Remember Us Here Together

You Are Mother of the Year!

You Are Mother of the Year!

I taped the faded telegram to her wall.

I wanted the nurses to see it.

I wanted her to know it.

That’s you, Mama;
that’s you–

Mother of the Year.

I added a photo:

the Opening Night Gala of the

Metropolitan Opera–

That’s you, Mama;

that’s you–

on Placido Domingo’s arm;

Cinderella at the ball

floating in layers of green chiffon

donned in a giddy swirl of panic and euphoria.

I covered her wall with photos; a dog-eared tapestry of beaming smiles; shining faces; triumphant moments;

This is your life, Mama.

This was your life.

Similar shrines began to appear in other residents’ rooms. Some families hung stately framed portraits; others created ragtag mosaics like ours; but the message was the same:

he fought in the war;

she was a great teacher;

Attention must be paid.

In the early days, I walked through the nursing home with blinders;

I saw only my Mother;

worried only for her.

The other faces blended in my peripheral vision;

frail bodies;

bent figures;

lonely lives;

not my problem.

Until one day

an elderly woman in a wheelchair beckoned.

I looked around.

Me? You want me?

(What could she possibly want?)

You don’t know me, but I watch you coming and going. I decided it was time to introduce myself. I look out for your mother; she is a lovely woman but you know, she gets quite confused.

(Well, how do you like that …)

Jean was bright; elegant; sparkling. Always draped in soft pink hues, she looked lovely. And she always had a book in her hands; a joyful laugh; an incisive observation.

I never quite figured out why she lived in the nursing home. She didn’t appear ill; she didn’t have dementia; she didn’t seem to belong here. But no matter, I enjoyed spending time with her.

And I was grateful she looked out for my mom.

One day, I peeked into her room; her bed was neat. I couldn’t find her the dining area. I returned to her room

and realized:

the nameplate on her door was empty.

I ran to the office.

Jean?

I wasn’t family;

the head nurse wasn’t supposed to say anything.

But she broke the rules

and told me:

a suspicious cough;

a terminal illness;

Jean declined treatment.

She faced her death with same sweet energy and unwavering grace that had carried her through brighter days.

She had even approached the head nurse with a memorial request;

She asked we sing

In The Garden;

She said it was her mother’s favorite hymn…

And with those words, the head nurse broke down.

Now

I still see Jean

as she beckoned across the room

so many years ago;

take off your blinders;

Attention must be paid.

And so I did.

I still see

Ruth—ecstatic over her 90th birthday; Marguerite—desperately gripping my hand; Kathryn– grinning as she received gifts of chocolate;  Patti- a cat loving, Grammy-winning record producer; Elizabeth– excitedly reliving that day’s entertainment; Jim—a five-star general; Julia—an unassuming speechwriter for one of our country’s most beloved leaders; Leonard—a renowned concert pianist; Gladys—composing so many hits she’s in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame; Florence—rescued from her Ninth Ward rooftop while her family watched on CNN;

And Mary–

who began to cry when the staff took her photograph.

Please don’t be upset. Why are you crying?

No one has wanted to take my picture for years.

A Swift Current Photo of a beautiful accomplished senior

I Will Never Forget You– Photo by Hallie Swift

And I will never forget a lazy Saturday afternoon; a quiet autumn day; college football on TV. From her room, a resident began to chant

U-S-C!

U-S-C!

Not to be outdone, my mother wheeled to her door:

U-C-L-A!

U-C-L-A!

A voice cried from down the hall:

Let’s Go Bears!

Let’s Go Bears!

And the nursing home erupted;

a cacophony of cheers

echoing through the corridors–

it was comical, absurd, thrilling.

A generation of

proud

strong

accomplished

men and women;

making a goal line stand.

Their distinctive faces;

their distinguished lives;

fading fast in the autumn light

like the blurred edges of an artist’s pastel.

She

fought in the war.

He

was a great teacher.

Now

they are

here together;

waiting.

