Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The well laid plans of mice and many

It should all go like clockwork.

7 minutes drive there, pick up the prescription, which I’ve already checked is ready and waiting, and then 7 minutes back into the garage, even if every traffic light is red. With a bit of luck in the green department, I could make the round trip in half the time. The expedition is timed to coincide with lunch, which means that Nonna is willing to hold the fort whilst small people consume welcome calories.

The table is laid in advance. All accompaniments doled out within easy reach of everyone at the table. Containment in one room is the norm, to minimize mess and engender warm family feelings of togetherness. I pop the piping hot loaf onto the board and give Nonna custody of the knife. I demand that each child verbally acknowledge that Nonna is in charge, and that each and every one of them will be good.

As I leave the house I ponder whether the term ‘good’ needed greater clarification?

I do not dally to chat with my pal the pharmacist. Instead I race home to arrive back in record time.

In the kitchen, I find Nonna, flustered and flapping a yoghourt top foil as globules fly, “wot you tink?”
“If it fall down…….which way?”
“Oh always soggy side down, it’s almost a scientific certainty.”
“Where it is…….dah ting?” she asks with the pot in one hand and the top in the other.
“I don’t know where the stain is but if you show me I’ll wipe it up for you, don’t worry, I’ll find a cloth.” I should probably have let her continue to search for a cloth herself, as now that I have interrupted her train of thought, we find that’s she forgotten where the blot was. A cat guards the blot, an easy visual clue under the table. Under the table there is the usual fall-out from those with poor co-ordination and weak motor skills, crumbs, slicks and slimes, a horrible sticky mess.

Strangely, no-one is at the table, just the debris. I turn to Nonna who hunts for a spoon in the kitchen. Her face shows high colour. “Are you o.k.?” I bellow.
“Ooo yes. I am just…….all worn out.”
“How come?” before she has a chance to answer I hear a small loud voice shout an unusually audible command, “more please, I am being dah hungry one still.” Even more strangely still, Nonna visibly or rather audibly, hears the request. She leans on the counter, one hand on her hip, the other outstretched shakily to point in the direction of the commander in chief, “it’s im……..he as worn me out…….I never see im eat so much……ever…….before………dey eat dah whole loaf of bread between dem…….I ave bin rushing back and forth a dozen times……or more!”

I skip to the family room where my son lolls on the carpet watching telly in the middle of the day, surrounded by his own personal nest of crumbs and smears, an empty plate at his feet, his feet, which like the rest of him, is devoid of clothing. I hear the exact same demand echoing from a different part of the house. I dash over to the different part of the house where my other son is in a similar condition in front of the computer screen in the hall. “And what exactly do you think you are doing young man?”
“I like Nonna baby sit. I good for Nonna.”

Moral :- define your terms.

Nonna gets a score of AAB* for her efforts.

I get the E for the effort to clean up.

AAB = Above And Beyond

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Single serving

I stumble down the stairs two hours late after a troublesome night with the boys. I am unable to calculate which is better, consecutive or simultaneous periods of nocturnal wanderings? On a Sunday morning I prepare myself mentally to cook pancakes for the masses and practice our weekly knife skills. At the foot of the stairs I note peace and quiet, aurally. Visually I note that everyone is wired into electronic devices at 7:30 in the morning, no-one is dressed. Nonna, wireless and without her hearing aid, beams in my direction as she sits next to her son at the dining room table. “Good morning Maddy. How nice to have a lie in.” I plop on the chair next to them as her son’s attention remains glued to the lap top screen. “Aren’t you so lucky to ave im as a husband?” I look at unshaven, disheveled Mr. Lucky. There are many ways to describe our relationship but ‘lucky’ doesn’t even come close right now.

I heave out of my chair to go and greet everyone individually. Each individual is unable to break their attention from their current occupation, so I leave them in peace and trundle to the kitchen. Hot air pumps out from every vent to counteract the chill open window in Nonna’s room. En route to the kitchen I find many, many empty containers of single serving cereal packets, a holiday treat and gift from one of our overly generous neighbours. I stand with armfuls, far more than six, as Nonna brightens, “dey are very nice doz, I ad some of dem for a change.” Her son awakens at the same time, “yes by the time I got down here they’d already had breakfast. Quite lucky really, so I didn’t have to try and cook.” How frightfully trying indeed. Now I have missed the only opportunity to get one weekly egg into each of my children. I acknowledge to myself privately, that I am now officially in a foul mood.

The trouble with skipping an hour is that during my absence, nothing happens. A void appears in time which means that everything has to be shunted forward, concertina style. None of these people are capable of being hurried or harried.

An extreme but fictional example may clarify.

Just suppose that the time fairy visited to scoop away most of the day. At 2:50 in the afternoon, every one has either grazed continuously or stolen food. No-one is really hungry. However, as snack time approaches at three, a hue and cry emerges. Everyone demands breakfast, morning snack, lunch and afternoon snack, which must be in the right sequential order and resemble each definitive ‘meal.’ None of them can be skipped over.

Sensible people might suggest that my compliance is foolish, and I would tend to agree. However, at the current stage of development we are unable to gloss over this hurdle. To deny designated ‘meals’ is tantamount to parental neglect, aligned and associated with starvation, regardless of bulging tummies. The tears are real. Reasoning skills are subject to too much stress. There is nothing for it but to produce mini replicas of each, if sanity and calm is to be restored.

Nonna gives them the tip off, even though technically no-one is listening. “What number it is?”
“28th, Sunday.”
“So we’ve ad Christmas den?”
“So now we are ave pancakes for breakfast!”
The words ‘pancakes, pancakes, pancakes,’ echo around the room from several unacknowledged parties.

