If you’ve been reading these pieces–cut from my memoir 99 Girdles on the Wall— in order, you’ll recall the 450 organizations my mother was leaking her pension to (The Mail) and the two attorneys my brother and I went through (The Attorney). Never a dull moment:
On another front, my mother’s church was getting involved in her affairs. She was ensconced in an Eastern Orthodox Church, having left the Baptist church where the women were Wiggling Their Bottoms in an Ungodly Manner during the singing of certain peppy religious songs. The new priest had only been in the parish a short time, and more to the point, had only known my mother for a year. He seemed remote but I liked him and his wife in the beginning. I even visited a Good Friday service during one orthodox holy week.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” my mother asked when I arrived to pick her up.
“No.” I said. “You ready? Let’s go.”
“Elena, you can’t wear pants to church.”
“Well, too bad, it’s all I have. You don’t have to sit with me or act like you know me.”
“I have a skirt you can wear.” At that point in her life, my mother always wore the same thing to church: a polyester navy blue jacket and skirt she had made a lifetime ago and an old veiled pillbox hat which sat on her head like a crumpled piece of newspaper.
“Did you want to go to church with me or with someone else? Because I’m wearing what I’m wearing.”
“Well, it’s not right.”
The small congregation gathered in the dreary upper room of a Lutheran church. The icons were colorful and exotic like the box of Kellogg’s cornflakes in my Bulgarian grandmother’s dark, sod house in eastern Montana. When I tried to get close enough to inspect the icons, I was politely told I couldn’t be in the Priest’s space. I sat down. I enjoyed the service, more for its novelty than anything else. I had never known anyone to kiss pictures since my junior high years when I kissed photos of the Monkees. I had never seen people kiss the floor for any reason.
The priest’s wife brought my mother to Seattle to have lunch with me. They were making an effort to get acquainted with Mary. I felt for them.
“How long do you give them?” my brother asked me.
“Six months,” I said.
I was close. Relations began to disintegrate nine months later and after my mother hemorrhaged a lot of blood and ended up in the hospital. The priest e-mailed me to say he had visited her and they had decided she would move out of her house into assisted living. I told him that she’d been a tease about assisted living since before my father died; we were used to her false alarms. He didn’t respond.
Alex said, “Give her a few days. When she’s feeling better, she’s going to get tired of the priest’s attention and decide she wants to go home.”
That’s what happened. She got a little stronger, the docs said there was nothing conclusive from the blood work, and my mother went home. The priest and his wife were scandalized that we, well, principally I didn’t come down to Olympia and Put Her Someplace.
“Have you even met my mother?” I asked. “You can’t make her do something she doesn’t want to do.”
The priest began a campaign to get her to move. At the same time the church initiated helpful services that kept her more comfortably in her home. They did yard work and little house repairs. There was a man on call as her private taxi service to and from church, the grocery store, the bank. Someone cleaned once a week.
I told my mother she had to pay whoever came in to clean. There was food rotting on the kitchen counter and the house smelled bad. I had grown up with food rotting on the kitchen counter and I knew that wasn’t going to change. The cleaner would have to get used to cleaning around it because she would be fired if she threw it out. I offered to act as interpreter for my mother’s idiosyncrasies and to make sure the house cleaner got paid.
The woman from the church said she’d rather approach my mother on her own without my help. The unchristian, ungrateful daughter. The infidel. So a perfectly nice woman named Rachel took her five year old child with her when she cleaned my mother’s house for $15 an hour.
“That seems really steep,” my mother told me.
“It’s not,” I said. “I wouldn’t do it for less than $50.”
There were problems from the start and before too long, Rachel was checking in with me.
“She has been questioning me about how much I am charging. She insists I am charging from the time I leave my home, not from the time I start work. She thinks I am taking advantage of her.”
“It doesn’t mean you are,” I said.
Rachel seemed inordinately concerned about this. She was either taking my mother or her own image way too seriously.
The five year old child sometimes helped his mother with small things and sometimes played with a toy or looked at a book. The day came when my mother only paid Rachel for half her time because her son had not done any work.
“He can’t just sit there. He has to work, too.” My mother was indignant when she related this to me.
“He’s a kindergartener! There are child labor laws, Mom,” I said. “You don’t want to be hauled down in front of a judge, do you?”
