Saturday, August 20, 2011

Our Time Will Come

Role models are so important in our lives.  I have posted before about my being a grandmother, and what role models I had (or didn’t have) to fulfill the responsibilities of my new title.  Now I have a different role - taking care of the needs of my 88-year-old mother, now living with us.
What role model to I have for this position?  Who can inspire me and provide me with the perfect attitude to do this - a mix of patience, love, gentleness, forgiveness, sacrifice, and optimism? Oddly enough, it was my mother herself.  I thought back to how she interacted with her elderly family members, how she handled decisions, how she coped as a caregiver.   Yes, there are my cues.  There in her life is the text for the handbook, “All I Ever Learned about Caring for Old People I Learned From My Mother.”
In the first place, when she and Dad moved into their new small house after 11 years of marriage in the early 1950s, they weren’t alone.  My dad’s mother (Ma-maw to us) moved in with them, and she lived there until she died.  First I came along, and then my sister Joy two years later, and much of our mom’s life consisted of raising her two girls, and dealing with her increasingly debilitated mother-in-law, who eventually just lived in her dark bedroom, having her meals brought to her, arguing about taking her medicine, and needing her potty seat emptied, and all the other demands of infirmity.  It was simple back then; family just took care of you when you needed it.  My mom was a full-time homemaker, so she was home all day and could do it.
After Ma-Maw died, Mom and Dad’s lives were filled with taking care of my maternal grandparents - my grandmother, who had been diagnosed with anorexia and was living in the state mental hospital a couple of hours away, and my grandfather (Paw-Paw), who was in good health but needed help to go to the grocery, visit his wife, etc.  So there were my parents, their weekends already scheduled in, almost all day on Sundays at church, then on Saturdays, chauffeuring my grandfather around town, taking him to lunch, and then every other Saturday, driving to the hospital to visit my grandmother.  It was hard on both my parents to have the responsibilities of their growing daughters and their elderly family members.  I saw my parents worry, I saw them sad, I saw them frustrated, but I never, ever heard a complaint from either my dad, who would have loved to have kept Saturdays for his hobbies or to catch up on reading, or my mom, who would have loved to have relaxed at home with her husband and kids. 
I have to add Aunt Bessie to the mix, of course.  She was my mom’s maternal aunt, a widowed, childless, chain-smoking country woman with a brusque personality and heart of gold.  She had lived in Missouri, but after her husband died, moved to Memphis to be near her only family, which consisted of my mother in Memphis and my uncle in Arkansas.  She was Mom’s responsibility now.   It was Mom who had to help her find assisted housing, it was Mom who was called when Aunt Bessie was discovered giving a bunch of money to a scam artist resident of her apartment complex, and it was Mom who made sure she was picked up and brought to our house for Christmas and Thanksgiving.
First my paternal grandmother died, then my maternal grandmother died, then my dad died, then Paw-Paw died, then finally Aunt Bessie died.  After Dad died, Paw-Paw and Aunt Bessie were totally dependent on newly-widowed Mother to be there for them until they themselves passed.  
All her life Mother has been a caretaker.  She has done this with kindness and compassion and patience and, I’m sure, many sleepless and anxious nights.  She never complained, never questioned why.  She just did it. 
And now it’s her turn to be taken care of.  My sister and I have now each had Mom living in our respective homes, giving her showers, ordering and picking up prescriptions, taking her to the doctor, making sure she eats well, and the worst part - sitting through Lawrence Welk every week - and the whole thing has necessitated great changes in our lifestyle, privacy, marriages, time, and countless other adjustments.  It is not easy sometimes.  Thank goodness Mom, even though physically handicapped now, still has her mind and can do some daily self-care on her own.  I can’t even begin to imagine trying to care for her if she had dementia or if I still had young children in the house.  But I feel blessed that I have had the best caregiver role model I could have.  In all the frustration and busyness of my life now, I am also acutely aware that our kids are looking at Ed and me and absorbing how we are handling all this, for we will undoubtedly be in Mom’s position one day, and they will be caring for us.  I pray that we demonstrate humor, patience, and, yes, sacrifice, in a way to allow them to say, “We know how to be caretakers of those who need us because we watched our parents do it.”  You know the joke - “Be kind to your kids because they’ll choose your nursing home”?  
It all reminds me of an old story:
A highly skilled carpenter who had grown old was ready to retire. He told his employer-contractor of his plans to leave the house building business and live a more leisurely life with his family. He would miss the paycheck, but he needed to retire.
The employer was sorry to see his good worker go and asked if he could build just one more house as a personal favor. The carpenter agreed to this proposal but made sure that this will be his last project. Being in a mood to retire, the carpenter was not paying much attention to building this house. His heart was not in his work. He resorted to poor workmanship and used inferior materials. It was an unfortunate way to end his career.
When the job was done, the carpenter called his employer and showed him the house. The employer handed over some papers and the front door key to the carpenter and said "This is your house, my gift to you."
The carpenter was in a shock! What a shame! If he had only known that he was building his own house, he would have made it better than any other house that he ever built!
Everything we do, we do unto ourselves before it goes out to the world.  Be sure to put love into each of your actions!
We show others how we want to be treated.  Someone is always watching and learning.  You make the world better with your kindness and gentleness, and hopefully those who are watching will extend to you the same courtesy when you need it.  That’s what families are for.  We are all role models.  We will eventually have to live in the houses we build - for God’s sake, let’s make them sturdy. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

What's it worth to you?

