Lavender Lotion and “Temps Perdu”

img_20170125_090600-lavender-lotionI don’t use much scented lotion. I’m allergic to many floral scents, particularly roses and lilies. They make me sneeze. So I buy hypoallergenic brands. Gifts of scented hand lotions tend to sit on my counter for a long time, to be used only on special occasions when I want to feel pampered and don’t mind a little tickle in my nose.

I just used up one bottle I wish I could have kept longer. My parents gave me a bottle of lavender lotion in the summer of 2006, when I first visited them on the Olympic Peninsula. They were glad to have me visit, and they were so excited to show me their new home and community and some of the beautiful sights of that corner of the state where I’d been born (a corner where I’d spent little time as a child).

Waiting for me in the guest bedroom when I arrived was this bottle of lavender goat’s milk lotion—a reverse housewarming gift of sorts. My mother raved about the excursion to Swiss Lavender Farm near Sequim, Washington, where my parents had bought the lotion made from locally grown lavender and goat’s milk. She talked about the fields of purple flowers, the cute little goats, and the Swiss chalet that was part of the farm.

lavender-1595490_1280“We’ll have to take you there,” she said. “If not this trip, then another time.” But we never made it to the lavender farm.

Even without the visit to the farm, I enjoyed the lotion. It had a lovely creamy texture, a good consistency to spread. The lavender scent was not too strong and didn’t cause me too much of an allergic reaction.

So much has happened over the last decade since I received that bottle of lavender lotion. My parents had a few wonderful years on the Olympic Peninsula, broken up by international travel and trips to visit friends and relatives and month-long winter stays in Carmel, California.

Then my mother started having health problems—leg pain that couldn’t be diagnosed, blood chemistry imbalances, and in 2010 she was also diagnosed with dementia. From there it was downhill, and in January 2013 she moved into assisted living and later into dementia care. As readers of this blog know, she died in July 2014, and my father died suddenly just six months later.

And through it all, with each of my sparing uses of the lavender lotion, I thought of them. And remembered good times and bad. The Olympic Peninsula days and earlier times.

Finally, a few months ago, the pump dispenser on the bottle quit working—not enough lotion left to pump. I clung to the bottle as a memory of my parents, so I researched the lavender farm that produced it, hoping to buy more lotion for myself. Unfortunately, Swiss Lavender Farm has gone out of business and I could not buy more.

So I turned the bottle upside down and scooped out as much as I could with my finger. This last week, however, I had to concede I’d used it all. I took a picture of the bottle for this post, then threw it away.

Smells have a powerful effect on memory, as Proust wrote of his madeleines in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Proust’s title was originally translated into English as Remembrance of Things Past. More recent translators have used In Search of Lost Time. The latter translation is much closer to the French, but still doesn’t quite capture the meaning of the French for me. “Recherche” means not only “search” or “searching,” but can also mean “research” or “study.” And “perdu” means not only “lost,” but also “wasted,” as well as “missing” and “disappeared.” So Proust intends his novel to be about a deliberate, questing search for a past that is gone—perhaps just disappeared, but perhaps a past that has been wasted.

There seems to be a finality in “temps perdu” that is sadder than the English “lost time.” I find myself often on a quest for my own “temps perdu.” That’s why I write this blog. That’s why I focus so much on memories in my posts. My mother’s past was lost to dementia and then to death. I try to keep mine alive in words that remain after me.

And all this I thought of when I smelled the last of my lavender lotion.

What odors bring memories to mind for you?

The Second Anniversary of Loss

Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of my father’s death, which happened just six months after my mother’s death. I find myself in a much better place than I was on the first anniversary. I wrote a year ago today that I was melancholic—past the immediacy of loss, but still mourning. Now, a year further into being an adult orphan, the reminders of loss are far less frequent, and when they hit, the pain is less intense.

I survived another Christmas without my parents. I thought of them often through the holidays, but not with the same level of “I’ll never see them again” grief that I had in the first year. My parents came to mind when I called my sister and brother—I used to call my parents on major holidays (not my siblings), unless my parents called me first. But I didn’t feel loss this year over memories of particular Christmases past that will never be repeated.


