By Carole Duff
Editor’s note: This piece is excerpted and adapted from Carole’s memoir about finding grace.
During Mother’s years in assisted care, I made the day trip to share lunch with her every month. Before each visit—former teacher that I am—I designed mental lesson plans to stimulate her memory and help her remember who she was. Behavioral objectives, resource materials, instructional strategies: Mother will be able to view photographs of her life in old albums and tell stories; I’ll point to pictures, ask questions, and wait for her responses. After summary and closure—hugs and saying our goodbyes—I’ll evaluated our session during my drive home. The assessment would not be based on Mother’s learning, which she couldn’t do anymore, but on my ability to be the adult daughter she needed me to be.
Mother and Daddy had grown up in the same farm community in northern Maine. Every summer and winter, we visited the folks back home. As a child, I paid little attention to Mother’s tales from her youth. Now I craved those oft-told stories, because they primed her memory, deepened my understanding of her past, and gave us something to talk about.
One day, during our usual lunch at the facility’s bistro, I asked, “Did you and your mother talk when you were growing up?”
“No.” Mother smirked, her familiar wry smile.
“Did your parents talk to each other?”
“Not much.” Mother stretched the o and u vowels into “ah’s” like a Downeast Mainer.
I chuckled. She was making me work. “When they did, what did they talk about?”
“The weather.” Mother laughed out loud. “We listened to the radio in the living room, but the kitchen was where everything happened. In winter, we moved the dining room table into the kitchen near the stove and did our homework or played Rook in the evenings. My mother did needlework.” Grammy, the woman who knitted her love into our socks and mittens.
Mother was still talking as we rode the elevator back to her main-floor room. “I remember when my mother got her washing machine. She polished it all up, really babied it. It saved her a lot of time. She’d start it, and we’d hear Put-Put-Put-Put-Put.” We rolled past the nurses’ station in the lobby and into her room. An arrangement of mini pink carnations on the windowsill scented the room, a gift from my older sister who lived nearby. I handed Mother an old scrapbook. She opened the cover and ran her hands over the faded grey construction paper.
“There’s Mother and Dad. Paul, Arlene, Mansfield, and me.” She pointed to the corner-mounted pictures. “And my classmates at normal school in Presque Isle. I wonder if any of them are still alive.” Mother had outlived her siblings, her husband, and most of her friends. “Our dorm was near the airfield,” she said, referring to the World War II military base. “From the window of my room, I could see the pilots in their cockpits, taking off. We signed up for shifts to identify planes. I had…” Mother formed cylinders with her fingers and raised them to her eyes.
“Binoculars for reconnaissance?”
“Yes, binoculars. I also worked blackout patrol. I drove around after dark and beeped my horn for people to turn off their house lights.”
She turned the page. “My students and the schoolhouse.” She pointed to class pictures taken outside the building. “I taught K-4 in the room to the left, and the other teacher had grades 5-8 in the room on the right. 1943-46—I started when I was twenty.”
“Oh my, you were young, Mother.” About the same age I was when student-teaching history to high school students. “And here’s your wedding picture.”
“Your father was still in uniform, November 1945.” Mother paused. “Three times your father was assigned to units and transferred before he reached the front. Those units were wiped out to a man, three times.” She held up three fingers.
“I guess Daddy was meant to survive.” I hoped my often-repeated answers to familiar stories would keep her going, remembering stories prompted by pictures in the album. “Is that Jack?” Jack was Mother’s childhood dog.
“Yes, Jack at home with me before your father and I moved to the University of Maine.”
“What happened to Jack?”
“Oh, that’s painful.” I waited, hoping she would find the courage to face the memory, and she did. “Dad died soon after your older sister was born, and the farm was sold. Jack was old. My family didn’t think he’d adjust to the move. So, they took him out and shot him.”
“I’m so sorry about Jack, Mother. I guess that’s what people did back then.” As Mother and I looked at more photographs, I thought about our beloved dogs, waiting for me at home. How would I handle their deaths, or Mother’s, my sisters’ or friends’, my children’s, my husband’s, or my own? More to the point, how was I handling the life I’d been given?
Later, Mother walked with me down the hall to the lobby. “Drive safely,” she said.
“Take care, Mother. I’ll call you when I get home. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she said. As we hugged, I kissed her goodbye.
Two years ago, I kissed my mother goodbye for the last time. She held onto many of her old memories until her death at the age of 96. Now, I am one of the keepers of her history, passed down to me along with the photo albums.
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen, Streetlight Magazine’s Blog, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She is working on a book titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir About Finding Grace in the Third Stage of Life. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and three overly-friendly dogs. You can find her website here, and her Twitter feed here.