Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Dog Ate Some Pot (and Other Excuses for Not Visiting)

fullsizerender-65Hey Mom,

You know, Italians ingest a healthy dose of guilt. When we were babies, you offered us biscotti for our teeth and guilt for our souls.

Along with four sibs, I was raised with a guilty conscience, and even as you have aged, I justify my actions based on a sense of loyalty – and guilt.

After your rash of infections, I found myself rather inattentive to your needs. So, I thought I would write to tell you why.

  1. My dog ate some pot. No, really, he did. He licked a patch he found in a little pocket park in the city, spent the night in the Veterinary ER, and rebounded the next day.
  1. His stomach did not. For two weeks, I cooked more meals for the dog than for Mark and me. I kept him on a tight leash or in his crate. I did less work when Davis was a newborn.
  1. I was there but you were sleeping, so I cleaned your closets. You answer, “But that doesn’t count, because I didn’t get to tell you, ‘No, no, no,’ or crush your hands in a death grip while we walked around the hallways, or just throw cookies at you.” Yes, it was a beautiful moment where I could just love you while Sinatra crooned on the CD player.
  1. I had to go to Washington to march. See, we elected this president who likes to tweet about random things not related to his actual job of governing. “Tweel?” you asked once when you heard it on TV. “Tweel?” you asked again. Finally, I spoke into your good ear and moved you off the topic.
  1. I participated in boot camp. No, it’s not a military thing at all. And actually, I didn’t go away, just attended boot camp online – for my manuscript. There’s a boot camp for everything these days. Boot camp baby food making, boot camp opening scenes, boot camp how to ride a bike on city streets.
  1. I had to stand up and speak out against sexual violence, basically, stand up for women’s rights. “But, we did that already,” you question. And I say, “Yeah, but we should have been doing it every DAMN day until the violence ended, and its still here.”
  1. I had to walk a few neighborhoods because I wrote something stupid like, ‘I’m going to walk, then blog about all of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods before the next mayoral and council elections. One week, one neighborhood.’ Only I started four weeks late, and its winter, and the dog.
  1. Because I visited you on a Saturday, though I usually come on Sunday. My timing must be messing with your biorhythms – since you don’t get a chance to yell at me and get it all out – but consider the timing is messing with my biorhythms too.
  1. I traveled to Florida to see your granddaughter, my niece. She needs connection to our family, whether she likes it or not. Plus, she’s awfully adorable and her moon face and her, well, let’s just say, bossiness, reminds me of you.
  1. Because one day, I stopped writing to grocery shop. I was so engaged in the scene left behind, that after shopping, I returned home and only later, I discovered your supplies in the back of my car. I was horrified. I had planned to see you that day, and you, the thought of you, had slipped my mind.

I’ll return to our regularly schedule programming soon. However, in missing you, I learned how guilt is quite the motivator.

But, you already knew that.

Love,

Me

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Super-Agers and Cheese

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Aunt Carmelene Januzzi. Photo credit: Paula Januzzi.

I read my cousin Paula’s Facebook post about her mother, Aunt Carmelene, and  wistfully studied the photo.

Aunt Carm was my father’s sister-in-law. She had just turned 87. With cheeks rosy and full, she appeared to be thriving. Aunt Carm was still cooking full meals at home and engaging with the grandkids.

Good for her, I thought, and allowed my heart to sink.

Every day, I confronted the facts about super-agers like Aunt Carm, and reconciled that information with a mother who was aging superbly in her body, but not her mind.

Mom, too, just had a birthday. She turned 89. As a reflection on her life, I reread my blog post (Buon Compleanno Vincenzella) from her birthday two years ago. What had I learned in the intervening years, and what I had gotten wrong?

Plenty of both.

“She is becoming closer to the perfect state of being.”

I wrote those words with the knowledge and hope Mom’s time was of some quantifiable length filled with quality. I could feel a letting go of expectations, in particular mine. However, I also did not anticipate the up’s and down’s she had been through as of late. She was four for four in the infection battle, and still counting.

