Sunday, September 27, 2009

How wonderful to have a built in baby sitter

I arrive back at the house, otherwise known as Fort Knox, from the school run to find the gate and front door wide open. I pause on the driveway, motor running. I tell the children to remain in the car, to listen to their sister and wait until I return. When I return, I shall return with M & M’s for anyone who has managed to remain in the car, because the lowest common denominator usually works. I remove the car keys from the ignition so that when the criminal escapes from the house, he or she will be prevented from abducting my babies. It occurs to me that if there is a mad axe murderer in the house that I may, inadvertently, have given my children false hope. Since I am not armed with a handy ax myself, I pick up the abandoned garden fork instead. What a pity that it hasn’t been washed recently, if ever. Inside I find that the back door is also wide open to the garden. As many as 50 flies are having a party in the mid-air space of my dining room which means that every door has been open for some considerable while. I dart over to Nonna’s room where I find her asleep with a book open on her chest, peaceful. I check every room in the house to ascertain whether or not peace reigns throughout.

It does.

Or rather it doesn’t really. I may as well have a yard sale and dispose of the entire contents of the house, give it all away, hang a neon sign on the open doorway saying ‘muggers and thieves welcome, help yourselves, anytime, open all hours.’ I grab a handful of M & M’s and step out towards the car. En route I find Thatcher, good and faithful hound who thankfully has decided to remain in residence rather that escape as puppies so often do. I march out to the car in the 80 degree heat and reward my good and faithful children. I beam so that they know that there is nothing whatsoever to worry about, even though there really is, it is of no concern to them, at least not for now. The adrenalin rush still courses through me as I hang onto the door frame as my children slather themselves in well deserved chocolate, because they’ve taken a giant collective leap forward. It’s the nature of things, forwards and backwards, swings and roundabouts, one step ahead, several in arrears. My youngest pipes up in-between munches, cheerful and sweaty, “Nonna is bad.”
“Is she? Why is she bad?”
“No what?”
“She isn’t as bad.”
“As bad as whom?”
“As bad as us.”
“You’re not bad. Who told you you were bad?”
“No what?”
“Dah door is being open.”
“I know…….but it’s o.k.”
“Nonna did it.”
“I know but that’s alright. Nonna is allowed to leave the door open…….sometimes.”
“She forgotted.”
“You’re right she did. But that’s o.k., we’ll help her to remember to keep it closed.”
“But she isn’t being bad to go outside.”
“That’s right, no harm in taking a little walk once in a while. It’s probably good for her.”
“Yes, so she’s not bad.”
“Right. Not bad, good.”
“She is good…..gooder…….good to go outside nicely.”
“Hmmm. We can all go out nicely now can’t we?”
“Yes but Nonna goes out nicer,” he struggles with the seat belt and pulls off his T-shirt bathed in sweat as he hops out of the car.
“How?” I watch him make a dash for the house, for the shade, for the cool as he discards his clothes en route and shouts over his shoulder, “coz she ain’t naked.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Eye opener

A very long time ago we had children we few words and a great many frustrations. Several developmental leaps later, they had more words and a great many more frustrations.

My job description at the time was ‘the finder of things.’ I had been trained by a couple of experts. One would scream ‘Thomas’ and off I’d trot like a heat seeking missile, but not as accurate, nor fast. During a lull on the demand for brain cell function, it occurred to me that it might be a jolly good idea if I could train my children to find their own things. I devised a not so very cunning plan and we made a start. We experienced a great many hic-cups due to my short sightedness and my inability to predict roadblocks but eventually the ‘search’ plan materialized into something doable.

If I had my time over I would probably have used different words but the words were adopted, swallowed whole at the time and became deep seated. It became a prompt, an aide memoire that was thoroughly well scripted. I would approach a howling child and gently calm him down until words became possible. Clever people will know that if you have to attend to a howling child this means that you as a parent have missed the opportune moment to intervene, prior to the howling, but I still had a great deal to learn about pre-emptive strikes.

Once calm we could begin. Identify the name of the missing item, although that in itself might take quite a long time. Having identified the item we would then think. We put on our thinking poses, cartoon style, an index finger to the temple or mouth, deep in thought. ‘Aha! I know, why don’t we look for the thing with our eyes.’ It was an exaggeration, it was banal, it was a prompt to promote body action, movement and the first step to active problem solving.

