Remember The Ladies (Reprise)

A Swift Current Remember the Ladies--Christmas Owl Tree

The Owl Christmas Tree–Just Because–Photo by Hallie Swift

The head nurse was concerned.

She knew many of her residents had outlived family and friends.

She knew

come Christmas morning

many of her residents would not find gifts under the tree.

Determined to end their disappointment,

she issued an appeal:

WE NEED SECRET SANTAS!

Eagerly accepting the assignment,

my friends and I started to plan—

but what do you need at 90?

Chocolates and sweaters and books and stuffed animals and comforters and…

You need lipstick!

Lipstick?

Yes, urged my friend,

after all, you never lose your vanity.

She was inspired.

But let’s not give just one lipstick–

let’s get lipsticks for everyone!

And in our annual Christmas party invitation,

we issued our own appeal.

Instead of a hostess gift,

we included a specific request:

Please bring a lipstick for the ladies!

And a tradition was born.

That year,

and every subsequent year,

we were showered with

gorgeous reds, shimmering corals, hot pinks;

a cornucopia of small rectangular boxes

adorned with festive ribbons and bright paper.

Our friends were enthusiastic–

I even needed an extra suitcase for

the lipstick express!

And Christmas morning,

when the nurses presented our beautiful little packages to the residents,

the response

was electric

(you never lose your vanity!).

The head nurse was effusive:

you made my residents happy–

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

And when my nurses are happy…

Well, you made our Christmas!

And girls—

Estee Lauder; Elizabeth Arden, Chanel…?

My ladies are beside themselves;

you girls are too much!

Wayne Thiebald, Lipstick (detail), 1964

Wayne Thiebald, Lipstick (detail), 1964

But actually, our friends were too much. They gave us elegant brands in luscious colors, lovingly selected and carefully wrapped. One friend reported that she and the saleswoman chose lipsticks with tears in their eyes—then added every powder, polish and hand cream sample in the department. Even friends who couldn’t attend the party joined the lipstick brigade.

I wish they could have seen the smiles.

A few days after Christmas, a resident approached me; her eyes wide and glistening; her beautiful grey hair pulled back in a long braid.

Are you Hallie?

She reached into her pocket and produced a lipstick.

She giggled as she waved it high in the air;

her voice light, girlish, melodic;

I’m Dorothy.

I just love my lipstick. Thank you!

The pleasure was ours.

For many of us, the trip to buy lipstick became a defining moment of our holiday season. Some friends even continue the tradition; now taking lipsticks to their local nursing homes.

And recently

a friend told me

she always thinks of my mom

this time of year;

I say a little prayer

for your mom…

remembering the lipsticks of years gone by…

Remember The Ladies.

A Swift Current Vuillard The Earthenware Pot

Merry Christmas from A Swift Current and Vuillard (Le Pot d’Argile 1895)

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Remember The Ladies

 ATTENTION: WE NEED SECRET SANTAS!

This all-points-bulletin appeared in the nursing home newsletter.  And it had never occurred to me; while we were busy attending to our Mother’s needs and wishes, there were people all around her who no longer had family; no longer had friends; no longer would receive a gift on Christmas Day.

YES, we responded to the head nurse’s rallying cry. And a-shopping we went; chocolates and sweaters and books and stuffed animals and comforters and what else do you need when you’re ninety?

You need lipstick, a friend suggested.

Lipstick?

Of course; after all, you never lose your vanity.

She was inspired.

But instead of buying a few lipsticks; how about lipsticks for everyone?! And so, in our annual Christmas party invitation, we asked our friends to bring “a lipstick for the ladies.”

And every year, our friends generously purchased not one but several gorgeous lipsticks and carefully wrapped them in beautiful paper with festive ribbons. Together we showered the nursing home with deep reds, shimmering corals and hot pinks.

The response was electric.

The head nurse was effusive: you made our patients happy and when my patients are happy, my nurses are happy.  And when my nurses are happy, I am happy.  You made our Christmas!

She added:  And the ladies noticed the brands; Estee Lauder and Stila and Bobbie Brown and Elizabeth Arden.  You girls are too much!

But actually, it was our friends who were “too much.”  One friend told me that she and a Bloomingdale’s sales assistant both had tears in their eyes as they selected the lipsticks and then added every sample of powder, polish and hand cream they could find. And even friends who could not attend the party sent lipsticks for me to take to the ladies.

I wish they could have seen the smiles.

At the nursing home, an elderly woman approached me:

Are you Hallie Swift?

Uh…Yes.

I am Dorothy.

