About aswiftcurrent

I have many interests, but currently at the fore are issues related to the elderly. My 95 year old Mother died in 2010 after a decade long struggle with dementia. The stories and reflections in "A Swift Current" focus on the last decade of my Mother's life. I hope that these essays help people feel less alone as we face tough issues with our elderly loved ones. I welcome your comments and invite you also to look at my Pinterest board where I explore my other interests!

The Skinny Kid in the Corner

A Swift Current shares the writing of Gerry Sell, a good story told with an honest voice

Vuillard…At The Revue Blanche…1901…Guggenheim Museum New York

As Thanksgiving approaches, A Swift Current changes direction.

I have long hoped to share others’ memories and reflections, and now, for the first time, I am honored to share the writing of Gerry Sell.

Gerry Sell is a retired Mathematics teacher, and currently a resident of The Waters at 50th in Minneapolis. A participant in The Waters’ Writers Group, her essay Thanksgiving was originally published in Cardboard in Our Shoes, an Anthology of Reminiscences. The Writer’s Group meets twice a month, and over time their instructor Kathleen Novak observed that the group’s writings “…more and more centered around childhood and young adult memories during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression and World War II.” In the anthology, Novak writes, “they’ve culled the best for friends and family and all others who love a good story told with an honest voice…”

Here is one of those stories.

Thanksgiving by Gerry Sell

The note was on the table when I got home that night. “Mom, call this doctor at this number tonight! (underlined) Urgent! (underlined twice)”

I looked at the clock. It was after 11 PM. I looked at the name. I did not recognize it. The area code for the number was Chicago. I didn’t know anyone in Chicago. Why was a doctor from Chicago calling me? All kinds of thoughts ran through my mind. Did one of my Milwaukee relatives go there, get sick, and give my name as the contact? Was it someone calling from the university who got sick there?

I kept repeating the name. I didn’t know anyone by that name, yet I felt I should. I dialed the number. A woman answered. “I have a message to call this number,” I said.

“Oh I am so glad you called. I’ll get him. Please don’t hang up. He’ll be right here.” Now it was even more mysterious and the name kept gnawing at the back of my mind.

I heard the phone being picked up. “Hello Gerry. It’s Manuel. You remember me?” The voice was seductive, the pronunciation accented.

“No, I don’t think so.” I replied.

“Come on, Gerry. You have to remember.”

“I’m trying.” I said.

“Come on, Gerry. Think back along time ago.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again. Nothing was clicking.

“Think back a long, long time ago. “

“I’m trying.”

“Come on, Gerry. Don’t you remember? I was the skinny kid in the corner!” And, then, I did remember—yes, Manuel! He was indeed the skinny kid in the corner of one of my first college classes.

It was my first semester at Marquette, 1951. The class was zoology. The professor was an old man who was the department chair and who had written the textbook. He lectured by reading from the book, never looking up except to take roll.

We were all having trouble in that class. Not only were the lectures a waste of time, but the grad study for the lab was not a zoologist and had trouble distinguishing between male and female frogs.

The skinny kid in the corner was having more trouble than the rest of us. He was all of 5’4” and maybe 100-pounds. His English was reasonable, but he was struggling. One thing that he did know, as did the rest of us, was that without an “A” in that zoology class, there was no chance that he would be admitted into medical school.

Back then, there were no MCATS entrance exams. One did three years of pre-med, and based on grades in science classes and professors’ recommendations, one was admitted. Unless one was female. All scholarship money was reserved for MALE students.

His accented pronunciation interested me. I found out that he was from Belize. He worked on campus to pay his dorm fees. There were other students from Belize, but he was the only pre-med student and zoology threatened to make him a non-pre-med.

Another complication was that all scholarship students had to maintain a 3.5 GPA or they lost their scholarships. Manuel had to get an A in zoology for his GPA, because he was not getting an A in English.

I towered over him. Before I ever heard of “spinal compression”, I was 5’9”. My troubles were not academic but economic. I kept my coat on in class because I was still wearing my high school uniform. That didn’t matter to Manuel.

One day he very shyly asked if I would help him. So we started working together, sometimes a few minutes and sometimes two to three hours.

The day of the final exam, he looked so apprehensive. The exams were passed out and I saw him write at the top of the paper “AMDG,” Ad marjorem Dei gloriam—for the greater glory of God, which is the Jesuit motto.