But as I said, it was a very long, long time ago.

I bump into Nonna in the hall as she rears around the corner with faulty brakes as her right leg is one inch shorter than the other, “sorree, sorree, sorree,” she mutters as she regains her breath. “Can I help you? What are you looking for?” Her hands continue to pat surfaces as they search for whatever it is. Whatever it is, is currently nameless, or if it can be named it most likely will come out as the Italian version. She mimes instead. “Ah glasses!” because I’m quick off the mark like that. “You get a coffee and I’ll find them for you.” I trot off to check out all the usual suspects. The four pairs of reading glasses and three pairs of sun glasses have had a unduly high rate of escapism of late.

My son has witnessed this exchange, unusually. He watches Nonna walk to the kitchen and me go in the opposite direction. I see his head swivel to double check before he darts after me in Mr. Speedy mode. He has a huge cheesy grin plastered to his face as he flits around me on fast tapping tippy toes and a rapidly nodding head. His lips open and shut rapidly as do his hands, one at each cheek to show three lipped synched mouths all chattering in silence, ‘help ME! Help ME! HELP ME!” mouth the lips. “I’m helping Nonna, I’ll help you in a minute dear.” But he persists running back and forth in front of me, running feet, running mouths, cheesy grin and nodding head. In Nonna’s room the glasses are in plain sight as he bounces up and down on the bed, still miming, "HELP ME!" I return to the kitchen with mosquito boy still in full zap mode, and hand the glasses to Nonna. She smiles and returns to her room with a coffee. My son, deflates in another exaggeration of exhausted disappointment. “Right. What is it dear? What are you looking for?” But he is wordless with a scowl. He mutters something inaudible. “Pardon?” He whispers something quietly, probably the first real whisper in recorded history around here. “Why are you whispering dear?” which is a counter intuitive question in view of the fact that it is his first and I should be celebrating the event. He points to Nonna’s room with a stab for emphasis. “Nonna? What about Nonna. She’s in her room now, she can’t hear you.”
“She couldn’t be hearing me even if she was being here!” he scoffs.
“Enough of that matey. Use your kind words, just not in a whisper.”
“Why for she is not be lookin for her own stuff coz I am be needin for you to be helping me with lookin for my own stuff?”
“Because you know how to look now, don’t you.” He pulls a face, as he recognizes that it is indeed true, he is independent in that skill area, most of the time. “Darnit!” he screams, returning to his usual modality of 50 decibels.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Not as green as you’re cabbage looking*

The thing about dementia is that it is often very gradual. A person can swing gently back and forth within a certain range, take a dip below, and bubble up above, all in the same time period. I exist in a zombie period of time after four consecutive nights with my nocturnal son. I sit on the edge of the swimming pool with my feet in the water fully dressed but unwashed. Green top, green trousers, green cardi, crumpled and un-ironed with green shoes waiting as it’s the closest I can get to co-ordinated. The washing line flaps in the hot breeze loaded up to full capacity. Ostensibly I am supervising swimming. In theory I would save myself time in the washing and dressing department if I did have a swim, fully clothed but I’m on a strict time limit before Respite workers arrive. It is very important to appear to be co-ordinated before such people, public people, people who measure ‘togetherness’ by a dress code. Nonna appears after her thirty minute warning. Thirty minutes allows the children to work off the edge of their exuberance so that they’re less likely to mow her down.
“You not swim today?”
“No, not today.”
“No? Ow come?” She peers at me, critical. “You know, you look dreadful,” she says with a certain eerie sincerity.
“Maybe you need a break?”
“I’m off to the dentist in half an hour.”
“Ah dats good. Is dat good?”
I give her a quick flash of my retainer, the never ending saga of teeth.
“Change is as good as a rest, hopefully just a clean.”
“You’ll be lying down den.”
“Good……..So Maddy?”
“Did you know?”
“Know what?”
“I ad a visitor last night.”
“You did?”
“Yes, crawled into my bed at 5:03… I suppose it must ave bin morning den.”
“Yes, all like a … a……wot it called again….an edgehog! All pointy elbows and knees.”
“You must ave been asleep I tink?”
“Must have been I suppose.”
I shoed im away…….but ee came back again at 5:36.”
“Yes… curled up like a little prawn. All wiggly… a cat trying to get comfortable.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“Dat’s o.k. I just wanted you to know dat I know even doh you don’t tink dat I know.”
“Thank you.”
“Dat’s o.k……….it’s not often I can truthfully claim to ave ad a gentleman visitor in dah dead of dah night.”

