Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Photo Albatross

Victory! I declare victory in the photo organization campaign. Well, partial victory. Or victory of a sort. Or one tiny step forward....

I last organized photos in 1999. I used to sort them into albums when Sophie took naps during visits to my in-laws. I’d bring the envelopes of photos, paper to make labels and headings, and empty albums. By the end of the visit, I’d be up-to-date. When naps ended, so did my available time.  Now the album gap is sixteen years plus.

Beginning in 2011, I’d print out photos from my digital camera to send to my mother, writing elaborate captions on the back. She didn’t have a computer, and that way I’d keep her current on our doings. When she died, I inherited six years of already-captioned photos. What could be easier to organize?
Except that after I’d loaded 2011-2014 into an album, I discovered that 2011 was missing our trip to Panama. I had to find those photos on the computer and get them printed. Then I had to take out the already-organized 2012-2014, insert Panama in the right spot to keep everything chronological, and re-put in the events after that.

Now I’ve discovered a piece of 2015 that’s missing. Things are complicated because not all photos are from my digital camera. Some come via Facebook, some via texts, and some are on Sophie’s phone and lost to parents without a lot of relentless reminders. Our niece Kelly’s wedding seems to be in all places – and no places.

So, if I have to re-do 2015, then (technically) I’m only current on four years of the sixteen year gap. My percentage of victory is down to about 25%. Not exactly a “mission accomplished.”

Once, about thirty years ago, I laid out every single photo I possessed on the living room floor. I batched them by years. Things were easier then: there was only one source for photos (my camera and prints given me) and I still remembered what the photos were photos of. Now, as I keep de-cluttering, new stashes of photos keep turning up. How can I tell one birthday party from another, yet another cross-country running race, another Girl Scout activity, many Runs for Women?
Whenever she visits, Sophie pulls out the albums of her birth-to-seven years. It’s fun to look at them; she’s cute and fun. But will albums of eight-to-18 be as interesting? Or am I just creating a never-to-be-consulted archive?
My sister is stuck with the family photo albums that no one wants simply because she’s the only one with a basement. And digital photos are multiplying exponentially – does anyone ever sit down for a delightful time browsing through old photos on their computer? Do you? So just what are we preserving all these photographic images for?

I must admit, as I’ve been adding in photos from 2011 and 2012, I turned to Tim and said, “Y’know, we have a nice life.” Until I saw all our adventures laid out, I wasn’t conscious of them as a body, as a “nice life.” It was nice to remember them.

Maybe the secret is a limit: only five photos max per occasion. Maybe we should schedule photo expirations: culling down to five per year max when they’re 25 or more years old?

Because I’ll bet your relationship to photos is the same as mine: the prospect of organizing them is a dread weight, an oppressive to-do, a recurring nightmarish “should.” Maybe my family should just sit down, open up the boxes and the digital photo libraries, laugh and hoot at the photos, make some piles, and toss the rest. I remember Marie Kondo saying toss first, then organize. Maybe this is a nice Thanksgiving vacation, family type activity.

It’s got to beat drowning in unsorted photos.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Who stole my heart?

We got robbed. I guess the official word is “burgled,” since it was our house and we weren’t there. It happened sometime between the trip to visit my mom and the trip to bury her, but we’re not exactly sure.

I know the stuff thrown on top of the linens in Sophie’s room happened after I left because I’d done the last laundry the night I left.

Tim doesn’t know if he vacuumed before the stuff was thrown around on the floor or after and he just vacuumed around it. (??? No comment.) So we’re not quite sure when it happened. When I got back, we both thought the other was throwing things around either in the haste to pack or getting interrupted in the midst of unpacking.

It wasn’t till I spotted the un-dusty ring on the dresser two days later that I put it all together. The little heart-shaped wooden box Tim had given me one Valentine’s Day was gone.
Twenty years ago, we were burgled. The un-dusty rings were the clues there, too. The police asked what was in the two stolen decorative boxes.
“One had my rocks and shells. The other had my balloons.”

“Your balloons?”

“Yes, you go to a fair and they hand out balloons, and you don’t know what to do with them. You might need a balloon so you put it in the box on your dresser.”

It took twenty years for the robbers to try our house again.

This time, they got my chunk of the Berlin Wall and the scrap of Christo’s wrapping of the Reichstag from my sister. They probably threw it away: “What’d we get? A stupid piece of concrete!” As fate would have it, my mother had another chunk of the Wall, and it now sits on my dresser.
Once we’d established we’d been robbed, we searched the house. Sophie’s the only one with recognizable things of value; leather purses, jewelry. Obvious jewelry boxes were taken. Inside was my mother’s charm bracelet, but mostly it was play jewelry. Sophie’s good stuff is with her.

