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Together again, time with Mom a priceless gift

When my brother told me our mom could have a designated emotional support person, all I could picture was a fluffy service dog wearing a bright orange vest.

At the end of February, the governor allowed for one individual to be able to visit their loved ones in assisted living facilities. While my brother takes care of Mom’s finances and doctor’s appointments, I attend to her personal needs. In other words, I’m her toilet paper, toothpaste, soap and lotion gal.

Since Mom could only have one ESP, it made sense for that person to be me. Plus, I look better in orange.

Actually, I was relieved to learn I wouldn’t have to wear the vest or remain on a leash. All that was required was the completion of a fair amount of paperwork, and an introduction to the automated sign-in process. At every visit I fill out a health questionnaire and take my temperature. Surgical masks are required at all times, even though Mom is fully vaccinated.

Small price to pay to be able to see my mother again.

On Feb. 24, I walked through the doors of my mother’s apartment for the first time in a year.

“Surprise!” I said. “Do you recognize me with this surgical mask?”

She laughed and reached for me.

“Of course, I do!” she said. “You’re my baby girl!”

And then we cried because that’s what we do when we’re happy.

“I’m your ESP,” I explained.

She shook her head.

“Now, honey, you know we don’t believe in things like that.”

I grinned.

“Well, believe it or not I’m going to come see you every week,” I said.

Then I got busy checking her cupboards to see what she needed. Alzheimer’s has decimated Mom’s short term memory. As she likes to put it, “My short term memory is – very short!”

This made it difficult to discern what personal supplies she needed via phone calls. For a while she would try to go through her cupboards while I was on the phone with her, but that worsened her anxiety.

For months I’ve had to guess how much toilet paper she had, or if she was out of deodorant. That caused me anxiety. However, I was relieved to find I’d done a pretty good job guesstimating.

I was wrong about her candy stash, though. Every week she’d tell me she was out, but I assumed she’d forgotten some still in the cupboard. Nope. Mom’s sweet tooth is impressive.

As I sorted, tidied and organized, I paused in front of her wall calendar. It was still on March 2020. The world stopped for a lot of us that month, but not as completely as it did for our elders in assisted-living facilities.

Gratefully, I hung her new calendar.

I wanted to take a picture of us, so I fetched Mom’s hairbrush.

“My goodness!” I said. “Your brush is missing a lot of bristles.”

She nodded.

“Yeah, it’s losing teeth as fast as I am.”

I brushed her hair, and told her I’d bring her a new one. Then I dabbed a touch of lipstick on her and snapped a few photos.

Cindy Hval with her mom. February 2021

“How come you’re taller than me now?” she asked. “I was always taller than you.”

I assured her the only growth spurt I’d had was COVID-19 pounds.

She shrugged.

“Must be gravity.”

The next week I showed up with the biggest size bag of her favorite Wintergreen Life Savers I could find.

“Oh, my goodness! I’m going to have fresh breath until I die!” Mom said.

I pointed out I bought her the party-size bag, and she said, “Honey, if they find out we’re partying they aren’t going to let you come see me anymore!”

But they will, and now that we’re in Phase 3 she can have additional visitors, not just her designated emotional support person.

I unwrapped her new hairbrush and slid it through her silver hair while she reminisced about babysitting my boys when they were little.

She caught my hand and held it to her cheek.

“I’m glad you didn’t forget me,” she said.

It doesn’t take ESP to understand how precious these visits are for both of us.

Columns

Sock-wearing, sweater-toting, vitamin-popping can only mean one thing….

Apparently, I’ve reached the stage of adulthood in which I must wear socks around the house. I’ve always been a barefoot kind of gal, so this came as quite a surprise.

I do wear socks with my walking shoes or boots, but when I get home I shuck my footwear and let my tootsies go au naturel.

But this winter I started feeling the cold.

Last week, I donned some fluffy pink socks that Derek had bought me a while ago, and noticed they said “Kissable” on the sole.

If you have to wear socks, I guess it’s not a bad thing to be kissable.

It’s not just my toes that are noticing the chill. Last summer, I started grabbing a sweater before I left the house.

One evening as we headed out to enjoy patio dining at one of our favorite restaurants, I wondered aloud if I should run back inside and get a sweater.