I was the first person finished. I turned in my paper and left, but I just had to wait until he came out. When he did, he took my hand and smiled and said, “I answered every one and I think correctly. Thank you.”

“Good luck,” I said then asked, “Are you going home for the summer?”

“No, I cannot. I know I will have trouble in chemistry.”

The following year we were in different classes, but I saw him some. He had studied hard all summer and the textbooks were better.

He commented once that I wasn’t wearing my coat so much and that he hadn’t seen my blue jumper for a while. He also said he knew I was poor, but it was better to be poor here than in Central America.

At the end of my sophomore year, I had to quit school. My scholarships were for two years and my application for a third year was turned down because all the money was going to veterans. I tried to borrow one hundred dollars, but was told that the school didn’t give money to girls. They never paid it back.

I corrected papers for one of the Jesuit religion teachers, Father Maddigan. He was a Canadian who had served in WWI and reminded me of my dad. Even with his recommendation, I couldn’t get any money.

On the phone Manuel was now saying, “I got into Medical School because you helped me. And when I went to tell you, you were gone. My daughter graduated from Marquette and had the Alumni directory. I looked through every page until I found you.”

We had started talking about 1953 and what happened to us, how he had gotten into medical school and I was teaching first grade. He laughed. “Good it was first grade. High school juniors were older than you.” We talked about how each of us had married and had children.   He took a deep breath. “Gerry, I want to ask you something. Please don’t be offended. Your husband, he is a good man?”

“Yes, he is.”

“In the directory, it says he graduated Summa Cum Laude.” He is also a smart man?” It was a question that was also a statement.

“Yes, Manuel. He is so smart he married me.”

“Oh Gerry, I like that and I am going to remember it. I must go now. I want you to understand what I am saying. I am what I am because of your help. Without that A in zoology, I would not have been in medical school, and I would not be a doctor. It is 50 years, but it is never too late to say thank you. Promise me you won’t forget me.”

Through my tears I said, “I won’t forget.”

“Thank you again, Gerry.”

 

 

A Swift Current guest author Gerry Sell wrote Thanksgiving, a good story told with an honest voice

Author Gerry Sell graduated from Marquette University in 1957. This is her graduation photo.

Thank you to Gerry Sell for permission to share her story on A Swift Current.  All rights reserved.

Thank you also to Kathleen Novak, novelist and poet, who introduced me to her students’ writing. Their book of reminiscences is unfortunately sold out. However, Kathleen is the author of two novels published by Permanent Press: Do Not Find Me, a finalist for the 2017 Minnesota Book Award, and the recent, charming Rare Birds.

 

As we gather together for Thanksgiving, please remember this is a chance to share and record our stories.  Once again, National Public Radio’s StoryCorps is sponsoring “The Great Thanksgiving Listen“–providing the opportunity to interview an elderly loved one using the free StoryCorps app. StoryCorps even offers suggested questions.  Interviews become part of the StoryCorps Archive at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress.  For more information, visit

https://storycorps.org/participate/the-great-thanksgiving-listen/

Listen. Honor. Share.

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Scammable

 

A Swift Current Scammable Ohhh...Alright

Ohhh…Alright (detail)…Roy Lichtenstein 1964

A nasal male voice slowly enunciates each word:

                                      This message is intended to contact you

regarding an enforcement action

executed by the US Treasury

  intending your serious attention

 

My mind flutters as

I listen to the stern pronouncement

on my answering machine

a U. S. Treasury

enforcement action

intending my attention…?

Who talks like that?

(Oh,

wait…

I get it…)

It’s just

another day–

another scam–

intending my attention.

But the calls keep coming–

the gruff voice;

the urgent tone;

My name is Dennis Gray. Ignoring this message will be an intentional second attempt to avoid an initial appearance before a magistrate judge or grand jury for a federal criminal offense…

This is Officer John White…the reason for this call is to inform you that the IRS has issued an arrest warrant against you– and your physical address is under federal investigation…

This is Bill Russell, your prize director…this contest is now officially over and your ticketed entry has been selected as a winner…a brand new Ford Explorer vehicle…or one of three more prizes…

I ignore Dennis, Bill, and Officer John–

I feel smug

superior

impervious to their malicious intent.

But my confidence wanes

as I remember my mama.

Even in the years before dementia,

she suddenly became easy prey;

on the phone

at her door

my mother was an elderly woman

with a target on her back.

