Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Great-Grandmothers and Grandmothers and Mothers, Remembering and Forgetting

Lisa's eloquent post on her thoughts, as a mother, on her own mother's decline, prompted me to begin articulating some of my thoughts about the passing of the generational torch, as I'm observing it in our family. Of course, I wrote about aspects of this both before and after my mother's death last year, but since then, my father-in-law died (only two months later), and a major rift appeared in my husband's family (which has, after all, been my family as well, for over 40 years). That rift has persisted, although we now have a connection with the family of one sibling. Still, it's been a remarkable illustration, a horrifying cautionary tale about how even the happiest of families might one day . . . .I don't want to belabour this point here, nor to offer more detail inappropriately, but I need to include it because it affects significantly my own confidence and conviction about how to connect the generations spread out behind and before me.

My mother-in-law is the sole, firm, connecting pivot point for us to my husband's family now, although she has no idea this is the case. Already having lost cognitive strength in the two years before my father-in-law died, she has been fading steadily over the past 18 months, with a noticeable acceleration in the last several weeks as weight and strength drop daily. She still seems to enjoy our visits, however, and as long as we dial down our expectations and ramp up our patience, we enjoy them as well despite conversations that loop over and over the same terrain. She likes to tell us how well the staff treat her and then often moves on to exclaim indignantly about residents who don't appreciate the good care they receive. We sympathize and agree and then we nudge her onto a new topic, generally by reminding her of some happy instance or other from the past.

A recent visit with GG: Nola drew a picture of her GG (short for GreatGrandma) teaching kindergarten and loving it). Her uncle (who I, of course, remember clearly being hugged by his Grandma when he was just 6) is pretty amused. 


Or I simply take out my phone or iPad and I delight her with photos of her great-grandchildren. Paul chuckles that when he told her about our youngest granddaughter's arrival, he had the pleasure of telling her the news six times, each time having it greeted with equal delight, as if heard for the first time. It's very true that nothing makes her as happy as talking about wee ones. She doesn't remember their names, much less keep them straight (although she always knows my husband when he arrives, and always asks about me, generally by name), but she's convinced that whomever they are, they're cute and they're lovable ("You're so pretty/sweet/smart," she tells them when they visit. "I love you so much." -- not a bad default conversational move to end up with).

Some family members regularly label her condition as Alzheimer's, although my understanding is that the late-onset variety can't properly be diagnosed except post-portem, by autopsy. Or they say she's senile, or has dementia. Probably true enough, but I really prefer the term my mother's doctor used, a descriptive term that is so much less loaded: Cognitive Impairment (mom's was Mild for some time before progressing to Mild to Moderate near her end, when it was probably amplified by all the pain meds).

I like this term so much better because it leaves room for me to see how much of the person I knew is still there (while recognizing that, particularly for early-onset Alzheimer's, the diagnosis is useful in acknowledging the severity of the need for support). And here's a "for instance":

A few weeks ago, we were visiting Mom (I've called her that from early in our marriage; she's been a second mom to me for over 40 years now) and talking about how much she loves little ones, and how much they love her. A treasure of a kindergarten teacher for several generations in her community, she reminded us that children always sense that she likes them, and she noted that when other residents had wee visitors, those little feet would often direct their small owners right over to Mom's chair. And then she leaned forward to me, and her face coloured up a bit in anticipation, I could see, of a sheepish confession.

"You know," she said, "when all my grandchildren were babies, I just loved them so much. Sometimes I really wanted to take over. I really had to work hard to stop myself. It was really hard to let their mothers look after them sometimes." Cutest confession ever, truly. I didn't have the heart to tell her that we'd already noticed. And that she didn't always manage to stop herself!

I keep thinking about the spontaneous, vulnerable, self-aware honesty of that confession. I remember what a warm and wonderful, energetic and generous, funny and humble and clever and kind grandmother my children had, and I hope they take some of those memories forward. She could certainly be the classic, annoying Mother-in-Law at times, with her notions of the best ways to clean, bake, raise children, juggle work and home, yes she could. But overall, she was a gem, and I hope she is remembered in stories my children tell to their own children, perhaps even, someday, to their grandchildren.

And I have to say that being at the verge of her passing, the last of our four parents, I'm ever so aware of how quickly the first six years of our own grandparenthood have passed. Nola turned six this week, and Hattie turns two; they're moving quickly toward that space where grandparents take a back seat to peers. A big part of my decision to retire has to do with wanting to make the most of that fleeting time when the natural affinity between little ones and ageing ones is at its peak. . .

