Friday, March 16, 2018

A Childhood Revisited. And Revisited Again

I make meatloaf. I recite hymns. Five days back in my Kansas City childhood home to care for Aunt Ruth and I am transported back and forward, beyond the vegetarian and secular truths of my current life to another realm where childhood and adulthood mix.

i am the child, I am the mother, I am helpless with love and need for her, I am calm and capable of seeing that loss and death are inevitable. I am questioning child, care-giving mother.

If this, the fourth month of her 94th year is the end of her time with us, I should feel nothing but gratitude. But when is it ever that simple?

"I had a dream last night," she says one early morning. "I was walking with Fred Astaire. And what was I doing with Robert Mitchum?" We giggle together.

After dark, after I make dinner and clean up, after we replace Ruth's IV tubing and bag (always a tense task but Jeanne takes the lead and thrives on telling me what to do), after making sure Ruth is settled for the night and I've texted good nights to Randy and the girls, I take a walk in the late winter night. The Cooley's house across the street has a long blacktop driveway where I played games while waiting for the schoolbus with Nancy and Todd and Laura and Todd. There by the Redlin's elms is the high school bustop where Glen Sands kissed me. Three blocks away the cornfields began and less than a mile after that paved 119th Street dwindled to the west to a one lane dirt track in the early 80's. I was a junior and I biked with a paperback of Wuthering Heights to the new housing development south of Barstow School to sit on a rock on a cold windy hill and try to read. Those fields, that rock, that dirt road, are gone, transformed to the unrecognizable.

Every inch of this home is painted with remembrance. Jeanne says, "I could walk through this house in the pitch dark and know everything," She's been here most of her life. It's a haunted house neat as a pin, with cobwebs I clean up with the Swiffer.

Five days in Kansas City and I am rejuvenated. The Missouri sunshine blasts down on me through the south facing window as I wash the lunch dishes and my winter blues are blown away. Fifty is nothing, barely life begun. I can dance and run and see and I have two full-cheeked teenagers to keep me on my toes.

Ruth and I talk Queen Victoria and Mary Queen of Scots and Meagan Markle and the simple muslin dress Marie Antoinette wore for her portrait. Ruth listens to Sue Grafton's V is for Vengeance and we can hear the measured and relentless voice of the audio book through the baby monitors we put in Jeanne's rooms at the other side of the house.

"Spirit of God, descend upon my heart" is the hymn Ruth wants to practice with me. a poem begging for escape from the despair of doubt.

...make me love Thee as I ought to love.
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel visitant, no opening skies;
But take the dimness of my soul away.

I don't mind repeating prayers in this house, Chanting and repetition from memory deep as the bone can be my therapy today. I'll do yoga tomorrow.

None of the care she needs is actually work, even cleaning the blue tiles of the 1950's bathroom is a kind of pleasure. I want to do this for her and five days is not enough. Ruth's blindness and her own need for order keep this house compartmentalized and sorted. "Look in the second drawer on the left hand side of the china bureau in the dining room." "The graham crackers are behind the cereal boxes in the cabinet over the stove." She has memorized the house.

On my last morning, I make the decaf and some toast with her preferred margarine and jam, a small plastic cup of diced peaches, a half mug of protein drink. We listen to NPR and talk about the indicted Missouri governor. I have to go. I don't want to go. The girls need me. I have to go.

Coming back to Kansas City over the years has been often painful, pulling me back into the ruts of grief. Agony and the mundane are layered and tangled here. Here is the neighbor's house where lived the two sons who were maimed in the car accident in 1976. Here is the bedroom I shared with Nancy. Here are Christopher's basketball trophies. Here is the light-filled sitting room, once a bedroom painted a deep blue, where I cried alone, wretched as I've ever been, in the dark. Here is the breakfast room where Mia blew out her first candle. Here is the backyard where we played. I am child, I am adult.

The facts don't change. And remembering how I fall back into those ruts can fill me with dread. But on this trip, there was another transformation of the way I look back.

Alice Munro has a story "What is Remembered" from her collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage that I keep returning to, continually amazed at the way the words speak my truth. Munro found a way to express the way the past changes for a woman as she grows older and I've clung to these paragraphs like a Christian may cling to her bible, looking for and finding answers. When I first read these words seventeen years ago, they were about remembering and re-remembering an old love; now, back in our home in Wilmette, I go back to my edition again and a different line hooks me this time: "There was another sort of life she could have had--which was not to say she would have preferred it. It was probably because of her age (something she was always forgetting to take account of) and because of the cold thin air she breathed since Pierre's death, that she could think of that other sort of life simply as a kind of research which had its own pitfalls and achievements."

I go back to the deckle edged book after a sweet reunion with my girls. I read again, then take a long shower and the realization roils me, lifts and buoys and frees me.

You think you know what happened to you and how you feel about it. You think you know yourself and then.

Ruth will continue to transform in my mind and heart. She will be the imperfect mother, my daughters' Grandma, my aunt, my caregiver, my distant relative, my close confidant, the woman I cannot forgive, the woman I love the most, on and on, changing, never known, always her own mystery. Part of this is her own caginess, her iron strong self-control and part of this was our family culture of secrecy and stifling of most emotion, even when it was most damaging, hiding shame and joy. Even when she leaves us, as she must, she will never be defined.