Probably just as well really.

The relief, if not joy, of being saved from a concertina day.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sugar Plum Fairy

Every once in a while I’m tempted to run from the room screaming “why can’t you all leave me alone?” and then I wake up to start another new day.

It is on just such a day that I busy myself with tidiness whilst the children play in the dog park with all other members of the family, barring Nonna. Nonna sits on the couch with her crossword puzzle yelling clues at me, not because I am deaf but because I am a rapidly moving target. In between yells devours piles of candy with glee. The stack of neatly collected candy sits on the tray on the empty seat of the sofa, within easy reach. A foolish error on my part.

As always I dither. It seems inappropriate to advise one’s elders and betters about candy consumption, even if they do happen to be diabetic. On the other hand, quite often Nonna forgets what she has consumed, towit four mugs of espresso in twenty minutes. In other circumstances I would more than welcome her wolfing her grand-children’s candy supplies, as sugar often affects their activity rates, autistic or otherwise.

After more than an hour I have made discernible dent in the mess nor have I managed to contribute usefully to the puzzle completion. On the other hand the pile of candy has disintegrated to a few crumbs.
“Wot about dis one den?” she hollers as she scrumples another wrapper. I sweep past weighed down with boxes of recycling Christmas paper, “hmm?”
“Wot dis say, it is…… ‘American seasonal treat beats the way up?’ Wot you tink den?”
“Er…..an anogram maybe?”
“I know dat……but wot is dah answer?”
“Let me think about it …….a while.”
As she sucks a finger tip she scribbles on the margin of the paper, “so we ave ‘candy’…….and…… ‘canes.’ Wot you tink den?”
“Hmm.” I remain focused on the tasks at hand, namely tidying up and formulating tonight’s menu before we are deluged with children again. I am in desperate need of more potato recipes as there are still two untouched 10 lb bags of potatoes lolling around the garage in idleness, instead of fuelling my family on the cheap. I hear another wrapper rustle. It catches my eye as it falls to a glint on the carpet between Nonna’s feet. As I reach across to pick it up Nonna’s eyes are upon me above a broad grin, a child caught in the act of mischief, “you worry too much you know. Soon you will be old and lonely, just like me.”
I gulp guilt. I pause and sit back on my hunkers, “aren’t you a bit worried about your sugar levels?” I yell.
“Phiff! No. I don’t worry. I’ll worry when I’m dead.” I know my face furrows. “Don’t look at me like dat!”
“But your test will be high tomorrow and then you’ll be……annoyed.”
“Tests! Phiff! I jus forget to do dah test.”
I roll my eyes, mock despair. I just don’t know what to do with her.
“Aha!” she beams…..I got it……ascendancy!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My next career = the diplomatic corps

After more dithering than usual, I admit defeat and hire a babysitter, such that I am able to visit the dentist without a care, or less care than I would otherwise experience.

I prep the baby sitter and demonstrate the choice of five different holiday crafts available to entertain the troops. I hand her the itemized check list regarding bolters, unexpected hazards such as toilet brushes, guide her to the snacks and generally cross all ‘i’s and dot all ‘t’s.

As I hover in the kitchen I explain that technically Nonna is in charge, that she, the baby sitter is her designated helper, but not really, although she really is. She looks at me with a quizzical expression. Clearly my earlier confirming telephone conversation fell on deaf ears, and they weren’t Nonna’s deaf ears. I am confident that I will return within the allotted time span, before the bewitching hour of 5:30 and electronics time, just in time to make a scratch supper. I dither as the minutes tick by, say my good-byes and depart.

I stagger home with a brilliantly shining set of gnashers two hours later. Two years of clag has been chiseled off my teeth, post braces and surgery. I am probably two stone lighter. The house is both calm and silent, surely it is uninhabited? At the table sits the baby sitter, cutting coupons. There is no sign of Nonna or anyone else for that matter. On the table are three tree ornaments from a remarkably creative set of hands. I wonder whose hands? I look at the baby sitter and she smiles in return. “Um…..all well?”
“How are the children…….or rather……where are the children?”
“Oh they’re jus playin. If yah can sign the forms?” I scribble my illegible signature on the papers and skuttle off on the hunt for small people. All the small people are in the hall, wired into their computer games at 5:10 in the afternoon. “Did you get electronics early for making those wonderful decorations?” No-one so much as lifts an eye-brow because I am invisible, despite the flashy neon teeth. I peek in on Nonna with an open book on her chest. “Everything go o.k? Any problems?” I yell.
“No….everyting fine…..but I was bored you know….coz you can’t talk to dem when dey are doing the electronics times.”
“Oh I’m sorry about that…..how long have they been doing electronics?”
“From the moment you left…….dat was it….” she opens her arms in a gesture of defeat, one that I am all too familiar with.
“Did you like it?”
“Like what?”
“Dem…..doz tings.”
“Which things?”
“Yes they’re perfect…….magnificent…….” I beam as the light dawns.
“You know………it’s dah first time I have ever done anyting like dat before.”
"This time next year we'll have you all set up on Etsy!"
"You can knock out a dozen a day! We'll all be millionaires!"

There’s a first time for everything I suppose, although I expect 'exploitation of elders' may put a spanner in the works.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Widow’s weeds

I dash around the house collecting discarded clothing for a final, last minute, emergency laundry load, but that’s the trouble with holidays.

