ham and cheese on bread

I should be working on a grocery list, but instead I lay in bed staring at the low ceiling and listening to Frazier playing on the tv at my feet.  It’s not quite my bedtime, and my to-do list sprawls off the paper and onto the floor.  The sunny hours of the evening were wasted sitting at a classy bar chasing my emotions away with a fruity cocktail and a salty burger.  The afternoon visit with my grandmother left me sad; a sadness that could only be treated with food.

“She has gotten worse,” my husband said quietly as we walked to our car.  We never know what to expect when we pop in to see her.  The dementia slowly steals more and more away from her, and I have noticed she no longer perks up when she see us.  In two years I’ve watched her slip away slowly, knowing it was only a matter of time before my husband and I could no longer cheer her up.  Now when we walk into the nursing home she stares at us as if we were strangers until I announce “hi grandma!” knowing at least that will still register.

Today her memory slipped in and out – at times she got me confused with my mom, other times she would completely forget what we were talking about or lose track half way through my story.  The tired staff looked busy as they tried to keep the residents content.  And then there was me, thinking I can entertain my grandma and bring her mind some relief.  I kept my stories overly animated and short.  She smiled, as did the other residents sitting within eat shot.

Before I get up to leave I notice the dry erase board on the wall behind her.  It states the weather, the day’s in-house entertainment, and the dinner menu.  “Ham and cheese on bread, fruit salad, potato salad” it reads, and I get a lump in my throat.  My gram used to be the best cook I knew; I ate like a queen whenever I was at her house.  I don’t know if it was so much the ham and cheese that made me sad or the realization that this was it.  She doesn’t enjoy eating anymore, and I know it has nothing to do with the food served her.  I could present her a plate of all of her old favorites and she would look the other way in disgust, forgetting the things that she used to enjoy.

As I lay in bed I cannot get that dry erase board out of my head, or the way she looked at me when I walked in, or the way my husband just knew without me saying, as we drove away, that I was sad.  Life doesn’t prepare one for these things, and my pillowcase fills with tears as I drift off to sleep thinking of my grandmother’s homemade dumplings.

ham and cheese on bread

spring comfort

After five years of trying to convince my husband to be content with our little home in the woods he has finally settled.  Set back from the country highway our house is blocked by a few rows of tall pines, and if one slowly drives by and looks down our driveway they will really only see our pole barn and two solar panels.  It’s a mostly quiet neck of the woods.  Logging trucks go by in the late morning, but the bird feeders are tucked back alongside the house and aren’t bothered by traffic passing by.  In the spring the birds are noisy; the red breasted grosbeak doing his mating dance while a gang of bluebirds looks on wth what I imagine is a look that says “little idiot.”  The chicken coop sits on the opposite end of our large yard, but the hens can be heard squawking as they run around looking for small snakes and pink little worms.  With the recent addition of an Ikea windchime on our porch the area has gotten a bit more nosey as the hallow wood pieces knock together.  But apart from these spring time sounds, the place is quiet.

We don’t have neighbors, which is the main point my husband brings up when he unexpectedly states that we will not be moving anywhere else any time soon.  On either side of our 40 acres are multiple other 40’s owned by people who only make a visit to their land a couple of times a year. Some of the properites have small, rough looking cabins tucked back into the woods.  In the summer time we hear the occasional gun shot, but other than that we sit undisturbed.  The lack of peeping toms and snooping neighbors gives my husband elaborate liberty to pee off the side of our porch into the patch of dirt that lacked grass long before we ever moved in.  He does this with pride as if he were a dog marking his territory.  And it makes me happy to know he finally sees this quiet place as his own.

As the ironic fate that follows me would have it, three months after purchasing my cabin of solitude as a single, independent woman, I met my now husband.  He was more than content with his centrally located apartment in town.  Cooley riding his bike to school and work it was beyond his mental capacity how someone could enjoy living 40 minutes outside of town, away from the action. While I was in my weed filled garden tilling until the mosquitoes ate me alive he was sitting in a restaurant’s outdoor patio with friends, his bike parked casually on the sidewalk.

