My House Runneth Over

There is so much stuff in this house. So. Much. Stuff. And it’s not because I’m a hoarder. I am not a hoarder. The five cutting boards currently residing on my kitchen counter are there for a reason.

See, one of them was my mother’s, and another one was . . . my mother’s. One was a wedding gift to us three decades ago, and another was a present from my husband when he thought maybe we could get rid of the wedding gift, which really is falling apart. And the little bendy plastic one that makes it easy to slide the diced onions into the frying pan is just so convenient, and it goes in the dishwasher, and anyway . . . it was my mother’s.

For the last five years I’ve been filling my house with things that came from my mother’s. We downsized her twice, first from her four-bedroom home to a two-bedroom apartment, and then from that apartment to a one-bedroom suite in assisted living. Every move involved decisions with my sister about what to sell, what to give away, what to put in storage, what to save for the grandchildren, and what to bring into our homes.

I haven’t always been good at letting things go. I learned the value of simplicity the hard way, by filling my house with things I loved and then not being able to find them. I hired a professional organizer to teach me the art of putting things in a box and taking them to Goodwill. I am still working on this. (To my credit, I’ve made measurable progress. I let go of a tremendous amount in both moves.)

Mother, by contrast, was brilliant at organizing the things she loved and passing along the rest. Even though her house was full of treasures, it never felt cluttered. Her home opened its arms wide and made space for you among the bookshelves and antiques.

I want my home to be like that. I want to learn from my mother’s excellent example. I like a certain amount of clutter as evidence that life is being lived enthusiastically here, but otherwise I’m in favor of clean lines and open spaces. So why am I holding onto all this stuff?

I don’t have a good answer, but here’s a serviceable one: my mother is still alive. I don’t yet know which of her things will mean the most to me when she dies. Will it be the big wooden board she used to knead her bread dough? Or the rocking chair she rocked me to sleep in when I was a baby? Do I need all these photo albums, or will a few portraits and candid snapshots bring her back to me when she’s gone? How much time do I want to spend right now sorting her things, when I could be hanging out with her, helping her live with dementia, storing up the hugs and laughter that no box in the attic will ever contain? And anyway, doesn’t every memento have a story to tell, a story I’ll want to remember later?

So the boxes pile up. Meanwhile, Mom’s favorite activity these days is shopping. With us. For us. My sister, my daughter, and I are the lucky recipients of every whimsical trinket or attractive sweater Mom can fit into a thrift-store shopping cart. She buys us gifts because it’s the one thing she can still do for us. Even with dementia, she knows what we are doing for her, and she feels a need to reciprocate. Who are we to deny that need?

So. Much. Stuff.

I am not a hoarder. But I do have five cutting boards. And quite a few sets of table linens. And a little carved wooden turtle from the Galapagos Islands. Oh, I never told you about Mom’s trip to the Galapagos Islands? See, I’m glad I kept this . . . .

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Broadway Baby

I’m in rehearsal for a show at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre, and I feel like the luckiest girl on the planet.  I’m working on a terrific play, with smart fellow actors and my favorite director, at a theatre with loyal subscribers and a funky, artsy vibe.  After a long dry spell of unemployment, I’m an actor again.  In fact, a few short weeks ago, I was on Broadway.

No, not that Broadway.  This Broadway:

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This Broadway is in Grand Marais, Minnesota.  My family traveled there in August to take classes at the North House Folk School, where I learned about brick-oven baking and timber framing, and my teenage daughter learned to sail.  All in one fun-filled, kayaking, hiking, biking, rock-skipping week.

Grand Marais has a long history as an arts-friendly community.  It’s located on the North Shore of Lake Superior, and the natural beauty surrounding the town is breathtaking.  No wonder so many artists travel there to paint, sculpt, build, take photographs, and write. For a town with few streets and fewer stoplights (I counted one), there’s plenty of art.  Even on Broadway:

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Sometimes, when I’m feeling artistically insecure, I deride myself for never making it to that Broadway, the big one, the real one. Or worse — for never even trying to work in New York. I tell myself I’m not really a professional, because I never endured the hardship of waiting tables in Manhattan, testing my skill and will against the hordes of other hopefuls pounding the pavement of the Great White Way.