And out of her pocket she pulled a lipstick and waved it in the air. She giggled; light, melodic, girlish.

I just love my lipstick.  Thank you!

So much for being a Secret Santa…

This year several of my friends have told me they miss the tradition we had grown to relish. For many of us, the trip to buy lipstick became a defining moment of our Christmas season. One friend recently wrote to me:

I say a little prayer for your Mom as I write this, remembering lipsticks of years gone by…

Remember the ladies.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

Preface This year I have been apprehensive about the approaching holidays; it is the first time that my husband and I are not traveling to Los Angeles.  Last Friday, I was planning to post my reflections when the horror in Connecticut engulfed all of us in a deep and profound sorrow.

In one of her original 1968 serigraphs, the artist Corita Kent prominently featured the words by Gabriel Marcel “We can only speak of hope.”  During this sad week, these words have become my mantra. In this spirit, I offer you the post originally intended for last Friday:

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

For the last twenty years, my husband and I have spent Christmas in sunny Southern California.

This year, for the first time, we are not boarding a plane bound for Los Angeles.

In the early years, I anticipated our pilgrimage across the country to see my Mother with a jumbled combination of hope and dread. Christmas in LA always loomed as the final duty in a year defined by obligations.

Every year Christmas week beckoned with the promise of a brief respite from anxious clients, corporate crises, and imminent deadlines. Surrounded by the lights and festivities of Manhattan, year after year I dreamed about canceling our flights and staying home; Christmas, New York, and us– just us.

But every year we would pack our bags, board the plane, and head to my childhood home.

In the early years, I tried to balance our need to unwind with my Mother’s gleeful expectation of fun-filled activities with her offspring.  And every year, as the week drew to a close, I felt defeated. For my Mom, who had anticipated our reunion with such fervent longing, the week had gone by too fast.  For us, numbed by exhaustion, it had become little more than yet another exercise in checking tasks off a list.

And suddenly we were right back in our If-I-Can-Make-It-Here world of clients and crises and deadlines.

“Did you have a good vacation?”

“Oh yes, wonderful.”

But then my Mother’s world shifted on its axis, and with it, our Christmas. For the next ten years, we headed to Christmas in LA, but not to my childhood home. For the next ten years, we headed to a nursing home.

In the beginning, we were convinced that our Mother’s nursing home stay was just a temporary detour. I viewed our new surroundings with apprehension and even disdain; we might be here but we don’t belong here; our Mother is going home. During those visits, I stared straight ahead, barely heeding the other patients; my husband sat in the garden with a book and a come get me when you need me expression.

But my Mother did not go home.  And over time, the Christmas sojourn to LA took on a new imperative; imbued with unforeseen joys to be had only in the small, enclosed world of people living their final days.

At the nursing home, we were surrounded by the basic pleasures of the season: crafts and cards made by local kindergarten children; the communal TV blaring Miracle on 34th Street at FULL volume; a therapy dog stoically outfitted with reindeer antlers; sugar cookies served with fruit punch; fire department-approved decorations covering every available surface; carols sung by enthusiastic musicians; nurses, orderlies, social workers and volunteers working steadily to ensure all was calm, all was bright.

Over the years, I grew to love Christmas at the nursing home.

I loved spending Christmas week with the people who took care of my Mother with patience and care and skill and yes, I think even love. I was in awe of the front desk administrator who stopped by her room every evening to wish her a good night; the aide who carefully selected her outfits–complete with matching socks; the activities director who convinced her to join the festivities; the dietician who always remembered her preferences; the maintenance worker who, knowing she thought he was a beloved nephew, visited her every day; the social worker who calmed her frenzied outbursts by enlisting her ‘help’ in the office (“but,” my Mother informed me “I don’t get a paycheck”); the nurses who efficiently addressed every need and quietly reassured her: your daughter is on her way.

And I loved spending Christmas with my Mother; her wishes fulfilled; her delight apparent even during the toughest years.

We belonged there.

And during those years my husband and I developed our own traditions for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; after several hours at the nursing home, we continued our celebration; joyous times with extended family and friends who became our new family.  Bleary-eyed and happily exhausted, we enjoyed good food and good friends; our new home away from home.

Home.

This year we are not boarding a plane.  This year we are not heading to LA.

This year, I’ll be home for Christmas.

If only in my dreams…

 A Swift Current || My Mother's Last Christmas Eve View from the Nursing Home December 24, 2009

My Mother’s Last Christmas Eve
View from the Nursing Home
Photo by Hallie Swift

Your Name Is A Golden Bell; Thoughts Shared By Readers

I am deeply gratified by your response to A Swift Current, both by comments posted here and those shared with me privately.  Your thoughts have encouraged, inspired and challenged me, and I thank you.