My parents’ empty house

I recently looked through some photos of my parents’ last home while searching for a picture to use on another blog post. I felt a few pangs at seeing these photos. Some pictures were taken when the house was still furnished with all their belongings—now mostly sold or given to charity. Other pictures showed the empty rooms taken after the estate sale while the house was on the market. These later pictures remind me their lives have vanished, except in memory. All their earthly detritus is gone, except for a few mementos my siblings and I kept.

And I can accept the passing of their earthly presence. Most days. The waters have smoothed over my emotions, and the current once more runs far beneath the surface.

Still, every once in awhile something triggers my tears. The sight of one of my mother’s Hummel figurines. A Christmas ornament I gave my parents that I now put on my own tree. “Ave Maria,” a song my father loved.

These triggers will probably always happen. But the sense of overwhelming loss is gone. It’s a few tears, not a breakdown.

Mostly what I’m left with is two boxes of photographs and two boxes of files from my parents’ estates. I need to sort through both. I’ll have to keep some of the files for a few years. The photographs I’ll keep forever . . . or at least until I digitize them or my husband makes me throw them out.

And the memories. I still have the memories. Those, too, will last forever, even if new memories are added and the intensity of the past slips further beneath the surface.

What losses have you suffered that you find diminishing with time?

Gail Elizabeth Sullivan


Gail on the right and me on the left on our First Communion day

In my last post, I mentioned that I developed some friends during my second grade year, the first school year I spent at Christ the King School in Richland, Washington. One of those friends was Gail Elizabeth Sullivan.

Gail was a bubbly little girl. She was smart (in the A reading group with me). She was not a bad athlete, though she was small (she was the second shortest girl in the class, and I barely topped her at third shortest). She was a cheerful, friendly type, who got along with everyone.

Our last names weren’t close in the alphabet, so we didn’t sit next to each other in class. But when we were lined up by height, as we were for First Communion and other formal class processions, she and I stood next to each other. (The girls, of course, had separate lines from the boys.)

Gail became one of my better friends in the second grade, a good enough friend to make the cut for my 7th birthday party in April 1963. We poked along as friends through the third grade as well. In third grade, the girls became very cliquish, and Gail was one of the few who could defy the chasms between the groups. She got along with everyone.

In the spring of my third grade year, I heard one girl whispering in the girls’ bathroom after recess one day, “Gail isn’t coming to school any more. She has cancer.” The whisper came in that ghoulish tone that kids use when they want to impress their peers with their knowledge of an awful fact.

“She does not,” I said.

It couldn’t be true. Kids didn’t get cancer. I’d never known anyone who had cancer. Gail had been sick a lot that past winter. But lots of kids got colds and bronchitis and such. That’s all Gail had. That’s why she’d been gone so long.

But it was true. Gail had cancer. She missed most of the last couple months of third grade.

And then came summer.

I was absent on the first day of fourth grade, September 8, 1964, the Tuesday after Labor Day. I was sick that day, mostly due to nerves over another school year starting.

That was the only day of fourth grade Gail attended. She probably was quite ill, attending class solely for the opportunity to see her friends. And I missed her. Just a few days later, Gail died, on September 17, 1964.

The reason the date of her death sticks in my mind so well is that my sister was born the next day, September 18, 1964. As our family rejoiced, Gail’s family grieved.

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD! Job 1:21 (NAB)

I’ve written before about another death I experienced in childhood—that of my infant sister, Susan Elizabeth, who died two days after her birth in 1960. I was too young to understand death then—I was not quite four.

But when Gail Elizabeth Sullivan died, I was eight and a half. I understood, and I mourned the loss of my friend.

I didn’t attend Gail’s funeral a few days later, because our family was preoccupied with a new baby, and my parents didn’t think it appropriate for young children to go to funerals. But every year about this time, I think of Gail. What might she have become? Would we have remained friends? Would she have continued to bridge the divides between our little girl cliques? I think she might have made a difference in the world—at least in my world.

What do you remember as your first experience with death?

