tangerines, squirrels and angels

It was pointless to ask my father direct questions about anything of substance. Subtlety was required – a slow, gentle curve of a question – never approach straight on. Anything I learned about him that was at all personal came only on his terms…when he was ready, and it always came quick…like a shooting star. With a blink of the eyes, it was gone. It’s a hard way to get to know someone, but in the end, deeply meaningful, because the stories come in precious and unexpected little nuggets.

Sometimes dad would join me as I sought refuge out in the backyard of his home – the place that had embraced my entire childhood. Along the west-facing fence was a row of Liquid Amber trees that generously gave us relief from the scorching sun. The trees grew just below the power lines that crisscrossed every backyard, up and down the street. Mourning doves perched on the wires, singing their gentle chorus, gratefully calmed the sparks that often crackled between dad and I. It seemed we were “striker” and “match” for each other, although thankfully, after more than 40 years, the friction between us had finally begun to wear down. A slight, cool breeze calmed the fiery afternoon. Two dark green lawn chairs with woven, plastic webbing, that had been in the backyard as long as I could remember, provided us with familiar seating.

We sat side by side, in front of a tangerine tree that was planted to mark my birth. Currently, it was at the center of dad’s venomous war with the squirrels, over ownership of the sweet and sour, deliciously juicy fruit: a battle they waged every season. The squirrels’ method of devouring dad’s favorite fruit was, according to my father, a personal affront. They’d jump down out of the taller Liquid Ambers nearby and sit at the very top of the tangerine tree, harvesting only the best sun–ripened fruit. That would have been crime enough, but their technique was unforgivable, and brilliant. They’d gnaw a little hole in the perfectly ripe fruit and then suck the entire contents out, leaving the empty, round, skin intact. Then they’d just toss the empty fruits, which lay scattered all around the base of the tree. From a distance they looked like whole tangerines, and I’m sure that dad, with his failing eyesight, had been fooled many times.

I imagined the squirrels safely up in their roost watching dad curse as he found another empty shell of his favorite, late afternoon snack. This was their eternal feud, but dad had a plan. There was a big stack of old aluminum-framed screens discarded when the original wooden windows had been replaced. He subscribed to the belief that nothing should ever be thrown out…so they’d been stacked in the back shed behind the garage for about ten years. He had this amazing and complex scheme that involved suspending the screens above the tangerine tree so the squirrels couldn’t jump down to it from above.

I told dad that I thought he was actually training the squirrels to perform ever more sophisticated aerial feats, adding, “They’ll just climb around to the underside of the screens and carry on with their plundering.” He snorted his disagreement to me at about the same time that a squirrel with impressive agility, demonstrated my point by climbing up a large tree trunk backwards, with its head pointing down and bushy tail jabbing upward, all the while scolding dad for ever considering that he might come out the victor. Dad just muttered and waved his hand as if to dismiss both the squirrel and me.

In the midst of all this talk of tangerines and squirrels, dad suddenly veered off into an entirely different conversation, stating that my mother was an agnostic and he was an atheist. “Where did THAT come from?” I wondered. I restrained myself from turning to directly face him as he brought up such an intensely personal subject. Instead, I listened as unobtrusively as possible. It was so rare to have this kind of conversation with him – even intense listening could cause him to clam up and change the subject.

I spoke softly…“If you’re an atheist, doesn’t that mean that you’re certain there is no God? How can you be sure about it? How do you know for sure?” After a long pause, my father, born in 1914, told me that it happened when he was in his twenties – when he became aware of what was going on in Germany, then spreading throughout much of Europe, ahead of World War II. In a tone I’d never heard from him he replied, “A lot of us felt it,” – “us” being American Jews, born of Jewish immigrants who’d fled Eastern Europe during the pogroms. He told me that initially he felt betrayed by a God that would allow such slaughter, and this betrayal turned into a certainty when he learned that it was happening again: such destruction of life and property proved to him that there couldn’t possibly be a God. As he described this shift in his belief, I felt his heartbreak, his utter sense of abandonment, and his unequivocal knowing that he was completely on his own; a belief he lived by, ever after. Based on the beliefs…or maybe more accurately, non-beliefs of my parents, I was left on my own to develop any sense of religious or spiritual faith that I might yearn for. And I did…I had a deep yearning for such guidance.

Over the years, as I watched my father turn down help again and again, I came to see that it was the only way for him, if he was to continue with his conviction that he had to “go it alone”. There was no one else but him: no one here, which I can imagine stemmed from the fact that at the age of eleven, and being the eldest boy at home, he became the male head of the household after his father died of tuberculosis, and, there was no God above that was going to help him either. I also slowly realized that he saw any acceptance of help, as an admission of vulnerability that he could not allow, could not bear.

Being the child most like him in this regard, I was a seasoned student of this mindset, having grown up in his household under his stern rule. As a young adult, I’d become quite skilled at the very same approach to life: the belief that I could, and moreover had to, carry whatever came my way, all on my own.

A few months after my 31st birthday, I was in a car accident so horrific that when the first Emergency Responder showed up and found me wandering around crazed and barefoot in the darkness, soaking wet from the pouring rain, he looked at me and then at my car and said, “Whoever was in that car…they didn’t make it. There’s no way anyone could live through that.” But I was the one in that car. And I did make it.

