Different Forms of Grieving

I did not plan to write this week about losing my parents—that’s a subject I’ve covered many times in this blog (see here and here for examples). But this week is the third anniversary of my mother’s death, and the topic is on my mind. Three years sounds like a long time. I’ve published two novels and drafted a third in those three years. And yet at times it feels like yesterday.

My parents at their wedding, 1955

I am bothered sometimes because I do not grieve my parents in the same way. My father’s death just six months after Mother’s was a raw wound—sudden, at a time when he still had plans for the future. He was an interesting and interested companion and conversationalist until the day he died. His death made me and my siblings orphans, and it thrust me into becoming the executor of both parents’ estates, which at times was overwhelming even for someone with a law degree. My life changed in the middle of the night when I got the call that he had died, and his passing left a gaping hole in my life.

By contrast, my mother had been declining for years as a result of Alzheimer’s. I had lost her piece by piece for several years—at least since her diagnosis in 2010, and in retrospect as far back as 2007 when I first noticed symptoms of her cognitive decline. In many ways, her death was a relief. And yet my feelings of relief provoked guilt, though my rational self told me that they should not. Her quality of life was poor, and she had been suffering physically as well as mentally.

When my maternal grandmother died in 2003, also from Alzheimer’s, I told my mother I was sorry she’d lost her mother and tried to console her. “I’m all right, Theresa,” Mother said to me. “I’ve already done my grieving.”

My parents in 2005 on one of the cruises they took, after 50 years of marriage

I understand now what she meant. I, too, did much of my grieving for my mother before she died. I remember returning home from one visit to see my parents and bursting into tears as I walked into my kitchen after the flight from Seattle to Kansas City. “I don’t have a mother anymore,” I told myself out loud. At that point, she was no longer capable of sharing her wisdom and experience, of mothering me in any meaningful fashion. Instead, when I was with her, I was her caregiver, as she had been mine in my childhood.

So my parents’ deaths affected me differently, and I have grieved them differently. This week, my realization is that grief comes as it comes, in the form that it takes, with each loss meaning something different. And that is all right.

Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there is “[a] time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” But Ecclesiastes doesn’t promise these times will occur in a linear fashion, just that “[t]here is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.” Eccl. 3:1. (NABRE)

Another thought that comes to mind this week is that the meaning of each loss I have suffered is likely to evolve for me as time passes. But it may take many more years before I can internalize that idea, before I can see the larger patterns of weeping and laughing, of mourning and dancing in my life, and how these patterns have changed over time.

What have different losses meant in your life?

Musings on Time in the Twenty-First Century . . . and Before

As of the end of May, we’ve spent 209 months in the 21st Century (I started my count in January 2000). So at the end of this month, we will be 17.4% into our new century. If time were the plot to a novel, we’d be almost finished with the first act and moving into the middle of the story.

Are we ready to declare we are in Act 2 of the 21st Century? I don’t think I am. When I quit working at the end of 2006, I felt like we were still on the cusp of the new century. I’ve continued to feel that way, despite my calculation that we are a sixth of the way through the 21st Century.

Maybe it’s because I write historical fiction that takes place in the 1840s. Maybe because my family stories seem so rooted in another time. Maybe because I’m a conservative at heart and don’t like change. Whatever the reason, I still feel like a 20th-century inhabitant, though I’m living firmly in the 21st Century. I find myself reflecting on 20th-century events. And sometimes I’m even pulled back into the 19th.

I remember figuring out as a child that I would be almost forty-four when the year 2000 arrived. Forty-four seemed so old. At the time, my parents were still in their thirties. And then it dawned on me that I might spend half of my lifetime in the century yet to come—that shocked me.

I recently calculated that my life expectancy isn’t quite that long. While it is possible I will live to be eight-eight—and I certainly hope to—the odds are that I will die before 2044. Still, it’s possible. And I will most likely spend many more years at least in the 21st Century. When will my perspective shift to seeing myself as a post-2000 being more than one of the 1900s?

Maybe I never will. Maybe I will continue to reflect on the past.