In various news reports, at doctor’s offices, in clinical or cultural settings, superagers are  defined as one who has been identified in studies as having exceptionally sharp memories in their 80s and 90s, and are lauded and applauded.

However, those of us with loved ones in care homes or at home but no longer super aging examine the worlds of those we love and say, “Yes, and…”

My aunt and mother grew up in the same hometown. Both were Italian. Both consumed the “Mediterranean Diet”. Both were active in their church, community, and chosen vocations. My mother walked plenty, rode her bike, and climbed enough stairs to outlive multiple Fitbits had they been invented.

The two women basically drank from the same well and breathed the same Lake Effect air. They would have grocery shopped in similar stores. Aunt Carm lost her husband about ten years ago. Mom lost Dad five years ago. Both had a fair number of children, four and five. Both baked cookies, the good ones. Both had plenty of grandchildren to keep them engaged. In general, their lives could be compared to one another.

However, we don’t have the tools to measure the impact of life’s interruptions on aging, of which my mother experienced an early loss of a birth father and her first born, and the subsequent tragic experiences of her own children. Aunt Carm also experienced this with her husband and children, but in each woman’s biological or emotional response, perhaps this was where their paths diverged.

A study from Massachussetts General found: In 17 “super-agers”, several parts of the brain’s memory machinery – including the anterior insula and orbitofrontal cortex and the hippocampus – appeared thicker and healthier than normal for people of their age.

Aging causes shrinkage in those regions of the brain. In super-agers, memory test scores correlated to brain size, i.e., the better score corresponded to the thicker brain. Perhaps thick-headed should be redefined, because none of those test subjects appeared to have an unintelligent life.

The doctors then asked, Can we create super-agers, or are we born with it?  From Forbes onlineThe researchers can’t yet tell if their positive attitudes are a result of having healthier than usual brains or if the attentive and positive attitudes are a cause of the healthier brains.

My cousin would answer her mother created a fulfilling life that has led to her longevity. I would answer, my mother was gifted with flawless skin, a petite frame, and quick wit and a service heart, but was she also born with a genetic formation that led her down this path? Can one’s emotional lifestyle be another factor? Two sides, nearly the same coin?

Can we live with the paradox that for some, our bodies outlive our minds? And for others, our minds outlive our bodies? Can we hold somewhere in the middle the fact that sometimes our minds and bodies outlive the medical news? Can I?

I am happy for Aunt Carm who is becoming or is already a super-ager. Scientists are identifying those individuals and studying their makeup, offering more possibilities to cure Alzheimer’s and dementia.

What most frightens me – and this is the truth for many caring for individuals with dementia or Alzheimer’s – is becoming a super-ager without a super mind to go along with it.

If I am a super-ager, it’s because I walked the Oregon Coast every day. Or because I wrote blogs about city strolls into my 90’s. Or because I remained curious about the people who surrounded me and the events that shaped me.

If I am not a super-ager, it’s OK. My kids and husband know I’m not usually that super excited about anything related to aging – other than wine and cheese.

Note: The author has yet to determine the proper spelling of super-ager. Perhaps hope some super-ager can help figure that out.

 

 

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If My Mother Was My Boss…

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The holidays had brought forth what felt like the Twelve Days of Mom.

In that approximate time, Mom experienced two ER runs, one in which I drove her, the other in which I didn’t dare. She was diagnosed with three infections, multiple scab wounds, pain and discomfort from shingles, a disease for which most folks are given chicken pox vaccinations, or don’t live long enough to experience the adult onset of chicken pox. And a week of the runs caused another ER run.

And this was AFTER Mom’s trifecta of seizures, soap swallowing and sun exposure earlier in the year. (See soap blog, part 1 and part 2).

By the end of the year, I was tired. I pondered a change.

Back in my corporate days, New Year’s had signaled job change. Or at least, looking for a new one. The rush of the holidays always led to a significant energy drain. Like any good employee, I directly attributed the drain to my job or boss, but never myself.

As 2017 approached, I had found myself in the same mode. Tired. The kind of tiredness that comes from knowing what comes next in my mother’s moment, and also, not knowing.