I learned that Rachel was so upset she had fallen to pieces in the priest’s office. The result of this ugly affair was to step up the pressure on me To Do Something.
The priest’s wife wrote to me, “I am getting red flags. Mary doesn’t seem like herself. You need to be pro-active and decide as a family what you are going to do.”
I read this with amazement. I wondered first about her idea of family and the assumptions that went along with it. Did she think a family was a standard issue item and all families operated similarly? I wondered what she imagined we could do. These people scarcely knew my mother. She was behaving as she had for the 52 years I had known her. I didn’t see any red flags. She seemed exactly like herself.
“Why don’t you tell her that it’s God’s will that she move out of her house?” I asked. I was serious. I thought that ploy might actually stand a chance at working.
“We can’t make up God’s Will!”
“Of course you can. You do it all the time.” This earned me no points.
I mused over the idea that we own our own lives. We make them what they are. My mother was 88 years old. There she sat, alone in a gigantic house full of junk, three refrigerators stuffed with food, some of it there since I had lived in the house. She walked with a cane. She was losing weight, looked frail, and seemed woolly-headed. Aside from the aging, she was no different from the woman I had grown up with. She was out-spoken and demanding, but also generous and kind to people who weren’t family. I had come to think of her as disturbed, yes, but also a wily survivor; skillful at manipulating people, and capable of making life hellacious for everyone within 50 miles of her until she got exactly what she wanted.
My mother wanted the life she had. How prone people were to imposing their own notions about what would be a better life for her. However an assisted living facility might have improved her life –and there’s no guarantee it would have– the discomforts and hazards of her home were preferable to the terror and disruption of going someplace new. I was her only champion in this and I came to see it as a way of being respectful of her as a human being, something she had never been of me. It was a way to love that I had not learned from her.
There were also practical considerations: Undoubtedly her living at home was more convenient for me. All the work and responsibility of a move and subsequent interventions on her behalf would have fallen on me. I was already exhausted and had my own health concerns and limitations. And it meant money stayed put for the time being. I was all for that as well.
Alex had a different set of worries. “What if she gets her meds all mixed up or stops taking them? What if she falls?”
“Well, what if she does?” I said. “She is going to die one way or another. Maybe she’ll die from a fall while living exactly how she wants to live. She could fall in a nursing home, too.”
For a while we ticked along. The priest and his wife pressured my mother to move. Their church made it possible for her to stay in her home.
My mother demonstrated her mettle when she told the priest, “Leave me alone. You are treating me like I don’t know anything.”
At least this is what she reported to me. She also told me that the priest’s wife was stealing money out of her purse when she went up for Communion. I listened without commenting.
My mother’s last Christmas came early when she got to pull her church, her neighbors, her children and what friends she had left into a turmoil over what to do when the electricity went out in her house during a regional storm on the Thursday before the holiday. On Saturday, my brother got a call from the priest’s wife saying they had Mary with them but could not keep her after Tuesday as they had family coming in. What should they do? I got a similar call on Monday. I called back and left a message that I had choir performances all week, my mother was allergic to my cats, my back was going out (pretty much as I was speaking) and there wasn’t anything I could do. Weren’t there other parishioners who could spell them?
This was so unacceptable that the Big Guy, the Priest Himself called with the same question: What should they do?
I found this odd. Why weren’t they asking Mary what she wanted to do? Why wasn’t my mother doing the calling? Either she had gone into her Helpless Act and they were falling for it or she had said what she wanted to do and they were trying to over-rule her.
Since I had made the mistake of answering the phone when the priest called, I said, “There’s nothing I can do.”
“Well, I understand that there’s nothing your brother can do, he lives so far away, but you . . . You know we’ve had her for 5 days”
I wanted to scream, “I’ve had her for 52 years!” but all I said was “There’s nothing I can do.” This was what they taught you to do in assertiveness training. Keep repeating the same phrase even though you are about to crumple onto the floor with muscle spasms and anxiety.
“The thing is, she is your mother.”
I nearly turned inside out with rage. I wanted to say, “Hey, buddy, don’t even try that manipulative guilt shit with me. I was raised by the Master and you aren’t in her league.”