The Importance of Brag Files—My Father’s and My Own

1988ish TTC Greenie 20150308_132747During my first visit to my father’s house after his death, I reviewed all the papers in his office. There were at least six file drawers, plus a two-shelf cupboard, plus two plastic boxes under a desk—all crammed full of neatly labeled folders, and all the folders were stuffed with papers.

I packed about six inches worth of the most important papers to take with me back to Kansas City—information I thought most critical for estate administration. I moved about three boxes worth of files to my sister’s house, where she could send me things if I needed them.

The rest, I decided, could wait—and I would throw out most of it, I was certain.

A couple of months later I made another visit. The purpose of this trip was to empty the house of anything the family might want, prior to an estate sale.

As part of our project, my siblings and I tackled our father’s garage. Suspended on shelves over the cars were about twenty more boxes—all crammed full. Old tax returns and brokerage statements. Pictures . . . and more pictures. And a large plastic box containing clippings and correspondence and pictures about my dad’s career—his “brag” file, as it turned out.

We should all have brag files. We should all keep mementos that bring to mind what we have accomplished in life, that help us reflect on the value we have created in this world, and that show us in the light we want to be remembered.

After we cleaned out the garage, I took over 100 pounds of paper to OfficeMax to be shredded. But the box of Dad’s work papers I moved to my sister’s house. On my next trip, I went through the box.

As I read what Dad had kept from a career that spanned from 1955 until about 2003, I found my father in ways I hadn’t known him before. I’d known of his activities, even of some of the milestones in his career. But I had not known how others viewed him, nor how he viewed himself. This file revealed some of these things about my father.

1995 ANS fellow 20150308_131835My father was a fellow in the American Nuclear Society. For people who work in the nuclear industry, that’s a big deal. I knew he’d received this honor, but seeing all the articles about him at the time brought it home to me. And I saw photos for the first time of my father with nuclear industry colleagues from countries around the world.

I also found pictures of him with his classmates at the Harvard Business School Executive MBA program he attended—something he was very proud of. He’d attained technical knowledge with his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, but he relished acquiring the broader business background as well.

As he approached retirement, my father was a loaned executive from Battelle Pacific-Northwest Laboratories to what is now Heritage University in Toppenish, Washington. He built the science department at Heritage, where most of the students are first-generation college attendees from Native American and Hispanic families in the area. I learned how these students and his faculty felt about him.

None of these accomplishments relate to memories I have of my father, but they are facets of him that I am glad to have found. They enrich my understanding of the man I knew. They teach me that we are all more than even those closest to us can understand or appreciate.

I, too, have kept “brag” files. Many of my documents ended up in boxes I stashed in our basement. My husband decided several years ago he didn’t want this stuff in the house, so he moved them to a storage unit. Over the years, we ended up with about thirty boxes in that storage unit. Old tax returns and brokerage statements. Pictures . . . and more pictures. And several boxes containing files from my career.

The cost of this storage unit increased far faster than inflation. The space suffered water damage a couple years ago. My husband has another enclosed facility now where he keeps his boat; that place has shelving that could hold some extra boxes. And so it became time to deal with the contents of the old storage unit.

A couple of weeks ago, I screwed up my courage to examine what we had. (It took courage because I was sure there’d be spiders amongst the files.) I found that because of the water damage, most of the papers were useless. We took the bulk of the thirty boxes to an industrial shredding facility, where, for $32.50, all our records were securely destroyed. For that price, it was easier to shred everything than determine what was confidential and what was not.

In a matter of hours, a lifetime was gone, including many of my career files, which had been on the bottom of the stacks and suffered the most damage.

A lifetime, gone. And I have been mourning it. Not because this stuff was intrinsically valuable, but because the loss felt like a loss of self. The value was in what I remembered about the creation and receipt of the documents. The value was in the glimpses into myself and others which they revealed. The value was in the tangible proof that I and my work meant something to others.

I brought four of the boxes home. One has some framed pictures, a few of which may be salvageable. One has old computer stuff that couldn’t be shredded, most of which will probably go in the trash or to a local recycling facility. And two boxes contain some old work and personal correspondence, which I will review, hoping to glean a few pieces to retain.

