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Archive for the ‘ur-momma’ Category

treesToday was the kind of day that makes life worth living — and I took a photo of what I mean by that just so I’d never forget. Gorgeous day in early spring, a walk across my beloved Central Park just north of Sheep Meadow, cherry trees in bloom, and an ice coffee and chocolate chip cookie in hand.

I was thinking about what small pleasures, exactly, MIGHT actually make life worth living because I was on my way to New York Hospital, where Ur-Momma has been since Thursday. After 30 hours in the ER she was finally given a room, and it’s a surprisingly nice one; she’s been at this hospital a couple of times in the past 4 or 5 years, and never before has she had a bed with a window, and a window that looked straight onto the East River. On a sunny Saturday, that’s pretty great.

cookieIt would be more great, of course, if Ur-Momma could remember why she was there (GI bleeding and severe anemia), or could remember that she was in a hospital at all. But she was alert enough during my visit this afternoon — she even had gotten dressed and was sitting up in a chair, eating her cherry jello and clear chicken broth and reading the New York Times — to tell me that the days at home have been passing very very slowly for her, and she feels very very lonely. Can a person be truly demented if she’s able to describe her own isolation as “feeling de trop“?

She did come up with one thing that might entertain her — being brought to the Met and pushed around in a wheelchair to look at the paintings. I think this is something I’m going to see about having her aide do one day soon. Not yet, though. First we have to figure out how to make her bleeding stop (it doesn’t seem to be doing it on its own, so there might be a colonoscopy and cauterization on the horizon for Monday), fix her anemia (after 4 transfusions, her blood count is now pretty much normal, but we have to see if it holds), and let her get used to being home for a while. In the meantime, many people who love her — her sister, THREE of her grandchildren, her daughter-in-law — called during my 4-hour visit. So clearly, her feeling of being de trop is mostly a mind set. And, I guess, a reflection of the fact that when you’re 90 years old, no one needs you anymore, so the definition of happiness can’t be the sense of being needed. When you’re 90, frail, widowed, not especially mobile and relatively alone, you have to come up with a new definition of what makes your particular life worth living now.

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ImageWhen the dentist asked if I felt like keeping all my teeth for the rest of my life, that’s when I started to feel my age. The rest of my life? I started to count. How many years does “the rest of your life” mean? Maybe it’s actually not that many — 30 if I’m lucky, 20 or 25 if I’m like the average American 60-year-old woman. I don’t like making such calulations, since when I look backward, 20 or 25 years is the blink of an eye ago.

So, yes, I said to him, I’d rather keep all my teeth for the rest of my life if possible, thank you very much.

The question got me thinking about Grandpa and his dentures. Back in the 1960s, when we were growing up, being old automatically meant you had a mouth full of false teeth. In fact, when Avuncular was little he used to ask how long he’d have to wait until he was old enough to have teeth you could take out every night and put in a little water glass by the bathroom sink. He and I would wake up early when our grandparents were sleeping over, so we could stand next to him as he stood at the mirror with a collapsed old-man face and would transform before our eyes: grab the top teeth from the glass, shake them out, put them in, shake out the bottom teeth and put them in, and there he is again, our handsome Grandpa.

No one has dentures these days, so what we’re going to do with these problem teeth at the back of my mouth is put in crowns rather than yank them out. It’s a long slow process of oral restoration.

Is this the first of a long line of such procedures? Will a doctor soon ask me if I feel like keeping both my hips for the rest of my life, or if I’d like him to insert a fake one to replace the one that’s wearing away? How about one of my organs? My kidneys are likely to putter out, if they’re anything like my father’s were (and I suspect they are), so maybe that will be a question some day, too. Do you want these kidneys? Do you want a different one? Do you want to plug yourself up to this dialysis machine and pretend you don’t have kidneys at all, just let the machine do the work for you?

As Ur-Momma says whenever she notices changes in her skin or hair or ability to breathe when walking up the hill near her apartment, a body isn’t designed to live 89 years. No, it’s not, no matter how much care you take in how you feed it and exercise it (neither of which I’m doing quite enough of). So what happens when it starts falling apart, by inches — especially when you’re only 60? My two back teeth might be the beginning of a long line of decay — decay is actually the word my dentist used in describing the problem that leads me to need a crown — and I suspect that all I’ll be able to do about it, at least for a while, is try to shore things back up as well as I can.