It took a lot of years for me to shed that big, old, shell of a belief I inherited from my proud father that demanded, “I gotta go it alone”. I realized that clearly, the fact that I did live through that accident meant I DID NOT GO IT ALONE. It was true what that First Responder said – there’s no way someone could live through that – but I did, somehow. I had help – and lots of it. They were there. The angels. To this day, I don’t exactly know what I mean by angels…but it’s the word that always comes. I can tell you for sure that in the midst of that one conversation, as dad and I were taunted by tangerine-marauding squirrels, it never dawned on me that I would ever wonder if angels might be looking after my father.


In the years following my mother’s death, my father just kept making adjustments…as he’d done his entire life. Whatever fate fell to him, he would meet it head on. And so it was with becoming a widower; figuring out how to live in his home, alone, after sharing it with his wife and three children for fifty-six years. As I watched dad navigate his way through the last years of his life, I slowly began to realize he was clearly surrounded by them – angels. He was approaching his nineties, his vision was declining rapidly, and so was his hearing. Dementia was hanging around, just on the edge of his world, showing up now and again.

Having given up driving, dad did a lot of walking. He lived just four doors down from a busy street that he used as his main thoroughfare. One day, returning from a trip to the bank, he misjudged the height of a curb and instead of climbing back up to the sidewalk after crossing the street; he tripped and fell, hitting his head on the concrete. There he was, laid out on the ground, inches from where cars were making right turns. One such driver saw my father there on the sidewalk and pulled over. As he approached, my father ever on the alert, shouted as menacingly as a skinny old man could,

“GET AWAY FROM ME!” fearing that he was about to be mugged or attacked, when he was down and seemingly helpless.

The driver leaned over to help dad up.

“I SAID GET AWAY FROM ME!” dad hurled, as blood ran down his face.

The man approached dad again, who took a swing at him, even as he lay on the ground.

Finally something let loose and he allowed the man to help him up, but then he turned again, preparing to throw a punch in case he tried to take advantage of dad. This angel offered dad a ride home, but was vigorously refused. As the adrenaline began to wear off, he felt the chill of exhaustion sink deep into his bones and softened to the man. Eventually my father agreed that he could use a little help walking home, but refused to get into the stranger’s car. Disoriented at first, dad wasn’t even sure where he lived. Luckily he was only two blocks from his home, and in the end, recognized his dear old house at 5219. He allowed the man to walk him almost to the front porch and then sent him away.

Miraculously, dad didn’t break any bones, or suffer a concussion. He did have some bruises, but all in all, how was that possible at his age? Later on he would recount the part that he was most proud of: he remembered how to roll into a fall, instead of bracing himself with his hands. He called it “the tuck and roll,” and sang it out slow like a chorus from some old favorite song. It came from his training as a fighter in his youth; both on the streets and in the gymnasiums in his rough and tumble 1920’s Detroit neighborhood. With Jews on one street, Italians on the next, Irish around the corner – fist fighting was a way of life.

There are many stories about my father in the last years of his life that are true mysteries…so many “near misses” where he could have been terribly injured or even lost his life, due to his fierce sense of independence which demanded that he do everything for himself.

Who helped dad, who helped me – that is the Great Mystery. I don’t need to understand it all, and at this point in my life, what I say is, YES: the angels come, whether or not you believe in…anything.



I was back down in LA, visiting dad – he was 92. We decided that we should go out to dinner…to celebrate my arrival. Tonight, dad and I were going to the only place he could remember now. Even if I recounted to him other reliable “old standbys”, this is the place he’d choose. He’d always think very deliberately about it like he was really weighing out all the pros and cons…this place always won out. ALWAYS.

It was the same every time: we’d walk in and dad would say, “Oh, that’s rough. There’s no one here.” He’d owned a small business for much of his adult life, so he empathized with “the guy”…the owner. Actually, there were plenty of people in the restaurant, it was just that dad couldn’t see them, or hear them. So then I would start telling dad where all the people were seated. Years ago, this could have pissed him off…he would’ve taken my comments as trying to prove him wrong. But now…his genuine concern for the owner trumped any of those feelings. He’d been there so many times that he could picture each table, as I described to him where it was and how many people were there. It took a great load off his mind knowing “he’s actually got a good business tonight”.

There were so many people there, in fact, that we ended up in a part of the restaurant that we’d never sat in before. I didn’t know how this was going to go…familiar routines had become fairly important these days. I knew that things might go astray…but I was up for a little adventure. Usually we were seated at a “table for four”; and, one that was situated out in the middle of the dining area, with no one close by. Not tonight. Tonight we were seated at a small “table for two”. The seating on one side was an upholstered bench that extended the whole length of the restaurant, and the other side had a chair pulled up to it. I took the bench and dad took the chair.

Soon enough, the owner seated a woman at THE VERY NEXT TABLE. She was literally two feet away from me; she also sat on the bench side. You might be thinking, “Why didn’t you ask to be moved?” if I had concerns about having someone so close. You know how it is, when you have to weigh out the consequences of several situations all piling up on each other? Well, my father abhorred people “making a fuss”…about anything …including/ESPECIALLY asking for special treatment at a restaurant, and, he had dementia: he was unstable. I had to choose my battles. This meant that it was going to be absolutely out of the question for me to suggest that maybe we move to a different table. I knew that things were going to get a little crazy at dinner, and, that this woman, who already had her laptop open and was tap, tap, tapping away, was going to hear EVERY SINGLE WORD that dad said.

