The Family Tree

My nephew and his wife are expecting their first child in a few weeks. Before they learned the sex of their baby, he told me they were hoping for a girl. Because they are raising his wife’s son from her previous marriage and thought it would be nice to have a girl in their family.

I told him that since he is the seventh son of the seventh son, perhaps it is time to break that boy-begets-boy streak with an eighth generation gal. He replied, “Huh?” I then explained that for seven generations in our family, the first born child has been a son.

I was surprised to learn my nephew did not know this. I was surprised that my brother never taught much of our family’s history to his children. I was delighted with my nephew’s sincere interest in our family’s stories as I began to share them with him.

To refresh my memory of the colorful characters dangling from the branches of my family tree, I dug out a faded-blue cardboard tube from the back of my guest bedroom closet. Two large pieces of fine parchment paper were rolled up in that tube, with 150 years of my family’s history, hand-written in old school calligraphy. By my own hand.

I am first-generation-born American on my father’s side and many-generation-born American on my mother’s. I am surely no pure bred, but rather a classic mixed breed. And while most of my mother’s heritage was not passed down to her by members of her family, all of whom had passed away long before I was born, my father’s history had been preserved in my paternal grandmother’s memories.

Quite a few years before my grandmother passed away, I got the idea to compile my paternal family history and write it out proper-like, and gift a set to each member of my family for Christmas. I started almost a year before the holiday, sitting down with my grandmother and letting her ramble on with no particular order or sequence. Who had married whom, and how many children they each had. Who had died in the Boar War and who had served in each of the World Wars. And to confirm the information was correct, I pinged my grandmother’s younger sister, who lived in England.

This was back in the day when all written communications was done by snail mail. There was no email or texting and definitely no internet searches. And the only time you picked up a landline phone was when someone was born or had died. And even then you watched the clock tick off the seconds, because you knew each minute of that international call was costing you a small fortune.

Along with the names and dates and who begat whom, I learned a lot about the people whose names are written on those pieces of parchment. Short little stories of their lives and personalities and dreams.

There was one story of a multi-great grandfather who had left Ireland because of the great potato famine. But as I grew older, that story morphed into a new scenario. One which included a pretty lassie, an irate father armed with a shot gun, and a fast horse that supposedly carried the two lovers, riding off into the Irish sunset.

But the thing is, that potato famine story never did compute. When I did the math, I realized my multi-great grandfather was born 25 years after the potato famine. But he did leave Ireland and moved to Scotland where he changed his name. And he did marry his childhood sweetheart and they had 14 children. So I have to believe there was more truth to the story of the irate father with the shotgun and the fast horse.

And there is the story of my own father, immigrating from Scotland when he was seven years old. For the two years prior, while his father was in America working and saving money to bring his wife and son across the pond, my father and his mother remained in Scotland…living with various relatives so as not to wear out their welcome at any particular household. My father was regaled with tall tales of cowboys and indians and buffalo. And how in America, the streets were paved with gold.

So when the boat docked, my father wrenched his hand from my grandmother’s grasp, and bolted down the gangplank and ran into the streets of New York City. When my grandmother and the police finally caught up with him, he stood in the middle of the street, his fists clenched in anger as he stared at the pavement. He looked up at his mother with tears in his eyes and shouted, “You lied to me! You lied to me! These streets are not paved with gold!”

My grandmother put a hand on each of her son’s shoulders, looked straight into his eyes and replied, “In America, you make your own gold.” And out of the mouth of that seven-year-old lad who would grow up to become my father came the reply, “Oh. Alright then.” And he and his mother walked hand-in-hand back to the boat, their police escort shaking their heads with relief that the young immigrant boy had not been harmed in the escapade.

These are the stories that breathe life into the names listed on the branches of my family tree. Stories which I know will be lost if not recorded and shared. So I have decided to dust off those two pieces of fine parchment, written by my hand in old school calligraphy, recording 150 years of my family’s history. And add my own memories to those of my paternal grandmother and her sister, sharing the short little stories of the lives and personalities and dreams of those who have come before me.

I will add snippets of my paternal grandmother’s life and how her independent spirit and dedication to family guided every decision she ever made. And of my mother’s mother and how her passion for the outdoors and her animals shaped the course of her short life. I will record the story of how my mother received her name from her mother’s twin sister, upon seeing my mother’s delicate features and shining blue eyes for the first time. I will record examples of my mother’s intelligence and independence and compassion, so those family members who are yet to be born can learn about a woman who has had such a positive impact on so many people.