“It’s 80 degrees!” Derek said.

I paused.

“Yes, but a breeze may come up,” I said. “Or what if we have to sit inside and the air-conditioning is set too high?”

He shook his head.

“You’re the one who insists on sleeping with the bedroom window open all winter long,” he pointed out.

This is true, but sleeping next to my husband is like sleeping with a sturdy old-fashioned furnace (and just as noisy).

While a newfound appreciation for socks and sweaters doesn’t necessarily indicate advancing age, my recent multivitamin purchase is certainly a harbinger of decrepitude to come.

I’ve never been a supplement fan. Other than whopping doses of Vitamin C when the crud is going around, it’s been 20 years since I last took a daily vitamin. That was because I was pregnant, and then nursing our youngest son.

Before that, it was Flintstones chewables.

When my kids were little, I dabbed in gummy vitamins for a while, but the habit didn’t stick.

At my last eye appointment, however, the doctor noted the developing stages of age-related macular degeneration.

“It’s common in nearsighted people as we age,” he said, and he recommended a supplement known to support macular health.

Did he really have to say hurtful things like “age-related,” and “as we age”?

“And of course, you’re taking a daily multivitamin,” he added.

Gulp.

Nevertheless, I took his advice to heart and immediately purchased vitamins specific to eye health. At my next trip to Costco, I looked for a multivitamin suitable for women of a certain age.

It turned out to be the exact supplement I purchase for my 89-year-old mother.

This sock-wearing thing is proving to be a slippery slope!

The good news is, I’m not totally ancient, yet.

I know this because in November my mom had a dental emergency. Now, this is not normally good news, but it gave her an excused absence from her quarantined retirement home, and it gave me the first opportunity to spend time with her since late September.

Mom likes to introduce me wherever I take her, even if it’s to people I’ve previously met on numerous occasions, so she introduced me to the receptionist and to her dentist.

“This is my daughter. She may look young and beautiful, but she’s a GRANDMA! Can you believe it?”

Who knew a mask-wearing benefit is camouflaging mom-induced blushes?

But more important, this goes to prove that I may have advanced to the sock-wearing, sweater-toting, vitamin-popping age, but I’m still not too old for my mom to embarrass me.

Columns

Go home chicken, you’re drunk

Tears poured from my eyes as I thumbed through the pages. My sides ached with laughter. I snorted. I guffawed. I giggled.

Who would think a cookbook could provoke such hilarity?

Just when I caught my breath, I spotted a recipe for Pheasant- All Drunk and Spunky, and I howled again.

But first a little background. My mother collected recipes like there might not ever be another Dorothy Dean column or Campbell’s soup cookbook. She clipped them from newspapers, magazines, flour bags and shortening cans. She filed them in index card boxes and three-ring binders. Cookbooks lined a shelf in her kitchen and filled drawers in her buffet. Even after my dad died and she didn’t have anyone to cook for, she kept on clipping.

Her cookies were legendary. For years, she supplied my boys with enough baked goods to feed a small platoon. Her dessert plates were the first to be emptied at every church potluck.

In recent years, she tried to downsize. I’m not sure which sibling ended up with her battered copy of Irma Rombauer’s “The Joy of Cooking,” but she gave me my grandmother’s vintage “Good Housekeeping Cookbook” and her own copy of “Better Homes and Garden Cookbook,” which I still haul out every time I bake apple pies.

My recipe box is filled with her handwritten recipe cards.

When she moved into a retirement home, the cookbooks and clipping collection had to go. I didn’t have time to sort through her recipe-filled envelopes, but somehow I snagged a cookbook and brought it home before her house sold.

With the holidays approaching, I finally sat down to go through it. The 270-page cookbook has no cover, no back and no title. I have no idea who produced it. I think I grabbed it because it features Mom’s handwritten commentary. Some recipes had checkmarks or stars. Some said “try,” and others had “good!” written next to them.

The source of my amusement came from the many, many recipes that called for some kind of booze.

Mom is such a stringent teetotaler that she’s never even purchased cooking wine or sherry. She certainly never had the ingredients for Drunk Chicken, or Bourbon-Pecan cake, or New Bacardi Chocolate Rum cake. And even if she had the ingredients for Beer and Sauerkraut Fudge Cake, I can’t imagine that she’d inflict that on anyone.