At month’s end, when I spoke to her house doctor, he flipped through her bulging chart. After five minutes or so, he looked up at me. “She’s one tough lady and you have one tough boss.”

Yes, in what job could I be employed by a boss who forgot all the good years I had put in, for the sake of one awful moment in which I accidentally bumped Mom while trying to hold down her arm so the nurse could get the blood pressure cuff around her triceps long enough for Mom to yell, “Oh, no, oh wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute?”

In what job could I work for a boss who voices a long stretch of No’s when she doesn’t like something? Remember what Ralphie said about his dad in A Christmas Story? “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.” If Mom were still in northern Ohio, she would have blanketed all five Great Lakes with her words.

Where else could I find work where I will never get a promotion? In fact, I’m not sure I would want a promotion, because that would mean the woman I worked for is no longer in need of me. In essence, downsizing of the most tragic kind.

Where else could I be chastised by the boss for what I was wearing, as if there was a dress code for visitors at the care home? “What the hell are those things on your feet?” “Umm, boots?”

In what job could I endure my boss’s harassment for which there is no name? Its not ageist, nor sexist. The closest approximation I can come is reverse genetic harassment, in that my boss only harasses those to whom she gave birth to and is directly related.

Where else could I work where there is no strategic planning by the boss? When I plan to visit for the Christmas show, my boss takes a snooze. When I hope to bring the boss home, my boss bawls loudly and sometimes growls.

Where else could I sit at a job, thinking about all the other things I could be doing while my boss is fast asleep, but holding me in place by the death grip? If she couldn’t leave, neither could I.

In the end, the calendar turned over. My tiredness waned.

Lucky for Mom – and me – she was not my boss. But if the years with Mom taught me anything, my most important job was to sit in her quiet space and make room to meet her where she was, ER or not, furniture mover and all, and hope to one day receive a raise in hugs.

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The Ultimate in Pizzelle Makers

img_8605I glanced down at the handwriting in her cookbook, and tears clouded my eyes. Though Mom was still with me, she no longer wrote, despite efforts to put a pen in her hand. Maybe she was just tired, tired from rolling and cutting and scooping and mixing. Maybe her hand just got tired.

Those were my thoughts as I flipped through the yellowed pages of her homemade cookbook and read aloud the names of all the cookies she once coddled. As usual, I grew despondent during the holidays because I could never match my mother’s baking or Christmas prowess.

Every year, I dragged out the cookbook (I promise I’ll make copies, sibs, one of these days) and pulled out my pizzelle maker or the flour and the cutters, and I attempted to recreate Christmas in the same fashion Mom did all those years.

Next to God, no one else did Christmas better than my mother. She made Christmas out of every cookie cutter, sugar sprinkle, pot of grease, and pizzelle iron in existence.

Early mornings and late nights in December, I always found Mom in the Lincoln Street basement, where a second kitchen had been installed mainly for that time of year that filled our house with yeast and yum.

img_8603Sometimes, I gravitated to the basement to just sprinkle or roll – not too much, not round enough – I hear her echoes as I said the same thing to Davis while he helped me roll dough that would come close to tasting like Mom’s, but not really.

I wasn’t much of a talker, and Mom and I didn’t have the Internet to offer us topics on a variety of conversation, like Davis and I as we conversed over mostly sports while rolling the dough for the Totos. But I loved being in Mom’s presence, watching her hands. Like a magician’s sleight of hand, she created the perfect cookie.

In another life, our family would have packaged her pizzelles. I have seen the packs in stores and restaurants. But the cookies hardly tasted like Mom’s, first because they left out the anise or actual fennel seeds. Second, no one used the iron press anymore. And third, because to reproduce the taste profile, one needed to incorporate not only the smears of real grease, but also the years of elbow grease that went into every cookie that ever came off Mom’s press.

In conversation with Becky, the activities director where Mom lives, I retold stories of the myriad number of cookies that could be seen on any cookie tray at Mom’s home. When Fr. Weber came to visit, when Mom’s card club arrived for Christmas cheer, when boyfriends passed through the carousel of caring, when the one girlfriend stayed (we love you Kim). When the grandkids finally arrived, their first cookies were not those Zwieback ones bought in stores, but the biscotti and pizzelles cranked out fresh daily from Mom.