From a wheelchair

in the corner

an old woman beckons

(What could she possibly want?)

I thought it was time to introduce myself.

Attention must be paid.

Remember her.

Remember Us

Here Together–

Speech-writing;

Grammy-winning;

Chocolate-loving;

Mothers

of the Year.

I come to the garden alone

While the dew is still on the roses…

And the joy we share as we tarry there…

None other has ever known…

(for Jean, with thanks)

Bench in Central Park--Remember Us Here Together-- Photo by Hallie Swift

Bench in Central Park–Remember Us Here Together– Photo by Hallie Swift

In the Garden written by Charles Austin Miles in 1912, copyright in the public domain.

The phrase Attention must be paid is of course from Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, first published by Viking Press, 1949

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23 thoughts on “Remember Us Here Together

    • Thank you. I knew it was sad but I wanted to post this for Thanksgiving. I keep thinking of all the frail people joining Thanksgiving tables who might have to struggle to be heard. How I wished I had used the camera on my cell phone (I don’t think I even knew how it worked!) to capture some of these folks…and some of their stories…for many people, it is not too late…H

    • Thank you for reading my efforts and joining the conversation. I am thrilled that you think the idea might be helpful for your aunt. My mom used to stare at the wall and comment on the gallery (My Papa was so handsome!). I know it helped connect her to her world.

      I have tried to embed ideas into several of the posts…during our ten years I tried all sorts of ways of communicating with my mom. One of the most successful was sending postcards which was the subject of an essay (Postcards to the Edge, in the May 2013 archive).

      Again, thank you for commenting and Happy Thanksgiving,
      Hallie

      • i just read it – wonderful. My aunt is right now in a nonsensical happy place and still living w/ my cousin in her home. our family is so overwhelmed by it, nobody tries things like this including myself so I’m grateful for the ideas, reached out to my mom and sister last night and we are going to start working on it this weekend. all the best to you as well.

      • You have just made my Thanksgiving! I know that feeling of being overwhelmed, and one of my hopes for my writing, and the reason for putting it on the internet, is to share ideas and give a different perspective to people who are now struggling with these challenges. I have no idea if the postcards will have a similar impact, or any of these things for that matter, but it is worth trying.

        One of the things that was important, as I discussed a recent post Take A Sad Song and Make It Better, was having a community of people to help with my mom’s situation. As I tried to convey, you have to ask. In our experience, people (from every phase of our lives, church, work, school and of course relatives) were more than willing to help; they just had to know they were welcome to contribute. And what to do. And occasionally be reminded. It might have been daunting to them, but they overcame their doubts and visited/sent notes/called etc. It made my mom feel connected. And helped relieve my worries.

        Again, I hope these essays can help your family as you help your aunt. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, Hallie

    • Hi Sue, Thank you. As a former teacher, I feel your endorsement really validates my effort here. I appreciate your taking the time in a busy (!)week to read and comment. Have a wonderful Thanksgivukkah! Hallie

    • I am thrilled to know you are still following the essays. Your parents were an instrumental part of the team that visited my Mom regularly and made her feel connected to her world (you probably recognize their role in the recent essay, Take A Sad Song and Make It Better). That is how your parents lived their lives and I remember them with such fondness. One day when I was visiting my Mom, they stopped by…not only was it great to see them, it gave me huge comfort knowing there was still a large number of people who were looking out for my Mom.

      OK, I have tears as I write this so I suspect you have tears as you read this, but I think that good memories are what make these holidays so special, and it is important to acknowledge what went before and what remains. That is the whole purpose of my writing. And so thank you for contributing here, H

  1. Tears, again. Your beautiful words, so kind, so sensitive…so thought-provoking. Someday that will be us. Thank you for doing this.

    • Joanie, thank you. I am grateful for your comments here.