The picture above is of my dad, Ensley Tiffin, in 1931 (about 16 years old) working on his stamp collection.  Philately was a hobby he continued to enjoy throughout his whole life.  I never could get interested in it, unfortunately, although I did benefit from his collection when he would let me use an appropriate stamp to supplement a school report (e.g., if I were writing a report on a historical figure, he let me attach one of his stamps honoring that person, which would always impress the teacher).  After a long day's work and after a good supper, Daddy liked few things better than to clear off the dining room table, set out his albums, hinges, and other accoutrements of his hobby, and pore over his stamps.

I remember one day his saying to Mother, "If I die first, don't just toss all this stuff; there might be some valuable stamps in here."  And so it was that after Mother's accident when we were cleaning out her house, my sister and I took Daddy's stamp collection to a local hobby store to get it appraised.   We had no idea if it was worth a lot of money or worth nothing, but we wanted to honor the man who had worked so hard on it all his life, whose eyes lit up at the thought of some free time to enjoy it before life's responsibilities claimed his limited hours, as they always did.

As we lifted the heavy albums from the trunk of the car and took them into the store, we reminisced about how precious these were to Daddy, how we can still picture him totally absorbed in using his tweezers to place the stamps in their appropriate places, how he would occasionally pick a stamp up and talk about it.  We were proud that we were finally following Daddy's wishes of getting a formal appraisal of his collection.  The appraisal visit was disappointing, though - not because the collection was worthless (which it basically was), but because the owner seemed bored, randomly glancing through the books, talking most of the time to another customer while doing it, and never seemed to appreciate the story behind the collection or what it meant to Daddy (who, my sister remembers, had bought a lot of his supplies from that very store through the years).  The owner basically told us that the collection only had sentimental value, and that if we didn't want it, we could try to sell it at a yard sale.  It was a cursory dismissal of one man's lifetime achievement, a hobby in which he invested countless hours and a good deal of money, and which was filled with memories in the minds of his two daughters.  The appraiser did not give enough respect to what we had brought him.  We weren't out for money; we were there to honor our Daddy's story.

So my question is - is the collection worthless or is it really priceless?

I was reminded of that day as I watched the stock market this week tumble, recoup, tumble, up and down and sideways after the debt ceiling fiasco.  It is amazing to me that one day a stock is worth a lot money, and the next day it isn't.  One day you can sell a "collectible" for hundreds of dollars because it is "popular" right now, and the next day you can't even donate it to a charity.  Your house is worth a certain amount and in the next minute, it has lost half its value.  Yet, it's the same stock, the same figurine, the same house.  What gives?

How do we determine what things are truly worth?  Value is so fleeting and unpredictable.  They say something is only worth what someone would pay for it; therefore, the whims of society, fashion, collectors, investors, determine the worth of anything.

But as with the stamp collection, that is just not true.  "Sentimental value" sounds so trite, but sometimes that's the most important value there is.   Have you ever watched Antiques Roadshow and seen the reaction of someone who has been told that his family heirloom is worth a fortune?  You hardly ever hear anyone yell, "Whoohoo!  I'm going to the auction house tomorrow so I can buy that boat I've always wanted!"  Most of the time, they give a big grin, eyes wide in surprise, because their "sentimentally valuable" family heirloom has just been validated in a way by society.  What they knew in their hearts was precious has been verified to have great financial worth.  No matter, they say - it will still remain in the family and passed proudly down from one generation to the next with its accompanying story.

It all makes us want to take the time to figure out what is truly worthy in our lives - not the most expensive thing we own, maybe nothing we can sell or would even want to sell, maybe something nobody else would care about but us.  That stamp collection is priceless because of the story that comes with it, the memories it holds in our hearts, a poignant physical reminder of the man who cherished it, and the fact that we cherish that man.  Physical things are just symbols of what we truly value.  And those values don't change on the whim of the American economy.  Thank goodness!  In the end, they can take away a lot of our material things in this world, they can reduce the value of our house, they can withhold more from my paycheck, but memories?  As the old song goes, "No, they can't take that away from me."

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Staying open

Ed once told me that his late grandmother taught him an valuable lesson and she didn't even realize it.  He observed that when she was younger, she held her faith and beliefs in her fists, tightly grasped with no way for them to be altered or released in any way.  As she got older, he noticed that she had opened her hands, figuratively speaking, becoming willing to accept new ideas, new ways of thinking, and surprises that life had to offer.