Of course, there was also the Grease Fire of ’94, in which the fire department had to be called and a bit of the basement kitchen replaced. And still, Mom burned on.

img_8596The other day, I took a few pizzelles to Mom. As soon as I unwrapped the pressed snowflakes from the wax paper, Mom grabbed one, then the next. “Oh these,” she said a few times through crumbs falling from her mouth. “Oh, these.”

Love you, Mom. But I may have loved your cookies just a little bit more.

***

Mom’s Honor Roll
12/20/2009

Mom is in the hospital this Christmas. A lack of eating, depression, dementia, or a bad combination of meds. No one is certain at this point. In consideration of the years she spent toiling over her Christmas cookies, here is an honor roll…of sorts. For those who were never the beneficiary of her fine tastes, well, I am truly sorry. You missed out.

Biscotti
Pizelles
Twists
Corn Flake Wreaths
Pecan Cups
Nut rolls
Nuthorns
Chocolate Chip cookies
M & M cookies
Peanut Butter cookies with Hershey’s Kisses on top
Sour Cream Drops
Italian balls
Fudge
Bowties
Sugar Cookie Cutouts
Gingerbread Men
Italian knots
Chocolate Crinkles
Totos
Rosettes
Buckeyes
Pinwheels
Cookie Press cookies
Church Windows – with colored marshmallows!
Thumbprint cookies with candied cherries and Cornflakes
Candy Cane cutout cookies

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I Have the Ultimate Pizzelle Maker

img_8605I glanced down at the handwriting in her cookbook, and tears clouded my eyes. Though Mom was still with me, she no longer wrote, despite efforts to put a pen in her hand. Maybe she was just tired, tired from rolling and cutting and scooping and mixing. Maybe her hand just got tired.

Those were my thoughts as I flipped through the yellowed pages of her homemade cookbook and read aloud the names of all the cookies she once coddled. As usual, I grew despondent during the holidays because I could never match my mother’s baking or Christmas prowess.

Every year, I dragged out the cookbook (I promise I’ll make copies, sibs, one of these days) and pulled out my pizzelle maker or the flour and the cutters, and I attempted to recreate Christmas in the same fashion Mom did all those years.

Next to God, no one else did Christmas better than my mother. She made Christmas out of every cookie cutter, sugar sprinkle, pot of grease, and pizzelle iron in existence.

Early mornings and late nights in December, I always found Mom in the Lincoln Street basement, where a second kitchen had been installed mainly for that time of year that filled our house with yeast and yum.

Sometimes, I gravitated to the basement to just sprinkle or roll – not too much, not round enough – I hear her echoes as I said the same thing to Davis while he helped me roll dough that would come close to tasting like Mom’s, but not really.

I wasn’t much of a talker, and Mom and I didn’t have the Internet to offer us topics on a variety of conversation, like Davis and I as we conversed over mostly sports while rolling the dough for the Totos. But I loved being in Mom’s presence, watching her hands. Like a magician’s sleight of hand, she created the perfect cookie.

In another life, our family would have packaged her pizzelles. I have seen the packs in stores and restaurants. But the cookies hardly tasted like Mom’s, first because they left out the anise or actual fennel seeds. Second, no one used the iron press anymore. And third, because to reproduce the taste profile, one needed to incorporate not only the smears of real grease, but also the years of elbow grease that went into every cookie that ever came off Mom’s press.

In conversation with Becky, the activities director where Mom lives, I retold stories of the myriad number of cookies that could be seen on any cookie tray at Mom’s home. When Fr. Weber came to visit, when Mom’s card club arrived for Christmas cheer, when boyfriends passed through the carousel of caring, when the one girlfriend stayed (we love you Kim). When the grandkids finally arrived, their first cookies were not those Zwieback ones bought in stores, but the biscotti and pizzelles cranked out fresh daily from Mom.

Of course, there was also the Grease Fire of ’94, in which the fire department had to be called and a bit of the basement kitchen replaced. And still, Mom burned on.