Her body language suggested that she had already, in her mind, built tall, one-inch thick plexi-glass walls all the way around her to protect herself from “them”…meaning “us”. She knew there was something a little crazy about us. She just knew it. This is a necessary coping skill when you live in Los Angeles.

The waiter brings the menu, which is quite long…many pages. EVERY TIME we come here dad needs to know what’s on the entire menu, except that he can’t see well enough to read it himself, so I need to read it out loud to him. So I do. I read all the pages to him. The woman next door has begun to reinforce her wall. Then dad says, in the same way he says it EVERY TIME, “I think I’ll have the turkey and cheese omelet. Wha’ d’ya think of that?” Sometimes I try to suggest something else…mostly for my own amusement, but tonight, things are already out of order enough that I don’t even consider this. “That sounds really good, dad.” “Maybe you should get one, too?” he generously offers. “No…I’m going to get a burrito.” “What’s that?” I describe it to him and he makes a very bad face with a few sound effects to go with it. Our neighbor next door begins adding a roof to her mental cubicle.

As soon as the waiter takes our order, dad asks me a question he’s never asked me before. Since I moved back home to Washington I’ve become Operations Manager of a tiny business. Really. Tiny. And, we’re not in a “building”; we’re in a yurt, or as we like to say, a “fancy tent”. But dad doesn’t know about that part. He just knows about the Operations Manager part. He’s very impressed that I have that sort of job, after all the odd “day jobs” I’ve had. I’m an artist and a writer and what he’s said to me for a long, long time is… “Keep your day job.” He likes this “day job” because I actually have a job title that fits into his idea of a real job. Of course everything about this business, beginning at the “fancy tent” is completely out of his realm, but I’m forever grateful that I get to tell him I’m an Operations Manager.

“So, how many employees do you have working for you now?” he asks. I crack up inside, because our company is so small and so alternative that even that simple question does not really apply. But I don’t say any of this to him.

“Well…let’s see. There’s Val in the office, and Jayme in the lab and then we have three part-time people…so I guess that makes five. I have five employees.”

Dad let’s out a slow whistle and says, “Five employees…that’s great.” Our neighbor has set about to make herself a little smaller, so as to get a little more distance from me…us. I take a drink of water and as I swallow, dad says,

“So, how many employees do you have working for you now?” This is a first. Up to this point, I have never had dad repeat something back to me exactly the way he said it before, as soon as he finished saying it the first time. I can’t believe this is happening…in the presence of our neighbor. She is in for a ride.

I realize it’s very possible that dad is going to ask me this same question over and over and over – until our food comes. And they’re busy tonight…so there’s going to be time for this question to be repeated many, many times. I make a challenge to myself: “Lauren, how ‘bout seeing if you can take a breath and answer the question like dad’s never, ever asked it of you before? Try counting everyone in a different order, try adding a little information about what each of the five employees do…this might go on for a while.”

“Well let’s see. There are some people that work in the lab: one person is full-time…that’s Jayme. Then there are two part-time people that work in the lab…Elizabeth and Mackall, so that makes three, right? Then we have one person that comes to wash the dishes…Fred, so that makes four. And then Val takes orders in the office. So, that’s five. I have five employees.”

Dad let’s out a slow whistle and says, “Five employees…that’s great.”

He really did that. And then,

“So, how many employees do you have working for you now?”

We did this MANY more times before our food came. MANY, MANY more times. And, miraculously, by the grace of whomever was “coaching” me that night, I realized that my father was giving me this grand opportunity to BE HERE NOW: My father, of all people.

“So, how many employees do you have working for you now?”

She just kept typing away on her laptop. No, she did not have earbuds in…this was before earbuds. There was no music to distract her. The only body language that let me know that she was, in fact, hearing this looping conversation was that she was subtly becoming more and more stiff in her sitting posture – looking straight ahead.

The waiter brings the food.

By this time in his life, dad’s eyesight has diminished to the point where he cannot see what is on his plate…at all. There are some elders in this position who are willing to be fed, and maybe some that actually enjoy being fed. MY FATHER IS NOT ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE. If I ever tried feeding him, even though theoretically he couldn’t see the fork, somehow he’d instantly put an end to that.

I knew what was coming next.

Dad would find his fork and slide it around on his plate until he found some resistance. Then with his other hand he’d reach out and feel the food, so he could make a plan for how to get it into his mouth. Sometimes he’d decide to try getting the food onto his fork; sometimes he’d just grab some food with his fingers and eat with his hands. But this wasn’t any kind of finger food. This was a turkey and cheese omelet with lots of thick, gooey, melted cheese. He managed to cut off a piece of his omelet with his fork and was trying to use his fork to pick it up. Failing that, he’d squeeze around the plate with his fingers, find the big gooey chunk and pick it up. The cheese would stay connected to the omelet and make a big long, loopy strand all the way to his mouth.

Sometimes I feel like he knew what was going on, and was really enjoying his mental image of it, other times he seemed oblivious to the long, rubbery cheese threads that were streaming up from his plate to his mouth, to his shirt. It was hard to resist “cleaning him up”, but dad had the same reaction to that as he did to being fed. NO WAY. I certainly learned a lot about keeping a straight face under absurd circumstances. He finally felt the cheese hanging off his face and began to attempt wiping himself up. So there was a little pause in the omelet circus.