A Swift Current an elderly woman alone-the elderly have a target on their backs

Eduaord Vuillard Femme Lisant Le Soir 1895

Oh Hallie, I did something horrible!

Mama, whatever it is—I’m sure it’s OK…

 

But as soon as I’d heard her voice

–plaintive, meek, fragile–

I knew it wasn’t OK.

Oh, but Hallie, this is so bad

What happened, Mama?

Well, last night I got a phone call from my Godson Peter.

He said he’d been arrested for unpaid traffic tickets. He needed cash for bail. And he begged me not to tell anyone-he was so embarrassed–he didn’t want his brothers to know.

He promised to pay me back today but he never called…

Oh Hallie, I just spoke to his roommate. Peter isn’t even in LA–he’s traveling for work. Peter wasn’t in jail at all!

Mama, I don’t understand…you gave him money? How?

A young man came to the door. He said he was a friend of Peter’s. I gave him all my cash…

Oh Hallie, I am so stupid!

But my mother was not stupid—

not that time,

nor any of the others.

A man came to the door on a blistering hot day. Could I trouble you for a glass of water? She told him to wait on the porch. When she returned, he was standing in her living room.

GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!

Later she discovered her wallet was missing.

A woman came to the door with a small child. Could my little girl please use your bathroom? She let them in. When they exited the back room, my mother discovered two men ransacking her bedroom.

I screamed at the top of my lungs!

I was amazed she was still alive.

They took nothing;

they took everything that mattered.

I was frightened and heartsick for my mama;

and yet

I had no idea how to protect her.

And I was perplexed;

at age 80,

my mother had lived alone for decades;

she still rode the bus

all the way across Los Angeles

to her art gallery job.

Why now

with no apparent warning—

was my smart, savvy mother

the victim of

scammers and thieves?

Years later, a newspaper headline revealed a possible answer:

For the old, less sense of who to trust

there’s a reason so many older people fall for financial scams…their brains don’t send out as many warning signals that ignite a danger-ahead gut response.”

Research has found that when a young person senses a threat, a certain section of the brain—the anterior insula– literally lights up, warning of impending danger. But as we age, the anterior insula might no longer physically respond to potential trouble.

Or in the words of Dr. Shelley Taylor, UCLA professor and lead researcher:

“The warning signals that convey a sense of potential danger to younger adults just don’t seem to be there for older adults…”

And suddenly it all made sense—

the answer was in the science;

dementia was not the culprit–but still

my mama’s aging brain had failed her.

Somehow I’d always known

my mother was not responsible for what was happening–

her unexpected vulnerability and misplaced trust were completely

out of her control.

A Swift Current Scammable for the vulnerable elderly, every knock at the door can mean danger. And there's science behind the scam

Edward Hopper The Stairway 1919

And now

I’m the one

who receives threatening messages.

And while I’m certain

Officer John won’t arrest me;

a grand jury won’t indict me;

and I didn’t win a Ford Explorer at the mall;

I understand why the elderly make gut-wrenching decisions.

Every sinister word

(this is our final attempt)

menacing tone

(I advise you to cooperate)

urgent demand

(it is important you call this number today!)

could lead to catastrophe

for an unsuspecting senior.

Without blame

accusation or

fault

(mama please– don’t say that–you are not stupid!)

we need to protect our elderly.

It is urgent.

It is up to us.

It’s a matter of trust.

A Swift Current Scammable the vulnerable elderly, the science behind misplaced trust

Vuillard Man in the Mirror

I welcome your comments. Can you share other examples of fraud to help our readers understand the range of scams perpetrated against the elderly? Do you have suggestions how to protect our loved ones?

For further insight, please see the NY Times December 5, 2012 For The Old, Less Sense of Who To Trust by Judith Graham. Here is the link

https://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/05/for-the-old-less-sense-of-whom-to-trust/?mcubz=0

The article mentions the National Center on Elder Abuse and the Eldercare Locator, a federal service that helps older adults and caregivers find local programs and agencies. “Protect Your Pocketbook” is a consumer guide intended for older adults and families who wanted to understand what puts them at risk, how to prevent fraud, and where to turn for help.

The Dark Has Its Own Light

A Swift Current The Dark Has Its Own Light

Elmer Bischoff– Figure at Window with Boat, 1964

As you come to this last page, there’s a sense of reaching out– for something that you can’t quite reach–that you can’t quite get. When you get to the top, you haven’t got it, but there’s a breathing out,

and accepting

that’s how it is…

It’s anything but a resolution. It’s not a reassurance either. It’s not that everything is going to be alright–nothing is going to be alright.