How we made it to this point is hazy to me.  My social husband spends only a day a week with friends, and on weekends when I get all my outdoor chores done we go out to eat in town, sitting inside the dimly lit, modern restaurants while our vehicle sits casually parked outside.  Nonetheless, despite the five years of compromise, I am still a bit shocked he has grown so comfortable in our little home so far away from the hustle and bustle.  Three weeks ago I was finding us apartments to move into in downtown Chicago (a good 5 1/2 hour drive from our current rural existence).  When I told my husband I had found us just the right one on the river I am not sure what reaction I was hoping for.  I was ready to take my turn in the compromise and move to the land of opportunity and public transportation.  It turns out somewhere between the sound of chirping spring peepers and the grouses’ non stop thumping he found the peace to settle in.  So here we’ll stay, at least for a little bit longer.

spring comfort

beauticians’ lament

When I was young I would spend weeks at a time with my grandma in Wisconsin.  She was a beautician (as it was called back then) and owned her own salon.  The salon was in the same building that housed a gas station, but from inside it looked like any other small town salon in the 80’s.  I was very young, under the age of ten, but a well behaved child and proud to spend time with my grandmother all day at the salon.  She would keep my occupied by sorting perm rods or by letting me sit at the tall front desk where I would pretend to be the receptionist.  After a particularly stressful day for my grandmother I remember her pulling me aside, looking me in the eyes, and telling me to never become a hairstylist.  I heeded her words as if they would keep me from making the biggest career mistake of my life, forgetting for 20 years to ever question what this ultimate secret was that made doing hair the worst job ever.

Around the time that my grandmother’s second husband, a terribly unattractive person, large and with hair that looked severely fake, was gambling his life’s savings away, I was wondering whatever happened to that close relationship my grandmother and I had had.  And I was also contemplating going to cosmetology school.  When her husband died of cancer my grandmothers alcoholism worsened and dementia, diluted with a cheap jug of wine, came sweeping in. She was half in the bag when I announced I would be attending cosmotology school, and I was surprised when she didn’t tell me I was making a big mistake.  Because I have very few memories of my childhood I had assumed that the one about her telling me  to never be a hairstylist was important.  But while considering the career choice I argued the voice in my head, saying it had recently occurred to me that I had put too much stock into the words of someone who routinely made poor choices with men and alcohol.  Looking back, this argument probably came from a place of anger and confusion as I was watching my grandmother waste her life away.  And plus, how could I trust one childhood memory to dictate my future financial stability?

By the time I had finished cosmotology school my grandma’s dementia was ever more noticeable.  She was happy for me and said that it only made sense that I would follow in her footsteps.  A short time later, at my first salon job, I received a phone call from the receptionist at my grandmother’s eye doctor’s office.  It was not an approved phone call but she felt I should know that my grandma had not only driven herself to the office but had also ordered an abnormal amount of contacts.  I hung up, wondering how I would balance work and taking care of my grandmother.

Around the time I started to realize my hair coloring skills were not improving my mother was realizing the state of my grandmother’s mental health.  We were taking turns checking in on here, cleaning up after her drinking binges, and planning to take her keys away.   My mother eventually stepped in as her full time caregiver, and I went back to wondering if I had taken the wrong career path.  With each new hair coloring disaster the anxiety grew.  Every time a client stopped returning my heart sank.  While sitting with my grandmother at the assisted living facility I would confide in her that I didn’t feel like I had the nerves for doing hair.  Despite her infrequent memory she somehow remembered exactly what I was talking about and it was that feeling of not being alone that kept me pushing forward.