Then I go somewhere like Grand Marais, and a simple street sign reorients me.  Suddenly I’m holding my own life-map, re-examining my choices, and realizing that the road that brought me here was my true path.

IMG_2849 I still dream of that big show, the one that starts in Atlanta and winds up in New York and proves to me — just to me, because nobody else is asking me to prove anything — that I’m a real actor.  But I know that show will never happen, unless I pursue it with all the passion and commitment I’ve poured into the life I am already living, a life that leads me to the shores of Gitche Gumee, where a stroll down Broadway with my husband and my daughter leads to the abiding rocks of Artists’ Point, and anchors me at last on solid ground.

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Working Girl

I am coming to the end of a long period of under-employment, which is good news for my household. Around here, a working Mommy is a happy Mommy, and a happy Mommy actually enjoys keeping house.

Though I’ve worked as an acting teacher and dialect coach for various theaters this summer, I haven’t been on stage since February. For me, going that long without a show is like crossing the Sahara in flip flops: blistering. In more ways than one.

Let’s skip the professional blisters for now and focus on the domestic ones. Without stimulating work to pull me away from home, my housework loses its urgency. It’s always there, and I always have time for it, so it never gets done, or it gets done begrudgingly.  I love hearth and home, but I don’t love vacuuming.

Now, though, with acting work on the near horizon, I suddenly have energy for housework and cooking. Saturday night I made a delicious dinner of grilled chicken, corn on the cob, and tomatoes fresh from the garden – a southern feast that should by rights have ended with peach ice cream or blueberry cobbler, or both. (Alas, I wasn’t feeling that domestic.)

I am motivated to cook dinner and tidy up the house because my domicile is about to be restored to its rightful purpose: workshop, studio, creative cocoon, home for character study and line learning, blessed retreat after long days of rehearsal. Artistic home base.

The transformation is already underway. My daughter and her best friend are furiously preparing for Dragon Con, so the dining room table is covered with patterns, fabric, paint, stencils, serger, and sewing machine. When I sit there to study my script, I feel like I’ve stumbled upon a fantastical tailor’s shop, or an altar to the gods of cosplay. Meals have moved to the back porch. Thank goodness for mild weather.

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This is our home. For me, as for most people I suppose, the impulse to keep house is bound up with the lifestyle that house is meant to nurture. As long as I’m maintaining my home as a haven for creative work, the tasks get done. But the minute I start playing Suzy Homemaker, keeping house for duty’s sake, I’m doomed. I will sabotage myself at every turn, because the role does not fit me the way it fit, say, my mother (emotional baggage, anyone?).

Still, I’m conflicted. I want a nice house, yet I resist having one.  I love to look at the pictures in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, but I am wary of those Better Homes. I fear entrapment in a personal hell of gracious (but empty) living. I even resent the title. Better Homes than whose? Mine? Really? By what standard?

I’ve realized that I want a beautiful home, a home that nurtures all who live in it, a home that welcomes visitors and fosters lively conversation. But I don’t want the creation of that home to be my life’s work, as it was for so many women in the past. I keep coming back to a sense of entwined priorities, where the work I do outside the home invigorates my home life, and vice versa.

In other words, I gotta get out of this place and into a theater, or I will surely die. And that won’t help anyone.  Dead women don’t keep house.

Crafting a Life

I think I’m in love with variegated yarn.

If you don’t knit, you may not have experienced this miracle. It is essentially a long strand of different-colored fibers, spun together into one continuous thread. It’s lovely, rolled up in a skein, inviting you to imagine it as a shawl or sweater.

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But the real delight is in knitting it and watching colorful stripes emerge. You do nothing to plan or force the pattern flowing from your needles. You simply stitch and it appears, a new fabric with a design of its own. And that design flows seamlessly from one color to the next, with no sharp lines dividing it into sections.

I see a metaphor for my life here. (I know, I know, domestic handicraft as life metaphor; here we go again. But stay with me. I really like this one.)

