I’m up at 5:00. I feed the cat, turn on the electric fireplace, fill the teapot. While the water heats for my day-beginning ginger crystals, honey, and lemon tea, I prep the coffee pot and push the autostart button. Settling into the large armchair, I open my computer.
Joe Biden wants $13; the Sierra Club wants me to know the climate is going to go to hell if I don’t send money; Classmates.com has a new photo to show me, nothing to do with my 50th reunion that was pandemically cancelled; Writers’ Digest has 10 New Challenges for me, like my current life isn’t challenging enough; and USPS informs me my monthly stock market report and a Republican candidate’s flyer and nothing else are coming to my mailbox today. I delete them all and choose a writing project: blog post, memoir edits, or WWII letters.
Formatting the excerpts I’ve compiled from the 1500 letters in my possession that my parents, aunts, and uncles wrote during the war is my current passion. Their war and this decade-opening pandemic and civil unrest 80 years later have much in common: a maniacal world leader, factionalism, uncertainty about the future, sacrifices. As they did then, we are doing what needs to be done. I’m no Rosie the Riveter, but I’ve jumped into an unfamiliar role, or at least one left behind long ago when I was briefly a preschool teacher and more briefly a school counselor. And for many years, a parent.
My days are consumed by my new role of Pandemic School Guide, and I fall into bed, exhausted, early each evening. There is only this brief early morning time for writing.
At six-o’clock, my grandmother’s clock chimes the hour, and the boys—who are admonished to stay in their room until their clock says 6:00—hit the floor above me and gallop and holler down the hall to their parents’ bedroom; the cat jumps from the back of my chair and zips to her hiding place behind a cabinet, where she will spend the day; the coffee pot clicks on. It’s 6:01. I still have two hours until I need to prep for school, but the silent part of the day is over until they go to bed tonight. Thirteen hours away. It’s the same one hour I had in a silent house during the years with my mother.
My memoir—Mother Lode—about life with Mama is out with preview readers. I love reading their comments: the praise for good writing, the suggestions to make it better, the personal reflection it brings up for them. I scroll through my manuscript correcting the little things the latest reviewer has found as the boys scamper across the hardwood floor over my head. As I edit, I read my words about my years with my nonagenarian mother, when I was living in this same small basement apartment in my childhood home, listening to the footfalls of her sturdy shoes—tied on as soon as she got out of bed—as she walked slowly to the bathroom then busied herself in the kitchen getting her breakfast. I wonder how it is I am repeating those years as a guide to another generation. I thought I was done. But perhaps we are never done with family—if we are lucky.
The pandemic struck just two years after my mother’s death. A few months later, school opened—or didn’t open—and my “retirement” was over. Elliot, recently diagnosed with ADHD (read last week’s post here), is a highly gifted child who does well during online time with his first grade classmates in little squares on his school-issued iPad; but he struggles to stay on task during “independent learning” time. He is strong-willed and resists my efforts to help him. In my memoir, I compared the development of these children as babies—when I provided infant care in their home two days a week—to my mother’s decline at the end of life. The only thing not in decline was her strong will to resist my assistance.
I wished for a different mother much of my adult life: one of those I read about who was the grownup daughter’s best friend. I wished to be a different daughter in my mother’s last years: one of those I read about who felt privileged to care for the one who gave her birth and did so with patience and compassion. That was not my mother and I was not that daughter.
Now maybe I wish to have the grandchildren who happily do school assignments and love every suggestion I make to have fun learning together; who take an afternoon nap, so I can; who are calm, cooperative, unfailingly kind to me and each other; who don’t beg me to play secret agent vs. bad guys. Maybe I wish I could be the cozy, kind, patient, even-tempered grandmother grandmothers are supposed to be. They aren’t those children and I am not that grandmother. At least not all the time. And still I love them like crazy.
What did I learn from living with my mother that could make life better now? I dust off my tool chest and rummage through it.
Engage Brain Before Mouth: When I was losing patience, I tapped my middle finger and thumb together in the shuni mudra meditation I learned in yoga, reminding me to take deep breaths before I spoke. I reprise the tapping now, and teach it to the boys as well.
Open Heart: I hear the words, “they would do better if they could,” applied to children and recall similar words from the elder care therapist who helped me understand my mother’s dementia. Children haven’t yet learned all they need to know about how to navigate the world. Some children, I read—even gifted ones—may have developmental delays that don’t show up on the academic assessments on which they score off the charts. The resulting behavior is not unlike my mother’s dementia, and it’s maddening. But unlike her, my grandsons are learning, not forgetting. As one of their guides, I can help them get there.
You Are In Charge (aka The Therapeutic Lie): My mother was more accepting of the dinner I prepared if she thought it was her choice. “We’re having chicken; do you want rice or mashed potatoes?” She didn’t notice the main course was decided for her. Will it work with Elliot? “You have two independent math activities; do you want to do A or B first?” After which you will do the other one, but no need to mention that yet.
Mind Reader: Mama wouldn’t, or couldn’t, ask for what she needed. “You seem sad/sluggish/low energy. Would you like to walk up the driveway?” Could I similarly guide Elliot to what he needs? “It seems like you’re having trouble focusing; would you like some play dough to help you stay connected?” “It looks like you’re getting restless; why don’t you go outside and run around the house once, then come back to your screen?” “Recess is in five minutes. May I sit with you while you finish that math problem so you can get it posted before the break?”
Boundaries: When I came to live with my mother, I set some firm boundaries, the most important being non-negotiable time for myself. Weekly yoga, weekly coffee shop time with a friend, regular out-of-town breaks. When the moms and I devised this plan for the pandemic (yoga and coffee shops not being options), I let them know I needed my early morning time and a mid-day break or two. Breakfast is family time for them, and my time for me. One or both of them take a break from their day at recess and to prepare lunch for the boys. I’m sure they miss the break from work they had when they were going to a work place, and not dealing with two active boys. But we all know this won’t work if I don’t have renewal time. Just as my sisters knew I had to have regular breaks from our mother. It’s a cliché by now, but secure your own oxygen mask first. Or face mask, as the case may be.
Let Go of Perfection: The most important tool in the arsenal. We are all doing the best we can, and it is enough.
As with life with Mama, the same tool doesn’t work every time with these small people. Good thing I have a box full.
The week in review.
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