I would like to share two responses to the last post, I Call Your Name.

The first is from a friend who lost her husband four years ago. She mentions him in our conversations without hesitation or pause. But she recently confided that some friends appear uncomfortable when when she says his name.

And so she edits herself, to put others at ease.

Perhaps her husband lovingly anticipated her dilemma. Before he died, he asked her to send the quotation below to their many friends. Written in 1910, it is an excerpt from a sermon by the Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Henry Scott Holland:

Call me by my old familiar name.

Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.

 Put no difference into your tone.

Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together.

Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.

Let my name be ever the household word it always was.

Let it be spoken without effort, without the ghost of a shadow on it.

My friend’s husband concluded his final message with these words:

And now I bid you a most heartfelt farewell.

And my sister reminded me of a serigraph by the artist Corita Kent, G O greatest show of worth.  This memory is particularly poignant. Shortly after our Father died, our Mother started work at Corita’s gallery in North Hollywood. For the next twenty years, she spent her days surrounded by Corita’s jubilant art (www.corita.org).

Part of the 1968 series Damn Everything But the Circus, Corita’s print incorporates a quote from The Last Unicorn by P. G. Beagle:

A Swift Current || Reflections on Elderly Parents || Your Name Is A Golden Bell

Corita, serigraph, 1968
Used with permission from the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

It isn’t surprising that the remarkable Corita could communicate this idea in one profound and exuberant image. These words will be my Thanksgiving prayer:

Your name is a golden bell hung in my heart.

I would break my body to pieces to call you once by your name.”

I Call Your Name

I hear my voice.  I hear my words.  I cannot stop:

“As my Mother always said…”

“My Dad thought…”

“Wouldn’t she have gotten a kick out of that?!”

I hear myself saying these words and I see my friends’ expressions. Their eyes dart quickly; they look away.

Uh oh…

She is talking about her Mom again. What will happen next? 

Will she implode…?

I see my friends look to the side; at their feet; at each other.  I know they want to change the subject.  But for me, just saying their names gives me great comfort.  It is not enough to say their names silently; to keep them secreted away.  I have to say their names out loud.  Because for just that sliver of a moment, as I say their names out loud,

They are gone;

They are not gone;

They are but a memory;

They are standing right here.

Before my mother died, I did not know that names had magical powers. A few weeks after her death, I got my first clue.

A friend had arranged for a Mass in honor of my Mother, and on a brisk Sunday morning, my husband and I walked the four blocks down Lexington Avenue to the local Catholic Church.

I had no expectations; I felt an obligation to be there. I could have ignored the buzzing alarm clock.

Or not set the alarm at all.

Even though it was weeks after her death, I was still numb; every step was difficult; every day was exhausting.

And then I heard her name.

As the Mass began, a distinct, sonorous voice filled the church: “This celebration of the Mass is in honor of the life of Louise Bonner Swift.”

And later in the prayers, the priest again proclaimed: “and for Louise whom we remember here today.”

And while I am sure the other congregants didn’t notice, the priest said it and I heard it, loud and clear.

I knew the ritual of the Mass. I had experienced this moment thousands of times before. I must have heard countless names from the altar, but they had been lost on me. Not anymore. 

I heard her name and I felt lighter.  I felt stronger.  It was inexplicable. I actually felt joy for the first time in weeks.

And later, I remembered.

I remembered that after my father died, my Mom wouldn’t stop talking about him.  It seemed like everywhere we went, she kept saying his name.

“As Mike always said…” 

“Mike thought… ” 

“Wouldn’t Mike get a kick out of that?!”

And one day, I had heard enough. I got mad at her. “Stop already.  Please.  He is dead.  Stop talking about him.”

As I think back, I cannot fathom how hurt she must have been.

She turned to me, “Don’t you miss him?  You never say anything.  Don’t you miss him?”

“Oh, Mama,” I protested, exasperated; “How do you not know?  Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him!  Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him! Not a day goes by that I don’t want him back!

“Well,” she responded,” you never say a word.”

And then she stopped saying his name, at least around me; at least not as frequently.

As I write those words today, I cannot believe how wrong I was.

And now, I know.  It must have given you so much comfort to say his name.

And now, as my friends look sideways, they must want to say to me what I said to you.

But now, I know.  It gives me so much comfort to say his name; to hear your name, out loud.

And so I promise:

I will call your name.  And I will not stop.