* do not make assumptions based upon appearance.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I swear to you

The subtleties of language are complicated by culture, custom and hearing skills.

Because my children are American and have the power of verbal speech they are apt to say “I’m done,” on completion. This phrase is less common abroad. If you are abroad and say “I’m done,” it would be more likely to indicate that the speaker had run out of patience with the task or conversation. The speaker might make a hand gesture at the same time to emphasize their annoyance, terminating the chat. I think Brits would say ‘I’m done with this,’ but I’m out of date so don’t quote me. It is because of this inference that Nonna seems to always catch this phrase, it catches her interest because of the underlying implication that her grandchildren are upset about something. Saying ‘I’m done’ in English, especially if it’s your second language as Nonna is Italian, is the American equivalent of ‘I’m outta here’ or ‘enough already.’ Nonna, being the concerned grandmother that she is, will then encourage the children to explain why they are upset. Her inability to hear their replies usually makes for an escalating scene of frustration all round.

In essence, it runs like this:-

“I’m done.”
“You’re done? What ave you done?”
“I’m done.”
“What ave you done?”
“I said…I’m done?”
“Yes I know you said you were done but I am asking you what ave you done?”
“I’m done already!”
“What have you already done?”
“I’m done!”

Let’s just say that it’s one of those little repeats that I would prefer to repeat less often as it makes for lots of hurt feelings all round and ever greater degrees of confusion for everyone. Hence, just lately, I have been trying to persuade my children to say that they are ‘finished’ instead of done. I thought it would take a long time, as so many of these things take longer around here than they do in other places. I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when after any number of prompts, I found that the children helped each other out and began prompting themselves. When the ‘done’ word popped out, I was right on their case with my pre-emptive strike, but I wasn’t quite quick enough as my youngest son shouted at his brother at 50 decibels, “no dummy! Use the F word!” I watched Nonna’s hands fly to her mouth, speechless, before the hesitant question, “did ee just say wot I tink ee said?”

It’s a gentle reminder, to think through the natural and all possible consequences of one minor change and just how far the ripples will travel.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Hide and seek

It is often difficult to describe someone to other people with accuracy. So often our own bias creeps in to distort the picture. At best we can only capture little glimpses, snapshots in time. If someone has accumulated more than 80 years of life then any description is sparse but I’d still like to share a patchy fragment.

Nonna is wildlife’s best friend, always has been always will be. She has never paid hard cash for a pet, they simply deposit themselves on her doorstep in the sure and certain knowledge that they’re entitled. Thus far, they have proved to have made the right choice. If you asked her, Nonna would tell you that hers has been an ordinary little life of no great import. She’s quite accurate of course, because I’ve seen the photographs of her and her chums. Old sepia photographs of her with her group of fellow mountain climbers as they sit at the bottom of the mountain, resting. I think you would need a rest after fitting planks of wood to my boots to ski down en masse. It would have been tough to keep up with all those fit young men, the only woman, or maybe that’s just me? These days she would tell you that she doesn’t like crowds although I suspect that is influenced by her hearing loss. You can see how she copes with crowds when we take the children to a theme park. There are fewer older people at most theme parks than one might think. There are lots of grandparents but so many of them are merely middle aged. There are fewer octogenarians. Of the octogenarians that are there, they are mostly observers. Our octogenarian is most often found squished into a plastic helicopter next to her grandson, attached to a pole, forty feet in the air, waving to the ground, laughing. She’s the sort of person that will pinch your M&M’s when you’re distracted, especially when she’s the distraction, such a tease. Of course these days it’s so much easier to get in and out of vehicles designed for the under 11’s, now that she no longer needs a cane, now that her hip replacement has mended, now that one leg is an inch shorter than the other.