Why everyone appears to need to drop their drawers, if not ping them to the far corners of every room, I shall never know. I think this must be the catapault stage of development: how far can single sock travel in an even trajectory, does the right sock travel further than the left sock, is cotton more pingworthy than wool? I spy a purple fluffy toe stuffed between two sofa cushions but as I pull it out I also find several tatty handkerchieves, balled up and slightly graying. It appears that Nonna has become a co-conspirator on the laundry front. Why can’t she use tissues like everyone else, although to be fair, everyone else uses various parts of their anatomy or any handy piece of upholstery. As I plop them into bucket to soak, I notice a monogramme but it’s the wrong initials. It is a large man’s hanky. Married for more than fifty years, widowed but a few short long months.

Although I am officially allergic to ironing, I may just have to make an exception.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Daily constitutional

At breakfast on a Sunday the boys practice their cutting skills on their pancakes. It’s a once a week practice session, also duplicated with the occupational therapists. How to hold a knife? How to hold a fork? Generally they eat with their fingers or a spoon. It is quite remarkable how many foods fall into the category of ‘finger foods.’ It’s just another one of that self formulating habits that I need to address. It should be daily. It should be every meal but for the time being I already have too much on my plate. I would dearly love to shoot the person who said ‘every opportunity is a learning opportunity,’ mainly because I know they are right. For the time being it is a weekly tackle, sacrosanct.

We gently prompt the usual. Prompt and redirect. Find a plate. Prompt and focus. Find a knife. Prompt and remove distractions. Find a fork. Prompt and encourage executive function. Transfer pancake from the stack to your own plate. It takes forever but we have gift of time on a Sunday. I turn my attention to the ringing telephone, always a mistake. By the time I return Nonna is busy at the table, carefully cutting two sets of pancakes into bite sized squares for her grinning grandson’s, who are smug with satisfaction. I bite my lip and my tongue as Nonna enjoys her role as helper.

How will I ever get the balance right between so many competing needs? There are currently far too many ‘shoulds’ in my life, so I make do with ‘good enough.’

Whilst the boys struggle to dress upstairs, I wander the house downstairs, with Nonna, as she does every day. She notes all things of interest. Everything is of interest and effectively new and novel every day. I am unsure if this is reassuring or merely more confusing. She pauses at each weigh station to enquire with the same queries. I make the time. 20 precious minutes to accompany her, just in case. As long as the boys emerge eventually with some sort of clothing on their bodies, that will just have to do.
“Dat’s new!”
“Yes, we didn’t have that on your last visit.”
“Wot it is do?”
“It’s a motion sensor. Every time it detects movement it switches on to light the corridor, helps save accidents when people can’t find the light switch.”
“Ooo……very clever. I like it.” I’m glad that she like’s it as much today as she did yesterday and the day before. I’m glad that the unfamiliar corridor is safe for her nocturnal wanderings.
“Wot is dis ting den?”
“I’m knitting a bear.”
“Ooo dat’s so soft. Are you going to stuff it with cotton wool?”
“Too heavy. They recommend some ultra light filling but I’ve not been able to track down a supplier yet.”
“Is it a present?”
“Yes. A Christmas present.”
“Christmas. It is Christmas?”
“Not yet, Thursday, today is the 19th. 5 days to go. You can see it on the children’s tick down chart over there.”
“Ooo dat’s nice, you made a chart for dem. Did you do dat today?”
It’s a labyrinth. 19 days yet each one is effectively the same.
“Wot does dat say den?”
At last something really new!
“It says ‘chocolate pudding.’”
“He wrote dat himself?”
“I see he is reversing his ‘ds’, he wrote ‘bs’ by mistake,” she chuckles with indulgence. She draws a finger through the air to demonstrate. It’s a hurdle that all children must overcome those tricky b’s and d’s. I swallow hard and blink hard. He’s written it perfectly. She reads every day, it is her main occupation, the classics, the contemporary, the Christmas cards, the same ones, every day, the humourous children’s cartoon book that I’ve failed to put away so that she comes across it at 20 minute intervals and so reads it again, just like the first time, so funny and amusing, each new time. I could weep but of course that would be foolish. Nonna is perfectly happy. I should be too.

Rose tinted spectacles

Once I’ve cleaned up after lunch and mopped the floor I tackle the laundry. In less than 24 hours I need to change six beds but this will not be possible unless I catch up with last week’s laundry. I have no choice but to spill over out of the tiny utility room into the tiny kitchen to fight six double duvet covers into submission when Nonna appears.

“Oh gawd! Wot died dere den?”
“Hush! She’ll here you!”
“Eh? Oh……so…….wot it is?”
“Coconut ice, but she went a bit mad with the food colouring.”
“It’s……puce,” she chuckles. She picks up a crumb and examines it closely before she pops it in, “tastes good though!”
“And as we all know that’s all that matters.”
“Don’t look at me like dat, my lips are sealed,” she whispers as she steals another crumb on departure. She pauses, eagle eyed as ever, “take care wiv dat.”
“With what?”
“Your clean linen.”
“I am.”
“No…..I mean………don’t fold on the floor……the floor is dirty……”
“But I just……” we both look more closely. We both jam our bifocals to the bridge of noses to see a trail of neon pink coconut crumbs that travel from kitchen to family room. “Dey are a bunch of thieves your children, aren’t dey?” she beams as she shakes another palmful of crumbs into her hand. I move to thwack her with a tea towel but she can be pretty nippy sometimes!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Our lives cycle through family routines. One of our routines during the festive season, is to sing before bedtime. At 7:30 every night Nonna announces to all present that she is going to bed.
“You can’t! It’s only 7:30,” he bellows at his mother pointing to the clock above her head as he tilts her by the shoulders. The whereabouts of the clock is always a mystery.
“Gawd! Only 7:30? But it’s dark!”
“Anyway, you can’t go to bed yet, we’re going to sing.”
“Sing? Can you sing?”
“Yes. We sing every night remember?”
“Wot you sing den?”
“The 12 days of Christmas.”
“It is Christmas?”
“No, not yet, not until Thursday.”
“Wot number it is today?”
“Can’t you sing anything else?”
“No. That’s the only one I know,” he lies. She chuckles as he herds her into the family room, each night, every evening. I always have the same mis-givings: do we stick to the familiar script to avoid confusion or should we freshen the communication with a new version that reflects the respect we should have for everyone? It seams clear to me that on the 19th day of December, this routine has not been adopted by anyone. It still requires Herculean effort to persuade everyone to join in.

