About Carolyn Cook

I’m an actress, teacher, and explorer. I’m passionate about the arts, travel, and my amazing family. I have spent my adult life seeking ways to balance rich personal relationships with a fascinating and challenging career.

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 . . . .

Tap Dancing Uphill

Mom moved to an assisted living home three and a half years ago. She needed it, but she didn’t want it. (She wanted to be independent. We wanted her to be safe.) I had high hopes that this beautiful, well-appointed facility would provide her with a social life to replace the friendships she had left behind when she moved closer to my sister and me. For various reasons I’ll explain in another post, that didn’t happen, and she became dependent on family for social engagement.

She also became convinced that someone was breaking into her apartment and stealing her laundry. We watched to see if it was actually happening, but it wasn’t. Anything she couldn’t find, like her hearing aid or her glasses, had “gone out on a stolen basket of clothes.” There was no point in contradicting her; even if we found the missing object, she still believed in the mysterious clothing thief. Worse, she felt that the staff weren’t taking her seriously. “They tell me I’m lying!! They tell me I just don’t know where I put it!!” Irony: by trying to comfort her, the loving staff was making things worse.

I found that the best way to pull her out of this downward spiral was to leave the building. A change of scenery worked wonders. Thus, I became my mom’s social secretary. I have help: my sister and cousin are very involved, and my brother comes to town to provide us respite. But I have the most flexible schedule, so for the last three and half years, I have visited Mom or taken her on an outing five or six days a week.

A sample morning: I arrive at her little apartment. She’s on the sofa, looking dejected. She’s either playing solitaire or trying to work a Sudoku puzzle. Her eyes are red from crying; her hair is a mess, because she’s been pulling at it in frustration.

I say a cheerful hello and ask if she wants to go out with me. She says okay, but what’s the point, they’ll just steal things while she’s gone. I say I hope not. She stands up and says, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t stay here.”

Me: I’m sorry this is hard, Mom. (Hug her. Kiss her cheek. Look her straight in the eye.) What can I do for you?

Mom: Kill me.

Me: (Pause. Breathe.) Let’s go shopping first.

So we get her coat, and find whatever is lost (glasses, hearing aid, cane, key, it’s always something), and we head for the lobby. Sign out. Tell them we won’t be back for lunch. Climb in the car and drive to the thrift store, where she can buy whatever she wants without breaking the bank.

At the thrift store she miraculously cheers up. She is delighted to find four hardback books that look interesting. She turns to the clothing section and unearths two sweaters for me to try on. I find two pairs of slacks for her. We trundle off to the dressing room. (I have chosen this store specifically for its large dressing rooms, with benches where Mom can sit down.)

We decide to buy the sweaters but not the slacks. I know better than to argue with Mom when she wants to buy me something. We come out of the dressing room and discover a rack of used shoes. As I’m putting our purchases in the shopping cart, Mom takes off her tennis shoes and tries on a pair of brown leather flats that fit her perfectly. Hooray! One more goodie in the cart. She struggles to put her tennis shoes back on while standing (Red alert! Falling hazard!), and I suggest we sit down. There’s a bench across from the shoes.

Once seated, we’re safe; she can put on shoes without losing her balance. What she can’t do is stay focused with so many colorful things in front of her. So, instead of getting ready to leave the store, she’s trying on more and more shoes, sometimes the same pair over and over. I’m about to lose it when I spot . . . can it be? . . . high quality leather tap shoes in my size. And whoosh . . . I’m down the rabbit hole with my crazy mother, tumbling into Wonderland, trying on tap shoes and believing with all my heart that this time, surely, I will actually learn to tap. Is dementia contagious?!

We smile. We laugh. Somehow we manage to change back into our sensible shoes, pay for our treasures, and go to lunch. Which is delicious: old-fashioned Southern blue plate specials at the Our Way Cafe. We eat what we can and box up the rest for my husband, and I take her back to the assisted living.

On the way there, she slides back into paranoia: “I don’t know if I can stay here. I live in a den of thieves. I don’t feel safe.” Oh God, I’m thinking. All that fun, and I’m driving her back to hell.

I feel like Sisyphus, the ancient Greek ne’er-do-well who crossed the gods one too many times and was punished by an eternity of hard labor. He pushes a massive boulder to the top of a hill every day, grunting and sweating, only to have it roll to the ground again at night. Why am I pushing this emotional boulder? What have I done to deserve this? What has she done? Nothing, you say? Thanks, but that only makes it worse.

Yet I know I will push that rock up the hill again tomorrow. Why? My husband has watched me, and he says I do it for one simple reason. I like the view from the top.

He’s right. I like seeing my mom grin from ear to ear as she buys her baby girl a pair of tap shoes. I like bringing moments of joy to her life. But it can be exhausting, so I have to find ways to safeguard the rest of my life. To care for her, without making my life all about her.

And that, it turns out, is a very complicated dance.

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Dangerous Territory

I try hard to stay positive about my mom’s condition, which, if you don’t know, is some form of dementia. I try to focus on how easy my situation is, compared to other people’s – people who are watching their life partner slip away, or people whose demented parents have moved into their homes for full-time care. Compared to them, I’m golden.

So why do I feel so angry?

You may not want to answer that, screams my internal editor, suddenly on high alert. Stop typing now! Get up and make another cup of coffee, or wash the dishes, or put away the laundry that’s been sitting on the sofa since Sunday. Play with the cat, for God’s sake. Do anything but write about anger.

I need to write about it. I think about it all the time. I question it. I wrestle with it. I can’t make it go away. But I’m afraid that if I admit to it publicly, in my sweet little blog with the pretty pictures and the fond memories, you’ll think I’m a bad person. And that’s what matters, right? What other people think?

Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Girlfriend, you better stop right now. This is dangerous territory.

Yes. Yes it is. And we’re going in.

Tomorrow.