Save Everything . . . by Maureen Ryan Griffin

Save Everything by Maureen Ryan Griffin, Patricia Brachowski Ryan peeling potatoes

Mom (Patricia Brachowski Ryan) Peeling Potatoes

From Maureen’s upcoming “cookbook memoir” How She Fed Us: Reflections on the Recipes of a Perfectly Imperfect Mother

 

When I heard my mother’s familiar “Hello, dear. How are you?” that summer afternoon, I thought it was an ordinary phone call. Then I realized her voice was shaking. “If you know you have a disease that will kill you, should you tell your children?” 

“Oh, Mother,” I said. Then, “Of course you should. Please tell me.” That may have been the hardest request I’ve ever made.

Was this in 1998 or 1999? I don’t remember anymore. I don’t remember the words she used to explain her illness, what my siblings and I said to each other, how I told my children. I do remember that, when I told friends and acquaintances my mother had dementia, the first question they typically asked was, “Does your mother know who you are?”

I’m sure my siblings got asked this, too, and that it was as hard for them to see the lack of recognition in Mother’s eyes as it was for me. Mike wrote about his experience for our family cookbook:

My last real communication with Mom came when I went to visit after they’d been in the assisted-care apartment for about 5 months. Mom would fade in and out, but mostly she was lucid and entertaining, if a bit embarrassed by the forgetfulness caused by her disease. We had a very nice time just talking and I had great fun cooking for them. As I turned to wave goodbye after I had given her a hug, Mom looked at me with such a mixture of love and pain it broke my heart. I knew that her disease was progressing rapidly, but I wasn’t aware how fast it really happened. Mom stood there and looked at me as if it was the last time she would see me. I guess she knew more than I—because it was the last time she was lucid enough to recognize me and really communicate. When I saw her 6 months later, she really didn’t know who I was. 

For me, whether my mother knew who I was was not a “yes” or “no” question. I was always looking for any small scrap of my mother that snuck out from behind her illness. I took Supersaver weekend flights up to Erie to be with her as often as I could. On one visit, her face lit up when she saw me. “I know you,” she burst out. By that point, I’d known better than to ask, “Who am I?” The last time I’d done that, she’d answered, with complete confidence, “You know. You’re my mother.” 

Instead, I gave her a hug and said, “I know you, too.” 

On many of my visits, I’d get the great comfort of at least one moment when a flash of recognition crossed her face. But sometimes, there was no proof at all that my mother knew my name, or the fact that I am her daughter, or even that my face looked familiar. And how much did that matter? Why?

Here’s the thing. I’m a big fan of finding the right questions, questions that add to the quality of one’s life rather than subtracting from it, questions like this one from a woman named Oriah Mountain Dreamer: “What if the question is not why am I so infrequently the person I really want to be, but why do I so infrequently want to be the person I really am?”

Who was I, really? For that matter, who was Mother? And who could I be for her? Maybe that was a better question than “Does my mother know who I am?” Because, beyond all doubt, when I was with her, my mother knew, at some level, that I was someone who loved her. 

Granted, this was often small consolation while walking the path of losing her. I wanted the mother she had been. A shiver went through me when I read a poem by Mary Oliver called “Ice” that describes how her father, during his last winter, fashioned pair after pair after pair of ice-grips out of scraps of metal and inner tubes and gave them to everyone he knew. After her father died, her mother wrote to say she’d found “so many pairs” of them in his workshop. “What shall I do?” she asked. The poem ends with Oliver’s reply: “Mother, please/save everything.”

I have been trying to “save everything” of my mother. Each of her multitudinous recipes. The breakfast ones alone could fill a large book. A new question: What shall I let go?

Who, besides my beautiful sister, who already has the recipe, needs me to include the Plum or Apple-Topped Coffee Cake out of Mother’s original 1950 Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook with its cheery red and white cover? Mary was always the one who sliced and arranged the fruit on top, just like Mother taught her. And she’s the one who reminded me how much of Mother is in all of us. “You know, all the ways we are come from Mother,” she said. “I’ve been realizing that more and more.” 

That’s worth saving, this gift from my only sister. What matters is that we remember, as long as we are able, what Mother gave us, and who we are—to ourselves, to each other, to the people whose lives touch ours. 

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An award-winning poetry and nonfiction writer, Maureen has also been a commentator on Public Radio Station WFAE 90.7. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Texas Review, The Charlotte Observer, St.Anthony Messenger (Ohio),  Potato  Eyes (Maine), Kalliope  (Florida), Chelsea (New York), Cincinnati Poetry Review, Catfish Stew (South Carolina), Catalyst  (Georgia), and Calyx (Oregon). She is the author of Spinning Words into Gold, a Hands-On Guide to the Craft of Writing, a grief workbook entitled How Do I Say Goodbye?, and two collections of poetry, This Scatter of Blossoms and When the Leaves Are in the Water. Her essay “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin” appears in Marlo Thomas’s The Right Words at the Right Time, Volume 2 (Atria Books, 2006) and her poem “Such Foolishness” is included in Thirteen (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003).