On the 19th day of December I phone my father. My father sits in his wing backed chair by the afternoon coal fire. His elbows rest on the arms with his fingers interlocked under his chin as his eyes rest. When the telephone rings at full volume, his right hand drops to the receiver and he delivers his script. I am careful to ensure that my first words hit the mark, “Happy Birthday dad!”
“Oh it’s you dear. Thank you. Would you like to talk to your mother?” The same, always the same. I can see every nuance from a distance of over 5000 miles in a different time zone. I chat to my mother about her frustrations. All over the world people cope with what used to be merely elderly but what is now labeled Alzheimer’s. I have no answers nor guidance merely a willing ear. “Did he thank you for your present? I bet he didn’t, did he.”

My dad, the politest man to ever grace the planet, or so I liked to think. Not the politeness of etiquette, but the real politeness. The ability to put other people at their ease, the skill of noting the details with the precision of gentle appreciation.
“I’ll put him back on the line, I’ll make him thank you. It’s ridiculous that he can just get away with it!” I wince at her desperation, clinging to a man that no longer exists in the same form. I weep silent tears for my dad who doesn’t need them.

It’s a solo performance as he belts out the lyrics. I herd children and persuade people to follow my finger along the lines of words. One of my sons adds a noise to the end of each ditty, another places soft puffed icon on the accompanying banner. Someone has the habit of running off with the ‘five gold rings’ for nefarious purposes of his own.

Nonna taps her ears either to tune in to the song, or possibly to tune out. I snap the book shut with the crescendo of the finale, a visual and aural cue for them to scarper, a flock of birds in flight. Four adults sigh a deep breath. “Are you finished den?” she asks, her head tilted, expectant.
“I can go to bed now?” she asks her son, pulling her cardi in tight to her chest, an innocent? Maybe mischievous? I cannot tell. I prefer not to know.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Suck it up

I hop between jobs, peel potatoes, knead bread, prepare supper, finish the nightgown with the aid of a persuasive iron and lay the table. Nonna is at a loose end and ever so slightly expectant. As I jump from the sewing machine to turn the bread over in the oven, Nonna reaches for the bundle of sewing, “so wot you do wiv dis den?”
“I’m just about to put the other sleeve in and then with a bit of luck I’ll be able to finish it up before she gets home.”
“Right, well I’ll put the sleeve in for you den,” she announces as she turns on her heel back to the table and sewing machine. I stand with a tea towel in my hand ready to protest but suddenly wordless. I pause. How to stall her politely? Why the sewing? Why not the potatoes or something useful? I don’t really want someone else sewing my gift for my daughter. I pout. I crash around the kitchen and my other chores, which are chores, rather that fun relief from the tedium, trying to think. Nobody does other people’s sewing, mid-sew. I mentally list Nonna’s other interventions, reading the half read book, somebody else’s book, usually my book, apparently because I make good choices, drying up one cup when there are half a dozen on the drainer, the extra row on the knitting, the last entry on the cross-word puzzle, an endless litany of minor irritations.

My ire rises as I storm around the kitchen. The nerve of the woman. I am slightly relieved by the thought that few people can fathom other people’s sewing machines, but mine is both ancient and basic. I think other evil thoughts because as always, I’ve yanked the power cord from the wall, a habit provoked by numerous small people in the vicinity. She’ll never notice, merely thwarted.

This is payback for my anal retentive nature. What does it matter anyway? Surely her showing enthusiasm is a plus? She used to sew, back in the day, but lost interest in the interim. Perhaps I should buy some knitting for her, take her to the sewing shop, pop a crossword puzzle book in her stocking? I need to be more pro-active.

This is a crash course in ‘how to be easy going’ or ‘how to let go’ or ‘how to live harmoniously.’ I swear I shall snap through my retainer if I continue to grind my teeth so viciously. I mash potatoes with venom and narrowly avoid a squirt of vented spleen. For forty minutes I tarry in the kitchen as Nonna tangles with the threads. I could have had the whole thing finished by now if only I’d had the bottle to usurp her. Instead I grow gall stones of bile. All I want to do is hide it before my daughter comes home, as I grow weary of lying to everyone about what I am making for whom, like a badly executed shell game.

Oh just say something you lilly livered land lubber, she won’t mind. But she might mind. She might not mind when I say something the first time, but the second time I’ll have to yell and it’s hard to hide annoyance if I’m also yelling at the same time. The two seem to meld together. I might burst a blood vessel just to relieve the strain. Nonna splattered with not so sanguine.

“There! All done!” she beams extending her handiwork for my inspection. I dry my hands to receive the offering. She is as pleased as punch. I’m so tempted to sit down and finish the whole thing in 7 minutes flat, but I can tell that she’s staying, has no intention of leaving. I refuse to let my petty mindedness get the better of me. How humiliating and galling to watch your daughter in law complete something with a fraction of the effort and time. Just plain mean. “That’s great, thank you so much.” I attempt a weak smile in the reflexion of more radiant beams. “I shall start dah neck now….” but I break in as I see the headlights in the driveway, “no that’s o.k., I need to hide it as she’ll be in the door any minute.” We both turn to face the entrance, shoulder to shoulder with the nightgown bundled behind her back.