Now my grandmother is in a nursing home.  On her good days she remembers that I am a hairstylist.  She no longer tells my husband, like a broken record, about how I would go with her to the salon as a child.  She doesn’t seem to remember that I would sit at the desk with my crayons or that we shared that very fleeting bond over the anxiety of doing hair.  Three years into doing hair and I am still unintentionally turning women’s bangs blue, not getting all of the dye properly washed from the hair, and routinely crying in my car at the end of the day and wondering how I got myself into this.  And it turns out my grandmother was right.  But maybe not for the secret reasons I assumed she knew.  Maybe the reason all along was the anxiety that we both suffered from and the tole it would take on us at work.

beauticians’ lament

nursing ailments

When my husband was in nursing school I heard it said that when you are a nurse people come to you with all of their health questions.  Around his last semester of school my mother and sister would ask my husband’s opinions on things such as absurd health news they read on social media or diet fads that were preached on blogs.  He would cooley give his opinion, a mix of amateur knowledge and level headed sensibility.  When my nephews got  a boo-boo I would send them to their Uncle and watch as he gave them their prognosis and then send them on their way wearing a cartoon decorated bandaid.  This would only be the beginning of his off hours nursing.

Each semester of nursing school armed my husband with more knowledge, meaning each semester of school I was diagnosed with another ailment.  When complaining of a headache I was quickly assessed for a heart attack.  When my daily stomach ache flared up my mother asked my husband if I could be suffering “leaky gut” to which he declared I was missing three symptoms and therefore fine.  When he learned about labor and delivery and the complications that can occur our decision to not have children was solidified. When he told me that if I got pregnant at this late of an age that I would be considered an “at risk pregnancy” I stopped initiating sex.  By the time graduation rolled around I was regularly suffering from “heart attacks,” and  my husband had moved on to diagnosing our dogs.

With diploma in hand, and the dogs being cleared of epilepsy, our acquaintances were dropping like flies with my husband’s new favorite – borderline personality disorder.  When the heart attack diagnoses had all but ceased I couldn’t help but wonder if I too was now recieiving his secret psychological labels.  When my stomach aches got worse and the shooting pain in my arm lasted more than a day I was branded a hypochondriac, and he turned to ignoring my daily complaints.

In the beginning I was nervous to ask him about my female issues – periods, cramps, infections.  Just saying any of those words out loud made me wonder if I had crossed a marital line that one should never go near.  In my first marriage we never so much as mentioned the word “fart”, and I had preferred it that way.  My second marriage being different on many levels (and my digestive issues worsening) we openly passed gas in front of each other, and I prayed this openness was the key to marital bliss that my first marriage lacked.  So when I asked my first question about my menstrual cycle the awkwardness only lasted but a minute and the hypochondriac in me relaxed knowing this was a union that would last.

Every now and then I have an ailment that even I cannot ball up the nerve to have him assess.  I’ll be standing in the bathroom, naked, post shower, sweating from the anxiety that I may have just found something and hoping that he will accidentally walk in and find me.  He will give me one of his matter-of-fact responses: “you’re fine,” “stop being a hypochondriac,” or “well call your doctor if it’s bothering you.”  But his interruptions are never that timely, and I am left to my own anxiety. Maybe I should push him towards becoming a doctor.

nursing ailments

fish liver as jazz

I am trying to get into this new-to-me genre of music called avant-jazz.  The first song in and it seems one could almost accurately describe it as a child alternately smashing on a piano and a toy drum set.  It sounds like what I imagine a modern small plate meal with ingredients such as octopus, burnt sage, grapefruit, and barley would taste like; mostly muddled texture with odd flavors that somehow collide in an almost appropriate way.  Towards the end of the song I start to recognize what sounds like a few lines from a classic rock song.  It makes my ears perk up in the same way a bite of grapefruit amongst a piece of white fish and risotto would.  For a minute I feel like I might be understanding this genre.  And then song two starts.

I am trying new things, partly because it makes me feel alive against the backdrop of a rural town, but also because I am in my mid thirties, winter dragging on, and in a boring, rural town.  My father would argue the word “boring” to describe this town, saying there is plenty to do and “why would anyone want to live anywhere else!”  And he does have a point.  I feel blessed to live in what the locals refer to as “God’s country”.  But how else can I explain my need to listen to such chaotic music?