Read more about Maureen here and visit her facebook page here.

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Read Kate Green’s story about her mother here and Pam Pellegrino’s memories of her mom here.

My Dream of Mom . . . by Pam Pellegrino

My Dream of Mom; Joan Boyd Boyd

Joan Boyd Boyd

You are an angel, ascending to heaven, dressed in flowing white. You are blowing kisses down to earth. Streams of tiny gold fairy dust hearts flutter off your fingers. Together they form a kite-like string as they gently cascade down, all sparkly and soft, to tenderly touch my face. I will never forget this dream image of you I hold in my heart: young, beautiful, and healthy again.

I think back to when I was your child. We watched Mary Martin as Peter Pan every year. You were my Wendy: youth and wonder, motherhood and love, concern and sacrifice. I wanted to be her, because she was like you. Once I was on a kid’s show in the early years of television, and a man with a microphone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. “A mommy,” I replied without the least hesitation or imagination. You must have sighed at that.

On the surface, your life as my mom was conventional, but your inner life and life experiences, of which I know so little, were much more complex than that. This great insight of mine would likely have received a sarcastic but gentle response from you, such as “Most lives are, dear.”  Did you have secrets you wanted to tell, glimpses of your past before I was part of it?  Did I even think to myself I would ask you later, as if we had all the time in the world?  

I have a picture of you at eight, in your pale blue dotted Swiss dress with the large laced collar. Your mouth is lovely and full. Your eyes look sad and tired. I think by this time you had endured the horrible mastoid operations which almost took your life. You were allergic to penicillin. With no other known antibiotics to fight the infections that hurt so much, you had to be put in a strait jacket to keep you from going wild. Did your ears define your childhood, like my crossed eye did mine?

There is a picture of you at age 12, in pigtails, a spitting image of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. You are Wendy and Dorothy. Your face is so hopeful and open—you seem well and happy, grounded in the love of your family, open and excited about the adventures to come. You showed me with your love that there’s no place like home.

You read everything you could, and made a reader out of me. You loved Alice in Wonderland, the Little House books, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and the poetry of A.A.Milne and Robert Louis Stevenson. You could hardly wait for me to be old enough to read them myself. You and I both identified with Anne especially.  You might easily have been the Anne who lamented “My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes,” but you also would have loved Anne’s thought that “Life is worth living as long as there’s a laugh in it.”  My favorite line from Anne is “Red hair is my life-long sorrow.” Add kinky, uncontrollable, and the nickname favored by Dad, “Big Red,” to that, and you understood my plight. That’s why, when I was thirteen, you bought a product called ‘Straightaway’, heavily marketed to African-American women, to help me “get straight,” so that Paul McCartney would love me instead of Jane Asher.  

By your teen years you were devouring Vanity Fair, Gone With the Wind, all of Jane Austin, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina.  You wanted me to love reading that was challenging and thought-provoking. When I finished Gone With the Wind, you asked me who I liked the most, Scarlett or Melanie. My reply of “Melanie” was a bit of a disappointment to you. “Hmm,” you replied with a furrowed brow and slight frown. You left it to me to figure out why. Had you a Civil War and a plantation, rather than the life expected of a ‘50s housewife and mother of four, I think you very well might have been Scarlett.

Your mom wanted you to be ladylike, provide her with grandchildren and become a good housewife like she was. You excelled in needlepoint, piano, watercolors, and all the liberal arts. Your penmanship was impeccable, which pleased her. You could recite from Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath,” and I am sure her feminist manifesto pleased you. Perhaps you had fun imagining a little revenge after being raised by a father who merely wanted you to look pretty playing the piano, and two brothers who never acknowledged your opinions as the least bit interesting.

It was at Bethany College in West Virginia where you memorized parts of Chaucer, and where you met the handsome airman who became my dad. Robert Boyd sat next to Joan Boyd in religion class after the war, and marriage soon followed. (You loved your name: Joan Boyd Boyd!)  Robin arrived eleven months later; you “dropped me like an egg” seventeen months after that, and then Ann came along within the next two years. Three girls, still best friends, grew up together.  Seven years after that you had Steve (the only one planned, you told your daughters when we were adults). 

As a married woman with children, I’m certain you read Dr. Spock. I think of other books of that time, the 1950s and ‘60s, and remember seeing titles of works by Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, James Michener, Leon Uris, and James Baldwin on your bedside table, along with The Group and The Feminine Mystique. When I became a married woman in the ‘70s, we exchanged books we loved:  those by Gail Godwin, Lee Smith, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates.  