Climbing the Stairway to Heaven

I herd the recovered sicklies to the door ready for school. At last, finally, I shall be able to prepare for the holidays. “Bye Mom! Shurt day today!”
Dang I had forgotten that Wednesdays are half days.
I kiss foreheads and elbows and lips, as I fasten zippers, tie shoe laces and generally abandon all current ‘self help’ campaigns in the face of expediency.

As the car spurts them all away for a couple of hours, I am left in my kitchen in the middle of my house, a house devastated by the full time occupation of two sicklies for four days running. I am so behind with my preparations that it is difficult to determine where to start?

The bright gem of the day is the collection of my daughter from SFO back from an Australian summer. How delightful to have all my babies home for the holidays, peacefully aslumber in the bosom of our family.


I startle as I dash towards her room, her room that has become the temporary depository for ‘things that I do not have time to do right now.’ Right now, I can barely heave back the door, full to bursting with stuff:- the futile fax machine and the passed out printer, both of which were too heavy to lug onto the overflowing “pending mending” shelf in the garage, the new and broken picture which failed to survive 24 hours and all that shattered glass, boxes and boxes of holiday decorations, broken Pokemon and confiscated toys on temporary time outs.

Nonna appears at my shoulder, "look at choo! You're like an old mudder hen!"
"Yes....nestin for all you're little chicks to come ome and flock together!"
I pout, because she's such a little tease.
"Well……dat’s a bit of a job,” she adds peering around the room.
“You’re not kidding.”
“Yes, you’re right!” I bellow.
“Didn’t dere used to be a bed in ere?”
“Yes, it’s under all that…….those……boxes.”
“Ow are you going to make dah bed with all those nonsense.”
“I’m going to stick it all up in the roof.”
“Do you ave dah time……with Christmas and everything?”
“I’ll just have to make the time.”
“It’s a big job.”
“I’ll say.”
“Are you quite sure dat she wants to sleep in the attic?”
“Sleep in the attic?”
“Who’s sleeping in the attic?”
“Er……I thought that’s what you said……..dat you’re going to take dah bed up into the attic for her…..because she’s coming home from Australia?”
I look at Nonna with a hint of twinkle in her eyes. “Do you know I think you’re probably right. It’ll be quicker to leave the mess down here and zap the bed into the roof than to try and clear this rubbish heap.”
“Pity though.”
“The ole.”
“The hole?”
“The ole in the roof.”
“What hole in the roof?”
“You know…..dat ting?”
“What thing?”
“The ole …….it’s small.”
“I didn’t know that there was a hole in the roof, small or otherwise?”
She chuckles as she hunts for the word, the elusive one.
“I mean……what is dat ting! Dah ole in the ceiling…….dat leads to dah attic…….is too small……to fit a bed through it.”
Nonna steps back, knuckles to hips to form flapping wings before she makes one single, well timed cluck.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Stitch in time

It’s an unusual and novel experience for me. As I pretend to sew a nightgown for my daughter, Nonna assists. I have never had anyone help me sew. I have never been the centre of attention whilst engaged in such a mundane activity. It is a little like reading a book with someone else there poised to turn the pages for you. It is thoroughly disconcerting. Her devotion to the nightgown is so touching which heightens my guilt.

I have become an accomplished liar. To Nonna, I explain it is for her grand-daughter. To her grand-daughter I explain that it is for her big sister. To her big sister I explain the subterfuge, all in an attempt to be able to sew whilst a wide spectrum of persons circulate through the house at varying times of the day, and sometimes night.

She smooths the fabric, pats the pattern tissue and irons everything that isn’t nailed to the table, several times. We engage in a cyclical conversation:-
“Wot you do?”
“I’m sewing a nightgown for her.”
“When did you cut it out?”
“Have you done the gathers yet?”
“Not quite.”

I am quite certain that I shall make some serious errors in the project as it is so difficult to concentrate whilst drowning in so much unfamiliar assistance.

I am about ready to sew my fingers together when Nonna makes an announcement.
“I think I shall go for a walk, it might elp me to wake up a little.”
“What a superb idea!” I reply with far too much exaggerated enthusiasm.

Oh for a moment or two to make some progress.

As her steps leave the room I knuckle down and put the sewing machine over the speed limit in order to finish in time for the school run. I beam in my solitude, race seams, tuck and tie. I may just manage to task completion today! What a boon. As the teeny tiny light bulb on the machine flickers with it’s intermittent fault, it forces my blink mode to function.



Unfamiliar surroundings.

Unsteady gait.

One leg shorter than the other.

I toss the nightgown and dash to the front door scattering pins in flight. Which way did she go? I skip up the road in my fluff muffs on the off chance that she headed for the shops. At the cross roads there is no sign of her in any direction. I skuttle back the other way in soggy muffs that attract dried leaves. At the main road there is no sign of her in either direction. I scoot back to the house, coatless, flustered and Nonnaless.

I dither in the hall. 40 minutes until pick-up. 20 minutes drive to school. Maybe I could drive around for 20 minutes beforehand and hope that we bump into each other, although not literally.

This is ridiculous. She is a perfectly healthy, mature adult. She doesn’t need a nanny running around ninniless, making mountains out of molehills. There again, she is an elderly woman, who has never walked out of this house alone in all the 10 years that she has visited.