The police said burglary is the worst they’ve seen in 37 years. A few weeks before, I’d been sitting at my desk by the window, and a guy approached the front door. I called out, and he said he was just going to get a drink from our outdoor faucet. With the hose attached? I told him to leave.

So what am I doing about this? We did start using the dead bolt. Maybe I’ll ask Tim to check out alarm systems.

I’d only started locking the front door a year or so ago, the same time Tim began locking the car – even in the driveway – because car break-ins were happening.

Years ago, I worked downtown. A couple times, I’d be loading packages into my arms, trying to negotiate getting out of the car, and I’d disrupt the usual routine, get too scattered. I came back to the car hours later and found the door ajar, the radio on, the car running, people listening to my music from the grass. Or the door would be closed but unlocked and the car running. Maybe people thought I was setting bait for an arrest, but I was never robbed. Got a ticket once, but never robbed.

I don’t like using the dead bolt. I’m usually lugging things outside, hands full. Now I have to put the packages down, reach for the key, turn it. Put the key away, then gather up all my stuff again.

I dislike the idea of using the dead bolt. Of a locked-up house, of a locked-up neighborhood. My friend Judith just bought two Clubs for her cars. Ken put 3-inch screws in the hinge plates on his front door. This is not the direction I would have picked for my Third Third.

I just want to be the one de-cluttering my life, not some burglar.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Tech for the Tiny

If you’re lucky, one of the pluses of your Third Third is grandchildren. But be forewarned: child rearing now comes with its own technological challenges in the form of new baby gizmos. For this guest blog, I’m copying here an email received from Judy, who was delighted to welcome her new granddaughter to the family (and who spent a lot of time prepping on YouTube).

“Baby girl was born 2 weeks ago Sunday night. I have watched videos on ‘how to swaddle correctly’ (There seem to be some differences of opinion!);
how to correctly insert the car seat base; how to correctly insert the car seat into the car seat base; how to correctly insert a newborn into the car seat (while screaming);
how to correctly ‘throw’ open the stroller (instead of kneeling on the hot cement in front to the hospital valet stand in white pants frantically pushing every available button); how to correctly insert the detachable car seat into the ‘easy open’ stroller; how to correctly detach the detachable car seat from the stroller (instead of breaking down in front of the nurse checking baby weights and begging for help!);
how to correctly attach and unattach all the instruments of torture to the breast pumping machine;
how to correctly attach and detach smell proof bags from a very sophisticated diaper pail (which still defeats me so when no one is looking, I just stuff the damn diapers in the garbage under the LA Times which I haven’t had time to read yet anyway!)
Who knew life with a new baby was so technically complicated? The best news is mother and baby are doing great! That’s all that counts, as we all know.”
                       — Judy

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Life and Death Lessons

Things I’ve Learned in the Last Week, or Growing in My Third Third:

I learned that losing a parent is painful.

Yes, yes, I knew that, but I didn’t KNOW that. It’s like when I first had a baby. Suddenly I felt like I needed to apologize to every friend I knew with children. I’d had no idea it could be so HARD. I didn’t know about the sleep deprivation, the worry, the demands on your time. I didn’t know about the disruption to life-as-you-knew-it. I didn’t know that finding the right childcare was so hard, that you’d be torn emotionally in so many different ways. These were abstract facts to me, not life-wrenching realities.

The same is true with losing a parent. I’d offer condolences, but I didn’t offer CONDOLENCES, if you know what I mean. I didn’t know you’d be shaken to your core, that the shaking would last and last. That anyone could be this sad.

I’m sorry. I didn’t know.

I learned that expressions of sympathy and comfort make a huge difference.

Yes, it was right here in this blog that I made fun of greeting cards: “NO ONE looks at old greeting cards.” But I didn’t know the power of new greeting cards. Returning from my mother’s burial, picking up the held mail at the post office, I was moved by the sympathy cards. I was moved by the cards that came from people relatively distant in my life, from my past, from my synagogue. It made me feel part of a community. They took time out of their lives to comfort me.
I was moved by the phone calls, the visits, the hugs. I was moved by the comments, the emails, the “loves.” I was honored by all the requests to help. It reaffirmed me as a member of the larger community of human beings: we all hurt, we can all comfort.

When she was little, we never let Sophie play with or wear a gift until the thank you note was written. We wanted to teach the necessity of demonstrating gratitude. It didn’t occur to me that I should also teach – and learn – the necessity of showing support.