We have been told over and over the great truth that it is better to give.  But what we fail to realize is the importance of being able to receive as well.  Some folks find receiving demeaning and beneath them, because in their mind, it is humiliating to be needy in any way.  Ed used to work for a food bank, and ran across several volunteers who were eager to give but balked at receiving.  I was once a member of a church in Memphis (white) that wanted to pair up with a black church of the same denomination for social interaction and mutual enrichment.  Our church leaders brought forth the name of a black church that was equal to our church in finances and membership, but some people in our congregation were unhappy with that pairing.  They didn't want an equal church to be partnered with; they wanted a poor church, and it was obvious that it was not because of a desire to help as it was a desire to be placed in the the superior side of the relationship.  Sometimes it is hard to give and easy to receive; as surprising as it may seem, at other times, it is easy to give and hard to receive.  Anyone who has ever been addicted or financially devastated or depressed or in other ways has exhausted all resources realizes it is so hard to admit, "I could use some help."  It is so much more satisfying to be on the other end - the one who benevolently looks down and smiles, bestowing riches and blessings and feeling all warm and snuggly about it.

Yet, with a closed fist, we can't receive.  With a closed mind, we can't be open to all life has to offer.

I have mentioned before that, as a medical transcriptionist, I was privileged to be in a beta testing last year for some exceptional software called Instant Text.  The version was beyond expectation, and I use it every day for wonderful productivity and accuracy.  Even after the finished product had been put on the market, the company continued to make improvements and offer new powerful features.  Each one I would eagerly embrace and use in various ways.  Then along came one called a Pick List.  I won't go into detail here, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out what good it was for.  I assumed other MTs might need it, but I certainly didn't.  I was doing fine without Pick List; I was productive before Pick List ever came along, and I would undoubtedly be fine without it.

What I soon learned astounded me.  After I asked for examples and some clarification of how Pick List would help me, it became an essential in my daily work and now I use it hundreds of times a day!  I thought I knew it all, but I had to open my mind to allow myself to receive - the new feature itself as well as help from other users and suggestions from the software developer.  Now I can't imagine transcribing without Pick List.

Not everyone is like Ed's grandmother.  As we age, a lot of us become rigid in our ideas and refuse to accept even the possibility that we aren't as smart or clever or omniscient as we imagine ourselves to be.  We think we know everything, can't possibly learn anything else, can't possibly need help from anyone, and have put a big fat period at the end of our philosophy of life.  We stay closed to serendipity.  We stay shut to possibilities and we remain locked to ever changing anything.  I get so frustrated with Americans describing politicians who change their minds as "wishy-washy" or "flip-flopping."  Sometimes it is true that elected officials will just change positions with every opinion poll that comes along.  But others may grow, evolve, examine their beliefs and mindsets, and actually change their position on issues because they understand it a different way today than they did yesterday.  It is not an evil thing to change one's mind, as long as one fully admits to doing so and doesn't try to pretend otherwise.

But oh, it can be so hard to be open!  An open hand is so much more vulnerable than a clenched fist, the latter which can make a pretty good weapon.  An open hand is ready to receive - blessings, ideas, assistance, forgiveness, love, and all other good things that we may not even realize we're missing until we see and feel them in our lives.  Sometimes the most surprising exclamation to find yourself saying is, "Wow!  I didn't even know I needed that - but I did!"  The possibilities are around every corner.  Just keep your eyes peeled, and your hands open.  You never know what could fall into them at any moment.

Monday, August 01, 2011

"Get Fit with Josh" - The infomercial

I got to do a new exercise workout Saturday.  It's great for the whole body, but especially for the back.  When I woke up Sunday, I was sore all over, and my lower back was aching.  That's how I knew how extremely effective the new total body workout called "Joshua" was.

The moves are simple but repetitive.  All it consists of is taking a 1-year-old toddler and picking him up and putting him down several hundred times.  For added conditioning, you can carry him around on one hip (that's an almost 57-year-old hip, thank you very much), while keeping your head turned in that direction to look at him.  In addition, you put your body through the paces of the special exercise called "Watch the toddler drop his [insert item here] from the high chair onto the floor and then pick it up for him so he can do it again."  The next move is chasing after him as he crawls around at the speed of light.  No, honey, that's the dog's water bowl.  That's the ash can for the wood stove.  Ewww, that's the dog's squeaky ball, wet and yucky.  Don't touch!  Thanks for finding those dirty places on the floor; I'm sure your parents will love us.

Oh, and I don't want to forget the ultimate back exercise - bending over, taking his little hands in yours, and helping him "walk."  That's a really good one. I can tell I am 8 years younger than Ed, because Ed's back hurt after one or two rounds of this exercise, whereas mine didn't hurt until the next morning.

Of course, I have a special move for this workout that involves lying down on the floor, bending my knees, putting Joshua on my shins, and raising my feet up and down, up and down while holding his hands.  I was so proud that I am still in shape enough to do this - and even prouder that at the end, I could get up from the floor at all.

Those of you who have baby-sat a toddler or, bless your little soul, are raising one or more, you know what I mean.  If you're a grandparent involved in the above fitness regimen, you really know what I mean.  In that case, it's the Senior Olympics.

Of course, it goes without saying that it is all worth it.  Every second of it!  And truly, as soon as can be arranged, we want him back!  Did I say back?  Ouch! wouldn't happen to have a couple of aspirin on you, would you?