I hop in the hall, a common recent activity that I have acquired. Maybe I should phone him, although he never picks up? If he does pick up he will only be able to donate half a brain cell to the conversation. Then I shall have to ask him to sit down, which will be quite shocking at the other end of the telephone line. He will immediately be on notice that disaster has struck. Maybe I should email him instead, whereupon he will devote at least five brain cells to my message.
I dither over the phraseology:- “dearest one, I just wanted to let you know that I somewhat carelessly managed to mislay your mother today. She has been lost for approximately one and a half French Seams and 6 inches of lace.
Which would you prefer?
A] come home and search for your mother
B] collect your children so that I can continue the hunt for your mother
C] take the afternoon off so that you can visit your lawyer and file divorce papers.
Yours truly and with most sincere apologies,
Thickie, Thickie, Dumb Dumb, Snr.”

I hear the toilet flush and see Nonna appear in the hall like magic, pick up her coat and bag ready for her walk, examine them, put them down again and glance in my direction, “oh dere you are? Ave you been for a walk? Dat’s nice. Exercise helps clear dah mind. Why are you so……dirty?” We look at the leaf covered, bedraggled fluff muffs together in silence. “Well…….I’ll leave you to your sewing. I tink I’ll go and ave a little rest.”

I hit ‘delete, do not send, do not save.’

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cross over strategies

During the day, Nonna and I manage reasonably well. During the weekends her son is around to help field the demands, requests and needs of everyone but when the children return from school there are more demands upon my attention without another adult to field.

On the day that two children are at home sick, it becomes immediately apparent that I am in dire need of an alternate fielder. Because there is illness, there are short fuses and fuzziness.

One huge hurdle is Nonna’s inability to hear when other people are speaking. Another huge hurdle is the children’s speech delay. Whilst they struggle to formulate a question, statement or comment, Nonna talks simultaneously. This produces a cacophony of sounds and a great deal of upset all round. Accusations of ‘interrupting’ from the young with accompanying meltdowns, and accusations of disrespect from the "older generation" with accompanying hurt feelings. Nonna can’t hear the screams of "you said dat already, "my turn." The children do not understand deafness fully. The children cannot understand why an adult would be behave in what they recognize to be a rude manner.

I am at a loss as to how to bring the two warring factions back to harmony?

I take temperatures on the hour to save confusion. “What you are do to his ear?”
“It’s a thermometer, to check on his fever?”
“Is he ill?”
“When he is better?”
“Don’t know I’m afraid. We’ll just have to let it run it’s course.”
“A day off school won’t hurt.”
“No, although it’s the second day. Better this week than next week though.”
“Wot happen next week den?”
“Christmas? Already? It’s not cold enough for winter.”
“Next week.”
“Wot dah number today?”
“Tuesday the 16th of December.”

It’s the same exchange we have had every 20 minutes since early in the morning.

“When it is?” ask the sniffly one.
“Remember? Look at the timer dear.”
He jumps unsteadily off the couch to peer at the count down timer to see that there is still another six hours and 20 minutes until electronics time. We have had this same exchange every 15 minutes since early in the morning.

I pause, wipe off the end of the thermometer and reach for the white chart. It only take a few moments to cover the main pertinent points, those most persistent of recurring questions. It is important to keep elderly people engaged, included and stimulated. It’s not a permanent solution but during the times when I am tied up with other commitments, I hope I can gently guide Nonna through her own stressful world. She’s seen me use this many times with the children. With a little imagination it can easily be disguised to appear to be for their benefit, and surreptitiously help me too.

All "tips" and tricks gratefully accepted.

Baby steps and long leaps

Grief is natural when a life ends. A long life, with a life partner is not made easier by platitudes. So often the survivor fails to thrive, withers or takes more drastic action.

Some days are up but still punctured with reminders that startle the unwary. Some days are down but lightened by minescule memories of past. Although I have never experienced this kind of grief, I am humbled to witness other people cope with their emotions.

As soft rain falls on a dull Monday morning I find Nonna rummaging around in the kitchen drawers.

“May I help you?”
I try again, yell, “what are you looking for?” Her startle flusters us both, “oh nothing,” she responds with a hint of furtive. She appears harried, maybe embarrassed, perhaps caught in the act?

“I can’t find it?”
“What are you looking for? I can help you?”
“No……I do it myself thank you.”

An attempt at independence in unfamiliar surroundings? Should I leave her to flounder? Why is it so difficult to know what the right thing to do? It’s undignified to be treated like a child. Has she forgotten what she’s looking for, an all too familiar problem and not restricted to the elderly? Has she mislaid the correct word or only have the Italian version available? I turn my attention away to the potatoes, all of us have eyes in the back of our heads, me, Nonna and a bag full of spuds.

“So tell me?”
“Why you don’t do your pottery no more?”
“No time. You’ve seen what it’s like around here? Absolutely crazy busyness.”
“You should.”
“I know.”
“You need something……to keep your mind occupied…..something to stop…..”
“Me going completely insane?”
“Is that how you feel?”
“Me? No I’m fully occupied thank you.”
Nonna sighs with her hands on her hips, defeated, “it’s no good I don know where it is?”
“I need a little bag.”
“You were right. They’re just there in the drawer, at the back.”
“Bigger……I need a bigger bag.”
“A carrier? They’re over here, do you have some trash….er…..rubbish?”
“No…..I need a big bag plastic bag to put over my head.” I turn on my heel to cast a glance over my fragile mother in law, big bones aside. “It’s o.k…....…we all have bad days….....…come and sit down….......I’ll make you a cup of coffee…….......we can talk.....…….chat….....…about…......…..him.”
“O.k………..but after……”
“After what?”
“After I’ve bathed with the bag as a shower cap.”