      Your words echo a comment from a well known record producer in London who recently sent me a note…he regularly visits one of his former teachers, who was an accomplished pianist, a man who in his “prime” gave sold-out Albert Hall concerts to the point that they had to add extra performances. He told me he tried to convince the nurses of the importance of this frail little man who had been his teacher, and the nurses just looked at him like he was batty.

      But where the record producer echoes you was the last line of his message…
      Oh God, we’re next!

      And yes, we are…and so we have to do everything we can to lay the groundwork for better treatment for the elderly…soon it will be us! I knew it could be hard to relate to these little elderly people, which was one reason I did the wall for my mom.

      With thanks and hopes for a wonderful holiday, H

  2. I have asked that “In The Garden” be sung at my funeral. It is my favorite hymn. I remember my Father bellowing it out in church when I was little girl. We sang it at his funeral. I was surprised to see another post so soon after the last one….you knew I needed to hear more! God Bless!

    • I am grateful that you need to hear more! It is very moving to me that the hymn was sung for your dad and will be sung for you. I find that continuity utterly lovely. Just like I found it touching that it was not only Jean’s favorite hymns, but also her mother’s. I think most of the time we never know the gifts we have bestowed on our friends and especially the ones that get carried over to future generations.

      The timing of posts is less frequent that I had originally anticipated as the writing is a slow process…and prefer to focus on the words than a specific deadline! But I worked hard to get this online before Thanksgiving. As I wrote in an earlier comment, I know there are lots of elderly relatives joining Thanksgiving tables, and it is the perfect opportunity to share stories, even the ones you’ve heard a thousand times before…there comes a day when you don’t get to hear the story again…and wish you had just one more chance…

      Happy Thanksgiving, H

  3. Enjoyed reading. Makes me think of my legacy. What will I be remembered for? Such beautiful words… Heartfelt and loving! I’ve recently connected with my biological mother, and reading your words reminds me how significant she is to me in spite of our history. Thank you Hallie!

    • Karen, you have taken the impact of these essays to a level I never anticipated. And that this writing has you thinking about your Mom’s significance, I could not ask for a more profound outcome.

      Re legacy, while I was in awe of the accomplishments of many of the people in my Mom’s home, I think one of the lessons for me was old age is a great equalizer. I literally will never forget Kathryn’s huge grin and love for chocolate. I really don’t know anything else about her, but man did she love chocolate, and her grateful smile remains with me. And I will never forget the woman who wrote speeches for the famous radio broadcasts. She loved telling the stories, and would roar with laughter. They both are seared into my memory. They are both stars to me.

      And I had better stop writing before I sound like a hallmark card. But thank you, and have a wonderful holiday, H

  4. Such glorious writing! Grady & I became very close to several of his Mom’s fellow residents during her last years in her assisted-living community — sharing stories, celebrating their birthdays, always giving them a hug, becoming additional “adopted” family. It was our pleasure & honor: it helped make Eleanor feel more connected to them/us and made us feel as though we were adding some light & warmth to their days, as well as our own. We miss them all.
    Happy Thanksgiving!
    S

    • Thank you for commenting. It sounds like you did naturally what took me time to accept. But it is true, if you let these folks into your life, the entire experience becomes more enriching. Again, I hope I don’t sound like a hallmark card…

      If you open your heart of course you are accepting that there will be a fair amount of sorrow involved. I will never forget the night I learned of Jean’s death. I cried so hard I could hardly drive. My sister was upset too, and we took some measure of comfort that we had selected some pretty fun Christmas presents for her, and she had liked them so much, and we said to each other, well, we gave her a great last Christmas.

      I miss all of them too.

      Happy Thanksgiving, back at you…
      H

  5. Thank you for a wonderful Thanksgiving treat. I always really miss and think of my Mother with so much love at this time of year. She always enjoyed this season, cooking wonderful dishes and seeing family. This blog really touched my heart and was so well written.