But I will not be writing out these stories onto a stack of fine parchment paper. Instead I will create an online version, as a gift to my family for next Christmas, if I can complete it in time. And I will not be wrapping up this family tree with shiny paper and a sparkling bow. Instead a simple text message to all on the afternoon of Christmas will suffice. And I will treasure the picture I will imagine in my mind’s eye, of my nephew sharing his family heritage, with his newly born son cradled in his arms.



Hitting The Wall

Yes, it has been almost two months since I have posted in this journal. And many thanks to the folks who have pinged me to see if all is well in my world. It is.

My self-imposed sabbatical has not been the result of a single catastrophic event. But rather the accumulation of a series of small events. Each unto themselves would be easy to digest. But when served in mass, they morphed into a beast of their own, reminiscent of a family dining table groaning with all the trappings of a Thanksgiving feast. Quite honestly, I would have preferred a light summertime repast of a fresh green salad and salmon cooked to perfection on the grill.

Since we last chatted, Mother’s Day has come and gone. And my mother’s 94th birthday. And Memorial Day. And I celebrated these holidays amidst the chaos of the past few months. I have come out the other side with a greater appreciation of life’s simple pleasures which can be discovered, but only if we choose to look for them.

My biggest challenge has been finding, not the time, but the desire to write about my experiences in dealing with my mother’s physical and mental limitations. I seem to have hit that wall that so many of us caregivers do…we who are dealing with an aging loved one suffering from dementia.

I came to this stunning realization just last week, when I took my mother for her quarterly checkup with her family physician. A visit with our good friend, the “Doc”, whose support and encouragement have been invaluable to me. It has become painfully obvious that my mother is deteriorating at a much higher rate than ever before. And while this is to be expected at her advanced age, I suddenly realized that I am not as emotionally prepared as I thought I would be.

SPLAT. Yepper…that is the sound of me hitting that wall.

My mother’s physical abilities are continuing to decline. While she is in no more discomfort from the arthritis than she has been in the past, her mobility is becoming increasingly limited, which is affecting her daily activity. Yet it is the deterioration of her mental abilities that is the most heart-wrenching. Because recently, I have noticed we are moving from her short-term memory getting worse with each passing moment, to a marked confusion associated with her long-term memory.

At first I thought it was a slip of her tongue…a reference to a 60-year-old event in which some of the details got skewed as she shared her memory of the experience. But she is starting to repeat the same slips as she recounts the same story over and over again. Perhaps I should be thankful for her consistency.

I am finding myself in new territory. Unchartered waters, so to speak. Because over these past few years, I have developed the methodology to deal with her short-term memory loss. And now I must develop a methodology to deal with her long-term memory loss.

Do I correct her when she makes those slips of the tongue? Or simply smile and bob my head and let it ride? Does it really matter if she incorrectly states where she lived at the time, or when and where she worked at the time? Who is it really hurting if she can no longer correctly recall those details that, until just a few short months ago, where ingrained into her conscious thought?

And adding icing to our proverbial cake, my mother initiated a new pattern of behavior during our visit with Doc last week. Typically, the three of us sit and chat during the exam, and Doc will ask my mother how she is doing, including gently questioning her on how well she is remembering things. For the past few years, my mother has acknowledged that she cannot remember as well as she could before. But has always added that it “only just started a few weeks ago”.

This time when Doc asked her about her ability to remember, she again acknowledged that she does forget a lot now and said that if you tell her something, she will most likely forget the information until a much later time. If she remembers it at all. And for the first time ever…in all these years I have been taking her for her quarterly doctor visits…she looked me in the eyes and told Doc that I would be the better person to answer that question on her behalf.

DOUBLE-SPLAT. Yepper…that is the sound of me hitting that wall again.

As I met my mother’s gaze, I mentally took a deep sigh, then told it like it was…with as much diplomacy for her benefit as I could muster, while still maintaining the truth of it all for Doc’s benefit. And the relief I saw in my mother’s eyes was poignant. She wasn’t imagining her memory loss. Nor was she denying it. The simple act of hearing me describe it to Doc had made it a stark reality for her.

TRIPLE-SPLAT. Ouch…that one hurt.

Sometimes we are elected to a role which we have no desire to pursue. We wonder how the heck we even got elected in the first place. Other times we will embrace a new role and take ownership of it and run with it to the final conclusion.

My role as my mother’s caregiver is ever evolving. My duties vary as her needs change. My responsibilities increase with each day that passes.

Yet I cannot help wonder what the end of this journey will bring. Not literally…as I know what the final outcome will be. Duh-yup. But what new experiences will I have encountered? What new insights will I have learned? And I have to wonder, just how many more walls I will have to hit?