It’s wasn’t only the alcohol-laden recipes that gave me giggles, just the names of some of the recipes induced mirth.

Creeping Crust Cobbler anyone? How about some Liver Surprise? (Spoiler alert, the surprise is cinnamon, or maybe it’s the applesauce.) Beef Birds with Olive Gravy gave me pause, but Carrot Loaf- a Meat Substitute made me queasy for hours. The recipe calls for rice, carrots, eggs, milk and peanut butter!

Not every recipe proved as stomach-churning. Amazed, I discovered the original source for Mom’s Five-Hour Stew, her Busy Day Chicken and Rice, and the zucchini fritter recipe I’d assumed was my grandmother’s. The titleless cookbook is proving to be a treasure.

My husband enjoys my culinary escapades, but he was a bit bewildered last week when he called and asked about our dinner plans.

“I thought about making Pheasant- All Drunk and Spunky,” I said.”But catching a pheasant and getting it drunk, seemed like a lot of work. And how can you tell if a pheasant’s spunky?”

“Uh…” Derek murmured.

“Nevermind,” I continued. “We had some poultry in the freezer, but you’d better come home soon.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because the chicken’s already drunk,” I replied.

Unlike my mother, I cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the recipe.

Columns

Don’t Blink: Summer and Childhood Vanish

They marched out of the old Orchard Prairie schoolhouse, eyes alight with excitement.

“Are they done yet?” asked the oldest.

The three boys had been waiting for their mom, the school’s PTO president, to finish an afternoon meeting that I’d just left.

I’d paused to take a picture of the historic schoolhouse when the boys bounded into view.

They’d been busy while they waited.

“We catched a spider!” shouted the littlest boy. “A GINORMOUS spider!”

The middle brother shouldered him out of the way.

“We put it in a Gatorade bottle that I found,” he said.

His older brother held the spider aloft, soldiering on in search of their mother, while the youngest stayed behind, eager to explain his role in the capture.

“I founded it first!” he said. “Back there!”

He pointed behind the building, bouncing with excitement.

“It’s GINORMOUS!”

Then he hurried to catch up with his brothers.

That encounter brightened a long Monday and memories of my sons tumbled through my mind.

Once upon a time, I had four little boys whose summer adventures frequently included capturing creepy crawlies.

For the record, I’m not a fan of creepy crawlies, but I am a fan of boys and boundless curiosity.

Summer often seems endless when you’re an at-home mom. Endless can equal excruciating when bored boys fight over video games. I worked hard to balance planned activities while leaving room for unstructured play. Anything to keep my busy boys away from electronic devices and spontaneous wrestling matches.

One summer, I grew tired of my Tupperware being used to re-home spiders and insects, so I bought the boys a bug-catching kit. It came with a net, a magnifying glass, tweezers and a plastic container to house their captures.

They spent hours turning over rocks, crawling under decks, and digging through dirt to find new specimens.

We checked out bug books from the library to help identify their finds and to recognize spiders they should avoid.

I realized that backfired when I overheard my middle son saying to his younger brother, “Nope. That’s not a black widow. Keep looking.”

In retrospect, it’s amazing that no one got bit or stung.

I wished I’d been more patient when they careened through the house, shrieking with excitement, holding a newly captured specimen aloft.

Instead, I often feigned interest and wearily reminded them of the “no bugs in the house” rule. In my defense, you can only rave about the coolness of pill bugs a finite number of times.

I just didn’t realize how quickly those summers would pass. Older friends tried to warn me.

“Slow down, enjoy these days, it all goes too fast,” they said.

Sometimes I did slow down enough to savor the sight of four little boys crouching in the driveway, watching a row of ants march across the gravel.

I wish I had a picture of that. But when my sons were small, cellphones didn’t come with cool cameras. Capturing memories meant running back inside the house, trying to unearth a camera.

Summer can seem endless, but it isn’t. You blink and suddenly there’s a chill in the night air and the leaves start to turn.

As I watched the three little boys run across the Orchard Prairie schoolyard with their ginormous spider, I wished I’d taken their photo.

I would have sent it to their mother.

A snapshot of a boyhood that will disappear in the blink of an eye.