At the same time, I want to maintain enough other interests and activities and networks that when the inevitable day comes that my weekend with the grandkids gets cancelled in favour of a birthday sleepover, no young teen needs to feel guilty about neglecting poor old Nana. . . .

You know, I'm trying to round this post off to a conclusion, having come back and revised and edited, and I can see how much of what I'm thinking is not on the screen, not on the page. What's still submerged, left for me to bring to the surface if/when I'm ready, is my awareness of how much gets forgotten, how much gets undone, and my ongoing meditation over what persists, what ends up mattering. I don't think rounding off to a conclusion works. . . . so I'll just open up to your comments, your stories, your wisdom, and see where the conversation takes us. Okay?

29 comments:

  1. What a lovely thought provoking post - no need for a conclusion. I was so gripped that I didn't notice that the mincemeat was burning until too late.

    Managed to salvage most of it but reckon that every year now I shall remember how important it is not to get distracted... and when I pass the recipe down for a fat free mincemeat I shall be sure to mention it. Maybe one day a grandchild will look at it and wonder why

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    1. Wonderful story in the making! I love it!

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  2. I love this post. You speak about aging and family so eloquently - so poignantly. I don't have much experience of this because cognitive impairment (mercifully, so far) isn't one of the hallmarks of aging in my family. Alas, I have very little interaction with family (aged or otherwise) so that's also a factor. This is a wonderful tribute to your MIL. No need to come to pithy conclusions!

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    1. Thanks, Kristin. It's something, the way this sneaks up on one so quickly -- you'll see, but not for another couple of decades. . . .

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  3. I'm not sure there is a conclusion when we ponder the inevitability of what lies ahead as we age. All I know is that retirement is sometimes what I thought it would be when I tried to imagine myself in this stage but, at times, is quite different-- much like parenthood. The same goes for watching a spouse age faster than anticipated, or connecting with a parent who is muddling through the stages of cognitive impairment, or dealing with family dynamics once a linchpin has been pulled. I guess what sums it up for me is my brother-in-law's musing as he lay in his hospital bed after a heart attack: " This getting old is really interesting". We laughed with him at the time, but his words really hit home--aging is a new beginning in the sense I've never been down this path before. If I can do it with curiosity and humor, so much the better.

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    1. Your brother-in-law got it absolutely right! And curiosity and humour are certain to make the interesting journey much more palatable, maybe even fun!

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  4. I haven't had mincemeat in years! I used to love it.

    This topic, aging and family and time passing, is so timely for me. My mother is alive, relatively healthy, and completely intact mentally, for which I am very grateful. But in the past month one uncle had a serious stroke and an aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer; in the past week, one aunt died and another has had a stroke. It's so hard to see this generation passing.

    I have grandchildren and a child who are relatively close in age. I gained an 8-year-old daughter when I married. She always lived with us, and I am as close to her as I am to my two biological children. She has three children ranging in age from 9 to 13, so I am experiencing the lessening of interest in Grandma from the older two. My younger son is 16, and he actually seems more interested in spending time with me as he gets older.

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    1. I've never made it, but I've been lucky enough to get a gift of it occasionally. Are you planning to give yours away, Ceri, or use it in tarts and pies?
      That's a bundle of woe in your family's elders, all so close together -- really hard to see. But I really like that blending of generations you enjoy at the lower end -- my little sisters are only 8 and 9 years older than my oldest daughter, so in some ways, they're aunts, but in others, almost more like big sisters. . . .

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  5. You write so movingly about the ageing process and your mother in law and she reminds me so much of my own mother before she died with vascular dementia. She was the sweetest thing at the end and all the slightly acidic comments just vanished. She was a primary school teacher too and adored little ones.

    It is sad to watch the slow decline of the people who have been so much a part of our lives and leads inevitably to much reflection of how to manage our own lives and relationships. Great post.

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    1. Interesting -- my mother and my mother-in-law both seemed much happier (and sweeter, yes) as their cognitive grips loosened. . . .and yes, sad and inevitable. . . .but rich, isn't it all?!

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  6. As we watch our loved ones decline, we realize the passage of time. It is so important to spend the time with our families while we can. Monsieur's mother followed the slower cognitive impairment path before she passed away. Sometimes she was insightful and sometimes just distant and forgetful. Your decision to spend more time with the little ones will bring you happiness and will provide them with a relationship with a healthy and relatively youthful grandmother.

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    1. The decline is tough to watch, isn't it -- I know you grew close to Monsieur's mother and still miss her. But you're right, all this context makes me ever more sure that retirement is going to be a good thing.