Throughout the beginning of winter I was on a strange subconscious adventure to rediscover my roots.  Not the roots of my heritage or family history, but THE roots – my 20’s.  It hadn’t occurred to me that I was going down such a path until one day, as I sat cuddled up in a bright green Surget-shirt, pink pajama pants, twisting my hair into faux dreads, and listening to Dave Matthews Band did I take a good hard look at myself.  As the clouds of Nag Champa lifted it became clear that I had found my old comfort zone.  It suddenly made sense why women in their 50’s were still wearing shag haircuts and wispy bangs.  Why budge from the days of your youth when you can forever stay surrounded  by what makes you feel young?

As winter is winding down, the days getting longer and sunnier, the snow melting to expose muddy grass and moldy dog turds I realize that staying in one spot, no matter how familiar it feels, is not my style.   So I forgo the belief that a retirement savings will grow on trees and put some more grown up hippy pants on – the kind that look like what a gypsy or a bohemian stay-at-home mom/blogger would wear to a casual dinner party.  But to me they signal a different path – the kind that includes eating animal livers, listening to avant jazz, and trying to grasp new ideas of what it means to love people.

I didn’t like people in my 20’s and I’m not sure why a decade filled with divorce, moving across the country twice, and working with the general public would change that.  Maybe it is a hormonal, maternal instinct, or the desire to be more like my role models and less like the family members who came before me blazing their own destructive path of coldness and the belief that pushing others away was a sign of strength and the ultimate method to protect one’s heart. Just like the avant-jazz song Juice by something (a toddler possibly?) called Krokofant I start out thinking loving people could be doable; then as the song progresses, nearing an end that resembles what I can only describe as a flock of seagulls being murdered on a drum set by an angry elephant, I ask myself, “is there a point?”

I don’t want to live in that gushy, all talk-no walk, preachy way that is written about in so many books written by female pastors.  I just mean, maybe a smile?  I cool pat on the back? A “yeah, you’re not alone” look that requires no words.  You would think for someone that spent their 20’s in dreadlocks and an apartment full of Nag Champa that the whole genuine, non chelant love thing would come a little easier, but I was a hippy of the 90’s, not the 70’s.  My moods resembled more of a flexitarian’s diet than that of a full fledged vegan’s.  Fish liver anyone?

I can imagine that, come summer (or even this evening) I will be through and over my avant-jazz phase.  Miles Davis will be on a playlist with Dave Mathews and Nine Inch Nails or maybe I will have discovered something completely new and inspiring.  Maybe I will be using my Surge t-shirt to wash the car thinking of the good ol’ days that seem so far removed.  But should I decide to recall former moments, this one with the avant-jazz won’t be it.

fish liver as jazz

moving on

As I slowly unpacked two vintage sets of salt and pepper shakers, a half used roll of paper towel, and enough cheap toilet paper to last me the rest of the year I thought back to how fervently and emotionless I had shoved all of those things into the stained canvas bag just a few hours before.  This was the second time we had moved my grandmother, and neither time had I been prepared for the little moments that would consume me for days, maybe weeks, later.  The first time we moved my grandmother was when she went from her widowed, alcoholic apartment lifestyle to the shiny, brand new assisted living home just down the highway.  Things had become chaoctic shortly after I warned my mother that grandma’s memory seemed to be slipping and her fridge was always close to empty.  My mother’s way of handling stressful and confusing events was more of a survival method than it was a productive one.  Grandma, nude and nearly unresponsive, had peed on the couch in front of us for the second and final time when my mother decided it was time to look into other living options.  When it came time to move her she went with little resistance, and that was mostly due to diversion techniques and mild lying justified by our sole desire to see her safe and at least somewhat clothed.  It was my assigned duty to take her out to eat on the night of the big move while the rest of the family backed up her belongings and hauled several large pieces of furniture into her new studio apartment.  I had bribed her with alcohol to keep her occupied, but days later when sobriety hit her like a ton of bricks she realized the damage that had been done to her wild lifestyle.