For example, the sole remaining copies of my law review note, as well as copies of U.S. Supreme Court briefs I wrote. And the letter my sister wrote me when she was in middle school, which she signed “R___ the Great”. And other letters from my mother, who left no brag file other than the family she raised.

Yes, I’ll go through these boxes hoping to salvage at least a few reminders of my life.

So keep your brag files. Keep them safe. They probably mean something to you, and maybe they’ll mean something to your loved ones in the future.

What do you wish you had retained that got thrown out?

A Story I Couldn’t Tell Before: It’s Okay to Stop

2013-2 LSCHristmasBuffet046 (touched up)

The last picture of my mother

The last time I saw my mother was in mid-June 2014—just over two years ago. That was the trip during which she spit out the Communion host, which I then had difficulty disposing of. This week-long visit gave me my last memories of my mother before she died.

Mother had been hospitalized for a gallbladder issue the week before I visited. Surgery to remove her gallbladder was not an option because her physical and mental disabilities would not allow her to cooperate in the post-surgical care. So, while her infection had been healed, she wasn’t eating much and was physically frail. Moreover, her mental acuity had ratcheted down even further, which often happens when Alzheimer’s patients get ill. She was not well.

Every morning during my trip, my father and I went to see her in the dementia care facility where she lived. Dad liked to be there when Mother was brought to the dining room for breakfast. She couldn’t feed herself any more, and his daily routine included feeding her breakfast, then sitting with her for an hour or two.

On the first or second morning I was there, Dad left Mother and me in the dining room and went to talk to one of the staff. Mother had barely touched her breakfast, so I continued to try to feed her.

“How about a bite of pancake?” I suggested, placing a piece on a fork against her lips. I coaxed her to eat. She rejected the food or took a bite and then didn’t chew it.

She kept saying, “It’s too much.”

Did she mean the pancakes? I asked her what was too much.

“Stuff,” she said. I couldn’t get her to explain any further.

A bit later, she said, “I can’t take it any more.” And she told me she was tired.

“What can’t you take?”

“You know. It.”

Because her verbal abilities were so limited, she couldn’t explain what she meant. I didn’t know whether she was expressing normal fatigue, whether she didn’t want any more breakfast, or whether she was trying to tell me she was ready to die. I suspected the last, and I didn’t know what to say.

Mother repeated similar comments throughout my week-long visit.

“It’s too much.”

“I can’t take it any more.”

And she shook her head when I asked her to explain further.

It seemed like she was telling me she was done with her struggle, that she was ready to let go of life. But I didn’t know whether to ignore what she was saying or whether to soothe her with promises everything would be all right.

Or whether to tell her it was all right not to fight any more, that it was all right if she wanted to slip into death.

I wanted to tell her it was okay to die. I wanted to tell her we would miss her, but if she was ready, she should go. I wanted to tell her I loved her, and I didn’t want to see her tired and in pain. Her quality of life was poor, and her family’s love should not keep her in a struggle she did not want.

“It’s okay to stop,” I wanted to tell her. “If you can’t take it any more, it’s okay to let go.”

But if all she wanted was a nap, then how could I tell her any of this?

So I said nothing.

When I left to go back to my home halfway across the country, I kissed her cheek. “Good-bye,” I said. “I love you.” I wasn’t planning to return for several months, and I thought I was probably seeing her for the last time.

The week after I left, my father placed her into palliative care. Two weeks after that, she died, and I returned to help my father with her funeral and other plans.

I’m sure now that she’d been trying to tell me she was finished. And I wish I’d told her it was okay.

When have you left something unsaid you wish you had said?

Six Things My Father Did Right on Estate Planning

In addition to remembering your loved ones on this Memorial Day, perhaps you should consider how you want to be remembered when you are gone. I have just completed the administration of my parents’ estates after my father’s sudden death about seventeen months ago. During this emotional and time-consuming process, I often had reason to think about the many things he did right before he died.