My sister has said the same thing. In our Third Thirds, we want to be card and note writers.

I learned that rituals exist for a reason. They are in place to help people in difficult times.

When I had a child, I joined the ranks of mothers from the beginning of time. I was a mother in a long line of mothers. When I became bat mitzvah, I affirmed my place in a long line of Jewish women. And now, my mother’s death placed her – and me, as a mourner – in the Jewish tradition.
Prior to burial, my mother’s body was bathed and purified in a ritual called taharah by a group of women known as the Chevra Kadisha, a holy society. My sisters liked that; they thought of how my mother loved having lotion rubbed into her dry skin, how she would have appreciated being bathed. My mother was buried in a plain shroud in a plain pine box. To my mind, it asserts dignity and respect for the deeds of her life, not any material acquisitions. All these things make me feel better.

In the Jewish tradition, there is a seven day mourning period known as sitting shiva. You’re just supposed to sit at home, receive visits, let your grief out. And here, life has intruded. I had too many commitments – my own good deeds in the world, I guess – that I couldn’t break. But I really appreciate the value – the necessity – of shiva.

Susan said to me, “Please honor me with the mitzvah of helping you at this time.” What an exquisite way to offer help. Now I understand where rituals come from.

I learned that preparing with Advance Directives, Health Care Proxies, and The Conversation Project were critical.

Again, that’s one of those abstract facts that became real in the last week. I’d pushed my siblings to get all the paperwork agreed to and signed. Now, a week later, I know my mother could not have died the way she wanted to without the preparation we did. With The Conversation Project starter kit, I knew how my mother wanted to live her final days. With the Advanced Directives, we could ensure that would happen.

It’s all about dignity and respect.
I learned that de-cluttering accomplished BEFORE my mother died was absolutely the best thing.

My mother and we siblings had already cleared out the family home. Truckloads of furniture, memories, and photos were distributed, dealt with, disposed of years ago. My mother was an active player in all this as she launched her own downsizing. In July, her apartment was further condensed. When she died, she was surrounded by only her favorite things. My siblings and I dealt with it all in a few hours.

By de-cluttering early, my mother gave herself the gift of lightening her life. I still remember us asking where she wanted to put the photo albums in her new apartment. “I’ve had them for years,” she said, “It’s time for one of you to take them. I don’t want them filling up my new place.” By getting rid of the weight of her old life, my mother could make room for a new life.

She gave us the gift of that lightness, too. Everyone who has dealt with parental clutter says the same thing: I don’t want my kids to have to deal with all this. I cannot imagine sorting through 90 years of memories and possessions while grieving. Thank you, Mom, for sparing us that.

Mostly, I’ve learned that life is short. Live it well.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

An Orphan in My Third Third

Did you feel it? The shift in the universe? Like the gravitational waves, “ripples in the fabric of spacetime from a cataclysmic event”? Or maybe it was just my universe.

My mother died.

We’d had a happy time, sitting in the sun, looking at old home movies. She was all settled, ready to be released back home. All good. I flew back to Alaska. Two days later, she was nonverbal, back in the hospital. Suddenly, things were “grave,” according to the doctors. She died before our planes landed and cars arrived.

My mother died peacefully with Cousin Larry, Jessica, and Kathy at her side, with her best friend Gloria on the other side. They say it was easy and peaceful. I thank everyone she wasn’t alone, but I worry whether she was frightened. Whether we all are.

My mother had a big chair in her and my father’s bedroom. When I came back from school dances, no matter what time, I would sit in that chair and tell her about the night. Did I have a good time? Did any boys ask me to dance? Anything special? She let me go on and on. She asked questions, she never fell asleep on me.

Now I need a big chair, and I need to tell her how her death is rocking me.
I didn’t expect this. I somehow thought I was “ready” for this news. I even thought it was the best way for things to go, that my mother needed to be spared a life of endless readmissions to the hospital. That she didn’t want to live in a world that had become so confusing to her.

And now I find myself bursting into sobs when just nothing at all triggers it. My mother died two days before Yom Kippur. I sat in her synagogue with all the contemplation that Yom Kippur fosters, looking around at “her” space, and I think my whole self just broke.

The thing is, my mother and I had a “prickly” relationship. I don’t understand some of the reasons, but it was prickly enough my mother could never broach the subject. Yet I was her only child to have a child. I KNOW in the core of my being how powerful mother love is – I know of nothing else so gripping – so I know my mother felt it for me. My mother felt it for her four kids. And now there’s a shift in the universe because that force is gone.