This move was a little different.  Alcohol had been prohibited at the assisted living facility, but the dementia hadn’t let go of its grip.  In just over a year her memory had faded enough to let her sit back and watch as we packed up her studio apartment.  This time I was assigned to packing.  My mom studied every article of clothing or decoration like it was a prized antique, when in reality nothing held any value and had only been acquired in the past sober year of my grandmother’s life.  I feverishly tossed things into one of three piles – trash, thrift store, and nursing home.  I moved from closet to cabinet to bathroom, working up a sweat and impressing my mom with my speed.  This wasn’t my first time cleaning through an elderly person’s belongings.  I had learned several years ago to work on a fine balance between emotional attachment and end of life clarity.  My mother was more of a hoarder, believing everything that had ever entered her home held a meaning so dear she would die before having to part with it.  I spent many nights laying in bed, in my immaculately clean and obsessively organized small home, thinking about the job that would be before me when my parents passed away and their belongings would need to be sorted through.  The anxiety gave me an ill feeling.

Walking into my grandmother’s nursing home room for the first time brought tears to my eyes so I set to getting the place set up like she would prefer.  We had spent a lot of time together when I was little.  My mother would let me spend weeks at a time at my grandma’s house when I was young, so when she would now introduce me as “like her daughter” I knew it wasn’t a dementia slip, but rather something closer to a miraculous memory moment.  When I was a junior in high school I moved into my grandmother’s apartment which was located on the second floor of her antique store.  The small three room apartment was set up like a dollhouse, and it was there that I fully absorbed and began my love for decorating.  As I attempted to set up the nursing home room to what I thought she would enjoy, I knew deep down that she when she moved in the following day she would put her touch on the space, the memory loss having not yet completely stolen her magical ability to transform a room.

There wasn’t a strong enough beer to take away the emotions from the day.  I had watched the slippery slope of alcoholism and knew to not count on a few drinks to make me feel any better or any less.  When I arrived home I immediately set out to unpack the canvas bag I had brought from the move.  In the moment it felt slightly awkward to take a few barely used dish cloths and her stock pile of toilet paper, but as I set the items out on my kitchen table it took everything in me to not start to cry.  While I am normally emotional to an almost abnormal level, I was not one for drama.  My husband carried in the lamp that I had fondly eyed while sitting in my grandmother’s apartment on those long afternoons when I was trying to coax her to eat and my husband cleaned up the alcohol mess in the kitchen.  Now the brass lamp sat next to my existing lamp – my husband wondering why we needed another.  I went into the bathroom and  shut the door knowing that tomorrow my grandma’s life would be the next level of different, and I would have to stare at the lamp wondering how she was doing.

When I unpacked the two sets of salt and pepper shakers I noticed one set looked familiar.  While sorting through all of her recently acquired grey tshirts and black elastic waist pants, through the plastic forks and paper plates she turned to after losing her full kitchen, through the simple decor she had tiresly rearranged day after day, I had somehow grabbed the salt and pepper shakers – possibly the only thing she had left from our time living together fifteens years ago.  I looked at them now on my own counter.  The memories of our midnight snacks in her tiny yet fully decorated kitchen, the conversations we had about her crazy flambouyant sister, her cooking us steaks on her George Foreman grill, it all came swirling back as the tiny S & P set sat staring at me.  Nobody ever tells you about this part of life.  All my years of elderly caregiving could not have prepared me for the emotions that were to surface, and as I reached for one of the many rolls of toilet paper piled high outside of my bathroom door I felt a bit of gratitude- gratitude for a grandma who passed on her love of decorating, gratitude for the relationship we shared, gratitude for the year we lived together, and gratitude for finding those salt and pepper shakers in the midst of this day.

moving on