Lately my mom has been reminding me, with characteristic generosity, that she shouldn’t come first in my life. She says, “Remember what I always tell you,” (as if I could forget, I’ve heard it so many times). “Your family comes first, then your career, then me.”

She means well; she wants to reassure me that I’m doing enough for her. She may even worry that she’s going to wind up as ornery and ungrateful as her mother was in the worst stages of dementia. So she’s trying to rescue me in advance from the guilt I’m bound to feel, and release me from any guilt I already carry around.

I appreciate her effort, but it backfires. I chafe at statements like these. I want to tell her I don’t need her to order my priorities, thank you very much. I can choose my own rules for living. And if I want to place her needs first every now and then, that’s my business.

I even dislike hearing (repeatedly; did I mention that I hear this repeatedly?) that my family comes first, then my career. Of course my family comes first. But my career doesn’t come second. My career is integral to who I am. I work in the arts. I am fed by that work. My husband and daughter can tell when it’s been too long since I’ve done a play. (Hint: it’s been too long.) Even if I wanted to stop working altogether and focus on my family’s needs, I would fail. For me, work and family are inextricably meshed, there is no line, because Carolyn the artist is a better family member, a better wife, and a more interesting mother than Carolyn the dutiful homemaker.

My life doesn’t break down into neatly delineated blocks. It’s variegated. Work, art, family, parenting, caregiving, friendship, downtime: for me, these are colors in one strand of yarn. Knit together, they become a life with distinct shades and patterns, but no sharp lines.

Mother probably understands this. She probably understands more than I give her credit for. I shouldn’t chafe at her wisdom; she’s telling me to live my life. But like every daughter, including my own, I want to choose my own priorities.

I see changes coming in the way I order my days. Maybe I will begin to spend a little less time with Mom and a little more on new artistic projects. Maybe my husband and I will travel more. Certainly my daughter will keep growing up.  All I know to do is keep knitting, literally and metaphorically, and let a new pattern emerge.

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An Awkard Age

Last night I went to see Mom. I don’t usually do the evening visits, but my sister is out of town helping her own daughter cope with a mysterious health issue. So I went. I only had a short time; I was on my way to coach some acting students. I breezed in with the clothes I had washed and ironed, hung them in her closet, and sat down to talk with her. And she said:

“I’m unhappy. You girls don’t have time for me. When I lived back home, you came to see me and spent time with me. Now you just breeze in and breeze out, maybe three times a week. I thought I moved to Atlanta because you wanted me closer to you. I thought this was what you wanted. I assumed I would be more independent, and we would do things together. Instead I just sit in these two rooms. I don’t know what to do. I’m seriously considering moving back home.”

This again.

Why does she say these things? They’re not true.  Day before yesterday, when I brought her back from church, she sent me home to spend time with my family. She assured me she was fine.  “You get so little time with your husband and daughter. Go be with them.” Well, which is it, Mom? Leave you alone, or spend hours with you every single day?

Of course that’s an absurd question. It’s both. She doesn’t know that she moved down here against our will, that we urged her not to leave home when she did. She doesn’t know that we told her many times she was moving to an assisted living facility. She doesn’t even know she’s laying a guilt trip on me. She thinks she’s facing up to a harsh reality: her adult children are simply too busy for her.

Bless her heart.  (Grrrr.)

Last night I was able to listen to her and not let her words under my skin. I knew that if I just let her vent and took her fears seriously, she’d get over them. And she did. She said everything she had to say, then put on her shoes for a walk around the back yard. I made a quick phone call to tell my students I’d be fifteen minutes late, and went with her.

We strolled in the heavy July air, taking our sweet time on the winding path. We admired a ripening tomato in the container garden, and talked about . . . I don’t know . . . the grandchildren, or my work. Whatever occurred to me at the time. I find that I can still confide in Mom, once she calms down. She likes to hear about my ups and downs. I told her I had auditioned for another play and had not been cast, and she said encouraging words and told me I was wonderful anyway. She did agree that I’m aging out of some roles. “You’re not an ingenue anymore.”

“I’m not a leading lady either, Mom. I’m getting too old for the leading lady roles, but I’m not old enough to play the crones. It’s an awkward age, fifty-three.”

