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.

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

Bookends Part 2 (which nobody can deny)

A Swift Current  Corita flowers for mary

flowers for mary
Corita, serigraph, 1979
Reproduction permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

I love you.

I love you too, Mama.

I love you for your happiness…and your volatility.

What? Mama! My volatility?

Well, Hallie, you do know you have a tendency to explode!

I have a temper; a hair-trigger, fly-off-the-handle, I’m-not-proud-of-it
temper.

And looking back, I am not convinced my Mother loved me for it. Perhaps her words were a commentary in disguise; a need to make an observation; an assessment delivered delicately, with humor, in the spirit of counsel and understanding.

I haven’t forgotten.

I savor those exchanges; those pristine moments of sharing and ease and grace. Amidst the pain and upheaval of dementia, I relished the joy of just being together, at long last. We had the time to say things we’d never said and the chance to give thanks for what had gone before.

The decade of dementia;

it was horrendous;

it was a gift.

I remember moments of uproarious laughter; moments of unsettling poignancy; moments of redemptive quiet. I loved staring into her almond-shaped hazel eyes–eyes that had seen so much and knew even more.

I repeatedly told her she was beautiful.

You’re always telling me I’m beautiful. Do you really think so?

Yes, Mama, of course…you are!

It’s funny, you know. I never thought I was attractive.

Mama?

I never really liked my looks.

Oh Mama…

A Swift Current My Beautiful Mother which nobody can deny

My Mother

My beautiful Mother and I spent countless hours together in the garden; drinking in the expansive view of Los Angeles; drinking in each other. Sometimes we were animated, effusive companions; other times we shared a calm, benevolent silence.

But during every visit, without fail, my mother eagerly introduced me to the nursing home workers as they walked through the garden. I had known them all for years, but my Mother wanted to introduce me–formally–each and every time.

She knew all their names, or at least the names she had conferred on them. Grasping our hands, she exclaimed

This is Hallie! This is my daughter…all the way from New York!

Back then, I thought those repeated introductions were awkward; embarrassing (They know me mama, they know me). And now, lingering in my memory, those moments are imbued with a sweet urgency; my Mother’s unheralded accomplishment. I see her elegant sweeping hands; I hear her proud tone, I sense the workers’ patient understanding.

Meet my daughter Meet my daughter Meet my daughter!

As we sat in the garden one day, we were suddenly surrounded by several staff members. I was alarmed (my God, what are they doing; what’s wrong?). They looked at each other, and burst into song;

For she’s a jolly good fellow

For she’s a jolly good fellow

    For she’s a jolly good fellow…

My Mother’s mouth was agape; her face aglow with surprise and wonder; thanks
and love;

Mostly love.

On a good day, my Mother saw love in every direction. I remember a handsome young man who frequently visited a fellow resident. He was a social worker from Los Angeles County.

According to my mother, it was love.

It is so sad, my mother whispered. She is not well, and they are so in love.

Mama, I think he works for the County.

Oh yes, that is how they met. And now they are in love.

And love was all around my Mother too. The handsome social worker always brought little treats for her. Fellow gentlemen residents were becoming interested. An old friend from church was developing feelings.

And whenever a helicopter flew overhead, the pilot was most certainly my cousin. From our vantage point in the garden, she greeted every roaring chopper, waving and shouting

Dave, there’s Dave! HI DAVE HI DAVE

When I saw my cousin, I laughingly shared my mom’s enthusiastic reaction to helicopters in the sky. And Dave replied:

Oh, that is me. I told her I would be by. I buzz the nursing home during training runs.

That was you?!

Of course it was you.

And my Mother knew.

Of course she knew.

After years of dancing with this disease, you think I would know it too;

I never should have doubted her.

And after years of this dance, you think I would know that her perceptions and moods were dictated by the misfires of her brain and the chemicals in her body.

I could not change her world;

I could not make it better;

But still, I tried.

Every time I headed to the nursing home, I made a special effort to bring flowers and chocolates, ice cream and magazines; ingredients to jump start a happy visit

(as if I could).

But early in the decade, a chance encounter spurred my decision to leave no stone unturned. I found a great florist near my hotel; I had fun picking out cheery bouquets. Standing in the checkout line, a woman complimented my choice, and I happily replied

They’re for my Mom.

She dissolved in tears.

I didn’t do that. I didn’t do that. I didn’t do that when I had the chance.

And now I can’t.

From that day forward, whenever tempted to skip my errands, I remembered that woman’s tears. That moment was like a yellow flashing warning light.

(What if this time is the last time?)

But one time, I did skip it. I was staying in a different part of LA; didn’t know where to get her favorite chocolates; didn’t think the bouquet would be as nice. And over the course of several days, I arrived at my Mother’s side, empty-handed.

On the last day, I told her I was returning to New York. I would be back soon.

Really? You’re going back to New York?

Yes, Mama, but I will be back soon.

But Hallie,

I didn’t get any flowers or any chocolates.

My mother, her mind unraveling, still knew.

I had broken the pattern.

And she knew.

Of course she knew.

I never should have doubted her.

Flowers grow out of dark moments (said Corita).

But the irony is staggering.

That vicious, anguished decade

bestowed unrivaled moments of

secretly-coveted intimacy

    I love you

joyful revelations;

for your happiness

unexpected honesty

and your volatility!

I feel now as I felt then:

Sorrow;

Doubt;

Love;

Mostly love.

I believed then as I believe now:

that vicious anguished decade

was a gift;

every moment—a gift

which nobody can deny.

Long ago

it must be

I have a photograph

Preserve your memories

They’re all that’s left you.

~Paul Simon

A Swift Current Which Nobody Can Deny

Fast Flowers Photo by Hallie Swift

Bookends, lyrics and music by Paul Simon, copyright Universal Music Publishing, All Rights Reserved

Corita Kent, flowers for mary, 1979 serigraph dedicated to Corita’s sister Mary Downey, Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles, for more information  www.corita.org

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.”