    My Granddaughter visited a nursing home recently as part of a school project and she was telling me about the ladies, the things she had done for them (like painting their nails) and visiting with them was one of the most enjoyable parts of the visit. She saw 3 of them in the mall and they recognized her and she was so proud. She has been visiting with me more and I am enjoying her so much. Their class project was one that should be done with all teenagers so they realize the importance of visits with their Grandparents and the elderly.

    Love you.

    • I do think this time of year is poignant for all of us who have lost our parents. The memories just flood back, which is one reason I wanted to post this for Thanksgiving. One hope is that people take the time tomorrow to really talk to their elderly loved ones sitting at the table…take time to really be with them…

      and how wonderful that your granddaughter’s class went to a nursing home! Kudos to the teacher who made it happen. My mom’s home always had pre-schoolers visit around major holidays, but what an experience for the older kids. And it sounds like it opened her world in a lot of ways.

      It sure opened mine…

      Happy Thanksgiving,
      H

  6. Lovely as always. My buddy, jody and I talk about how our families seem to take our accomplishments for granted while we are at the age where we are looking back in amazement.

    I mean how any women do you know who produced HRH Prince Philip’s first luncheon for his foundation on West Coast at the Bel Air hotel? It was a brilliant afternoon, even more so because HRH stayed for the entire luncheon which he rarely does… He was supposed to simply do the cocktail party, but luncheon was one of his favorite meals. He stayed, ate and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He delayed leaving for a plane trip…I still have a lovely note from his director saying HRH never stays for the whole event, as one can imagine how many events he does…just ever happens. I was thrilled because it went off perfectly. I have pics, but hardly a ripple in family.

    Jody wrote a book on George Wallace, taught at Hunter College and worked at top ad agencies in NYC…all these career highlights not lost to posterity…

    So I applaud your noting that special acknowledgement of your mother as Mother of The Year…this brought joy and pride to her life!
    Best
    V

    • That fabulous luncheon was just one of many achievements in your illustrious career…I still remember that as we walked down the mall in Sacramento, you distracted me from looking the movie theater marquee…because your name was on the billboard, starring in a film with Richard Pryor!

      I think it is a curse of all generations that we take our parents’ and grandparents achievements for granted. I have four ideas as how to acknowledge and preserve these memories:

      One, I urge people to take the opportunity TODAY, as families gather, to ask our elderly relative to relay that oft repeated story just one more time, and turn on the sound or video recorder on your phone, and preserve the memories. My dad repeatedly told the same story about his great diplomatic coup–convincing Soviet authorities to release a certain Rachmaninoff recording when they did not want to acknowledge it for political reasons. It was truly one of his great life achievements, but I heard the story so many times, I tuned him out. And then he was gone, and I do not remember the details. I am still kicking myself.

      Two, toast the achievement! How good everyone at the table will feel to acknowledge the accomplishments. How great for the children to participate in cheering their elderly grandparents and aunties.

      Three, if you don’t do it today; do it at Christmas!

      And four, write it down. There is a blog called The Memories Project where the writer is putting together the story of her dad’s life thru her memories of him. How wonderful it would be if there were letters, diaries, notebooks, scrapbooks, anything for her and her descendants to put the story together. I am lucky; I have letters my dad wrote during his travels. I know there are not enough hours in the day, but then there are no hours…and the stories are lost…

      Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone… ~Joni Mitchell

      Thank you for commenting and thank you for your support of my efforts here! Happy Thanksgiving, H

  7. I cried through your whole post. It has left me speechless. Now when I go to visit my Mother I will have a completely different outlook on the residents and that they were all once young, healthy and all have stories. Funny how that seemed to escape me. You see Hallie, I want my Mother to make this easy for me. She has spent her whole life making my life easier and I want this one last final part of duties as a Mother to make it easy for me…that she be healthy and happy at least five more years, and then when that hour comes, it is painless quick and peaceful. I know that is selfish and too much to ask but it could happen , right?
    Thank you my dear…I knew you were a special person oh so many years ago when I met you and wanted to be just like you and you have been a source of great comfort to me.

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