The Baggage We Tote Around

In this phase of my life, I sometimes find that I am a bag lady. I often spend an entire day away from my house in meetings with other writers, in workshops and webinars, and in many other activities. For example, last Saturday, I attended a writing workshop from 9:00 am until 4:00 pm. And yesterday I was a poll worker from 5:00 am until 8:00 pm—a longer day than normal, but so be it.

On days when I’m going to be away from home, I gather all the belongings I’ll need—my laptop, a notebook, lunch and drinks, and the newspaper or a magazine or my tablet in case I have downtime and want to read. This time of year, I’d better pack a coat as well. All this stuff gets crammed into a tote bag—hence the reason I call myself a bag lady.

Recently, I’ve been using an old tote of my mother’s. I have a nice black leather tote, which looks more professional. But it’s heavy and the handles sometimes fall off. I have lightweight bags, but they are getting pretty worn (I’ve sewn the strap back on one of them with ugly brown stitches, and I no longer trust the straps on another bag) and are too summery for this time of year.

So my mother’s tote it is. It’s a good quality bag, with leather handles and trim, a heavy upholstery fabric, a nice lining, and a zipper pocket inside.

But it is definitely no longer in style.

I think I gave it to Mother one Christmas back in the 1990s. The label inside the bag says it was made for the Smithsonian Institute, and I recall doing a lot of my holiday shopping from the Smithsonian catalog back in the day. Perhaps it was in 1995, the year I did all my shopping from catalogs while sitting in the back of my minivan while my daughter took horseback riding lessons.

In any event, my mother was not hard on the bag, and it was still in good shape after her death. I recall her using it some, but not a lot.

On one of my visits shortly after Mother’s death, my father and I cleaned out her clothes from the closets in all three bedrooms of their house. He kept handing me things, saying, “Here. Can you use this?” And, “Take this. It’s brand new.”

I took a few items—a sporty jacket, a raincoat, a couple of purses, and this tote bag. Most of the items I’ve since given to Goodwill. My mother and I were close to the same size, but not exactly. Plus, many of her things were too far out of style to be wearable. And our tastes were not always similar.

But I kept the tote bag. And recently, I decided to start using it.

When I carry the bag, I think of my mother. I remember her in good times and in bad. The good times include her using this or a similar bag for knitting projects, back when she knitted baby sweaters for grandchildren. The good times include her writing years, late in her life, when she joined Questors and won an essay contest for local writers.

The bad times include her last couple of years at home, after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and before she moved into an assisted living facility. During those years, she wouldn’t leave the house without three purses or totes, all crammed full of her “necessities.” These necessities included wadded up tissues, little notebooks, saltine crackers, and whatever else caught her fancy. She carried a wallet, but it didn’t have any cash. She didn’t carry car keys, as she no longer had a driver’s license.

It drove my father crazy waiting for her to gather all her bags before she would go wherever they were going. He was always early everywhere, and he fretted she would make them late.

In those bad years, she didn’t use this tote (stuffed full, she might not have been able to carry it). But she had a purse about half this size made out of a similar fabric. Even that purse weighed a ton. And she carried two other purses as well. We could usually talk her into leaving most of her bags in the car when she reached their destination, and my father would carry her “real” purse (the one with the empty wallet) when they went places. But she wouldn’t leave home without all her bags.

When I use my mother’s tote, I am reminded of these and other events marking the passage of time. Of ability and disability. Of making the best of the time we have, each day that we are given. And of the baggage that everyone carries every day—most of it inside of us, and not in the bags we tote.

What baggage do you carry?

A Halloween Story I’ve Never Told Before: Alone with the Wind

Every year on Halloween night, I remember Halloween night in 1963, when I was seven years old. Our family had just moved into a newly constructed house in a new neighborhood about a month earlier. I had my own bedroom for the first time in my life. My room was on the corner of the house, and the wind (always fierce in Richland, Washington, on the Columbia River) blew around that corner so hard it whistled and howled.