(By the way, the teeth in that photo belonged to George Washington. I saw them in a photo on Twitter posted today by Lindsay Fitzharris, a British medical historian and creator of a web publication called The Chirugeons Apprentice.)

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ImageIt’s a delicate dance, this parenting of grownups. From the point of view of the adult daughter, I’ve always strived for some distance; I moved out of the house at 16 to go to college, moved out state at 19 to start a new life with my new husband, moved a comfortable 250 miles from home when we decided to start a family. iDaddy and I raised our girls with only an occasional visit from my parents, either at our house (my preference, because then they were less likely to treat me like a child) or theirs.

I knew the connection wasn’t strong enough for Ur-Momma. I knew that, from her point of view, the visits weren’t frequent enough. I knew she didn’t like talking to us only once a week, seeing us only once every few months. But it was pretty much exactly right for me.

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the not-frequent-enough visits and chats, I see how much it must have pained her when I kept her at arms length — at arms length from my life and, especially, from my daughters. Now we see our girls once a month, maybe twice, even though they live nearby. It’s not enough for me, and there’s nothing I can do about it but ratchet down my expectations.

For a while when Nutmeg was single, we saw her often, maybe every week and a half. Sometimes iDaddy and I would take her to a play or out for dinner; sometimes I’d meet her after work for a drink; sometimes iDaddy and she would go together to a football game. During this time, when Nutmeg was about 24 to 28, Meta was married to Wilcoand living a four-hour train ride away. So I didn’t see Meta often, but I was in constant g-chat contact with her — electronic chats that were sometimes even better than chats in real life, in much the same that hard conversations with her during her childhood were often better when we were in the car and she was in the back seat, confessing to the back of my head.

But now Nutmeg has a boyfriend, and she’d understandably rather spend time with him than with us, or even than with him plus us. And Meta has left Wilco and moved to an apartment not far from Nutmeg, where she’s busily — you might almost say frantically — building an incredibly active social life. So even though they’re now both living about an hour away from us by subway, they’re usually too busy to see us when we suggest it.

In fact, the last time I suggested a family get-together Nutmeg let me know, gently, that I had kind of pissed off Meta with the invitation. “Did she ask to get together this much when I didn’t live here?” she asked Nutmeg, clearly feeling hemmed in by our proximity. It’s the kind of question I would have asked Avuncular about our parents (he always lived in the same metro area, so he never knew the luxury of distance that I knew). That’s why it stung. When I used to think, “Why does Ur-Momma need to see me AGAIN?” it was because I felt no need to see her; our connection was fraught, and our contact was, from my end, mostly merely dutiful. So knowing now that Meta bristles at my contact in exactly the same way is terribly painful.

It’s a balancing act, though. Do I not invite her, and make her feel left out? Is that better or worse than inviting her too much, and making her feel burdened? And how much should I really communicate with and visit Nutmeg? We’re both journalists working for the same publication, which makes the balancing act especially hard. I try not to dump my career concerns on her too much — yet a few weeks ago, when I had a couple of assignments I had failed to mention that she had to hear about from an acquaintance, she felt miffed that there was something about my professional life that she didn’t know. Yet obviously there’s plenty about her life that I don’t know — not the professional stuff, which she eventually tells me all about, but the intimate questions I can’t ask, about marriage, babies, houses, plans . . .

As I said, a delicate dance.

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old woman & shadow of ladyI had carefully chosen the movie to take my mother to last weekend. I figured that a foreign film would mean subtitles, thus getting around the possibility that she wouldn’t be able to hear. I also figured, based on the reviews, that “Like Father, Like Son” would be gentle, easy-to-follow, and probably thought-provoking. An added plus: it was playing at our local movie theatre at 11 am on a Sunday.