“So, how many employees do you have working for you now?” he says to me, with strands of cheese still hanging off of his face. I glanced at our neighbor through the corner of my eye. She did not budge. Nothing changed. Why didn’t she move away? Maybe she was practicing her BE HERE NOW. Maybe dad was her guru too.

just one dance

One of the unexpected blessings that bubbled up to the surface during the last few years of my father’s life, as dementia began to move into our world, was his propensity for outbreaks of shear silliness and joy. The hard times between my father and I began when I was in early adolescence and those explosions and heartbreaks overshadowed and sometimes completely eclipsed many years of our relationship. I spent a lot of my adult life bracing for what might be the next confrontation with him – so this turn toward lightheartedness was an incredible relief.

On this particular evening, we’d taken him out to dinner and at this point in his life, it was common that he’d get wound up from the excitement of it all, in the same way that young children do. We always wanted to take him to some place new, but quickly learned that what he really wanted…what really pleased him was to just go to the same restaurant where he’d order the same thing. The whole excursion was incredibly surreal because it would go exactly the same way EVERY TIME.

As soon as we walked in, dad would say with great concern, “There’s no one here. That’s rough on business.” Often, the place would have plenty of customers, it’s just that dad couldn’t see them or hear them, and since he had owned a small business himself, he felt deep compassion for the owner. Sometimes my sister and I would offer to count the customers for him so he’d know that the guy was going to be alright, at least for one more night. We’d count out loud, stating where they were sitting, and how many people were at each table. He’d been there so many times; he could picture it in his mind from when he still was able to see the place. It would put him a little more at ease if we did this…so we did.

We always sat in the same spot; we had to sit at the table with the best lighting because dad’s eyesight was so bad, but not near a window because he’d get a chill from the draft. We’d go through the whole menu and he’d think about it for a time, and then say, “How ‘bout a turkey and cheese omelet,” like it was a grand, adventurous choice…which I guess it was, since he couldn’t remember ever having it before.

Every now and then we’d try to get him to agree to something else, partly just for us, just for the novelty of it. For some reason this one item was fixed in his mind – he just loved that omelet. It came with LOTS of melted cheese and this was the crux of the problem. Miraculously, somehow dad would get a bite of the omelet on his fork even though he couldn’t see what was on his plate, but then the melted cheese would string out in one continuous rubbery strand, from the omelet to the fork to his mouth and everywhere in between. It always happened, it was always a mess and Dad hated when we’d try and clean up after him while he was eating. The worst part was that my sister and I would have to avoid eye contact with each other because it was such a ridiculous scene and if we caught each other’s eye…we’d start laughing uncontrollably. And that REALLY annoyed dad.

We’d just arrived home from one of these outings. Dad was wound up from the excitement of it all, and also overly exhausted. He’d had a great excursion out with his two daughters, had an opportunity to talk a little about the plight of small business owners and now we were home. We knew the best thing would be to get him to go to bed. That’s what he needed to do. But. He wanted to hang out with us some more.

Dad was a tough nut to crack – he didn’t take well to offers of help or change, even positive change, especially from his children. My sister, who’s a musician, was great at finding some of dad’s favorite music and figuring out ways to incorporate it into his daily life. She was as stubborn as he was and wouldn’t give up. She’d found some radio stations that played music from the time when he was a young adult, which would have been during the ‘30’s. Even while resisting, if the music was right he couldn’t resist it for long – he loved it so.

We turned the radio on and a great old song poured out into the living room. I just happened to be standing right next to dad. He put out his arms as if to start dancing…and then as if a marionette artist had pulled on some strings lightly, I put out my arms, and in yet another miracle, dad and I were dancing… TOGETHER.

My teenage years were in the 1960’s, so I never learned to partner dance…the few times I’d tried it with people from my own age group, it was a frustrating and sometimes embarrassing experience – so I steered clear of it. The problem was that I didn’t know how to lead, or to follow. Well, all of sudden I found myself dancing with my father, who I’d heard was just as good a dancer as his younger brother who was a fabulous dancer, but I’d never seen my father dance.

And here’s the thing: my father knew how to lead – even me, his headstrong, chip-on-her-shoulder, eldest-daughter. I could feel, ever so subtly, which way we were going to move, just before we changed direction. It was an amazing feeling. I, who loved to dance, had never come across a partner who had enough grace or rhythm or confidence in their own dance skills that I would be willing to surrender to the experience of dancing with someone else. AND HERE I WAS DANCING WITH MY FATHER – MY ARCH ENEMY – MY NEMESIS. As we were dancing, as I was feeling this incredible amazement, I heard in some part of my consciousness, “Of course you and your father dance so well together…you’re so much alike.”

As quickly as this time-out-of-time moment had begun, it ended. The song was over and we looked at each other.

I looked my father square in the eye, saying, “Wow, dad, you’re a great dancer.”

He looked right back at me and said almost sternly and with a tad bit of surprise, “So are you.”

Then he smirked a little, let go of my hands, melted onto his dear old friend, the couch, and throwing his hands up into the air said, “Phew! I’m beat!”

The mystery blended back into our everyday world. My sister and I somehow got him to go to bed. But the magic of those few moments of dancing with instead of bracing against that amazing old man is something I will never forget.

the woman with a bird on her hat

I have the most magnificent gardening hat in the whole world. I know that’s a little presumptuous of me…but it’s true. It was woven by a neighbor and friend well known as a basket weaver here in the Northwest. This hat is an exquisitely hand-woven, traditional Northwest style, cedar bark hat. I even know where the cedar trees were growing when she harvested the bark; I asked her and she told me their story.