Granddad Hooker, Theresa & brother

Because of the recent anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I, I’ve been thinking a lot about where the nation and my family were one-hundred years ago.

  • The one great-grandparent I knew, Thomas Hooker, was born in 1879, so he was an adult when the 20th Century began. By 1917, he worked in the Polk County Courthouse, where he served as Sheriff for decades.
  • My other great-grandparent alive during my childhood (I never met her), Lillie Smith Claudson, was born in 1885 and married in 1900. By 1917, she had four children. Act 1 of her 20th Century was certainly productive.
  • James Parks, my husband’s grandfather whom I knew, was born in 1899 and enlisted in the Army infantry at the tail end of World War I in 1917. His entire childhood passed in the first 17 years of the last century.

So that’s one perspective on what happens in one-sixth of a century. If I look at the last seventeen years of the 1900s, I see the passage of a sixth of a century from another angle.

  • My son, who began walking in May 1983, graduated from high school in May 2000, a time I remember well, but a time that feels long ago.
  • I hadn’t even used a personal computer as of 1983, though I was starting to teach myself how to operate a Wang word processor. When PCs first came to my company a year or so later, I knew as much about them as the IT department did. But by 2000, my knowledge had failed to keep up with the experts.
  • In 1983, Bill Clinton started his second stint as Governor of Arkansas. He was not yet a national figure. By 2000, he’d been President for two terms.

And then there are all the events that have happened since the start of this century, showing that time flows on whether we embrace it or not. Act 1 of this century has changed the world.

  • The job I took in 2000 has been held in a variety of iterations by several individuals in the last seventeen years. It is a changed role in a company that also has experienced great change.
  • As the last century ended, we worried about whether computers would survive the switch in dates to Y2K. People filled their bathtubs with water in case public utilities shut down, but those fears did not come to pass.
  • The tragedy of September 11 hadn’t yet occurred seventeen years ago. Remember the ease of traveling before long security lines? Some fears we had not expected did come to pass.

Time rolls on, whether we are keeping up with it or not. History happens.

Now I ponder what Act 2 in the 21st Century will bring. And I wonder what I will make of it. Whether coming events will strike me as odd as airplanes must have seemed to Great-Granddad Hooker in 1917. Whether I will ever seem as old to my descendants as he seemed to me.

What do you think the greatest surprises of the 21st Century will be?

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?

Haunting Book: The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson

bookseller-coverLike A Murder in Time, The Bookseller haunted me because of how the novel deals with time and reality, though The Bookseller is not a time travel story. In this debut novel by Cynthia Swanson, the protagonist, Kitty Miller, owns an independent bookstore in the early 1960s, together with her friend Frieda. Kitty lives alone with her cat, but at night she dreams of another life, a life set in a slightly different time. In her dream world, she is married to a wonderful husband named Lars, and she is the mother of triplets, two of whom are normal children, and the third is autistic. In that dream life, she is Katharyn Andersson.

Through the course of the novel, Kitty also comes to doubt which world is real. The story becomes like the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, with alternate views of reality. Is it autumn in 1962 or spring in 1963? Is she Kitty, the bookseller? Or is she Katharyn, wife to Lars and mother of three children? Which does she want to be? Can she choose?

SPOILER ALERT—DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS

Kitty likes the freedom of her solitary life as a bookseller, but she finds herself more and more drawn to her dream world, hoping each night to find her way back. She falls in love with blue-eyed Lars and with their children, though she has trouble understanding and dealing with her autistic son. She realizes that she knew Lars in her life as “Kitty” several years earlier, and that the life she dreams of might have been hers, had one conversation been different.

Interwoven with this alternate reality story is the story of women in the 1960s, at the cusp of cultural change from being housewives to having paid careers. Does Kitty want her bookstore—which is hers, though it is failing because of the new shopping center in town—or does she want Katharyn’s Jackie-Kennedy-era life of a housewife dependent on her husband, while raising kids and attending cocktail parties?

Over time, Kitty doubts the choices she’s made in life and comes to wish that her dream world were real. In fact, she starts to think it is real. However, Katharyn’s world is not perfect, and Kitty learns that her parents—alive in her bookseller’s life—died in a plane crash in her fantasy. She also learns that her alter-ego Katharyn has had a falling out with Frieda, the friend with whom Kitty owns the bookstore in the real world.