My younger brother and I had been out trick-or-treating earlier in the evening. I don’t remember what costumes we wore, nor which parent took us, though it was probably our father. I’m sure it was a happy evening, as all Halloween evenings are for kids of that age.

I was in second grade at a Catholic grade school, and the great thing about my school was that we always got November 1 off, because it was All Saint’s Day, a Catholic holy day. We had to go to Mass with our parents on November 1, but we didn’t have to do homework on Halloween night, so we could stay out a little later than the public school kids. Of course, for a seven-year-old, staying out late wasn’t a huge advantage, but it became a bigger deal as I got older.

After trick-or-treating, my brother and I came home, indulged in our favorite candy, then went to bed.

In the middle of the night, my father woke me up. “I have to take your mother to the hospital. Just stay in bed, go back to sleep, and I’ll be back by morning.” There was a sense of urgency in his voice.

Even at seven years old, I knew what the problem was. My mother was having a miscarriage. Again. She’d lost one baby in February 1960, then had a miscarriage in January 1962, and now was pregnant again.

Wide-eyed, I nodded my head at Dad, and he left.

I couldn’t go back to sleep. I tossed and turned and listened to the wind rattle the windows. In addition to concern about my mother, I worried about whether the house would burn down and whether a burglar would strike and all the other fears children have when they’re alone. I thought about waking my brother up, but Dad had said to go to sleep.

Finally, I turned on my light and read a book as the wind continued to wail. This might have been the first time I ever read in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep, though there have been many, many occasions since then when reading has been my remedy for insomnia.

At some point in the wee hours of the morning, I did fall asleep. Sure enough, Dad was home for breakfast, and he retrieved Mother by noon. She lost the baby, but otherwise, all was well, though I don’t think we got to Mass that day.

I’ve often wondered about my father’s decision to leave my brother and me at home by ourselves. We didn’t stay home alone during the day yet, nor in the evenings if our parents went out. This was the first time I’d ever been left in charge.

When my mother lost the first baby in 1960, I was not quite four. I don’t remember that night at all—he told me many years later that he put us in the back of the car, still asleep, and took us to the hospital with my mother, where he left us with the nurses. I don’t remember the 1962 miscarriage either. We were living in a small house with good neighbor friends next door—he might have called the neighbor lady to stay with us. (I do remember the neighbor lady bringing us casseroles in the days following.)

But in 1963, in our brand new neighborhood, we didn’t have next door neighbors yet, and didn’t really know anyone else in the few occupied houses on the block. Besides, I was seven—a big girl. I remember feeling very grown-up and responsible when Dad told me they were leaving me in charge. But I wasn’t grown-up enough not to fear the wind.

What frightening memories do you have from childhood?

Discovering Jane Austen

Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, two hundred years ago tomorrow. I first encountered her novels in the spring of 1970, when I was in the ninth grade and cooped up at home with the mumps. I didn’t have a bad case of the mumps, and I felt pretty healthy. But I couldn’t return to school until the swelling in my cheeks and jaw went down.

“I’m bored,” I whined to my mother.

“Find a book to read.” That was her stock answer any time one of her children said they were bored. Either that, or she told us to clean our rooms.

“I’ve read everything.” I whined some more, as only a fourteen-year-old girl can whine to her mother.

Mother went to the bookshelf in the living room, which contained mostly adult books. Other than the encyclopedia (which was educational) or the twenty or so volumes of Readers Digest Condensed Books (which were pretty well sanitized by the editors who condensed them), I was only allowed to pick a book from the living room bookshelf if I had parental approval.

She skimmed the shelves and pulled down a book. “Here,” she said. “Read this.”

It was Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

I took it back to my bedroom and curled up under the covers and opened the book. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Well, that sounded promising. Even fourteen-year-old me got the humor in that line.