The other day, I took a few pizzelles to Mom. As soon as I unwrapped the pressed snowflakes from the wax paper, Mom grabbed one, then the next. “Oh these,” she said a few times through crumbs falling from her mouth. “Oh, these.”

Love you, Mom. But I may have loved your cookies just a little bit more.

***

Mom’s Honor Roll
12/20/2009

Mom is in the hospital this Christmas. A lack of eating, depression, dementia, or a bad combination of meds. No one is certain at this point. In consideration of the years she spent toiling over her Christmas cookies, here is an honor roll…of sorts. For those who were never the beneficiary of her fine tastes, well, I am truly sorry. You missed out.

Biscotti
Pizelles
Twists
Corn Flake Wreaths
Pecan Cups
Nut rolls
Nuthorns
Chocolate Chip cookies
M & M cookies
Peanut Butter cookies with Hershey’s Kisses on top
Sour Cream Drops
Italian balls
Fudge
Bowties
Sugar Cookie Cutouts
Gingerbread Men
Italian knots
Chocolate Crinkles
Totos
Rosettes
Buckeyes
Pinwheels
Cookie Press cookies
Church Windows – with colored marshmallows!
Thumbprint cookies with candied cherries and Cornflakes
Candy Cane cutout cookies

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Making Christmas Not So Blue – The Activities Director

img_8493 “Hey, come here. Come here,” Mom called out, while Elvis crooned White Christmas.

Remember those days when you dragged yourself to the kid’s Christmas concert? The one that lasted all of an hour, maybe even half? And you hoped and prayed that your kid would do what he was supposed to do in his “starring” role. Well, as a caregiver, guess what?

Those days are back.

And they’re not half-bad.

While Mom shouted to the singer, I sat back, looked around for the activities director, and together, we laughed off Mom’s demand.

While I admire the many caregivers and nurses who care for Mom, the most challenging role in a care home might be that of Activities Director. How do you plan for events with a demographic that loses their concentration easily, likes snacks, but has an adult orientation and wisdom and set of experiences in life?

Recently, I had coffee with a friend who was considering transitioning her mother into a care home. We discussed our individual paths that had led us to be together in that moment with a set of shared experiences about our mothers experiencing cognitive decline.

“But how do you know you’re picking in the right one?” she asked.

I always had my pat response. “It’s only the right one, for right now.”

But that’s not what I told her. Instead, I struck upon different thought, after having spent two days in a row at two separate care home for two Christmas events.

“Meet the activities staff,” I shared with her.

She looked at me with a mixture of surprise and “aha”.

While Mom was still able to engage (express herself and cuss are two other phrases I would also use), I wanted to ensure Mom had the opportunity to interact with guests that came through that day, whether that person was an Elvis impersonator, a chaplain, or women from the local church who say the rosary.

But it wasn’t just the guest appearances on the calendar that were important. Many care homes can program a calendar.

img_8484But who is behind the programming? Who is responsible for knowing who you’re mother is, and where she is, in the moment, and what activities she might deem interesting enough to keep her away from the door (alarm on) when the temperature is 18 degrees outside?

I have one other learning from the larger events that include families, as the past two have. These events are designed as an opportunity to witness how all the staff interacts with your loved ones. Will they dance with the woman who always quotes Telly Savalas’ who loves ya, baby? Does the couple that knows Miss K. from church, sing with Miss H. because they know she loves her song? In essence, how well do other families know and treat your loved one?

Finally, when the activities calendar is plentiful, this too, is a chance for you as a loved one to sit back. Because yes, sometimes the events are planned with you, the loved one in mind, to take a break from being the person who oversees care of the loved one and to just relish.

“Hey, Mom. That’s Elvis. You know, Blue Suede Shoes. He’s pretty good, right?”

“Good. Yes. He’s large though,” Mom said.

“Well, Mom, yes, Elvis did get quite large. I guess about 160 or 170 at the height of his singing.”

Mom nodded, still rather fixated on Elvis, pointing to him several times, while he swung his hips and sang back to her.