As Swanson says in The Bookseller, “There is no such thing as a perfect life.” We all discover this for ourselves in our own lives, but part of the reason I read fiction is to watch the characters discover the pros and cons of their choices. In this case, the choice was between two different lives—each with its own rewards and problems. Friendship and career, or family and tragedy—which would you choose?

I won’t tell you where Kitty/Katharyn ended up. But I will say, I enjoyed her journey.

What books have caused you to think about life choices you have made?

My Grandfather’s Clock as a Metaphor for Grief

grandfather's clock

My grandfather’s clock keeping time in my home

I’ve written before about my grandfather’s clock—how it formed a part of my childhood, first in my grandparents’ home and then in my parents’; how I deliberately let it wind down after my father died; how I shipped to to my house and got it working again. (see here and here) But even after I set it up in my house, it still felt like my grandfather’s—or at least my father’s—clock.

Over the past few months I have worked to make it my clock. I am less timid about winding it, no longer afraid it will fall apart as I turn the wrench that raises the weights. I decided earlier this year that I needed to help it keep better time. It was losing a few minutes a day, and I got tired of adjusting it every day. So I psyched myself up until I was brave enough to adjust the pendulum. After I made tiny adjustments every few days for several weeks, it now keeps pretty good time, losing a minute or less a week.

As I worked on the clock, it occurred to me that it has become my metaphor for my grief over my father’s passing. It wasn’t his clock to start with—it came from my mother’s family. But he had the care of the clock for so many years, probably from about 1967 until his death in January 2015. And now it has come to me.

Letting the clock wind down in the days immediately after his death was my initial letting go. Shipping the clock to my house was my attempt to hang on to the past. Overcoming my fear of winding it was my initial acknowledgment that I am now the senior generation in my family. And finally making the adjustments to get it keeping good time was my return to an even keel after losing my parents.

A friend told me after my father died that when our second parent dies, “we have only sky above us.” In other words, there is no one left who connects us to the past. I think that has been a large part of my grief. I lost my mother slowly to Alzheimer’s, but my father’s death was sudden and unexpected. I am the oldest child. The brother right behind me—the companion of my childhood—is estranged from the family. My younger siblings are much younger, and don’t remember my first decade of life. There truly was only sky above me.

Last December a Jewish friend of mine lost her mother. I went to my first Jewish funeral, and then later in the week I visited my friend as she sat shiva. We have since talked about our feelings about losing our parents, managing their estates, and the Jewish custom of mourning the loss of a parent for a year.

In my experience, a year of mourning is about right. It was about a year from when my father died until I was brave enough to adjust his clock’s pendulum—to assume full responsibility for my role as the clock’s owner.

I know that my grief is not over. In fact, I’m not sure I ever fully processed my mother’s death, because my father’s came so soon after. Just as the clock will sometimes stop, and may break down, so will I. But I am no longer losing time every day. I am ticking along just fine.

Today, April 25, 2016, would have been my father’s 83rd birthday. We held his memorial Mass a year ago today. I miss him, but I am moving on. I’ll keep ticking.

What possessions of yours are symbols of the past or present for you?

My Grandfather’s Clock

When I was in second grade or so, my class sang the old song, “My Grandfather’s Clock,” by Henry Clay Work. The lyrics to the first verse are

My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born,
And was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopped short — never to go again —
When the old man died.

Grandfather ClockUnlike the clock of this song, my maternal grandfather’s clock did sit on the shelf. It also differed from the song, because it did not mark his age. It was manufactured long before his birth and it has survived more than forty years past his death. Nevertheless, whenever I hear this song, my mind immediately goes to this clock and to my grandfather.

I don’t recall when my grandfather became the possessor of the clock. It dates back to the 1800s, maybe as far back as the 1830s. I don’t know when it came into our family. All I know is that it became ours a long time ago.