It’s just about accepting the way things are…

Words by pianist Paul Lewis about
Schubert’s last Sonata
The New York Times
August 2, 2016

Six years

after my mother’s death,

I have found

a certain peace.

It’s anything but a resolution;

it’s not a reassurance either;

and it certainly is not catharsis.

My mother is dead.

Her absence is an indelible part of me–

a space that cannot be filled—

nor should it.

Time does not heal;

I still long

for what cannot be–

but my grief

is tempered by

gratitude;

surprise;

even joy.

Six years

after my mother’s death,

I still shed tears

but I don’t fight them.

They are my silent– even welcome—recognition

of what I’ve lost and

what I live for.

Six years later,

she visits my dreams

with startling clarity–

pushing –prodding–

minding—mothering—

she makes her stand

in the dead of night.

Six years later,

I hear her voice

in my thoughts and

in my words — from

silly asides to

serious exhortations–

I am astonished to realize

she lives on

through me.

Six years later,

I look back;

I move forward;

everything’s going to be alright–

nothing is going to be alright.

As I come to this page,

there’s still a sense of reaching out

for something I can’t quite get;

for someone I will never see.

But there’s a breathing out—

accepting

the way things are.

My mother is dead.

I stare into the void

and

finally see.

The dark has its own light.

 

 

In a dream I meet
my dead friend. He has,
I know, gone long and far,
and yet he is the same
for the dead are changeless.
They grow no older.
It is I who have changed,
grown strange to what I was.
Yet I, the changed one,
ask: “How you been?”
He grins and looks at me.
“I’ve been eating peaches
off some mighty fine trees.”

~~ Wendell Barry

 

 

A Swift Current The Dark Has Its Own Light Corita Kent and Mickey Myers

As seen on a friend’s bookshelf…words by poet Theodore Roethke–print by Corita Kent and Mickey Myers, 1984

When I first read the interview with pianist Paul Lewis, his words stopped me in my tracks. In describing the final page of the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in B flat, Lewis helped clarify my then-muddled thoughts about my evolving grief.  Here is the link to the New York Times interview by David Allen: https://nyti.ms/2lDqDvd

A Meeting in A Part– copyright Wendell Barry, 1980 All Rights Reserved

Like Paul Lewis’s words, seeing the Corita Kent/Mickey Myers print at a friend’s home helped me think about loss.  Corita Kent’s artwork is the copyright of the Immaculate Heart Community All Rights Reserved– for more information http://www.coritaartcenter.org

Back to Black

A Swift Current Back to Black Hallie Swift's latest essay about our mother's decade of dementia

Vuillard The Artist’s Sister with a Cup of Coffee 1893 the Fitzwilliam Museum University of Cambridge

 

We only said goodbye with words

I died a hundred times

You go back to her

And I go back to

I go back to

us

 

I knelt by my mother’s side

But mama…

Her smoldering eyes

drilled right through me as

she unleashed a torrent of accusations;

every word

a scorching, vitriolic indictment of

me.

Her nurse put her arm around my shoulder

You need to leave. You do not deserve this.

But it’s my only chance…

You need to leave.

The nurse quickly led me to the back door

Go.

Now!

I stood

shaken and dejected

in the blinding glare of the Southern California sun.

This raw, tormented incarnation was a new twist

-at least for me—

in the trajectory of my mother’s disease;

I had never seen her

in the full grip of dementia’s vise.

I had grown accustomed to many aspects of
the disease—

dissolving memory,

fantastical stories,

even harsh diatribes;

but I had never witnessed

the searing black vortex

which enveloped my mama—

the dementia horror show.

But even though I saw it,

I didn’t accept it;

I did not try to understand the disease; and

I dared not imagine

what it was like for her.

I buried the actual words my mother said that day—

I cannot remember a single cutting recrimination that

stung so deeply and

caused her nurse to push me out the door.

Retreating to my own fantasy world,

I continued to discount the staff’s reports of

my mother’s increasingly volatile, aggressive behavior–

even when

they moved a roommate

for her safety;

or warned another resident’s family

about my mother’s fierce outbursts

against their elderly matriarch.

They must be exaggerating, I silently intoned;

in my mind, my mama was the innocent – always.