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  7. So very beautifully expressed Francis I prefer cognitive impairment as a way to describe it as well. We lost all four grandparents within a two year span. The time was surreal, as we dealt with sudden, terminal diseases and one fatal slip and fall. I'm sorry to hear you're still dealing with a family riff. It's painful.
    Since my brother in law died last August, my husbands family (mine for 36 yrs) has been torn apart. I see no repair possible.
    You write so beautifully.
    xo Jennifer

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    1. Our losses have been somewhat more gradual -- the intensity of your losses in two years and then the loss of your BIL plus a family asunder, that's tough stuff. This time together on your extended road trip is much needed, finally, I'm sure. xo Frances (with an "e" for female, as I tell my students. It's "i" for guy -- that is, the female version is spelt with an "e" and the guy's name gets Francis)

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    2. Of course it's with an e! My apologies. I don't think I can even blame spell check. Great way to remember. Have a lovely weekend. xo

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    3. No need to apologize, and I felt a bit awkward making the correction. Thanks for accepting it so graciously. Hope your weekend is lovely as well -- stay warm in your "glamper"

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  8. Thank you for sharing this evocative and thoughtful post. I also want to tell you hoe very much I read and appreciate your blog. We are traveling very similar paths in terms of age, life, grandchildren, children and aging parents. As a long time reader but non-commenter, please know how valuable I find both your writings as well as the comments and contributions of the community you gave created. I live in the Pacific Northwest and also share your love for thus beautiful part of the world.

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    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to give me this lovely, encouraging feedback. It's a fascinating, rewarding, challenging time of life, isn't it?! And don't we live in a wonderful place!

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  9. ^^ I agree. I love your writing and Lisa's. When I was much younger, I read books about women's lives, e.g., May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude; Alice Koller, An Unknown Woman. Now this kind of wonderful writing is found in pieces on blogs - and probably in newer books, as well. I hardly ever actually read a book these days because of lack of time. I am always listening to audiobooks, when I'm cooking or doing laundry, exercising, going to sleep. So these fragments are perfect for me.

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    1. Aw, thanks! Interesting thought, the move of some forms of writing online. I'm still a big book-reader, but I appreciate the smaller packages of words as well, and the variety of voices we get access to through these blogs.

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  10. Aging is such an emotional topic and you speak of it with the wisdom of one who has lived through some difficult yet tender moments. Our family elders are passing quickly and with them the threads that bind our family together. In their place, my generation, the "17 grandchildren" are now become the older parents, grandparents and the new generation of family elders.

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    1. It's an odd sensation, isn't it, yet so completely to be expected, the grandchildren transforming to adults to parents to grandparents. . . . Life!

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  11. Reading GG's "confession" and your characterization of her, I sense this was a woman brimming over with love, and the generosity to show it both to her family and those kindergarteners. The inner self-what many think of as the soul-shines forth, even as the physical self falters. To feel and exchange love is, to me, all that matters in the last stage of our time here.

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  12. I am forever grateful to my grandmother, who cared for my mother when her body gave out long before her mind, at just 53. I was away at graduate school at the time, newly married, living in a different country, living on the pennies-a-month salary that graduate school adjuncts received, so I had neither the means to visit nor to help my mum out on other ways. Still, she'd tire out on the phone quickly, and return to my childhood for subjects, happy memories for both of us. I am sorry for your MIL's decline and also amazed to see how grown up Nola is becoming! Indeed, I didn't recognize her. . .

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    1. So much in those few lines, Miss C. Thanks for sharing them -- the loss and the love intertwined.

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  13. Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. After losing our Dad several months ago, we too are experiencing an unexpected and bewildering family rift. One of my friends (a family counsellor) said she believes when the last parent dies, it's as though the blanket that has been covering the whole family is lifted back, and all the old resentments, fears, blame, etc., are exposed. And then...one either moves forward in a way that heals or the (perhaps) unseen rifts are exposed and deepen....

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    1. Your friend's explanation makes sense, and we can definitely trace threads back through the years -- overall, though, we had the illusion the fabric itself was strong through its weaving-together . . . I hope your situation resolves positively. It doesn't look as if ours ever will. Take care.

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  14. I do not know how I missed this post - it must have been the Thanksgiving rush - and the associated cleaning of the house in the midst of house painting. In any case, thank you for the reference, and the kind words. I think you, more than many, will have lots and lots to say about this family in transition time, and I look forward to reading very much.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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