She stopped in her tracks.

“You’re fifty-three? How can my youngest child be fifty-three?”

Yes, Mom. I’m fifty-three. Not a wise old crone, not a sweet young thing. Not sure who I am these days. I’m struggling to find my place, as an artist and as a daughter. I don’t have the benefit of old age to give me perspective on your dementia, but I’m far too old to be spending all this time trying to please you.

Meanwhile, you are becoming a child again, afraid no-one wants to play with you. I want so deeply to comfort you, to assure you that everything is okay, that you are loved, that you are not forgotten. But there’s only so much I can do.

Who are we now, we two? Mother and daughter? Daughter and mother? Which is which? Who is comforting whom? On our last trip to the thrift store you bought yourself a baby doll.

I’m fifty-three, Mom. How old are you?

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Here Today, Gone Today

I took a walk with Mom last night on the little path behind her building. She made it around the circle three times and then needed to sit down, so we rested in a pair of rocking chairs tucked under the porch roof. There was a nice breeze from the ceiling fan above us. Mom said, “That breeze feels so good!” I didn’t point upward at the fan; I think she thought it was the wind.

And that made me sad. I don’t know why that should be the thing that made me sad, after two visits and lots of interaction yesterday. But it did. She couldn’t take in her surroundings enough to notice a ceiling fan, or if she could, she forgot about the fan almost as soon as she noticed it. This isn’t new, it’s just a reminder that her cognitive skills are slipping away.

I asked myself as I rocked, “What do you want, Carolyn? What do you want with her that you don’t have?”

My answer came fast and clear: I want a meaningful relationship with my mom. I want a relationship that’s still growing, that feeds both of us, instead of draining me and barely sustaining her. She is receding, sliding deeper into her own reality. Today she can’t acknowledge the fan. One day, she won’t acknowledge me.

I miss our old relationship. I like(d) my mom. She’s sitting right beside me, and she’s gone; both of those statements are true. I hold those opposing realities in my heart every time I see her. The person I know now is still kind, generous, and compassionate. She is still, in her essence, my mother. But the sharp edges are wearing down.

She nailed me last week, though, when she was over at my house looking through old photographs. We emptied a big box of family photos on the dining room table and lost ourselves in four generations of family portraits and vacation shots. When it was time to clean off the table I said, “Mom, how are we going to organize all this and put it away?”

She looked at me with a sly grin and said, “I don’t know. That’s your problem.”

Oh, Mommy. You are still there!

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Muffin Love

We interrupt this examination of dementia, angst, and despair to bring you a moment of whimsy. (I have whimsy issues.)

This morning I decided I wanted delicious homemade muffins for breakfast, which are easy, thanks to – you guessed it – MY MOM! When I was a teenager, she taught me her basic recipe for muffins, pancakes, and waffles. “Memorize this recipe and you will be able to make any breakfast you want,” she said. “All you have to do is vary the proportion of liquid to dry ingredients. Pancakes have the thinnest batter. Waffles are a little thicker. Muffins are thickest. Easy.”

I still use her recipe. I’ve altered the dry ingredients to include cinnamon, nutmeg, and whole wheat flour, but essentially it’s the same. You can add blueberries and take out the spices; you can substitute bananas or applesauce for some of the liquid; whatever. You can’t fail.

Well. I should say, you can’t fail. But I can.

Either I used too much liquid this morning (definitely), or failed to preheat the oven (probably), but my muffins spilled over the sides of the pan as they baked, creating what looked like huge noses. This happens from time to time. It happened to Mom when I was little. I like it; it gives breakfast a bit of personality.

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Please note that the two in the middle are kissing. Ah, young love.

But wait. As I wedged them out of the pan onto a cooling rack, inspiration struck. If they have noses, how would they look with eyes? Into a nearby cabinet for a half-empty bag of chocolate chips, and voila!

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Oh, God, now they’re talking to me. One wants to look out the window.

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Help me, my friends. I do not have small children. I do this because it makes me happy. Me. Crazy, or coping?

You decide . . . .