And I was incensed when another resident accosted me in the hall:

Is that woman your mother? She’s awful –she yells through the night and we can’t get any sleep!

My mother…is not awful–she can’t control—she has dementia—this is not her!

But it was her.

And again and again

I simply refused to admit

what was happening.

It would have been so much easier—for everyone

–for me—

if I had only accepted

the vicious truth.

But then one day

an exhausted charge nurse

pulled me aside—

that week,

she said,

my mother’s screams

had filled the halls of the nursing home

in the darkest hours of the night.

And with her revelation,

I could no longer deny

the stark,

surreal,

tragic force

of my mother’s disease–as

night after night

dementia took her

back to black.

Hallie, I need to know something…

did your mother lose a baby?

What?

Did your mother lose a baby?

Why?

Because every night, we give birth.

You—what–

Every night–your mother wakes up– screaming–she’s having a baby.

The nurses surround her.

Push Push
PUSH…

And every night,

her baby is dead.

Hallie, I need to know–did you mother lose a baby?

There was…um…between my sister and me…

Then that explains it. Your poor mother loses her baby
every night…

we’re trying to help, we’re doing everything we can– but
I hope—for everyone– this ends soon…

There.

There you have it.

That’s all you really need to know.

Dementia is a horror show.

I see it so differently now than I saw it then;

but then

and now

I didn’t want to know
any of this.

Then and now

I cling to

another memory of us–

we gaze at the view

from the nursing home garden;

we speak in silence as

the sun sets

red gold purple orange turquoise blue

across a glimmering city.

She even invented a word for

our dramatic evening skies–

Dinnerscapes, she called them

(and how did her demented mind,

I want to know,

capture with one word

the landscape of our dimming day)

A Swift Current Hallie Swift's latest essay about our decade of dementia

“I called them Dinnerscapes because they remind me of your art” Dinnerscape, a pastel by Mickey Myers, all rights reserved.

 

I cling to

our dinnerscapes–

but that’s the Technicolor version

of our story.

In the end

the horizon always fades to black.

And I must finally face

the one truth

I refused to accept

all those years.

My mama lived through hell on earth.

It was called dementia.

She was not awful,

except she was.

You do not deserve this.

 

A Swift Current Back to Black Hallie's Swift's latest essay about my mother's decade of dementia

Vuillard Woman Seated in a Dark Room, 1895, Musee de Beaux Arts Montreal

Opening lyrics from Back to Black Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson composers, copyright 2006 Universal Music

Dancing in the Dark

A Swift Current thoughts about how we treat the elderly

Madame Vuillard at Table Eduard Vuillard 1888 Private Collection

The times are tough now, just getting tougher

The whole world’s rough, it’s just getting rougher

Cover me,

 Come on baby,

 Cover me…

 

 

Did you watch the Grammys, Hallie?

Yes, but I was disappointed. I wanted Bruce Springsteen to win but, well… you probably don’t even know who he is…

Bruce Springsteen? Hallie! Of course I know Bruce Springsteen. Bruce Springsteen is THE BOSS. After all, Hallie,

I live in Hollywood!

I’ve always loved that story. I thought it showed my mom’s youthful vigor; her spirit; her vitality.

But now I think it tells you

something about

me.

When that conversation took place,

my mother was 70 years old.

Though she spent her days working in an art gallery–

her evenings watching PBS or reading The New Yorker

to me, she was old.

And old meant out of touch—unaware–incapable of appreciating

the good and the new and the exciting.

But even if I detected her mild annoyance, I didn’t begin to anticipate what was in store for her–

or understand the battles that would shape the rest of her life.

Some incidents seemed minor at first;

like the day we went to the drug store,

only to discover her doctor had failed to call in the prescription.

The wait was long; the clerk was rude; the pharmacy had no chairs.

And as we stood,

I witnessed time take its toll–

at my mother’s age,

nothing was minor.

Other incidents were more serious,

harrowing, in fact;

like the day she walked to the bus and

muggers knocked her to the ground.

They stole her purse,

broke her wrist;

a few weeks later,

money was missing from her account.

At the bank,

the teller yelled

Speak Up!

She called me in tears.

I did what I could

from 3000 miles away-

but I couldn’t change her reality–

she was old;

she was vulnerable–and

she knew it.

But it wasn’t only impatient clerks and cruel strangers who made her days more difficult.

The truth is

I did too.

To this day, I relive moments that should have been different

Guess what mama? My company is sending me to London and Paris!

