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Aging in Place

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

The COVID Granny Diaries

There is no room left on my face for another age spot. Wrinkles have whispered their way across my face, my arms, and my hands, leaving marks that were not there before. Twelve months have gone by and my body shows the damage.

A year is a long time in the life of an older person. You mark its passage differently, noticing for instance that when summer ends, there may not be many more of them. COVID has robbed many older people of precious time, a year they were going to squeeze to the last drop. And now it is gone.

Caitlin tells me that, medically speaking, I am not “old” because I’m still in my 60s. “Mom,” she says with that I-am-the-authority-now voice, “we don’t call people ‘old’ anymore until they reach their 80s.” And, yes, I am much younger than my grandmother was at this age.

I am not younger than my mother was, though. She was downhill skiing right through her 70s. That’s why it was so awful to see her go down hard: in 2012, her memory began to drain like sand through your fingers and, with it, any shred of the person she had become. The last of her has disappeared while she was isolated in a nursing home under COVID.

Dementia ruined the happy truce I had enjoyed with my mother for more than thirty years.

Mother and I had a rough go right from my infancy. My parents married too young and for the wrong reasons: He wanted to have sex with her and couldn’t get it any other way (those were different times). She was on strict orders from her parents to marry decent money and he was going to be a doctor. I do not presuppose those motivations; that’s what they each said to me.

My parents' wedding in 1951. I did not know until she was in a nursing home how much she had wanted a career instead.

Even when she was about to be married, nobody had ever told my mother about sex. (Like I said, different times.) So, when my father wanted to “do those things,” she was horrified and humiliated. They married in July 1951 and I was born in August 1952. Mother was mortified that “everyone would know the things we had been doing.”

So, Shirley, my mother, was not particularly happy about being pregnant and resented it that my dad was delighted. (“It was a macho thing with him. My being pregnant proved to everyone he could do it.”) I can still remember how she looked, standing in the kitchen when I was in my twenties, when she told me she would have aborted me “if we had that back then.” Fairly often, she has said in my presence that I have always been my father’s child. She never meant it as a compliment.

Fabulously talented with fabrics, Shirley had wanted to be a costume designer for theater. When she was away for a first college year at Stephens (as young Texas ladies did in those days), she wrote home to tell my grandparents about her aspirations. A steaming letter from my grandmother came back telling her they were not spending all that money for her to waste it on a career. She was to come back the next year to the University of Texas and find a husband. And that was that. I did not know until recently that Shirley had harbored anger about that incident as late as the 2000s, when she told my daughter Liza (who now does costumes for theater) about it.

My father went to Yale Medical School (where my daughter Caitlin is a resident now) and, of course, Shirley went with him. The Northeast seemed wholly foreign to Texans at the time and neither of them had ever been far from home. Since there were no friends or family nearby, Shirley was stuck for the first two years of my life in a basement apartment in New Haven all alone. She hardly ever saw my father, because that’s how medical school is. You can imagine the dark emotional soup the two of us lived in.

My sister came along when I was two and they at least moved into a second-floor place with light and a friendly older couple downstairs. When my dad went to St. Louis for his internship, Shirley once again was in a strange place with no friends. She has told me how hard it was, being there day after day with two small children and not even having a car to get out and about. After they moved back to Texas for Daddy’s residency, there was a brief hiatus before my brother and younger sister showed up. I remember my father telling me Mother was pregnant with my youngest sibling. I looked past Daddy and saw her still lying in bed; it seemed like she had been crying. I was eight. I didn’t understand.

The four of us had a mother who was grouchy as all get out. My father was distant, but short-tempered. Both my parents were quick to “spank” us. Their anger at everything else, especially each other, would sometimes take control and those spankings would become beatings. Indeed, those were different times, but the memories are still vivid and painful.

I came to resent her early. I lashed out and “talked back.” By the time I was a teenager, we were pretty alienated. We fought a lot during those years. My mother was an extremely beautiful, graceful, and socially adept woman. I was a painfully unattractive, gawky, introverted, clumsy teenager. She was disappointed in me and let me see it.

My father treated her as if she were an idiot. I thoroughly identified with him, so I decided she was stupid, too, and let her see that.

When I was a junior in college, she told me in the tearoom at Neiman-Marcus that a doctor who lived around the corner from us had fallen in love with her and wanted to marry her. Her face showed plainly that she expected me to be thrilled for her. That’s another moment burned in my memory. I hated her for that.

We were estranged for a few years over her divorce from my father. Then, somehow, we began to make amends. I don’t remember what precipitated that, but we were reconciled by the time I became pregnant with Caitlin.

Mother’s second husband left her for another woman (proof that Karma is real) just after mine left me for the same reason (also proof but that’s another story). In the next stage of our lives, my mother and I spent a lot of time together and hours on the phone. We talked about lots of things, large and small. We took trips together. In the divorce, she got a beautiful home in Aspen. I would go and spend weeks there.

Shirley had always been an athlete. She was also born sociable (in my mean teenager stage, I would say she was "just entirely too friendly"). She was able to build a wonderful life for herself in Aspen, even though she was already in her 60s. Her friends were mostly my age. They all hiked and skied together. She joined a huge ecumenical Christian church, where she ran the bookstore and they loved her.

In fact, the thing I appreciated most about those times—and what I will remember most when she is gone—were the talks about spirituality. The life of the spirit is something that is very important to me, but I had rejected the evangelical Christianity of my childhood—with a vengeance. My mother never gave up Christianity, but what she did with it was beautiful.

All those years I thought Mother was stupid. In fact, she was a scholar. She read deeply and widely in Christian philosophy and other religions as well. She went to all kinds of spiritual retreats, had impressive spiritual mentors, and even eventually earned a certificate of some sort in theology. She never abandoned her original faith, but she questioned it and loved to debate it.

It was Mother who introduced me to the work of Elaine Pagels and the whole feminist question of the church’s treatment of Mary Magdalene. She also gave me a copy of The Gospel of Thomas (which was completely over my head, but she had read every word), explained it to me, and told me why the Gnostic Gospels were important.

Under the influence of my mother, I began to craft a more individualized set of beliefs and practices, independent of the Christian tradition, but building on it. I experimented widely and shared with her stuff I was learning as I sampled all kinds of religious traditions, including Wicca and paganism. We turned over the pros and cons of all these ways of belief in our heads, comparing them, distilling what we liked about them and carrying those things with us.

She was important in my development as a spirit and as a person. And as a woman.

When her memory began to go, it went in little trickles at first. Then, suddenly, in 2012, it began to gush out. We moved her into a place called Querencia, in Austin where she grew up, in part because we knew she could have care there to the end of her life, even if she lost her memory entirely, and in part because a bunch of her high school friends were there already.

But Mother resented being moved to Querencia. She could not remember the reasons for making the decision from one moment to the next, so she decided we were just bad children. (BTW, that happens often.) As the dementia grew, she became more and more angry at us. I made a point of coming to see her five times during each of the first two years, even though I lived in the UK, but she couldn’t remember I had been there, so I would spend every visit listening to her berate me for never coming to see her. She was always pissed off. It was too familiar.