As one of the ways I support myself, I spend a lot of time outdoors taking care of, well…I actually say, “assisting” several flower gardens. I am honored to wear this hat in the garden each day. With its wide, gently sloping brim, the sun shines down on me and people tell me it looks like there’s a magical sprinkling of stars across my face, as the light sneaks through the tiny spaces between the warp and weft of the weave.

It took a while for me to adjust to wearing this dear hat-friend. It’s a large hat, with its wide brim and tall crown. As I bent down to smell an especially fragrant rose I’d disturb the whole bush as the brim brushed up against other blooms. Trees that I used to walk by or under with no problem now required me to plot a new path. I’ve never liked wearing hats, but I felt it was important to protect my face from too much sunlight, even though I live in the Northwest. I decided if I was going to wear a hat every day, I would wear a glorious hat.

After a while I began to appreciate that my hat did a fine job of protecting my head and eyes from stray branches; it takes more careful maneuvering than I was used to…but it’s well worth the effort. It protects my eyes, face and head from all the little branches that can whip you in the face or poke you in the eye or ear. I also find that it makes a great buffer, keeping many of the spiders and other insects that live in the garden just a little farther from me. I’d just as soon a spider or bee or wasp land on my hat than on my head.

These past two seasons we’ve had a crazy population explosion of tent caterpillars, with them and their little round poops raining down out of the sky in horror movie proportions and if I hadn’t already come to appreciate the protection my beautiful hat gave me…this did it. On more than one occasion I saw something out of the corner of my eye as I was working in the garden, only to look up and see a TENT CATERPILLAR hanging down over the brim of my hat waving “hello” to me. I was so grateful to my hat for being the front porch for that caterpillar, as the alternative could have been a tent caterpillar down the neck of my shirt. YUK. (Sorry tent caterpillars…I’m just not fond of you crawling inside my clothing.)

On one particularly lovely afternoon, I was doing some long-overdue pruning in a big, old clump of lilac. Just around on the other side of the lilac is a precious little shady part of the garden that in my mind I call “the grotto”. It’s always at least a bit overgrown, and is the dampest part any time of year. There’s a birdbath there that I fill with fresh water each time I visit and I love hearing the sounds the birds make as they’re lining up to take a dip.

When I hear the birds singing out their signals for who’s next in line, and who’s taking too long, and then when they hop in the birdbath, splashing the way they do, ducking and bobbing to scoop the water up and over their back and heads, then shaking out every individual feather from bottom to top – I LOVE IT! Those sounds fill me with pure joy.

As I was pruning in that lilac, my hat and I were moving in and out between many crossing branches – there’s a particular kind of percussion when branches rub against it. It’s a sound I’ve come to treasure: part of the symphony I’m surrounded by each day as I work outside. I’d been inside that clump for quite some time, moving this way and that, and had filled up my wheelbarrow to overflowing.

I finally tore myself away; from the pruning, which I love; from listening to the birdbath serenade, which I love, to roll the wheelbarrow over to my secret yard-waste hideaway. I was moving in my own reverie when I marched right by the front door of a little cottage on the property. Just as I rolled by with my big and brushy load, the young man who’d been staying there flung open his door, which swings outward instead of in, as most doors do. He threw open the door and yelled out with immense glee,

“LAUREN! How did you DO that!!??” The smile on his face was enormous.

“Do what?” I shrugged.

He was staring at me a bit insanely, really.

Again, “How did you DO that??!!”

What was he talking about?

A third time he sang out, “LAUREN, HOW  DID  YOU  DO  THAT!???”

In the midst of his third refrain I returned all the way back from the magical place that I am often transported to when I work in the garden. At the moment of my return I realized I was still hearing that sound…the sound I hear when I and my hat are messing around in a clump of shrubs…but I wasn’t in a clump of shrubs. I was standing out in the middle of a path with nothing anywhere near my hat.

A waterfall of joy showered over me.

“IS THERE A BIRD ON MY HAT??!!??!!” and I pointed to the origin of the sound, which was about one inch from my right ear.

YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and with this we both started laughing with wonder.

I stood completely still while I shifted my eyes to look to the place where the sound – a delicate scratchy, raspy kind of fidget was coming from. I felt like I was having an angelic visitation. There was A BIRD gently moving about, right next to my ear. The awestruck young man froze in his doorway, still completely overcome with a gigantic smile.

All at once the bird flew up and over my shoulder and landed in a bush just behind me.

“There…there it is!” he pointed. I so wanted to SEE who, which angel, had graced me with its presence. There on the bush was a fledgling bird…you know the ones…their body and wing feathers are quite well behaved, but they always have a really bad hairdo; their head feathers are still all fluffy and every-which-way. That’s who was there; a youngster bird that thought my nice wide brim was a lovely little bird sofa, and who had paid no attention when its parents told it to STAY FAR AWAY FROM HUMANS. And then, in an instant this angel flew out of sight.

The young man and I just looked at each other still beaming with delight. And you know what is almost equally as noteworthy…he did not slide his phone out of his pocket to take a picture. He just drank in the magic. We both did.

French Fries

I got a call from my sister. She was worried, frustrated, crying. Dad wouldn’t let her in the house; she was locked out. Dusk was rapidly falling, she was in Los Angeles with nowhere to go, nowhere to spend the night.