Oh honey, that’s wonderful! I’m so happy for you.

I’m so excited.

Tell me, are you flying to London and then returning to New York and then going to Paris?

What?

Well, um, are you going to London and then back to New York and then to Paris?

Why would I do that, mama? Think about it. Why would I fly all the way home when London and Paris are so close?

I don’t know.

You don’t know? Why would you ask me that? Look at a map! THINK ABOUT IT!

Her voice was barely audible

I was just asking…

But I wasn’t cutting her any slack. I thought she asked silly questions to get attention. I didn’t appreciate that her questions were harmless. It never occurred to me that she might be confused.

And I never once thought

what is this like for you?

Instead our conversations became delicate dance, often underscored by my dismissive tone and impatient replies.

My mother endured it until she could take no more. But one day, through the unfiltered voice of dementia, my mother’s truth came roaring back at me.

I was visiting the nursing home. But it was no ordinary visit. That day, when I arrived in Los Angeles, I learned my mom’s last remaining sibling, her beloved Julia, had died.

It was my job to tell her.

We sat in the garden in the fading afternoon light. I told her I had bad news.

Something happened, mama. And it makes me sad. And it’s going to make you very sad, too.

I looked into her eyes. I waited.

She murmured

Julie?

I nodded.

She threw her hands to her face. She screamed–shrill—piercing–raw–

She was like my mama–my mama! Oh, Julie, Julie– I had a feeling! I should have been with her.

Oh mama, no. It’s OK that you weren’t there.

NO, it’s not OK! I knew I should have gone to Seattle. I wanted to go. How could this happen?

Mama, she was 99.

Yes, and I thought she would live to be 100!

My mother was rocking back and forth—sobbing

My poor Julie, all alone, all alone…

I was desperate to calm her–

And so I lied.

It’s OK, mama. It’s really OK. She was peaceful—and well…she wasn’t alone. You know, Aunt Julie had lots of friends…

Friends?

Yes, friends. Aunt Julie had lots of friends!

(Clever me—she’ll stop crying if she thinks her sister was surrounded by friends…)

My mother’s eyes hardened. Her expression froze in contempt. Her entire body trembled

Aunt Julie didn’t have any friends. She was old.

And people HATE old people.

She spit each word with a sneering, harsh growl:

OLD!

The nursing home staff was watching from a distance. They quickly approached. My mother grabbed her nurse’s hand

My sister died. My Julie…

We’re so sorry…let’s go inside…

I sat alone in the garden, staring at the dimming sky; upended by her ferocious rebuke.

People hate old people–

my lie had unleashed her truth.

I knew

she had heard every

curt response–

exasperated sigh–

disdainful tone—

from the world;

from me.

 

A Swift Current Thoughts about how we treat the elderly

Girl with the Flowered Background, Richard Diebenkorn 1962 Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

 

After that day

I’d like to think I finally saw her;

I’d like to think

I changed;

I’d like to think I was more understanding, more honest, more giving

in the decade left to my mother

after her Julie died.

But one thing is true:

my mother’s words reverberate to this day.

As I help an elderly gentleman search for a jar of cloves in the market;

slow my gait behind the woman with a walker;

instruct a clerk to assist the old lady in the eyeglass store

(will somebody help me please?),

I wonder what it’s like for them—

and hope my smile masks my impatience

(some things are hard to change).

I relive many moments

but this time

I do better

(yes, I am going straight from London to Paris– it’s so close, you know!)

I’m a little late,

but still

I’d like to think

I’m becoming the person

my mother always thought I could be

 

A Swift Current Dancing in the Dark Thought about how we treat the elderly

Adele Springsteen, age 90, dances with her son, March 2016, Madison Square Garden “She’s Still Got The Moves” he shouts with pride

Cover Me music and lyrics by Bruce Springsteen Copyright 1984 Bruce Springsteen. All Rights Reserved

There are several complete videos of Bruce Springsteen dancing with his mother Adele available on YouTube–the one excerpted above was recorded by markit aneight

Comfort and Joy

A Swift Current Remember the elderly at Christmas

My friend’s mom and the excitement of Christmas…

 

I have shared this story before. But any doubts about a reprise were erased when I received this card from one of my friends. Her mom picked out the photo and asked her daughter to include it with her greetings.

When I look at the expression in her eyes, my heart just melts.