Like all Christmas shows, I ate too many cookies and cried at one too many White Christmas’s.

The holidays are especially difficult for those of us with loved ones in a care home, the grief of a life left behind often overtaking the joy of the season.

But these events serve to remind me that, yes, when I was in third grade, my mother sat through countless practices and performances of Little Drummer Boy, listened while I pulled on the too tight white tights, or complained about wearing a tunic (with no pants, this was akin to a dress for a tomboy).

Now, it was my turn. To listen to Mom protest about not getting her cookies right away. “Hey, Hey, how ‘bout over here?” Or, because the music was too loud, and she was unable to discern many of the lyrics due to the singer’s baritone voice, Mom scolded me or maybe Elvis, “Oh, just hush.”

While testing my interpretation skills and my patience, holiday events are a test of love. And Activities Directors and staff are there to make certain I pass.

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Post-Election: Finding Sacred Space

img_8347I moped while seated on the kitchen stool, aimlessly tossing the remainder of Pirate’s Booty into my dry mouth. The dog “hrummphed” at my feet. I stayed, rooted to that stool, head hung, crying.

I had known deep losses in my life, a husband, a father and a sister in a way. The ache that now arose, twisting, winding, through my queasy stomach and up my scratchy throat, in that moment, felt the same.

The election was over. My candidate. The candidate for the many “hers” in my life had lost. Texts, messages, emails stampeded through my every thought, kicking up dust, leaving only more smog.

I paused long enough to stop my stress-eating.

What would I say to all the “hers” in my life? My bonus daughters, my nieces, my writing sisters, my Januzzi sisters, the sister with whom I shared a soul. What would I say to the main “her” in my life, Mom?

I wanted to budge, needed to move through my day. Many, many to do’s awaited. Packing for a flight at 6 a.m., dropping off the dog at the sitter, paying the bills that trickled in, brushing up a manuscript that always required retouching.

And Mom. Sigh. Mom.

I needed to restock her supplies – how I delicately referred to her air freshener and Depends. But also, Mom. Seeing Mom.

I dropped one foot from the stool. Then the next. I leashed the dog. Took him outside. Watched him pee. Grabbed my purse. “She”, my candidate, had to move forward, consider and concede. I did too.

I discovered Mom, busily arranging plastic flowers in a wicker basket. To clarify, Mom was arranging not by any attempt to organize the flowers, but to chew on them instead. I knew that maneuver. It is one she undertakes when agitated or completely confused.

I greeted her with a tired hug. “Mom. Hi,” I muttered from behind.

She turned around and gave me a hardened look. I swore she always knew when I was taking leave.

I tried smiling directly into her eyes, like sunlight – appealing to her now tunnel-like vision.

“Hi,” Mom finally drew out. Then she proceeded to march up and down and all around the quieted hallways.

Our next hour was a combination of Laurel and Hardy, Helen Keller and Charlie Chaplin actions, exchanging words and gestures with Mom, her shouting, me cringing. Calling into one ear, leaning into the other.

Finally, Mom lowered her softening body into a rigid kitchen chair.

From the nearby table, I reached for a baby doll with pink, flirty pants, one of many that floated around the care home like Elf on a Shelf at Christmas. I placed the doll in Mom’s arms and she quickly lifted the “baby” into the left crook of her neck.

From her right, I leaned down. “Mom, I’ve got to get home. I’ll see you later.” I gulped. “Later” meant after I finished traveling.

“Ok, honey,” Mom said, forgiving me for the sin of leaving I was about to commit. She pulled me into the other side of her neck.

I could smell that day’s layer of lotion on her skin. For minutes, I was bent over into my mother’s chest and we breathed each other in.

My gaze was pointed down when I noticed a familiar bump, right above her breastbone. I reached up and touched my same bump.

“This is home,” I murmured to Mom, still partly in her embrace.

Yes, that’s what I would say to all the “hers” in my life. Find a space that is home. Find that part that still connects one to another. Therein lies the strength.

“I am home,” I said to Mom once more, before dislodging my arms, carrying with me my mother’s fortitude as a gift to the “hers” in my life.

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