The film is about a young Japanese couple with a six-year-old son they adore, who are suddenly told that this boy had been given to them mistakenly at the hospital, which had switched two newborn babies at birth. What to do, then — keep the boy they had grown to love for the past six years, or switch him for the one that was biologically theirs? I figured the plot would raise the kind of topics Ur-Momma has always loved to talk about — nature versus nurture, what makes us who we are, the perfectability of the human heart.

She was good company, even if at 89 she took her time getting in and out of the car or up and down the escalator; she seemed pretty excited to be out at the movies, and to be out with iDaddy and me. But when the lights came up at the end of the film — a film which, by the way, was quite affecting, beautifully acted, and elegantly told — she turned to me and said, “I was lost; I couldn’t follow it at all.”

This is a woman who, feeling hemmed-in by her ordinary working-class immigrant family in Brooklyn, devoured the public library’s copies of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Thomas Wolfe through her teens and twenties; who read the New Yorker cover to cover for as long as I can remember; who always knew what had been in the New York Times that day, and always had a strong opinion about it; who was happiest when she was at an art museum, a Broadway play, or, on a few occasions in her life, traveling with my father in Europe. Now she couldn’t follow the simple chronology of a very simple film.

What worries her the most about aging, she’s always told my brother Avuncular and me, is the prospect of losing “my head.” That’s what worries me, too. “If you don’t have your head, who are you?” she occasionally asks. That’s it, exactly. If you don’t have a lively interior life, and a recollection of all the escapades that made it amount to something, what DO you have?

Today an article in the New York Times seemed to suggest that the cognitive losses of aging might not be as big a deal as we once thought — that they might actually be the result of having accumulated so much information that retrieving it is just a little slower. Maybe because it came on the heels of my movie escapade with Ur-Momma, it seemed to me that the article was straining a little too hard to find something upbeat to say.

The article described a study that used Big Data to simulate the over-large vocabulary of a typical educated oldster, compared to the smaller vocabulary of a typical educated twentysomething. Grabbing a word from the bigger database took a longer time than grabbing one from the smaller database. It was kind of self-evident, and basically a computer model of something people have suspected for a while: that while an old person’s fluid intelligence (speed, analytic reasoning, short-term memory) might decline, his or her crystallized intelligence (knowledge, vocabulary, expertise) actually grew. And it suggested something else: that the increase in crystallized intelligence might actually CAUSE the decline in fluid intelligence. (To know whether this really applies to humans, of course, it will have to be tested in humans, and not just run on a database.)

But fluid intelligence isn’t exactly what I’m worried about in Ur-Momma’s case anyway. What happened at the movies wasn’t a delay in simple word retrieval, which is annoying but benign. It was not even, really, a matter of a broader, scarier kind of forgetfulness. What happened was loss of the ability to think coherently, to follow a narrative, to hold a thought and add another thought to it, and then another. This is the stuff of an intellectual life, which has always been so important to Ur-Momma. If she can’t read a novel or carry on an interesting conversation, if she can’t follow even the most basic movie plot, she’ll be losing some of the few elements of her life that, for as long as I’ve known her, have made it worth living.

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Stories about adult children following in their parents’ footsteps have taken on special meaning for me, now that I realize that both my daughters have, in a way, gone into our own family business, too, of journalism and writing.    So I was especially intrigued by the article in today’s New York Times about Andrew Cuomo, the attorney general of New York, and his career in politics, the family business begun by his father Mario, New York’s former governor.  “Political Test May Loom for the Cuomos’ Bond,” reads the headline.  Imagine that — competition and jealousy rearing their un-pretty heads in a father-son relationship lived out in the spotlight.

Times reporters Michael Powell and Raymond Hernandez had to cobble their story together from secondary sources, since both father and son declined to be interviewed.  (Mario had at first agreed, but when Andrew refused to talk, Mario backed out.)  But they managed to find people who would talk, mostly anonymously, about the fierce, intense, loving, competitive relationship that Andrew, aged 52, has with his 78-year-old father.  And it was the father, someone I’ve long admired for his oratory skills, who summed up the relationship perfectly.

As to their changing relationship, father and son express frustration with the endless literary allusions and amateur psychoanalysis. To the elder Cuomo, the Shakespeare this and the Freudian that is silliness. Yes, he is a strong-willed and loving father, and, yes, he has a strong-willed and loving son.