(1) He had a recently updated will.

last-will-and-testamentAfter my mother died, my father considered again his wishes for where his possessions and property would go, and updated his will. He died just six months after my mother, so it was a good thing he didn’t procrastinate.

I met with his lawyer with him, and he explained why he wanted the changes he did. I therefore felt able to carry out his wishes after his death. He also showed me where his important documents were, including the keys to the safety deposit box. (And I made a note of these things, and I even located the note after he died.)

(2) He involved me in his financial affairs before he died.

I was to be his executor, and I knew it. Once it became clear that my mother’s Alzheimer’s Disease made her incapable of handling financial matters, he showed me his bank and brokerage account statements and told me how to log into those accounts so I could monitor them myself. This was at least three or four years before he died. I didn’t watch the accounts regularly, but I did periodically. When he did pass away, I knew immediately how much he had in his checking account and how much in savings.

He also gave me his email password, and I could therefore use his address book to contact his friends by email after he passed away.

(3) He had me meet with several of his advisors.

In addition to the lawyer, he had also taken me to meet with his brokerage agent, with the realtor who had sold my parents the house he lived in, and with the accountant who did his taxes. These people were all familiar to me, and I with them. That made my transition to managing his affairs much easier.

(4) He kept his files well organized.

TTC envelope 20150413_095305

My dad’s envelope with 2014 medical expenses calculated, prior to January 5, 2015

I noted in an earlier post that he already had all his tax calculations for 2014 done when he passed away on January 5, 2015. I have to admit that I am not nearly as organized as he was. But I really appreciated his attention to detail, in this as in so many other things throughout his life.

(5) He planned his funeral.

Well, actually, he planned my mother’s funeral. But as he did so, he and I talked about what he wanted and what he didn’t in his own funeral. So, six months later, as awful as it was, I was able to plan his.

(6) He had made arrangements for the next phase of his life.

The phone call announcing his death could just as easily been to announce that he had incurred a serious physical or mental disability and was incapacitated. Had that happened, I would have known where to start. He had already placed a deposit on a continuing care retirement community, where he planned to move about a year later. As usual, my father was one step ahead of the game.

While I wished he had downsized his home on his own and made this move, had he been incapacitated, I would have known where to start on finding a place providing the care he would have needed.

I suggest that we can all benefit from these six things that my father did right. Any of us could die or become disabled suddenly. It helps to be prepared.

Not everyone will be as proactive as my father—heaven knows, I’m not!

But we can all remember his last instructions to me, sent in an email on the day he died: “Plan, implement, and follow up.”

When has someone else’s preparation helped you in life?

A Story I Couldn’t Tell Before: The Sister I Never Knew

Shortly before my mother’s death, my father and I reviewed the draft obituaries my parents had written for themselves several years earlier, long before my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At the time my father showed me the obituaries, my mother was about to go into hospice. We knew we would probably need her obituary soon.

“She wrote this,” he told me, “but I don’t like it. Can you take a crack at it?” So I did.

1960-1 Claudson family December 1959 or maybe 60

I think this picture is from December 1960. You cannot see the tragedy that occurred earlier in the year.

Both their obituaries listed them as the parents of five children—the four who survived, and an infant daughter, Susan Elizabeth, who was born on February 18, 1960, in Corvallis, Oregon, and lived two days.

“We always felt we had five children,” my father said. “We both thought she should be included in our obituaries.” I had never known they felt that way. Susan Elizabeth’s existence was only rarely mentioned in our family.

Although my infant sister lived only two days, I’ve always thought of her by her full name of “Susan Elizabeth.” We had no chance to develop a name or nickname for her. Would she have been Susan? Elizabeth (most of the kids in our family went by middle names)? Susie? Beth? Or something else? She might have had a short life, but I made up for it by using only her long name in my thoughts.

I remember Susan Elizabeth’s brief time on earth. I may be the only person alive now who still remembers. But I never met her.

