Piece By Treasured Piece, Family Roles Shift

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank December 15, 2010 16:36

Here’s a definition of retirement that may not be what most of us envision when we contemplate the blessed moment when we turn in our employee ID badges: Bowing out of the workforce means having the time to take care of your aging parents.

Russel Frank

This is not my situation, but it is, thank goodness, my big sister’s. When my 88-year-old mother had a health crisis last winter and my 92-year-old father was the only family member within 1,000 miles, we, their three children, began to gently suggest that perhaps it was time for them to plan for the moment when they would no longer be able to live on their own.

“Your father and I have always managed,” was Mom’s response.

“True,” I said, “but you’ve not always been 90 years old.”

The conversation went nowhere. Six months passed. Then came the breakthrough. M&D, as we call them, confessed to feeling lonely and isolated in their Florida condo. They needed more help, more care. The question was, where to get it?

Denver, where my sister Wendy lives, was too high. Pennsylvania, where I live, was too cold. Dallas, where my sister Meryl lives, was just right.

The timing was perfect. It was mid-September. Meryl was retiring at the end of the month. She sprang into action, finding an independent living facility near her place, arranging for a real estate agent to look at the Florida condo, trying to shame the car dealer into releasing our 92-year-old pop from his five-year lease commitment.

The five of us gathered via conference call to discuss these and other logistics. Suddenly, Mom felt like things were moving too fast. She hit the brakes. They were  fine where they were. OK, we said, but what happens when you’re not fine? They would cross that bridge when they came to it. We thought they were already at the toll plaza.

I felt the emotional temperature rising. “Let’s stop,” I said during the second hour of the call. “Let’s all just think about it for a day or two and then talk some more.”

The next day, Mom called to say she would agree to whatever we thought best. Three days later, she dug in her heels: not moving. The day after that, it was back on. This was maddening, but understandable. They’d lived in their condo for 20 years. They were giving up a chunk of their independence.

A few days later, my children and I flew down to help them pack and discard. Mostly this entailed wrapping a sheet of newsprint around each item in their gigantic collection of glass and ceramic vessels and putting it either in the “take” or “toss” carton.

It was painful. Buying, restoring and selling collectible vases and teapots and the like had been my parents’ principal activity after my dad retired. They haunted yard sales and rummage sales and flea markets, buying items for a nickel here, a half-dollar there.

At home my mother would look up each one in her antique guides and find out where and when it was made and how much it was worth.  She took particular pleasure in repairing chipped, even shattered ceramics so that you couldn’t see the cracks or where she reproduced interrupted patterns or glazes.

And then the two of them would load merchandise and folding tables into a van and try to sell the stuff at antique shows. As a business, it brought in a little money. As a hobby, it gave them a lot of pleasure. Now it was time to liquidate.

I fretted that my mom would feel like she was attending her own funeral. Even for me, disposing of stuff was harder than I expected it to be. I would see one of my mom’s handwritten labels on the bottom of a pitcher or a bowl and it felt like a desecration of all her care and hard work to consign it to the Goodwill box. The kids, less connected to the history, functioned more like movers. They’re the ones who got most of the work done.  Plus the pleasure of seeing them distracted my parents from the great dismantling that was going on around them.

But at dinner that night, Mom dropped the brave front. “I’m scared,” she told us. “Everything scares me at my age.”

I’m scared too, when I think about being my parents’ age. I don’t want my kids spending their retirement taking care of me in my retirement, just as I’m sure my parents didn’t want us to have to take care of them.

I understand that when we view ourselves or each other as burdens we are reducing our relationships to economic transactions: We’re either contributing resources or draining resources. I told my kids their visit to Florida had been a mitzvah – a Jewish word that weds good deeds to sacred obligations. Taking care of those we love is a mitzvah.  Allowing our loved ones to take care of us is also a mitzvah.

Still, when we were sorting the ceramics and glass at the condo I told Mom the standard should be that you have to love it, love it, love it to keep it.

“I love it,” she said of this or that item, “but I don’t love it, love it, love it.”

Out it went.

Former Sonoran Russell Frank teaches journalism at Penn State University, where he can be reached at rbf5@psu.edu.

© 2010 Friends and Neighbors

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank December 15, 2010 16:36