I remember my mom’s nursing home at Christmas. The atmosphere virtually pulsated with anticipation. Holiday décor covered every available surface. Young schoolchildren sang carols. Unfamiliar visitors wandered the hallways.

The excitement—and tension–were palatable.

My mom’s fellow residents were lucky. The head nurse made sure everyone would receive a gift. Under her watch, no one would be disappointed on Christmas morning.

And so now, as we make our lists–and check them twice–let’s follow in the footsteps of my favorite head nurse. Please remember the elderly men and women in your community…

Here is our story:

Thank You For Remembering Me

A tall thin woman slowly edged her walker into my mother’s room. Her long silver hair was pulled in a braid, revealing bright blue eyes and high chiseled cheekbones

Are you Hallie Swift?

Yes, I’m Hallie…

She reached into her pocket, grasping a shiny gold lipstick tube

I’m Dorothy

She raised her arm high in the air;

giggling as she waved the lipstick back and forth;

her voice light, crisp, melodic

Oh Hallie, I just love my lipstick. Thank you for remembering me! Merry Christmas!

In her monthly newsletter

the head nurse had issued a plea—

she needed

Secret Santas

for residents with no families;

she wanted everyone in the nursing home

to find a present under the tree.

My friends and I discussed our gifts

…chocolates and sweaters and books with large print and stuffed animals and baseball caps and comforters and…

Lipsticks for the ladies!

Lipstick?

Yes, my friend urged

…after all, you never lose your vanity!

But let’s not give just one lipstick–

let’s get lipsticks for everyone!

So we asked friends coming to our Christmas party–

Please bring a lipstick for the ladies!

And with that, a tradition was born.

Year after year

we were showered with

Estee’s gorgeous reds, Chanel’s shimmering corals, Bobbi’s hot pinks;

small rectangular boxes adorned with bright paper and festive ribbons;

our own Christmas cornucopia.

We collected so many lipsticks;

I needed an extra suitcase for

the lipstick express!

On Christmas morning

each resident received

a beautiful little package.

A Swift Current Christmas lipstick for the ladies!

Lipstick! Photo by her granddaughter

 

The head nurse was effusive:

my residents are so happy–

And when my residents are happy, my nurses are happy–

And when my nurses are happy…

(her eyes glistened)

Well, girls, what can I say?

you made our Christmas!

But the truth is: they made ours.

For many of us, the trip to buy lipsticks became a defining moment of our holiday season. One friend told me she and the Bloomingdale’s saleswoman shed tears as they selected colors, then added every powder, polish and perfume sample in the department.

A Swift Current Remember the elderly at Christmas

Wayne Thiebald, Lipstick (detail), 1964 (the artist is now age 95)

A small rectangular box;

a simple gesture;

the electricity of Christmas morning;

a gift

under the tree–

bright colors;

big smiles;

Dorothy.

Silver braid

melodic laugh

waving her lipstick high in the air

Are You Hallie?

I just love my lipstick!

Thank you for remembering me.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

 

A Swift Current Christmas Surprise-Lipsticks for the Ladies

Thank you for remembering me! Photo by her granddaughter


I was so moved when a reader in Arkansas took lipsticks last year to her local eldercare facility. She reports the staff was surprised and grateful for her gifts. She plans to do it again this year.

The beautiful women in the photos are the mothers of two of my friends. I deeply appreciate their permission to use these photos, which say more than I ever could.

The Heart of the Matter

A Swift Current Thankgiving essay and Storycorps The Great Thanksgiving Listen

Vuillard 1895

The things you push away the hardest when you’re young

You end up embracing when you get older…

  I just thought it was too claustrophobic

I had to get away

Now seeing the richness of it, the beauty, the connectedness…

 It moves me to tears…

                                                                                           ~Rosanne Cash

 

…And listen to this, Hallie. The professor said my paper was the best. It was so good–he put a copy in the library– he told the class everyone should read it!

Yes, mama, I know.

You know? How do you know?

You’ve told me that story before.

I have?

Yes, mama, you have…

He said my paper was…

…the best…yes, mama…I know.

We’ve all heard people repeat stories. Sometimes we smile and nod. Other times we change the subject. Often we sigh, stare, and simply

stop listening.

And when a person has dementia, the frequent repetition of unsolicited stories only seems to escalate.

My mother recounted her tales over– and over—and over again. Sometimes she would adopt a theme—the famous term paper but one example—and relive her triumph with every telling.