I was not quite four years old when she was born. This is what I remember:

Mommy went to the hospital to have a baby. I knew I would soon have a new brother or sister, but the baby came sooner than expected. The morning after the baby came, I got to go to work with Daddy. We took my coloring book and crayons so I could stay busy while he worked. My little brother didn’t get to go, because he wouldn’t be able to keep quiet, but I was big enough to be good. I sat at his great big drafting table and colored. Then Daddy and I went to the bus station to get Nanny Winnie, who was coming to take care of us while Mommy was in the hospital. After Nanny got there, we all went to the hospital in the car. Daddy and Nanny Winnie took turns going to see Mommy, while the other one stayed in the car with my brother and me. We were too little to go into the hospital. We waved at Mommy through the window. The baby died.

Mommy came home and Nanny Winnie went back to her house. Mommy was sick for a long time—even past her birthday a few weeks later. I didn’t think it was fair that she was sick on her birthday. She had a kidney infection, and the doctor made a house call. He got mad at her for not resting. He told her she had to take care of herself so she could get well and take care of her family.

And that’s all I remember from those weeks in 1960.

Over the years, I learned that my mother had had an emergency C-section, because bleeding was endangering the baby. She had been eight months pregnant at the time.

I put two and two together when I was an adult and deduced my mother had probably developed placenta previa. Over the next twelve years, my mother had two more miscarriages, then two more healthy children, then another miscarriage. As a child, I sensed that the loss of half of her pregnancies was one of the greatest sorrows of my mother’s life.

But we never talked about it. The only conversation I ever had with my mother on the topic was after I’d had my own children. I said something about being worried when I was pregnant that I would miscarry like she had.

“Oh, Theresa,” she said. “The reason I never talked about it was because I thought you would worry if I told you!”

But we didn’t talk any further. So she never told me how she felt, how these losses impacted her life.

I’ve put together in my own mind how she must have felt. By the time I really thought about it, I was over 30 myself. My mother was a few weeks shy of her 27th birthday when Susan Elizabeth was born. I tried to put myself in her place—two preschool children to raise, a husband in graduate school and working a couple of part-time jobs as well, and grieving the loss of her third child while recuperating from an emergency C-section. It was unimaginable to me.

As I thought about Susan Elizabeth and about how my parents must have felt, this sister became real to me, and my parents became more human. Many of the difficulties of my childhood years became much more understandable. My mother was often angry with me, it seemed. But how could she not get angry when she was constantly grieving another failed pregnancy—Susan Elizabeth in 1960, a miscarriage in 1962, and another in 1963?

I learned more from my dad after my mother died. He confirmed that she had had a placenta previa, and he told me about the night Susan Elizabeth was born. “Your mother woke up in the middle of the night bleeding. I’ve never seen so much blood,” he said. “I rushed her to the hospital. I don’t even know what I did with you kids. I think I threw you in the back seat and took you with me.” (I don’t remember that night at all.)

He continued, “A nurse came out—frantic—during the surgery and said, ‘We need oxygen!’ They didn’t even have oxygen in the delivery room.” My father was still upset about this more than fifty years later, and he railed about the incompetence of the small town hospital and general practitioner doctor.

Even before I spoke with my father, I had suspected that if Susan Elizabeth had been born a few years later, she might well have lived. Perhaps she would have lived even in 1960 had there been oxygen in the delivery room to give her immediately. Of course, we’ll never know.

It always felt to me like there was a hole in our family. Susan Elizabeth would have been about halfway between my sister and me in age—would she have bridged the age difference between us?

And yet, I know my life would have been different had I grown up the oldest of eight children instead of four. I would probably have had to share a bedroom for many more years than I did—most likely with Susan Elizabeth. My parents probably would not have been able to afford a private college education for me. And if my education had been different, I probably would not have met and married the man I did.

Speculation about all these things is pointless. Whether the differences would have been good for me or not is indeterminable.

We all have tragedies and sorrows in our lives. My parents had Susan Elizabeth’s death, and the loss of later pregnancies as well. In some ways those losses have followed me through life. For me perhaps, the sorrow of these losses was my mother’s distancing from the children she already had. I’ve grown to understand and forgive that distancing, but it’s why I couldn’t write this story until both my parents were gone.

What do you remember of the tragedies in your family? Write them down. What have they taught you?