“People say, ‘Oh, they have such a complicated relationship,’ ” Mario Cuomo said. “Do you know any father who doesn’t have a complicated relationship with his son?”

He paused, and added, “Incidentally, it doesn’t get less complicated as it goes on.”

Oh my goodness, it doesn’t?  Ur-Momma had always uttered the refrain “it never ends” whenever I expressed any worry about Nutmeg or Meta as they were growing up.  But I’d always hoped that she was wrong, that the worry DOES in fact end, or at least changes significantly, when the kids become adults and are living their own exuberant, rocky lives.  And now here’s Mario — erudite, thoughtful Mario — telling me that not only does it never ends, it only gets more complicated.  Maybe Ur-Momma was smarter than I realized.

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Nutmeg has been looking into the possibility of a new job at a publication I’ve yearned my whole life to write for, a publication I grew up revering.  I’ve written for a few prestigious magazines, but never for this one.  Nutmeg is working for one of those prestigious magazines already, but this new one is even better.  It is, as she put it, “the Harvard of magazines.”

She used the phrase in an email she sent to iDaddy and me after coming back from a one-hour interview with two people who would be her supervisors, including the head of the whole web site.  (The job is not for the print version of this “Harvard of magazines”; hey, this is 2010, and Nutmeg is a young journalist — of course the job is for the web site, just like Nutmeg’s current job is.)  She addressed the email to “Team Job,” a.k.a. her parents, the ever-present boosters in her never-ending career dramas, the people whose advice she still turns to because she knows we’re smart and thoughtful and informed and, unlike some of her friends and colleagues, have only her best interests at heart.  I read the Team Job email while I was out doing chores this afternoon, the first really nice day of spring, ever square inch of sidewalk and every patch of grass on the Columbia campus crammed with happy people. “for god’s sake,” Nutmeg wrote, at the top of her pros and cons list of whether this job would be better than the one she has (she doesn’t capitalize much in her emails), this job would be

“every granddaughter-of-a-bensonhurst-jew, daughter-of-a-queens intellectual’s dream.  so the idea that I could possibly work there is both incredibly flattering and incredibly exciting.”

Flattering and exciting — it sure as hell is.  Reading that sentence, standing there on Broadway as pedestrians scurried past, made my heart flutter and swell.  How far she’s come, the granddaughter of a Bensonhurst Jew, daughter of a Queens intellectual.   I got a little weepy thinking about this.  Ah, Nutmeg, you’ve made it, I thought.  I was so pleased.

But then, I have to admit, in not too long my thoughts started to drift over toward myself.  Ah, Momma, you’re so over — that’s kind of where my thoughts drifted.  I’ve always been braced for Nutmeg and Meta both to transcend me, but so soon?  And in an arena that I so desperately wanted for myself, and haven’t yet given up on, and could never quite conquer?

Give me a moment, please.  I’ll go back to being Nutmeg’s indefatigable booster in just a moment.  But first, I think I need to grieve just a little bit for my own fading career.  Then I’ll go back — soon, I promise — to giving my full attention to my amazing daughter.

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As focused as I’ve been in thinking about being a mother to adult children from the point of view of the mother, I seem to have lost sight of the fact that I also have a stake in this issue from the point of view of the child.  My mother, God bless her, is still alive and opinionating at age 85, and our relationship in recent years has become a lot more mellow than it was at its worst.  (And its worst, contrary to conventional wisdom, was not during my adolescence, when I was a pretty placid and agreeable teenager, but during my young adulthood, when there was something about my sense of a self as a mother of daughters that poisoned the way I felt about myself as the daughter of a mother.)

But sometimes, even though our relationship is basically good, we flare up at each other.  We did today.  It seemed to come out of the blue with a phone call this afternoon, in which my mother — what should I call her as a blog nickname?  how about Ur-Momma — called to inform me that she was very offended by what she heard as “disdain” in the outgoing voicemail message I had left on her new cell phone.  “Don’t bother to leave a message, she can’t retrieve it,” I said in what I remember was meant to be a sort of joshy tone.  “Just call back.”