For the last few years when I’ve told this story, I blamed dad’s behavior on something called “Sundowner’s”…common to people with certain forms of dementia. As daylight decreases, but well before darkness falls, every cell in their body shouts, “Darkness is coming, and with darkness comes danger! Lock the doors, turn off the lights, go to bed.” Dad definitely demonstrated “Sundowners” by this time. Recently I spent some time in Los Angeles with my sister, and in the midst of our sisterly storytelling, which often includes stories about all the shenanigans we went through with dad, I brought up this story, linking his behavior to Sundowner’s.

My sister said, “NO…that’s not why he locked me out. Don’t you remember?” Immediately, she began to laugh – a particular kind of laugh I recognized as precursor to a doozy of a “dad story”. Well, I didn’t remember, and it turns out this is one of those instances where the truth is much stranger than fiction.

At the time this happened, I was back up north living in my own home and my sister was down visiting dad in LA. We had come to a crossroads with his in-home care. We’d been able to gradually increase the number of hours that caregivers were there, even though he continued to resist having caregivers at all. Somehow between the three of us kids with all our different ways of communicating with him, we’d been able to expand the daytime contact hours.

Now it was clear to all of us, with increasing pressure from his caregivers; it was time to have someone stay with him during the night. We all agreed…all, save dad. One of his reasons for refusal was that it would be improper for a woman to stay in his home overnight. Ellen got the inspiration to see if we could find a male caregiver for the night shift. I thought this was a great idea, and also had one serious hesitation; dad was still, at age 93, dead set on being the “head of the house” in any situation. With dementia, that meant that he might very possibly challenge any man, known or unknown, found in his home in the middle of the night, with physical aggression. After all, he grew up in an era, and in a neighborhood where fistfights settled most disagreements, or, he might grab one of his hidden weapons – a golf iron or a baseball bat.

We decided to begin interviewing some male caregivers and see if we could find the right person. That’s why Ellen was in L.A…to find our man. An applicant came over one afternoon and Ellen was able to interview him out on the front porch first, while dad was finishing up his lunch – there they sat in a couple of scruffy, white plastic, outdoor chairs. The timing of these sorts of things was tricky; dad’s schedule had its own brand of randomness, so it seemed like the gods were with us. After their brief introduction Ellen came inside to ask dad if he’d like to meet this person who “might be doing some work for you”. And here’s where the story turned classically dad-crazy.

First, dad went out on the porch and without any conversation waved the guy off, as in “get the hell off my property”. Next, dad turned to Ellen and said in a genuinely apologetic tone with a completely straight face, “I’m really sorry, but I just can’t let you stay here.” As my sister re-told this story to me, she said it was like he so wished he could let her stay, but because of whatever she’d done, “Lord knows what that was”, he absolutely could not let her back inside his house. Ellen, at first just mildly baffled, said, “What?” At that point dad had lost his patience; before dementia he had very little patience, and after dementia, pretty much none. “You heard me, leave. You can’t come in. Go on,” and waved her off the same way he’d waved off the guy. With that, dad walked through the open front door, shut it and locked it. He not only locked the doorknob, but also locked it with the chain lock…a security feature on all the homes in this 60-year-old neighborhood. Instead of a deadbolt or a little peephole, there was a shiny brass chain that enabled you to open the door maybe an inch, so you could safely see who was at the door without exposing yourself to potential danger. Well, that’s what dad used on my sister, his youngest daughter, on this sunny afternoon. He usually didn’t do the chain lockup until he went to bed…but this was a dangerous situation and required serious action.

She could not comprehend AT ALL what had just happened. She tried the door and yes it definitely was double-locked. “Go on now!” was all dad said, in a much darker tone. At this point he was beginning to feel under siege by whoever Ellen had now become in his hard-to-make-sense-of-things mind. Somehow, amazingly, she was able to figure out what misinterpretation dad had just made. In that moment, he knew she was somehow a relative…and maybe he still knew she was his daughter, but most importantly what he “knew” was that Ellen had just had a very improper interaction with a strange man on his front porch. The interaction was, in his mind, so grievous that he could not allow such a “shamed woman” to enter his home. So he locked her out. This all occurred in the middle of a bright, sunny afternoon…there was no “Sundowner’s Syndrome” going on, like I’d remembered it. This had become “The Case of the Improper Woman” and Ellen was stranded in the midst of her childhood neighborhood.

Accepting defeat, she walked off dad’s porch and as the reality of her situation began to weigh on her…the tears began to flow. Her father had just banished her and, she was stranded in North Hollywood…a moderately safe place by day…but anywhere in Los Angeles could become a little sketchy at night. She was low on cash, so staying at a motel was not possible, and besides, any motel that she could afford in that area would be really sketchy…not just a little.

Finally she decided to seek temporary shelter with a dear elderly neighbor across the street. She knew my parents and since dad had become widowed, she kind of kept an eye on dad. We always visited with her when we came to visit him and she would give us updates on what she witnessed from her vantage point across the street. His daily walks were pretty much like clockwork, so she could tell if something was out of order, if she didn’t see him in the morning.

When Bea opened her door and saw Ellen’s distraught look, she reached out to her with a precious motherly hug and Ellen really began to cry. She just didn’t know what to do and her heart was broken. That’s when she called me. I was no help. Knowing dad I knew he wasn’t going to let her in. In other circumstances I would have said that he’d forget about it in a while and then she could just start over, but he was feeling attacked and most likely was pretty agitated. I knew from experience with him in that state, that it took more than a little while for him to get over it. If she knocked on his door again, who knows what he’d do and besides, now it was getting dark so “Sundowner’s” would be part of the problem.