She could repeat a story for months; each time infusing it with unabashed excitement and exacting detail– as though it had just happened—

as though I had never heard it before.

And then one day, the story would simply disappear. To my great relief, I would never hear it again.

And now

I find myself digging into my memory–

desperate for details.

But I only find vague outlines –general topics, maybe—and the occasional catch-phrase. To my complete surprise, I need to fill in the colors–

what professor–which class—what topic?

But no matter how hard I try,

her stories are lost;

I will never hear them again.

I started writing A Swift Current with the hope that readers would glean insight from our experience. I have tried not to preach nor counsel nor advise. I want you to draw your own conclusions.

But now I am going to break my rule. I offer you one direct suggestion; in fact, it’s a command:

Grab your cell phone–find the “voice memos” app– hit the red button–

record!

And what better time to start than Thanksgiving?

Family stories were the heart of our childhood Thanksgiving dinners. My grandfather sat at one end of our table; my grandmother’s sister at the other. After the last morsel was consumed, my parents would bring out an old dog-eared cardboard box filled with fading family photos. And for the next few hours, we would hear stories of our ancestors– people whose appearance inspired both awe and amusement-what with their serious expressions, funny moustaches and large feathered hats.

…a ship captain on the Great Lakes…

…crossed the plains in a covered wagon…

…elected Sheriff of Tucson…in 1860…

1860?  Somebody write this down!

But we never would. We were lucky if someone scrawled a name on the back of a photo.

But I remember the catch in my grandfather’s voice; the faraway expression in my father’s eyes; the affection in Tia’s husky laugh;

And for a moment, the funny-looking people in the photos would come alive. I learned their names; studied their poses; heard about bravery and sacrifice and determination.

And then I would forget all about them, until the next Thanksgiving.

Every holiday is a double edged sword;

the older I get, the sharper the edge.

Today I cannot think about Thanksgiving without remembering the table of my childhood

and people who are no more;

what I would give to hear their voices again.

This time

I would listen;

this time

I would remember.

And it would not matter one bit that, in her last decade, my mother’s words could be sensible and articulate; fantastical and demented; or confused and redundant–

I would record her voice;

I would capture her stories.

During the last three decades of my mother’s life, she no longer hosted the big holiday dinner. A guest at other tables, she professed to be relieved to no longer bear the responsibility.

But after her death, among her few remaining possessions, I found scrap of paper in her small bureau drawer.

In her handwriting, a shopping list;

from her nursing home bed,

my mother was making plans.

A Swift Current Thanksgiving list found in my mom's last papers

Thanksgiving list-a scrap of paper found among my mom’s last possessions

 

Thanksgiving;

the richness, the beauty,

the connectedness…

There are some things I will never forget.

This is the story of how we begin to remember

 This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein

After the dream of falling and calling you’re name out

These are the roots of rhythm and the roots of rhythm remain.

                                   ~Paul Simon

 

A Swift Current Thanksgiving essay-and StoryCorps Great Thanksgiving Listen

Pierre Bonnard Grande Salle a Manger Dans Le Jardin 1934-1935

THE GREAT THANKSGIVING LISTEN: As I was writing this post, I discovered that the day after Thanksgiving, November 27, 2015, has been designated the StoryCorps National Day of Listening. Or in their words, “Make history with us: interview an elder for the Great Thanksgiving Listen.” StoryCorps provides a special app; recordings made with the app will be housed in the oral history project of the Library of Congress. The StoryCorps website explains this project in detail, including sample questions. Here is the link: https://storycorps.me/ and https://storycorps.me/about/resources/ I am grateful to my friend Lora, who originally introduced me to StoryCorps a few years ago with the gift of a book called Listening Is An Act of Love.

Family History: I was not surprised to learn that family stories have real value for future generations. Children who know their family’s history, including hardships and failures, are more likely to be able to weather difficult times in their own lives. For more information, see The Stories That Bind Us by Bruce Feller, the New York Times, March 15, 2013 http://nyti.ms/17TFZmv

The opening quotation is from the singer/composer Rosanne Cash, interviewed by NPR’s Steve Inskeep– broadcast on January 13, 2014 with the release of her recording, The River and the Thread . I recommend entire interview: http://www.npr.org/2014/01/13/261398768/rosanne-cashs-mythic-southern-road-trip

The closing lyric is from “Under African Skies” by Paul Simon, copyright 1986 Paul Simon Music all rights reserved.