I was leaving the message on her behalf because I was giving her a different cell phone — my old phone, since I had caved in and accepted the hand-me-down smartphone that Nutmeg was offering me.  (This was a difficult decision on my part, which I arrived at mostly because whenever I heard myself saying things like, “But my own stupidphone works just fine,” I knew I was sounding just like Ur-Momma.  I didn’t want to turn into Ur-Momma.)  And here’s the crucial bit: on her old cell phone, Ur-Momma’s own outgoing voicemail message was, essentially, “Don’t bother to leave a message, I can’t retrieve it.”  She had made exactly the same joke.

Now, I told her that.  I told her I was only trying to imitate her own clever message.  She told me to listen to it again myself (three hours later, and I still haven’t, and don’t intend to) to hear how dismissive and disdainful my tone was.  It’s not funny that I don’t know how to retrieve messages, she said.  I know I’m a Luddite, but you don’t have to make fun of me for it.

I could tell that the outgoing voicemail message wasn’t what was really bothering her, but I couldn’t get Ur-Momma to tell me what was.  We hung up on bad terms, and I looked for a wireless retailer where I could re-activate her old phone.   I called her back to tell her I would walk down to her apartment, take the old phone and the new phone, walk the two blocks to the wireless retailer, and get her the old phone back so she wouldn’t feel like such a technoklutz.   No answer.  This happens sometimes when Ur-Momma is feeling “down” — she just ignores the phone.  I called her back half an hour later.  I made my phone-switching offer, and then I asked her what was really going on.  I’m down, she said.  Why, I asked.  And suddenly we were yelling at each other about what was really bugging her — that my brother (let’s call him Avuncular) had called me last night, and I had told him that I was in the middle of a meeting and we’d have to talk another time.  When Ur-Momma called me this morning to see if I had talked to Avuncular, I told her that he had called but that we hadn’t spoken because I was in the middle of a meeting.

Turns out she was upset because I didn’t follow that up with “and I called him back when the meeting was over.”  Did she really need to know that it didn’t end till 11, and that I sent him an email early this morning suggesting that we talk later tonight?  Is it any business of hers?  I’m 56 years old — am I not allowed to deal with my relationship with my 53-year-old brother on my own, without one of us calling the other “because Mommy says”?

Apparently she thinks it is her business.  (And in another post I’ll say wonderful things about how smart and funny and involved and generous Ur-Momma is; just give me this one, about how annoying and intrusive she can be.)  After we stopped yelling, Ur-Momma went on and on about her favorite topic — my brother and me.  “The only thing that matters to me in my life is that my children are there for each other,” she said for the gazillionth time.  Avuncular and I grew up with the sing-song in our ears of “Brothers and sisters are the closest thing in the world.”  Ur-Momma is the oldest of three sisters and they are extraordinarily close, so even without the relentless sloganeering, Avuncular and I would have gotten the message from their loving example that siblings are a lifelong commitment.  AND I HAD ALREADY EMAILED HIM.

I get it, sort of.  I want Nutmeg and Meta to be friends and to rely on each other; in fact, before Ur-Momma ruined my day, I was still smiling after a lovely lunch with Nutmeg in which she had told me in hilarious detail about an endless Twitter and g-chat exchange between her and Meta regarding live yogurt cultures.  (Meta had even included me in the discussion by g-chatting me, “your other child doesn’t know what YOGURT IS MADE OF.”)  Like my own mother, I’ve always wanted my kids to be friends, to love each other, to know they could depend on each other.  Sometimes their relationship is good, sometimes less good — like any relationship.  But I’ve learned that the worst thing I can do when it’s not going so well is to insert myself into it to try to make it better.

That’s what Ur-Momma has been doing between Avuncular and me our whole lives, taking the temperature of our relationship to make sure it meets her exacting standards — and if for some reason it doesn’t, to try to fix it.  That’s what she was doing today.  Amazingly, my brother and I love each other anyway.  I love my mother, too, but at the moment she’s pissing me off, and reminding me that with even the best of intentions, the parent of an adult child can sometimes make mistakes.

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