I’ve been gone from my blog for a while. Several of my blog followers have asked me where I’ve been, that they had missed reading the blog. That was very sweet of them. I too missed writing for these four or five months. Where have I been? What have I been doing? It’s been time away but far from time wasted. As I look back I smile at the joy, pride and inspiration I’ve witnessed these past months! I want to share with you three vignettes that account for some of my time away that have reflected back to me the joy of what life is all about!
It all started in July at my beloved Jersey shore of all places! My mother-in-law contracted a sudden bout of pneumonia at the shore and that was the catalyst that drew the conversation from “what if”, to “maybe it’s time.” It was becoming apparent over time that her four-bedroom colonial house, which is 800 miles from us, is too big to manage, even with the various workmen that she has supporting her. She loved the house but it was also a burden. Driving is getting more worrisome. Acute illnesses like the one that precipitated the thought of this move are likely to become more frequent and more chronic. And even with her close friends relying on each other, it is difficult because each has her own things with which to deal, each with children, like us, living hundreds of miles away. And even with their vibrancy, it is unrealistic to expect that they can continue to prop up each other as time goes on.
We brought her to Illinois to recover and after she was well, we started taking her to visit independent living retirement communities but only those with a continuum of care should she ever need it. I think because we had been back East only by chance when she got sick, this illness scared her. She was suddenly very receptive to the idea of thinking seriously about a move. Her son and I were asking her to dig for that spunk that’s always been within her one more time. It was first shown in the teenage girl who, in 1946, left Italy for a new world that was foreign to her in every aspect, who knew not one person in the new country other than the young GI she had married in 1945. She’s lived her life for these seventy two years with her heart divided, planted solidly in two countries. While she ached for her Italian family, she learned the American ways, she made close friends who became her family, she laughed easily and she fashioned a big wonderful life. It was a life not without heartache as she missed milestones in her birth family, as she buried two husbands, and as she has lost friends and family back in Italy and in America. (90 CANDLES) . So she was no stranger to reaching for the grit within her.
August and September were spent visiting and revisiting four different retirement communities. Ultimately in September she chose the unit with the largest footprint and a beautiful view of trees out of the back windows of her third floor apartment that somehow mimicked the sunroom she would leave behind in the old house. She went back to Pennsylvania and immediately told her close friends that she would be moving to Illinois right around the holidays. There was shock, there was sadness but there was also the feeling that this was the right time. Some even said they too realized they were going to have to make a similar decision soon.
She had chosen the hard wood flooring that would be installed throughout the apartment but entrusted the decisions about the wall paint colors, the kitchen cabinetry selection and the backsplash to me. I know her taste very well and proceeded with the choices. I also added crown molding throughout and door casings at entries to the kitchen and the sitting room. By the end of November it was virtually ready for her to move into.
Saying goodbye which happened just before Christmas of all times was excruciating. For her at age 91 to leave the place that had been her hometown for seventy two years to chart a new life, to make new friends, to settle into a new place, to try to call it home is testament to all that is in her. There was lots of laughter but also lots of tears. The woman leaving and the ones being left hardly grasping at this age what life will be like without the other. Everything between them has been so familiar, a shorthand. In their early nineties, they call themselves the YA YA Sisterhood. In our hearts , we knew it was time but there was still a sense of guilt felt by the two of us – my husband and I – advocating for and managing this move as we watch the farewells unfold. They never sit still, this crew. If there’s party, they are there. If there’s a play to see, they will see it. Is it too late in life to hope to ever establish that again?
Apparently not. Here we are two months in – she is now part of a new pinochle group, has signed up for a series of concerts, she has established friendships with a number of women with whom she visits and has dinner every night. She walks inside the buildings that are connected so she doesn’t have to brave this cold until the weather changes and she can go outside and walk the grounds. She has told me that she loves her new apartment and is surprised by how she really doesn’t miss the old house. And we were able to celebrate her 92nd birthday on the actual day with her here and in person for the first time in a long time!
She enjoys the new people she’s meeting but misses her friends back East. She misses the freedom and independence represented by her car even as she realizes that the traffic here is so much more daunting than in her area of Pennsylvania, she wouldn’t drive anyway. But she continues her relationships by phone calls with her family in Italy and with friends in Florida, New York and, yes, her sisterhood in Pennsylvania.
They say you don’t make old friends. In October, back in Pennsylvania to help my mother in law mine through seventy years worth of accumulating, a dear childhood friend and I finally were able to get together. We literally hadn’t seen each other for probably twelve years – since our last eighth grade class reunion. We were the closest of friends in grade school and high school. My granddaughter has taken to reading my diary (with permission!) and has commented on my friend’s name in almost daily entries during our high school years. When we met we reminisced and laughed about how much time we had spent together as kids, and things that happened back then that only the two of us would recall. One of the first things she said to me when we met was “You look just like your mom!” Only a childhood friend would know that. I can’t tell you the feeling I had when she said that because it’s absolutely true, and she is one of very few who now remember my mom. She told me that when she came to my house as a teenager she would marvel at the sister-like interaction between my mom and me after my father died. The navigation she saw between my mom and me was more of a negotiation between the two of us than my mother actually directing me to do something. I laughed when she said that because a number of my aunts made the same assessment back then. “Remember when we all went to the Golden Ox [a very nice local restaurant in those days] for your seventeenth birthday? Do you remember that?” Indeed she and I did remember that night in minute detail! We remembered that there were a number of us, all friends, that went. In those days, our comfort level was going to local diners after high school football games rather than grown up restaurants. We laughed about having no real idea of how to maneuver around a restaurant like that since until that night mostly we were with our parents who did the paying and tipping.
When we parted we took a picture. Our 71-year-old selves quickly reverted back to our 14-year-old selves: “We’re not going to post it if we don’t look cute!” And we burst out laughing!
I left our lunch with such a feeling of nostalgia, of regret that we don’t live closer to each other and yet happiness that we were able to meet and reminisce and pick up our friendship as though no time had passed at all. We stay connected through messaging.
Finally, in November, we met again at my mother in law’s home for our final Thanksgiving in her house. It was a wonderful bittersweet gathering, this Thanksgiving.
The boys sitting across from me at the table are full-on men now but sometimes it’s hard not to see them still as boys – one is my child, my son, and the other, Rich, is my mother-in-law’s stepson. My son and his family live in Chicago near us, and Rich and his family live in Texas. They both have high powered successful careers and talked about all the stress, tension and reward that comes with that. Their children became immediate friends, as kids do, remarkably having met for the first time on this trip.
Their wives had already known each other and chatted away.
But wait, there’s more about these boys. They both turned 50 years old this past year! Impossible! Before my mother in law had even met or married Rich’s father, my son and Rich were friends, having first met in Kindergarten! So I watch them across the table and see them as five year olds. No, no wait, now they’re twelve year olds. No, no, they’re teenagers, sneaking down to the bar in this very home and having some beers! Now they’re in Philadelphia going to different colleges but then graduating on the same day! It was at Rich’s wedding rehearsal dinner in Texas that we were all gathered and he toasted his friend from childhood, “To Paul, one of my oldest friends, who through fate and a series of marriages, became my nephew!” Life’s twists and turns are surely remarkable!
So there you have it – part of how I spent these past five months – watching resilience play out firsthand, reconnecting with a cherished friend, and marveling with the pride and satisfaction of watching my son’s and all of his friends’ lead wonderful lives.
Until next time….which will be much sooner than 5 months from now……