mother was an active woman. She was one of those energetic people who have little patience for the people who can’t keep up; the people who have showed signs of slowing down. She gardened. She delivered Meals on Wheels. She took line-dancing classes. She was always going to ‘this’ sale or ‘that’ event with friends. Right up until bedtime, she was always puttering about the house: cleaning this, organising that. She never stopped: it could be exhausting, just watching her. My sister and I used to joke that she would end up burying both of us and would still be going strong at our funerals.
I can see it as though it were yesterday: my little sister, sullenly standing in the middle of the living room, dutifully practicing her tap-dance steps for an upcoming show: shuffle, shuffle, stomp; shuffle, shuffle, stomp. Her movements were embarrassed and stilted; the ‘stomp’ angry and emphatic. She was wearing a cute little dress and her childish little legs, bony at the knee and ankle, had been resentfully stuffed into pretty little white ankle socks and shiny black tap shoes.
You only had to glance at her face – a sullen black cloud – to see that she did not want to be there. She did not want to be practicing that ‘stupid’ dance.
It was a very stormy Christmas Eve back in 1970 and Dad had finished work at six o’clock. I was eight years old; going on nine; my sister would have just turned seven. Back in those days, the family always met at my grandparents’ house on the other side of the province. It was normally a two-and-a-half-hour trip. Because Dad had had to work right up until the very last minute, Mom had everything ready to go. As soon as he arrived home from work, Dad gobbled up a sandwich as Mom hurried me and my sister into the back seat, already dressed in our jammies.
Neither of us remember how we met. Kids don’t make much of a fuss about making friends; they just sort of… become. I still have a few of those black-and-white pictures we used to be able to take – stacked four on top of one another – in those little photo booths you could find in department stores back in the 70s. I love and treasure those photos of the two of us crammed together into that little booth, grinning big toothy smiles, being silly or just unselfconsciously staring into the camera with serious, loving looks on our faces.
I don’t know quite when she started it, but many, many decades ago my grandmother, who was a beautiful and accomplished seamstress – if only to keep her own family frugally but very well clothed because money was tight – made Christmas stockings for the entire family. Every stocking is made of red felt with white-felt trim and each one bears the family member’s name as well as a number of lovely felt decorations, each slightly different and unique to its owner. My parents, my sister, my aunts, my uncles and every one of my cousins had their own stockings. Back in the 70s, when we all got together at my grandparents’ home for the holidays, our stockings used to cover every inch of my grandparents’ stairway banister. My own stocking is now dix decades old and although it is starting to look a little weathered, every single stitch remains intact.
My sister and I were watching a documentary – I don’t even recall the topic – and there were two fifties-something women being interviewed who had been best friends since grade school.
When I was a kid, I lived in a town with a local air force base and I had a knack for finding friends whose parents would eventually be transferred to another base, leaving me – over and over again – bereft and mourning for yet another friend who had moved on.
It had been a rough month. Our stepfather, who was still mobile at the time, had begun getting up in the night and wandering in and out of other seniors’ rooms. He was – until the very end – such a gentle man that we knew he posed no threat whatsoever to the other people living on his floor, but you cannot explain that to a senior who also has dementia. Waking up to a strange man hovering over you – making strange “huh-huh-huh” sounds over and over since he lost the ability to speak – was very frightening to the other residents. We were informed that our stepfather would be moved to another floor better suited to care for his declining abilities.
I loved being a Mom. I loved the never-ending ‘why’ questions. I loved the snuggles; the bedtime stories; even the tantrums. Because I truly felt I was playing a role in helping my kids become whoever they were meant to be. My kids are all grown up now and while I do love getting to know the amazing people they are becoming, I do miss those days of being… well, their everything.
My Dad and Mom were, respectively, just 22 and 23 when I was born. They had not planned on my arriving quite so soon: while they were respectably married when I made my tiny appearance, I was nonetheless way too early to be anything but a shock to them. Dad was attending university at the time, and Mom was working as a clerk at a local department store, to help make ends meet. Dad was spending way too much time out with his drinking buddies and Mom was spending way too much time at home alone with her growing belly. Nonetheless, when Mom started bleeding mid-pregnancy, they both held one another and wept, already enamoured with the little lump that was growing in my mother’s womb. Ever after, they would lovingly call me their ‘little whoops’ and cry as they told me how devastated they were when they thought they were going to lose me. My timing may have left something to be desired but I always knew I was very much wanted all the same.
Remember The Waltons? Back in the 70s, my family used to watch that show every Sunday night. You didn’t have dozens of TV channels to choose from back then – just two or three if the rabbit ears on your big box of a television permitted it – so just about everyone else we knew was watching it, too. The story lines were wholesome and family oriented. There was no swearing and everything usually got neatly resolved by the time the hour was up. You always felt better, just for watching. You forgot that they were characters in a TV show.