Tuesday, July 6, 2010

No summer is complete without family visits

What a helpless feeling when someone you love insists on being miserable.  Even worse, when their misery spreads to others you love.  This is my predicament when I visit family in my hometown. 

My dear sweet mother lives a life of service to others and lets no one forget it.  Thirty-three years after my parents' separation, it takes me two separate journeys in opposite directions to honor them both.  Sitting on the beach with my dad just a few weeks ago, I heard firsthand testimony that my mother has had this penchant for anhedonia since before I was born.  And the discord that I observe between my mother and her mother also goes way back.  Dad recounted stories of the two women getting crossed up and my grandmother expressing the hope that mother would not have the same contentious ways with her betrothed.  No such luck.  Marriages come and go, but the reciprocal bond between mother and daughter has undying stability. 

Stories are the most enjoyable part of family visits.  Today I went through old photos with my grandmother, labeling names on the back and relishing any narrative she offered about the ones pictured.  My grandmother was born 96 years ago, my mother 66 years ago and me 36 years ago.  I hope to gain some understanding of the dynamics between them and maybe I can avoid the generational ooze of mother-daughter tension.  I am careful not to intervene or intermediate between them, lest I wind up with the weight of their relationship on my shoulders. 

Taking the role of observer, I notice that my mother seems locked in a perpetual dance of displeasure with her mother.  I sympathize more with my grandmother and see that many tones and tenors of disrespect begin with my mother, but I remember the importance of staying neutral.  So, I just keep listening to the stories.  I observe in myself that I am much more comfortable in the room with each of them separately than with the two of them together.  Some deep loyalty to my grandmother makes me feel defensive of her.

Another thing that jumps out to an observer is the impeccable unreachable standards of hospitality and homekeeping.  Unreachable, that is, for everyone except my grandmother  She set the bar and we've all been trying to measure up ever since.  Now that age has slowed her down, she is less able to "show us how it's done" by role modeling.  So, a good bit of verbal instruction is given, which can be interpreted as nagging or complaining.  I can see why she would complain.  Her home has been her castle, kept in impeccable order, just the way she likes it, for 60 years.  Suddenly, others are moving and changing things, upsetting her personal order and peace.  I try to learn the arts of homekeeping from her and grow by small steps and let go of the weight of the ultimate standard.  This is a journey, not a destination.

Still today, my journal is my refuge of comfort, my friend who helps me make sense of things that don't make sense.  During my visit, I find myself wishing I could contribute more.  I'm a paralyzed child when harsh words and disrespect are flying about, wanting to blend into the background.  Yet I'm also an adult and feeling guilty that my geriatric care skills are eclipsed by anxiety. 

I've always avoided issues of aging and convalescence.  The most difficult tasks I've taken on in my life have been academic achievements and parenting.  Both challenging in their own ways, but nothing calls on deep inner resources to overcome "I don't want to" like taking up the tasks of bodily care for one who is losing the ability.  It seems harder emotionally for family members to do for a loved one, yet the loved one deserves dignity.  Many elderly, including my grandmother, find it humiliating to be cared for by a hired professional.  I wonder what I will prefer?  It's inevitable to fast-forward and accept that I will also age and decline with the passage of time.

How to stay connected to and honor my mother when I'd rather steer clear of her?  I decide to speak my peace when the opportunity arises, and I create a script in my head.  I say that I see her misery (supposedly due to her mother's harsh criticism, yet I'm aware that discontent is a choice for her and she would probably continue to choose it even if my grandmother weren't a factor.)  I offer that my peace comes from knowing who I am and letting go of any words that indicate anything different.  She digs in her heels, saying she has no identity, no life.  She perseverates that happiness and peace will elude her as long as she is burdened with the care of her mother.  I know this conversation is more about me saying what I need to say than about her response.  That part is up to her.  Yet, I find myself feeling sad and a little anxious.  It's time for a well-crafted summative I statement.  "I believe respect goes a long way and disrespect grows when two people contribute.  I am sad to see the both of you so unhappy because I care about you."  It is finished.  I have so much more to say, but they are anxious words for my own mental processing.

My conviction is that my grandmother deserves her mood phases as she watches her independence and usefulness ebb away.  I believe it is my mother's obligation to offer honor and respect even if she is not heralded with the attention she wants.  I don't say these things to her.  I know she is tuned out and they are for me anyway, mental notes for the way I want to live.

I step up to the helm at the homeplace with grandmother so that mom can go get some respite.  I feel myself breathe and relax as she pulls out of the driveway. 

This place needs some music.  I usually don't care for country, but today it works for me.  I bring out my old toys (my family never throws anything away) and offer them to my kids, who see them as new.  My sweet husband takes on his assigned handy man list.  I find a long-abandoned crocheting project and ask grandmother to show me how to do it.  I'm happy when she tunes in to the yarn and I slip away.  It feels good to see her creating something, re-gaining industry.  I imagine it feels good to her too, although she may never say it. 

Back in the kitchen, I light a candle, pour a glass of iced tea and start chopping fresh vegetables for some old-fashioned macaroni salad.


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