A long time ago, I was featured at some event and asked the organizers for an extra copy of the program to send to my mother. One woman said she used to do the same thing, and she noticed each time she couldn’t after her mother died. As my siblings and I went through my mother’s things, I ended up with piles and piles of all the photos, programs, news clippings, stories, and letters I’d sent her over the years. Even from far away, my mother was … my witness. The keeper of my story. Or something like that.
Now my life is … unobserved. I don’t know how to describe this.

My father died when I was 26 and he was 56. But to me, he was “old” and I was young. Not so young as to feel robbed, but not so old that his mortality leaked into me. I was 26, I still had a mother, and death was something that happened to old people. But now I’m in my Third Third, and the loss of my mother puts our generation “up next.” You find yourself doing subtraction, estimating how many years you have left. Mortality is beyond hinting; now it plants its shadow solidly in your path.

I’d said my Third Third was my mother’s Ninth Ninth, and that was worrying, stressful, challenging. Sometimes it was a problem bigger than me, a whole-society problem. Now my Third Third is motherless, and it’s still bigger than me: a sadness so very, very big.

My siblings and I talked about an afterlife. None of us believe in one. I believe in spirit, in soul, in things not observable; I just believe they die, too. But I do believe in memory, in the aftereffects of good deeds at work in the universe. My mother left a lifetime of good deeds behind. Let me share her obituary with you here.

Tonight as I was cooking dinner, my thoughts just glanced in my mother’s direction as they often did. And then I remembered that she’d died, and the universe shook again. I’ve lived 3,000-4,000 miles from her since I was 17, and yet she was always a presence. Now she’s an absence. And no matter how much I think of her or cry over her or wish about her, it does no good. The hole is big and real and permanent and sad.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Who is my mother?

A visit with my mother and my philosophical side runs rampant with questions. Now back home, I sit here and wonder about our “self-ness.” What makes me Barbara, and would I be Barbara if all the memories that I’ve collected over my life were gone? Is there some core of Barbara that has nothing to do with what I’ve experienced, seen, done, etc.?

So who is my mother now that she’s virtually memory-less?

When I’d asked before the trip whether I was still My Mother’s Daughter, one reader, The Noodler, commented that “she will know that you are someone important to her.” And yes, she did! When I walked in the room, her face lit up. She knew my sister and I were there to see her, not someone else in the dining room. So yes, I am still my mother’s daughter, but who is my mother?

Right now, she has a lump the size of a tennis ball on her forehead and black and blue marks lining her temple, cheek, neck, and under her eyes. Our guess is that she fell in the bathroom and her head hit the support bars on the toilet. We’d need an NCIS crime scene analyst to know what happened because my mother asks, “I fell? When did I fall?” So she is in rehab before returning to the dementia wing and her room.

On prior trips, I was intent on “rescuing” Mom from rehab so she could get back to her normal life. Now I know there is no rescue. While that relieves a lot of pressure, it also leaves these philosophical questions. At one point, my sister and I wheeled her onto the patio into the warm sun.
Still like my mother: She loves warm sun. She offers money so we can buy something nice. She doesn’t like raisins. She would be upset that she hadn’t been to the hairdresser.

Not like my mother:
My mother was a voracious reader and major movie-goer. She helped found a whole film center. She wrote poetry. Now she can’t read because by the time she gets to the end of a sentence, she can’t remember the beginning. She dozes off in movies. My mother was chatty with the energy of an Energizer Bunny. Now she sits and doesn’t really engage with her company. She sits. (But this is rehab after an injury and she’s not really just a sitter in her normal life, but still…)
When I look at myself, I think my self-ness is tied up in curiosity. I have questions about everything and find just about everything worth exploring and asking about. Who would I be if I just sat?

I took one reader’s advice and had a conversation with my mother, telling her the things I’d want her to know just in case I didn’t see her again. She appreciated it, I guess. It’s hard to tell because her responses are muted.

My mother never made an ethical will or legacy letter, but she communicated her values, loves, and hopes regularly. All her life. We know what her Mom-self thought and wanted.

But this later version Mom: Is she happy? Does she think about happiness? Is just sitting like interminable waiting or is it like being peaceful? Is this what she would want for her 90s?

I’m not sure she could answer these questions. In a quiet moment, I tried asking what she was thinking, but she looked confused and told me she wasn’t thinking at all. Should I have tried again? Should I have been more specific? But look at those happiness questions: they are insensitive if not harrowing questions. My memory-less mother is sitting in a chair and I’m going to ask her if life turned out the way she wanted?

Insensitive? Harrowing? Is that more about my fears or her happiness?

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