I read the whole book over the next few days. And loved it.

After I was fully recuperated and able to go to the public library again, I searched for other books by Jane Austen. I didn’t read her novels back to back, but I did read them all over the next couple of years.

I really liked Northanger Abbey (a lot like Victoria Holt and other Gothic novels I had read), but I didn’t think any of Austen’s other novels were as good as Pride and Prejudice. Sense and Sensibility was supposed to be her best—and Mother said she liked that one best—but I preferred Pride and Prejudice. Marianne Dashwood was too silly. Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park were fine, but still not as good as Pride and Prejudice.

By the time we studied Pride and Prejudice in my Honors English class during my senior year of high school, I had read everything I could find by Jane Austen—all the novels she had published in her lifetime. My classmates complained about having to read Pride and Prejudice. “Oh, no,” I said. “It’s wonderful!” Not many of them believed me.

Fast forward to when I learned there was a partial manuscript by Jane Austen that someone had completed and was publishing—something new by Austen! I was a working mother, with very little time to read. But I rushed out to find a copy of Sanditon. And I did the same thing when I found a volume that included both Lady Susan and The Watsons, which I’d never read before either.

And, of course, I have watched every televised and movie version of Austen’s novels. I saw the 1940s version of Pride and Prejudice when I was in college. I was very disappointed—the costumes were all wrong, Mr. Darcy was not particularly compelling (sorry, Mr. Olivier), and they skipped huge chunks of the book. The 1980 BBC version shown on Masterpiece Theatre was much better.

In fact, that 1980s version got my husband interested enough in Jane Austen that he read Pride and Prejudice, and later took on some of Austen’s other books as well. (At least Sense and Sensibility—I’m not sure if he read them all or not.)

And then there was the very swoonable 1995 version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.

Sigh. . . .

I learned to like Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park better from the Masterpiece and movie versions, though I still like Pride and Prejudice best.

At this point, I’ve read all her novels at least three times. I’ll probably read them all again at least once more before I die.

I look forward to seeing new film versions in my lifetime also. All in search of the perfect Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. And the perfect Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson, wonderful actress though she is, was too old for the role) and Edward Ferrars. And Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow was pretty good, but not quite officious enough for me) and George Knightley.

I have so many more contacts with Austen’s work to look forward to in life. And my interest all started because I was bored one day in 1970.

What have you done out of boredom that turned out to be a good thing?

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?

Sleepless in Kansas City

One of the disadvantages I’ve found in getting older is not sleeping as well as I did in my youth. Ever since childhood, I’ve had trouble sleeping during times of stress, but now I hardly ever sleep for eight hours straight. Most nights I wake up once, but some nights I can’t fall asleep, and other nights I wake up around 1:00 or 2:00am and lie awake for an hour or two.

Rarely do my dreams wake me up. In fact, I don’t remember many of my dreams. I used to, but this seems to be another age-related change. Or else most of my dreams now are boring.

I do still dream in color. In the 1940s, most people reported dreaming only in black and white, but now 80% of people say they dream in color. There is some speculation that the shift is related to the development of color television.

My husband read somewhere that monophasic sleep (solid sleep for a single period each night) is actually a modern phenomenon. People used to have biphasic sleep, in which they slept for two periods in a 24-hour day. That, apparently, is where the practice of naps and siestas came from.

Some experiments have found that when people have no regular sleep schedule imposed on them, they gravitate to two four-hour periods of sleep separated by a couple of hours. Many of my nights follow this pattern. Since I learned this factoid, I’ve tried not to worry when I lie awake in bed. After all, I also read somewhere that just lying quietly gives one 80% of the benefit of sleeping (though I doubt that.)

Older generations in my family also had wakeful periods at night. My father went to bed around 8:00pm whenever his schedule permitted. He would often get up again around 10:00 or 11:00, drink some Pepsi and go back to bed. Then he was ready for his next day to start at 5:00am.