The shorter leg taps the bar under the table in the garden as dinner draws to a close. Her hearing aid is in her pocket as we spoon feed two yelping children, nearly the last spoonful over a period of more than 40 minutes. Nonna’s plate is empty, it’s been empty for 35 minutes but she has no complaints as she comments on squirrels and hummingbirds, strokes the cat imprisoned on her lap and feeds the dog morsels by hand, because she is exempt from all the rules. I pass the spoon to my eldest daughter, a hand over so that I can address Nonna directly and loudly over the ambient level of noise, “want to play hide and seek?”
“Hide and seek?”
“You want me to ide or you want me to seek?”
“I want you to seek the tortoise, Fred.”
“Oh no. Eee is lost again, Gawd dat creature is a menace.”
“No. He’s in the pen. See if you can see him.”
“In dah pen? Out ere in dah garden?”
“Yes. Come on.” I lead her unsteadily over a couple of yards to the edge of the house where we have a make shift pen for Fred, because he is so small and can’t be given free reign yet. She peers into the two by four square foot of grass, shaded by a towel as we don’t want to accidentally cook him in the Californian sun. She reaches down to search with her hands to no avail. She steps into the pen and then gingerly crouches down on all fours to hand search the blades of grass. “Am I getting warmer?” she asks with the evening sun on her back. “Bit more, keep going.” Her fingers brush his shell and she parts the grass to reveal a very small tortoise. She pulls him out backwards from the hole that he’s dug himself into, “well look at dat! Wot a pretty little ting she is!” she beams with delight.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Bullies and favourite grand-daughters

Since the ‘clean up after yourself campaign is floundering,’ I decide instead to push for a snippet of independent living. It’s a tricky one, as diabetics need to eat regularly. Elderly people also need to be encouraged to continue independence in small manageable tasks but it’s hard to draw the line between that and being a slave driver. It is just as easy for me to make sandwiches for everyone in one fell swoop but I need to have the children attempt to make their own, despite the mess. Why not do likewise with Nonna? Several reasons immediately come to mind, not all that different from the barriers my own children face such as ‘where is the bread/butter/filling/knife/plate etc. It’s all very time consuming.

I am also alarmed to note that we have fallen into an unfortunate habit, although the fault is entirely mine. Nonna appears at around lunch time in the kitchen. I mention lunch. She mentions that she really isn’t hungry, at all. I remind her of the importance of eating regularly. She leans against the door and asks what if anything, there might be to tempt her. I take out the temptations and before I know it I have made a sandwich, a custom order. I pass her the plate, she beams with just the tiniest hint of satisfaction. Just call me Pavlov! She’s a force to be reckoned with and no mistake. Having learned from my mistake, again, try a new tactic. We repeat our daily conversation up to the point of temptation, whereupon I suggest she has a look in the fridge and make whatever she would like. I then remove my self to a safe distance, the utility room, to fold laundry but within shouting distance. My back is turned towards her as I lift and fold and lift and fold surrounded by four already full laundry hampers as I’m sure the visual reminder will keep her on track. She may be mischievous but she’s not certainly not mean. I’m confident that given time she’ll persevere rather than ask. I listen to her mutterings as she gently sequences herself through the lengthy series of tasks. I know she can do it.

“Where is she?” she calls but I ignore the distraction, at first.
“Who?” I call over my shoulder as we’ve only just finished the tortoise repeat.
“Where is she?” When she says it a third time I turn to face her, holding a packet of Salami in her hands.
“Penny who?”
“You know…….your daughter, Penny.”
“Do you mean Tamsin?”
“No dah other one.”
“Ella? Is dat er name?”
“Right,” she acknowledges with hesitation.
“She’s at school. I’ll collect her in half an hour.”
“Right.” Her first grandchild of three. The similarity between the two of them in both humour and temperament is quite marked. Her joy at the birth was a sensation, unparalleled by subsequent arrivals, as is often the way with these things. She puts the open packet of salami on the counter next to the bread before she wanders off, leaving, but she pauses and calls over her shoulder, “I know I shouldn’t say it, but Penny az always been my favourite.”
Lucky Penny or bad Penny? I wonder who she is?