At least that provides the opportunity for the ideal holiday

Monday, December 15, 2008

Sub Zero

My nightly routine before turning into bed has altered over the last decade and is far more in line with the rest of humanity:- tidy up, wash up, toilet, clean teeth, lock all doors and windows, slug the pack ice that grows like fungus in the back of the fridge with a rolling pin, turn off the lights and off to bed.

All very straight forward.

Since I am usually the last one to turn in, I can rest easy in the assurance that all is well with the world. Every so often, something occurs to upset the routine. The something that occurs this time, comes in the form of Nonna, as many elderly people suffer from insomnia. She catches me mid swing, her hands fly to her mouth to muffle the small squeak, “wot you are doing to your beautiful fridge?”
“It’s not beautiful, it’s stupid. It’s never worked properly from the first day we moved in, 13 years ago, and here it still is, the useless pile of rusty, old, steel……and it’s uneconomic,………and the freezer is permanently frozen shut…….and all the seals have perished…….I’m sure it’s a health hazard as it’s not cold enough in here despite that 6 inch deposit of ice……..….and it’s very environmentally unfriendly.”
“I’d be unfriendly I was bashed with a rolling pin every night.”

Saturday, December 13, 2008

3/8th of a notion – you win some

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I sold myself to the American Christmas pyjama trend but sold my mother in law "short." As I watch her freeze and shrivel in the cold nights, I decide that a new nightgown might be just the right "gift" under the circumstances.

I steal myself off to the store to buy a pattern and material. I dither over designs, dull, old ladyish or neon radiant, nothing in-between. I plump for a neutral floral and hope to jazz it up a little. I scour through other choices, what are referred to in the trade as ‘notions.’ It’s a curious collective noun that means all the bits and bobs you need to finish a garment. Things like zips, cotton, lace, bias binding, buttons and snaps. In the olden days these items were purchased from a Haberdashers, singly: three buttons for the neck and one for each cuff. Today we buy them in sets, 6 buttons where you need one, five buttons to a pack when you need twelve. It’s all designed to send the shabby shopper shaky. It soon becomes apparent that I will effectively spend more money on this one gown that I would if I bought 5 garments from any high street shop. The store assistant is reassuring, “but it’s so much more fun to make your own.” I am in desperate need of a little fun as I dash back to the car with my unmarked bag all ready to secret in the depths of my home, far away from prying eyes.

I make a start on the birthday cake, leave the eggs out to gain room temperature, check that my spring form pans aren’t sprung. I make a start on supper before the deluge of play date victims arrive and check that the diabetic is pilled and eaten. I phone the party guests that have not replied 24 hours prior to the date in question, and leave what I hope are polite, if somewhat breathy messages. I try to think of a way to remind myself to remember to phone my own father on his birthday. It has to be between the hours of 8 and ten in the morning here. To phone later will induce a heart attack, as phone calls after the designated hour indicate a dire emergency or sudden death, only. This thought reminds me to hang up the seventh stocking, an extravagant purchase as I’ve no time to make an additional one for Nonna, not that she minds such things.

So much for frugality.

Shortly thereafter I find that I do not have the time to complete the project, or rather, start the project. The problem with the project is that I need to make it a surprise. A surprise must be assembled in private. I opt for upstairs as the climb is beyond Nonna’s capabilities.

I lay out the fabric on the carpet and resist the urge to curl up next to it, foetal, for a quick nap. I avoid beginner mistakes such as pinning the pattern and the material to the carpet or cutting through the material and the carpet at the same time. One cat watches me, or rather, watches the yards of flimsy, attractive and crackly paper pattern.

I divide my time between two or three snips with the scissors and then two or three dashes back downstairs to administer to a wide variety of malfunctioning domestic appliances that fail to co-operate with Nonna. The cat waits patiently for each departure so as to take full advantage of the opportunity to shred the tissue with razor sharp claws.

I attempt rationale thought. I need an etiquette guru, preferably an American one. What is the correct response to the child who requests a play date at our house? Friday afternoon play dates are now fully booked, or rather just full. 6 children at once is my preferred limit. The seventh child on two consecutive weeks is a stretch. How can I avoid a third visit politely? Is it possible for me to say it out loud: ‘maybe next time, he could come to your house?’ I suspect that such outspoken foreigners are subject to instant deportation. I wonder when I became so spineless?

I pick up the phone to speak to the man with no preliminaries and even fewer social skills but my expectations of typical, normal, people are low these days.

On completion I have what appears to be a mound of fabric shapes that could amount to anything, as long as I remember to hide the pattern picture which give size details. I leave the bedroom in chaos, as it is impractical to sew upstairs even after I attempt to heave the 35 lb sewing machine to a new destination, one without a handy power outlet.

I nip downstairs to make a start, confident that I can maintain a secret or two, whip off the sewing machine cover and power up.

I finish two seams before making a dive for the car and the school run, “are you going to collect dah children?”
“It is time…….already?”
“Sure is?”
“Wait a minute……..I come with you.”
I hop from foot to foot in the garage, waiting and watching the second hand. She appears at the door only to disappear again. We repeat the glimpse a few times more as she gathers sunglasses, a bag, a jacket, her hearing aides and new batteries. I practice breathing exercises.

The school collection is a success. I return home with seven children, 3 of my own and four additions, so more of a limited success depending upon the parameters. Small people flood into the house with Nonna bringing up the rear.

I decide to attempt a couple more seams whilst the children snack and regroup. Nonna wanders over clutching a bottle, “wot it means?”
I peer through dirty bifocals, “er…..kills 99% of germs.”
“I bet it’s the other 1% that kills us,” she beams. I attempt a return beam. “Wot you got der den?”
“I can see dat. Wot you sew. Wot’s it going to be?”
“A winter nightgown for her, keep her toasty and warm,” I bellow.
“Why it is so…..raggy?”
“I was in a hurry to cut it out.”
“Short cuts won’t be short cuts in the long run you know?”
“I know, believe me I know.”
“It’s a bit……”
“You know?”
“Er…..old ladyish.”