My mother, by contrast, liked to stay up reading until 11:00 or so. But she often fell asleep on the couch, until my dad woke her up. In the morning, she would stay in bed well after he was up—or at least that’s what she did once she didn’t have kids to get off to school.

When I visited my paternal grandparents as a small child, my bed was usually the living room couch with a chair placed next to it so I wouldn’t roll off. Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night and saw my grandmother sitting in a chair nearby, smoking a cigarette. She sat with one leg tucked up under her, the way I still sit whenever I can do so without opprobrium. I don’t smoke, but I think of her whenever I move around my house in the dark and whenever I curl my feet up in a chair.

My husband’s grandmother also used to walk the halls when she couldn’t sleep. She would move from bed to bed trying to find a restful spot—some nights she spent time in all three bedrooms in their house.

Ereader in night mode

Using an ereader doesn’t help my sleeplessness. I know it’s a bad idea to have that light shining in my face when I’m trying to sleep, but what else is there to do at 2:00am? I use a blue filter to minimize the brightness and I turn on the night mode in my reading apps. With these adjustments to the screen, reading often lulls me back to sleep.

Before I began writing, I used to try to distract myself in the middle of the night by making up stories in my head. Some of the ideas for my novels developed during these nocturnal musings. But now that I’m a writer, that’s work! I still do it sometimes, but since I now want to remember any good plot points I imagine, it’s not as restful as it used to be.

So I read newspaper headlines instead. The Wall Street Journal is delivered to my email inbox shortly after midnight, and The New York Times headlines come in the wee hours of the morning. Trying to focus on economic and international news is usually enough to put me to sleep. If it doesn’t make me mad.

What do you do when you wake up in the middle of the night?

On Pillboxes and Parents

One of the things I found as I went through my parents’ memorabilia recently was a little white pillbox made of stone. I had a matching blue pillbox already on my dresser.

It wasn’t until I saw the white one that I remembered—my mother gave me the blue version many years ago. It has sat on my dresser ever since, ready to fill with pins or buttons or whatever other tiny items I needed to stash out of sight. At one point, my little pillbox contained one of my children’s baby teeth, but I don’t remember which kid or which tooth. Presumably, I got the tooth after the Tooth Fairy did.

Mother’s white pillbox, after I dissolved the pill

When I opened my mother’s white pillbox a few days ago I was surprised to see that it contained . . . a pill! I don’t know what kind of pill, but it was a white pill and it was stuck to the bottom.

During her last couple of years at home, after Mother was diagnosed with dementia, she resisted taking her pills. She took a lot of medications for a variety of physical and cognitive problems. Every morning my father put her morning doses at her place at the table beside her breakfast. And then she started a little dialogue.

“What are these?” she asked.

“Your pills,” my dad said, or if I was visiting, I’d pick up the routine.

“Do I have to take them?”

“Yes.”

“Which should I take first?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Why do I have to take them?”

“Because the doctor said.” We found that was a much easier answer than explaining what each pill was for.

“Should I take the big one first?”

“That sounds fine.”

“Now why do I have to take these pills?”

The conversation would go on for several rounds, but ultimately, after much coaxing, she took her pills. Usually, she began with the two big fish oil pills, which she swallowed together.

At least, most days she ultimately took her pills. Occasionally, we would discover a pill she had secreted in a drawer somewhere. Or perhaps in a little white pillbox.

By the time she moved to the assisted living unit, Mother was more compliant about taking her pills. She took whatever the nurse gave her. And she was taking fewer pills by that time. It didn’t seem worth having her take the huge fish oil pills to help her high cholesterol, nor several other medications for minor ailments.

Later yet, during the last few months she was alive, she had trouble swallowing. She could only take her pills if they were mashed up in applesauce. By then, she was down to taking a blood thinner and a couple of other medications deemed essential.