I agreed that sadly, her best option was to spend the night with Bea. I was sure glad it wasn’t me down there, locked out. Before Ellen packed it in at Bea’s, she decided to go out to get something she’d forgotten to bring with her. She was driving along Ventura Blvd, a long and meandering street on the south side of the San Fernando Valley, past a myriad of shops. Every kind of retail store and food establishment offering items you know about, plenty that you’ve never heard of, and many that you don’t want to know exist – it’s all there. She was driving along not thinking about anything in particular when she saw a fast-food place.

“FRENCH FRIES!” This thought screamed out to her. “GET DAD SOME FRENCH FRIES. You can BRIBE him with FRENCH FRIES!”

In this moment, she remembered his caregivers telling her that sometimes when dad would fire them, and tell them to GO HOME, when he wouldn’t forget about the whole interaction after a few minutes so they could just carry on with looking after him, they’d leave and go get him some fresh, hot French Fries. They told Ellen that it worked every time. She pulled into the next fast-food place she passed and ordered some piping hot French Fries.

Back at dad’s house she gingerly knocked on his door again. By now it was dark and dad was quite agitated. “WHO IS IT?” he yelled with bravado and fear in his voice.

“Dad, it’s me. I brought you FRENCH FRIES!”

There was silence. Then she heard his hand on the chain lock, and the door swung open. She almost handed them over to him, but at the last minute she saw a very real possibility that he would simply grab the fries and slam the door. Ellen was thinking on her feet.

“Hi dad, I brought you some French fries! Let’s go sit at the table and eat them together,” all the while holding them just beyond his grasp. They sat down at the dining room table and ate the deliciously hot, fried, salty bits together in silence. As soon as they finished, she got up from the table and disappeared into her bedroom. She turned off her light and got into bed, being as “quiet as a mouse”. She didn’t want to risk any kind of disruption. Who knows what he would do.

French Fries are the best bribe in the world. Of course they are.

When Ellen was first locked out, she called me – and she also called our older brother. He wasn’t too sympathetic or understanding of the enormity of the situation. He lived back east so her call came in the midst of his own family heading off to bed. By this time he’d had plenty of his own frustrations with our father. All this to say – he wasn’t much help.

“Just tell him who you are and tell him to let you in.”

Dad was not someone that responded well to his children telling him what to do, way before dementia had ever raised its unpredictable head.

Some months later…IT HAPPENED TO PAUL! Dad locked him out. And because of dad’s issues with needing to be the alpha-male, he was even more aggressive sounding toward my brother, feeling extremely threatened by some big, male stranger trying to enter his home. Paul COULD NOT believe it. He was really ticked off. He called Ellen, and to her credit, instead of goading him…talking to him the way he’d talked to her, she simply said, “Paul, go get some FRENCH FRIES.”

He did. It worked. I’m telling you, “French Fries”: it works every time.

We Meet Again

It’s 1984, and our divorce has been final for a little over a year. We’ve not been in touch at all – since the day we signed the paperwork. I’m the one who left and although I did the best I could at the time…it was a messy leaving…oceans of pain and anger and heartbreak. I’ve been back in this little tiny town for almost six months. I know that he’s heard about the accident. Everyone knows about it.

It’s been three weeks since it happened. The first State Patrolman to arrive at the scene looked at me suspiciously and said,

“There’s no way that you could be the driver of that car. Look at it! Whoever was in there…didn’t make it out alive.”

Baffled by his words, I think a response, but don’t speak it out loud.

But I did make it out…and I’m alive.”

I am alive and I’m also not always sure about that. I decide I need to observe people seeing me…maybe that will convince me that I really am here in this world, and not in the vague, hazy, half-real place that I often find myself in since the accident. I’ll go to the potluck at the Grange this Saturday night…that’ll do it. I hope.

Gingerly, I walk into the old, weathered grange hall with its white paint peeling, doors and windows sagging. The sounds from exuberant conversations bouncing off the walls hurt my bruised body. Over the course of the evening, neighbors sensing my vulnerability, approach me carefully to visit. My mother suggested to me over the phone that I wear a sling even though I don’t need one, just to alert people to the fact that I’m injured. Right now I’m wishing I’d listened to her. There is one person who does not see me, or cannot see me, or more likely refuses to see me; it’s Tom, my former husband. I see him across the crowd and watch him look at me, but his face registers nothing.

Later on I gratefully crawl into bed and a deep sadness consumes me. He’s still so angry, or hurt or I don’t know what, that he cannot acknowledge his relief that I wasn’t killed. Even through his anger, and his heartbreak, there would be some little vestige of caring, of love, leftover somewhere, that would slip through…wouldn’t there? Maybe not.

During the two years between when I left our home and when our divorce was final, I eventually came to the realization that I was holding my breath in anticipation of a time when we could actually have a conversation about what had happened between us…about what had fallen apart. I realized that somehow, I was putting my life on hold, just in case we could have that one conversation. It was a pretty good guess that we were never going to have that talk. I began to know, or at least hope, that maybe it was possible we could sort things out on some other level.

What I did know for sure: there was nothing I could do to make this happen.

As one of my teachers says,

“You     j  u  s t      g  o t  t  a     wait…”

And so I carried on with my life and held this knowing, this hope, tucked way back somewhere in my consciousness.

