Covering My Bases Since 1959

A moment from the past. Is it any wonder that caring for my parents in their later years, and writing a book about it, was the natural thing to do? Many thanks to the Florida School System for eventually teaching me the difference between “to,” “too,” and “two.”

Living An Artful Life

img_0749

When someone asked my mother who or what was most dear to her, the two-fold answer was given without any hesitation. My siblings and I came first, and art was second.

Always focused on the positives in her life,  she embraced family, friends, and a variety of painting mediums, in much the same fashion – with profound appreciation and attention to the qualities that made them unique. Her signature work was all rich jewel tones and welcoming flowers, which, over time, offered a visual reflection of her personal journey as both a woman and an artist.

When she died in 2013, her supplies came home with me. It didn’t matter if, or when they might be used again. What I needed most were her well-worn paintbrushes standing at hopeful attention in a favorite coffee mug, and those boxes of brightly smudged tubes of paint.

Working through the grief, I threw myself into writing a guide book about caring for both my parents in their final years; giving workshops on the topic; and even creating a writer’s group especially for caregivers. It has been soul work for sure, but at the same time, I’ve yearned for something less end-result and more about finding joy in the process.

Just like the Zen saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher arrives,” this month I found my way to a glorious collage and painting class called Big Bold Blooms, given by Lynn Whipple, one of my favorite artists. The irony is not lost on me since I could kill a plastic plant if given enough time.

The old paints and brushes are thrilled to be needed again, and my collection of tissue paper and oil pastels are calling out, “Pick me! Pick me!”  Feeling my mom’s presence close at hand, the first piece emerges in a mix of ripe purples, greens and turquoise, with a few tiny buttons thrown in for good measure.  Is it perfect? No. Do I care? Not a bit. Discarding judgment and being open to wonder are the real goals here.

Thanks to Carla Sonheim, a private Face Book page has been created for Bloomers, as we’re known, to share our progress. The wildly diverse styles and colors are breathtaking, and so is the generosity of spirit towards sister painters, from newbies to professionals, around the globe.

Starting with the warm and wonderful Lynn, our gifted guide, everyone’s words are kind, the encouragement is enthusiastic, and for those going through difficult times, there is comfort and compassion to be found.

Every day, I become more enchanted with each creative session, and with my gracious teacher and classmates, as well.  Like my mother, they understand that living an artful life is not just about learning to paint. It’s about celebrating each other with an open heart.

Carla and Lynn’s websites: You’ll want to check them both out.

http://www.carlasonheim.com

http://www.lynnwhipple.com 

The Facts of Life-A Different Perspective

Dad & Gee

Most kids learn the facts of life from their more well-informed friends or from some vague reference in personal hygiene class. I got my first lesson from a banned British novel.

In my childhood home, shelves groaned under the weight of books celebrating great opera, classic literature, and fine art, while stacks of Scientific American, Mother Jones, and National Geographic vied for space next to heirloom Sabbath candlesticks.

A voracious reader, everything intrigued me, including the backs of cereal boxes, toothpaste tubes, and warnings on household cleaning supplies. My parents used to pay me a penny for every billboard I didn’t read aloud on the family’s four-hour road trips from Orlando to Fort Lauderdale during summer vacations.

One Saturday, having turned boredom into an art form as only a thirteen-year-old can do, I went in search of something new to read while my parents were out buying a new washing machine. Nancy Drew and her penchant for making a mystery out of a molehill had grown stale and all my beloved horse books had been read and reread a dozen times. Exploring the bookcase in my parents’ bedroom, I noticed a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence. While I didn’t know that “first edition” stamped inside its cover gave this book far more value than most, no one had to tell me what the word  “lover” meant. It could only be one thing... sex. And so I sat on the floor of my parents’ room and discovered for myself why Lawrence’s book had maintained its “banned” status for so many years.

Knowing my parents would soon be back, I got busy dog-earring the juiciest pages for a secret return engagement and never heard my father’s footsteps across the terrazzo floor until his wing-tips appeared in the doorway. It took just a few seconds for him to assess the scenethe hole on the shelf where the book should have been and me hunched over speed-reading and pushing horn-rimmed glasses back onto my nose while nervously twirling strands of brown hair between my fingers.

Looking up and seeing my father’s pained expression, I braced myself for a lecture on reading a book that was obviously meant for adults only.

“Judy, it appears your mother and I cannot trust you to be alone in the house without supervision. I am extremely disappointed. How can I make myself clear? NEVER, EVER treat a book in this fashion. Only lazy people with no respect for property consider it acceptable to dog-ear pages. Until I say so, this will go back on the shelf and remain there.”

My father eventually got over the fact that his now sullied copy of Lady Chatterley would no longer be funding his retirement, and I took what occurred as his permission to push the boundaries even further by exploring a collection of writing well beyond my years. Beginning with the bookcases that lined our dining and living room walls, I read works by Herman Wouk, Leon Uris, and Nevil Shute, which taught me about harsh realities, impossible to put aside.

Yet,  some of the most profound lessons have come, not from books, but from being there for people in ways I’ve never imagined; accepting what is, including my imperfections and limitations; offering comfort even when I cannot find it for myself; and realizing that loving invites loss, regardless of how hard we try to hold it at bay. This is a truer definition of the facts of life, and the very stuff of caregiving.

The Stuff of Memories

Screen shot 2016-04-29 at 5.49.13 AM

Ray Bradbury said, “Everyone must leave something behind when he dies. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.”

Seeing these unusual family portraits by Camila Cotrambone, I began to think about the objects that are tied to memories of my parents. My mother’s paisley address book – the writing looks like a carnival of ants tumbling across the page; her well-worn paintbrushes still stored in a favorite Hanukkah coffee mug I gave her years ago; my dad’s prayer shawl from his long ago temple days, tucked away in a burgundy velvet pouch; and a collection of his engineer’s slide rules, yellowed with age. There is such comfort and connection to be found in these ordinary talismans – along with the stories I tell, another way to hold my parents close.

What about you? Are there any possessions from a loved one that you hold dear?

Kitchen Table Memories

kitchen table

Photo Credit: Milkmit (Creative Commons)

As caregivers, we’re so busy putting out fires, and dealing with health care crises that our parents can sometimes feel more like projects to be managed. Here’s to those moments, sometimes few and far between, when we can simply enjoy each other’s company. For my mom and me, it was sitting in the kitchen, sipping coffee, eating lox and bagels, playing Scrabble and laughing over family stories from long ago.   Maybe that’s why this poem by Joy Harjo resonated so deeply. It’s a reminder that lifelong memories can be created in the most ordinary places.


Perhaps The World Ends Here by Joy Harjo

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.


Do you have a kitchen table memory? Share it here or just stop by and introduce yourself. You’ll be entered in a drawing on August 31st to receive a free copy of The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving: A Practical Memoir. Winner’s name will be selected using the tool at random.org.