Later, I notice the traffic of 9 people through the kitchen during the afternoon. Each of one swipes a whip of chocolate ganache frosting from the counter as I wait for it to cool, as I wait for people to collect their children.

When the last child has departed I assemble supper, lay the table, ignore the piles of devastation and tackle the cake. I finish the last slick of ganache whilst Nonna observes, “is dat for dessert tonight den?”
“No it’s for her birthday party tomorrow.”
I look at her face as there’s a catch in her voice.
“Oh nothing.”
“Well I just eard er say dat she wanted white buttercream.”
“Oh dear. Did she say that recently?”
“Breakfast. Today. I tink.”
“Oh dear.”
“Do you think you have time……to make another one?”
“Might as well……all those fingers in the frosting more or less guarantees a plague of contamination.”

Friday, December 12, 2008

Just keep peddling

I adjust to the new cycles in my life, not Alzhiemers but a combination of age, forgetfulness and jet lag. Instead of a few productive child free hours whilst they are at school, I have a constant companion with a panoply of comments and questions.

“What it is?”
“It’s Thursday.”
“No, what number?”
“Yes, time marches on.”

“Oh there you are! Where have you bin?”
“Nowhere, just here, still washing up.”

“Why the light is red?”
“I need to refill it.”

“Where dey are?”
“At school.”
“No…..dah cats?”
“Sleeping in a hidey hole somewhere, I’ll dig them out for you in a minute.”

“Wot we do today?”
“The usual…..let me see…….shall we check the calendar?”

“Can you turn it on for me please?”
“I’ll just dry my hands. Do you want a cup of coffee with the BBC News?”

“When dey are home?”
“We’ll pick the children up at 2:30, he’ll be home from work late tonight.”

We conduct these exchanges at full volume because not many people appreciate just how much hearing aides distort the world in general.

There are so many little moments, but most of them are all too familiar. I dither over whether to change my answers or merely repeat them, as I’m uncertain about the course of fairness and confusion, but before too long, at some random moment of the day, I shall be presented with a little gem.

It always has the same beginning:-

“So Maddy…….do you know? I remember when…………”

I think someone has an obligation to record them, if not exactly for posterity, at least for her grandchildren, for the future, the uncertain future. It’s just a question of carving out the time, a reshuffle.

I think I know who that someone is.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Softly, softly

“Ooo dat’s nice!”
“Very soft I tink.”
“You’re very busy…..I didn’t realize it gets so cold in California. Wot you do?”
“Er…..I’m making them pyjamas for Christmas.”
“Clothes for Christmas!”
“Yeah, I know what you mean, a bit too frugal.”
“Do you have enough?”
“Enough what?”
“Oh I’m only making the bottoms, no point in making tops. I’ll be lucky if I can just get them to wear one half.”
“Good point. Are you making da cord now?”
“No. No drawstring pulls around here, just elastic. I’m making ties so that they can tell which is the front and which is the back.”
“I like dis one, very much. Do you tink you’ll have enough left over to make one for me please?”
“But you don’t wear pyjamas.”
“I will if you like. Which do you prefer?”
“Maybe doz green ones.”
“I don’t like to say……but did you notice?”
“Yes, one leg has the material going the wrong way.”
“You don’t want to give her a ……reject do you?”
“! She’ll never notice.”
“I noticed……you noticed.”
“I’m dah same height as her you know.”
“I suppose you are, she may even be taller.”
“And we could put a bit more elastic in.”
“Hmmm. Not quite the same as a nighty though.”
“I could always wear dem underneath.” I look at Nonna wrapped around in an oversized cardi and blue veined fingers.
“Tell you what, you take those and I’ll try and throw together a fleecy nighty with the remnants.”
“I shall be as colourful as a Christmas tree I tink!”

Would that we were all so easily pleased.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Stuff and Nonsense

“So……what about all dis den?” asks Nonna with an indecipherable hand gesture.
“What about what?”
“All dis?”
“Dis…this what?”
“Dis room?”
“The family room?”
“Yes the sitting room.”
“What about the ….sitting room?”
“Well…….how you say…..it’s all…..I don’t know……how it is?”
“Oh you mean the broken curtain rail?”
“Yes and the…..wot is dis ting?”
“The sofa with all the stuffing coming out?”
“Well…….I know what you mean but that’s the third curtain rail we’ve put up. We sewed up the sofa seams but they keep burrowing in there to pull out the stuffing….they pick, pick, pick until they can find some more tufts…..they’re very persistent.”
“It makes the place look so…….?”
“Lived in.”
“So……why do dey do dat den?”
“Swinging from the curtains isn’t ideal but the trampolene gave up the ghost so they find other ways of getting rid of the wigglies.”
“Wot do dey do?”
“Wiv dah stuffing?”
“They sort of fiddle and finger it, manipulate it. It is very soft. It does have a nice feel to it.”
“Hmmm …….it reminds me of when I was a young girl in Italy. We used to walk a lot you know. There were a lot of tracks through the fields and the fences would be covered in wool from the sheep. If you walked along the edge of the field you could collect it, handfuls…….”
“So you think we should move to Italy then?”
“Become sheep farmers?”
“Have a pet sheep?”
“No! You can be very silly sometimes you know?”
“I hope so.”
“No, I just think that…..well…..I can see why they do it…..I think it is quite a natural instinct.”