What I did say proved to be problematic for me down the road, “Take her home, light a fire and call social services.” And to redeem myself for the sarcasm, I added helpfully, “Or a hotel. That’s what a lot of people are doing here.”
He hung up on me.
I was shaking. Then I thought of her friends, Marie and Radcliffe. I called them, explained the situation and miraculously, they said she could stay with them. They said they would arrange it.
Radcliffe said, “I don’t think it’s safe for her to be living alone.”
Sweat was pouring down me. I could feel it in every crevice of my body. Was there no one who didn’t think it was all up to me to do something? But I didn’t want to alienate anyone who might help.
“Probably,” I said as evenly as I could. “But my mother is going to do exactly what she wants no matter what anyone thinks.”
“We know that,” Radcliffe said quietly.
I was so encouraged by his tone that stuff started spilling out of me, “She has her Helpless Face that she puts on when she wants someone to do something for her; she is capable of making everyone miserable until she gets her own way and she has undone everything Alex and I have done to help her be safe.”
“We know that, too.” His quiet voice on the other end of the line sounded like God.
I started to cry. “Thank you for saying that.”
“We feel badly that you and your brother are going through this.”
By the next morning, electricity had been restored to most of the city. Instead of going to Marie and Radcliffe’s, my mother went back to her home.
Alex called me that night to fill me in on a telephone conversation he had just finished having with our mother: She had wanted to go home after 24 hours of being at the priest’s house. She had been bored at first, then furious because she felt trapped. There was more: His home doesn’t look like a priest’s home. He doesn’t act like a priest. He goes around in his socks. When she was growing up, the priests were devout.
I started to laugh. So now the priest was on her shit list.
A few months later, Alex called me from California to say that our mother had been visited by social services. He was using his fussy-wussy voice and I thought, “Oh god, what now?” I thought that at least once a week.
“The priest reported her.”
“Are you sure?”
“Who else could it have been?”
“Well,” I thought. “The priest finally listened to me. He called social services.”
“So now she’s in The System,” Alex fussed. “And there’s this thing where They can go in without telling us and do things for her and then They get paid out of her estate after she dies and They don’t tell us.”
“Ah, geez. What’s the number?” I had no idea what he was going on about.
The next day I had a very nice chat with Hilda who explained the federal COPES program for which my mother did not qualify. She then went through her visit with my mother point by point, and finishing by saying that Mary was far from being incompetent or unable to live alone in her own home if that was what she wanted.
Hilda recommended trying to introduce some help with cleaning, maybe a panic button, and some support in the bathtub. We talked about ways of making these ideas palatable, even attractive, to someone as stubborn as my mother. It was a relief to talk to someone who did not advocate bull-dozing the elderly For Their Own Good.
I asked Hilda if she was going to pass this information on to the person who reported my mother, and she said no. And that was the last we ever heard of social services.
My brother had actually called social services once while my father was still alive and my parents had a rodent infestation. My father had insisted on trying to trap the vermin but he was losing the war. The basement smelled foul, the rest of the house almost as bad. My parents had told us to mind our own business when we tried to help.
“They have RATS in their basement,” Alex said, wanting to impress on the government worker that it was scandalous to live this way.
“Really?” was the reply. “How big are they?”
I took my friend Joan to Olympia with me one day. Actually, she asked to come. I call Joan my friend with the Theological Chops. She has a master of religious education from Loyola University. Her thesis was in Geriatric Spirituality.
She and my mother took a shine to each other and by the time we left, they had arranged for Joan to go back and do what no man or woman had ever been allowed to do, not even my father: clean out the upstairs refrigerator. After this job was completed a few weeks later, there was mending and other small things. I couldn’t have been more pleased. And with my new access to the family revenue, I could pay my friend for the work.
Unfortunately it was not the last of the priest. I recognized that for the priest to have called a government agency, the entire church was probably no longer coping with my mother’s situation. It’s a pity that he couldn’t have extrapolated enough to find some empathy for my brother and me who had been trying to cope with her for over half a century. I would have given anything to have had more support but the priest was in the business of giving orders, not listening to the concerns of someone who actually understood the situation. In his intrusion into our family, he was in over his head and hadn’t the humility to recognize it.
Unfortunately it was not the last of the priest. Stay tuned.