Family lore says that it sat in my great-grandmother’s kitchen, above a smoky old stove, and was covered with soot and grime. It has since been restored to its earlier glory, and (with some maintenance) it has kept good time as long as our family has owned it.

Although my great-grandmother died young, her husband, my great-grandfather lived until July 1965, and died just six months before his son, my grandfather. I know my grandfather owned the clock for several years before his death—in fact, he owned it as long as I can remember. So I don’t know when it left my great-grandfather’s house and became my grandfather’s.

My memories of the clock date back to when I was a small child. The clock sat in my maternal grandparents’ house, and my grandfather wound it religiously every Sunday. It chimed the hour and the half hour, and it ticked off the seconds—tick, tock, tick, tock—regardless of whether the day was happy or sad, busy or boring.

After my grandfather passed away, my grandmother kept it. I don’t remember her winding it, but she must have, because it continued to count away the hours throughout her many moves. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

When my grandmother finally downsized into assisted living, my parents acquired the clock. My father took over the weekly chore of winding the clock. From that time forward, the pendulum marked the hours of my visits home, and the chimes sounded through days and nights. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

Some members of my family didn’t like the clock’s ticking and gongs, but I always found them comforting—a sign that I was in fact home. True, if I had a sleepless night, hearing the hours I laid awake could be disconcerting, but for the most part, the clock reminded me of the good times of my childhood.

My father died on a Monday in January. He must have wound the clock for the last time on Sunday, the day before he died. When I arrived to stay at his house the following weekend, it was still ticking. Tick, tock, tick, tock. And I thought of my father, knowing he would never wind it again.

Because no one would be staying in the house after I left, I let the clock wind down. Sometime on Monday, a week after his death, it stopped. The silence was an eerie reminder my father was gone. Unlike in the song, it hadn’t stopped short when my father died. But because of my decision not to wind it, it didn’t last many days longer than he did.

Now the clock is on its way to my home, weights removed and pendulum secured. When the clock body and all its parts arrive, I will set it up in my house.

And then I will wind it. My grandfather’s clock will again mark the time, as another generation assumes responsibility for this family heirloom. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

What family heirlooms remind you of generations past?

Sculpting My Novel and My Life

MC900290846My writing goal for the summer was to finish an edit of my second Oregon Trail book. I got it done just after Labor Day. Of course, that was not the end of the project. I know it needs another substantial edit. And probably another edit after that.

And I’m working still on the first book, which is closer to being finished, but could still benefit from some shaping.

Some writers seem to be able to dash off a first draft of their novel, go back through it once to catch typos, and declare it done. I can’t do that. Part of it may be my inexperience—I still consider myself to be a newbie novelist. Part of it may be my unwillingness to let go.

But a substantial part is that I know I can make it better with each draft. It isn’t time to let go of the book yet. Not until I am proud of it. It took me nine drafts (four of them major rewrites) to finish the novel I published under a pseudonym.

For me, writing a novel is like sculpture. With each draft, I lay down more clay or scrape it away to reveal the story inside. On the first draft, I write the bones, the skeleton of what happens. On the next draft, I further develop the plot and fix the obvious glitches. On the next draft, I add more character back story and emotion and description.

On the next, I focus on the story arc—making sure the plot points are at about the right points, that there is not much denouement after the climax, etc. It is surprising that if you look for plot points, they are there. It’s a matter of building them up so that readers feel satisfied with the timing of the twists in the story.

Of course, writing isn’t really as scientific as this. By the third draft or so, I’m sharing the story with my critique group, and they tell me where I most need to work. So the story arc draft may come before the emotion-adding draft. Or I have to go back to the plot when I’m told something isn’t believable.

Maybe it is inexperience that I cannot concentrate on everything that a novel needs at once. It is definitely my fault that my time is over-committed and each draft takes so much time.

But writing is what I want to do. No one will manage my time except for me. It is up to me to sculpt my life the way I sculpt my novel. I try on new activities for size—a board or committee here, a new critique group there. The activities that fit, I add to if I’m able. The ones that don’t, I carve away when I can.

Piece by piece, and draft by draft, our life work builds. On the pages we write and in the friends we make.

What sculpting does your life need?