Then Mother died, and my father died six months later. After his death, I went through my parents’ bathroom to clean out the cabinets and cupboards. Between the two of them, they had amassed quite a collection of prescription and over-the-counter medications. I consulted my physician brother, and we decided which OTC pills he or I could use and which should be discarded. I spent an evening flushing pills down the sink.

I inherited Mother’s tendency toward high cholesterol and triglycerides, so I brought home from that trip in early 2015 four big bottles of fish oil pills. Their expiration dates ranged between 2015 and May 2017. I had just bought two large bottles myself, so once I was home, I had enough to open my own drug store. I lined them up in order of expiration date and took them daily, as prescribed.

Two and a half years later, I am just now finishing the last bottle of my mother’s fish oil pills, the ones with the May 2017 expiration date (I’m sure taking them a month or two past that date won’t kill me). Every time I open the bottle, I think of my parents.

Two pillboxes, side by side

And when I found my mother’s little white pillbox, all these thoughts of parents and pills roamed through my head yet again.

I dissolved the pill that was in her pillbox and placed the little container on my dresser next to the blue one she gave me. They look sweet together.

What little objects do you have that bring odd memories to mind?

Not Wild About Wild Asparagus

The house we moved into when I was six and a half, in October 1962, was at the end of a block-long street. Next to us on the east was a vacant lot. That lot remained vacant until well after I no longer lived with my parents, though at some point the next block of the street was paved and houses built on it.

Richland house, with corner of vacant lot showing

The vacant lot was my childhood playground. The ground was sand and rounded rocks left when the nearby Columbia River receded in some eon past. My brother and I made forts out of tumbleweeds which we piled in a big hole in the lot. Sometimes we fought each other. Sometimes it was us against the pretend bad guys. We dug up ant’s nests, not to kill the critters but to watch them frantically rebuild. We got hot and sweaty and dirty, as children do on warm summer days. And when the autumn days turned cool, we got cold and our noses and fingers turned red.

The area had been a farm at some point, though it was probably part of the land that the Army evacuated in 1942 to build the Hanford Nuclear Reservation as part of the Manhattan Project. When my brother and I explored the acres around our house, we came across dilapidated shacks—old barns or farmhouses or other structures that survived from the pre-war era and had never been razed.

“Be careful,” our mother would caution. “Don’t step on a nail. And watch out for snakes.”

At the mention of snakes, I was far less eager to explore, but my brother convinced me we should. So we went, brushing sticks in front of us to scare any rattlesnakes or scorpions or other hazards. We rarely encountered anything more dangerous than a splintered board. Maybe a garter snake or two. No scorpions. Most of the black widow spiders we saw were near our home—they liked to sun themselves on webs near the warm brick.

One reason we knew that the neighborhood had once been a farm was that in the spring Mother found wild asparagus in the lot beside our house. Stalks sprouted between our yard and that big hole where we built our forts. They sprung up through the dead grass my father dumped when he mowed the lawn.

I was not a vegetable-loving child, and I did not like asparagus. And certainly not this asparagus. The stalks that grew in the vacant lot were not the thin bright green spears sold in the best restaurants. This asparagus consisted of thick, woody stalks that were mostly seed. It had to be boiled to a pulp before it could be chewed. And even then it was stringy.

But my mother thought it was wonderful. “Fresh asparagus!” she exclaimed when she found the spears. Asparagus in the grocery stores—then, as now—was expensive, and she rarely bought it. So for her, these volunteer plants were a treat.

I was an adult before I tasted good asparagus. Maybe my tastes have changed over the years, but I now think tender, blanched asparagus is an exquisite addition to steak and potatoes.

I even buy it to cook myself this time of year, though my husband prefers that I boil the color and texture out of it. (He might have enjoyed the wild asparagus along with my mother.) When only the two of us are eating it, I accede to his wishes. But when we have guests, I insist on only steaming it—no reason to inflict his plebeian predilections on a third party.

How have your tastes changed since you were young?