Dad travelled often, but you held down the fort, wisely and firmly. To me you were Marmie from Little Women. We felt safe and loved. Oh Mom, how I miss you, how I wish I had had more time with you!  We never quarreled or had issues like so many moms and daughters. I think the harshest thing you ever said to me was “Don’t be flip” if I was a little bit sassy. We still have that powerful, unbreakable bond, as I carry on with my daily chores, doing things just the way you taught me.

I haven’t dreamed about you in years. Something was resolved for me in that dream of 22 years ago, those kisses you blew for me, letting me know you loved me always, assuring me you are whole again, wherever your soul may be. 

I look up and see you, my loving, lovely mother, and know I am safe.

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When Pam’s husband Jimmy passed away six years ago, she found comfort in writing about her grief. She took classes in memoir writing, found her voice, and writes memoir and poetry in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. She is also a Spiritual Director, trained through The Haden Institute in Hendersonville, NC. 

 

For other loving tributes to mothers, read Kate Green’s Little deaths along the way teach us and Maureen Ryan Griffin’s Save Everything.

Little deaths along the way teach us . . . by Kate Green

 

little deaths along the way teach us

Terese Eileen Murphy (Kate Green’s mother)

The Card read “All who have been touched by beauty are touched by sorrow at its passing.” My mother, Terese Eileen Murphy, was blessed with great physical beauty, but I was witness at the end of her life, to see her beauty in its purest form.

To the untrained eye, my mother appeared to be a 80-pound emaciated woman. Those trained to see more deeply saw pure essence, a spark of the divine, the stuff that we’re made of.

There is a hole left in your heart when your mother passes from this life, but with Alzheimer’s disease it is the “little deaths along the way” that prepare you for the final farewell. The ache of watching your independent mother surrender her car; of seeing the trust in her eyes while signing a power of attorney form; of witnessing her courage as she struggles with the loss of her autonomy. It’s the sorrow you feel the first time you realize that your mother will never go out to eat at a restaurant with you anymore, or see a movie, or even be able to sit through her granddaughter’s graduation from law school.

These are mileage markers on the journey that is Alzheimer’s, but these are not the only milestones. This journey is for the strong hearted, and you soon learn that it belongs to you as well as your loved one.

Along the path, you will have head-on collisions with pain, fatigue, guilt, resentment, anger; and soothing encounters with joy, laughter, courage, understanding, forgiveness and love. These are your companions.

They surface when you need them, are masters in the art of disguise, and are important guides to your ultimate destination—healing. They are gifts of feeling, of feeling deeply, and they take you to that hidden place of the heart, where wounds lie. You visit and return to this place as many times as needed, until you begin to understand the origins of the wounded parts of yourself and begin to forgive, heal, and lay them to rest.

American society celebrates birth and fears death. My experience, with observing the death of loved ones, convinces me that we need to celebrate both.  Words fail to communicate the depth of feelings you have at the birth of your child. It is a sacred moment. You feel partnership with the divine, surrounded by love. I have felt this also when death arrives. When death began its 7-year journey toward my mother, there was no way of knowing that the “little deaths along the way” would change forever the way I viewed this great passage. There was no way of knowing that these “little deaths” would help my mother heal and let go of the wounded parts of herself, and in the process would break down my armor and open my heart to forgiveness.

It may be hard to understand how something as devastating as Alzheimer’s disease can bring with its destruction unimagined gifts of spirit—but it does. Hospice workers know this. They recognize that there is a sacred aspect to death and in many ways they serve as a bridge to help those who are dying cross over from one dimension to another.

Those who minister to people dying with Alzheimer’s often witness the peeling away of the personality and find themselves relating to the authentic beauty of the spirit within that person. Hospice workers shared that their visits with my mother were intentionally planned to be at the end of their day in order “to take her beautiful energy home with them.” Staff members from other parts of the nursing home where mother lived would visit her daily because “just one of her smiles made their day.” In other words, they saw a beauty more profound than physical beauty—true beauty—authentic and pure, and it touched and opened their hearts.

Does one ever get over the loss of a parent? Back then the loss was so fresh it was hard to imagine. But the “little deaths along the way” did help prepare me for the final farewell to my mother. Now it is the memory of seeing true beauty and witnessing the nobility of the human spirit expressed by caregivers, friends and family that continues to comfort me and ease my sorrow. And perhaps, during the years that she struggled with Alzheimer’s, it was not so much that Death was moving toward her, but rather, Life—opening the door to new beginnings. The final gift I received from my mother was the realization that the journey of life continues for me—without the fear of death.

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Originally published in The Durham Herald-Sun (Sunday, October 15, 2000), Edition: Final, Page: G1

Kate is a member of our team.

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Read a woman’s reflections on her husband’s battle with lung cancer.