Later that night in bed, I hope for sleep but am not rewarded with it. I begin to slip into another layer of awareness – it happens fairly often these days. I’m not asleep, but not exactly in my cabin either. I have a dream…or a vision maybe.

I’m in a dimly lit cave. Walls, ceiling, floor…all made of solid rock the color of angry storm clouds. Stretched out on my belly on a wide ledge, my chin rests on my folded hands.

I open my eyes and Tom is standing right in front of me. The ledge that supports me is high, and with our faces only inches apart, we are eye-to-eye. A profound silence settles upon us and then he speaks.

“I’m glad you’re alive.”

Then he’s gone.

When my awareness brings me back to my bed in the tiny cabin, back to my two cats purring loudly nearby, and to the crackle of the fire in the potbelly wood stove, I know that Tom and I just shared an actual communication. Somehow, miraculously, we made peace. I also know it might be the only time we see each other, for the rest of our days.

Apollinaire said,

“Come to the edge.

We might fall.

Come to the edge.

It’s too high!


And they came

And he pushed them

And they flew.”

– Christopher Logue

It is January, 2001. And I have come to the “edge”…again. I don’t exactly know that I’m at the “edge”, yet…but somewhere in my heart I can feel the enormity of what I’m heading toward. I’m driving home – moving back home to where I grew up, to “help my parents”, whatever that means. Home to my father whom I’ve been estranged from at times and been angry with for a very long time, home to my mother whom I’m also in a distant and tangled up kind of relationship with. Something has grabbed hold of me by the shoulders, turned me to look toward home, and given me a nudge. I am terrified to go back there and, I am going, just the same.

If I’m heading home, I sure am taking my sweet time – it’s as if maybe I can avoid ever arriving anywhere, especially back in North Hollywood where I grew up. A part of me wants nothing to do with this decision that I’ve made – it might be closer to all of me.

I have left my current home – a sweet and remarkable little town that sits within dense woods, on a peninsula in the Puget Sound of Washington State; a place where the only broad view to be had is when standing at the edge of the water. All along the way I stop to visit friends and family. I’m stirring up the memory of each place that I’ve called home over a span of twenty-nine years, stretching all the way to the place that birthed me.

A thick rope of asphalt and concrete cuts through the lush, green, wide-open Willamette valley of western Oregon. The highway moves in parallel to the great Willamette River. I am almost dizzied by the force of these waters coursing northward to join the massive Columbia River and ultimately the Pacific Ocean while I, at the same time, am hurtling south. This grand valley is the place that caught me when I leapt out of the home of my childhood.

I turn off I-5 at the Corvallis exit and begin a deeper, more detailed remembering. This town resting amidst the wide-open spaces of the valley held me tenderly beginning at the age of nineteen. Tom and I met when I was 23, and we moved out to the Coast Range a couple of years later. I pull up to First Alternative, a place that to this day, holds a deep and tender spot in my heart. “The Co-op” as we all fondly called it, was at the intersection of all my various relationships and stories throughout the sixteen years I lived in the area.

As I cross the threshold, I remember that Tom’s actually the person that introduced me to the Co-op so many years before. Around the corner, beyond a beautiful hand-made, wooden wine rack, I come to the dairy coolers of which there are so many now, with their tall, narrow, glass doors showing off a mind-boggling array of milk and kefir and yogurt and who knows what else, when I realize that I’m looking at the back of a man that is so utterly familiar…it’s Tom. Unmistakably, there he is, deciding which kind of yogurt is the one he really wants. He’s in his own little yogurt world. I stop. My whole world stops. I am grabbed up by an enormous wave of love and happiness to see this person, this man who shared so much with me…taught me how to cook, for God’s sake. We shared dreams, adventures, and so much laughter. And yes, heartbreak.

All of it floods through me in this one moment. And still, the overriding experience is one of pure joy to see the back of this man…his strawberry-blonde, longish hair, curling at the ends, balding on top…a faded, plaid flannel shirt spilling over equally faded blue jeans. I am shocked at how overjoyed I am to see him and also instantly realize that I have the advantage here…I’ve had this little private time to investigate my feelings. Tom on the other hand has no idea what is about to overtake him – a tidal wave of love.

He turns, still in his own little world, holding a quart of yogurt. I watch him slowly register who it is he’s looking at. I see every emotion fly across his face and cannot contain myself any longer.


He’s silent but his face is saying, “It is?”

“How ARE you? What are you up to these days?”

I bowl him over with these questions. He’s still sorting, sorting, sorting in his mind, in his heart. But I am unstoppable – it is unstoppable.

I too, am a little bowled over with my response. This wave is much bigger than me, out of my control. Even if I wanted to stop it, I know I cannot. Tom’s a surfer, always been a surfer, and in some part of his knowing, he recognizes that an enormous wave…of something…is about to break. He can catch it if he times it just right, or be crushed by it if he’s late.

“Well…I’m building boards…we’ve got a surf shop over in Newport…” is where he begins, in a fairly monotone voice, especially compared to my vocal range. Then I send another wave of love rolling through, saying,

“REALLY!!!?! Tom I’m SO happy for you. That’s AWESOME…”

It continues to sink in. His face reflects that he’s standing there talking to me…a woman who maybe in his words, “broke his heart”, and he’s probably thinking he’ll do anything to defend against that happening again, even if it only lasts five minutes. Finally he responds to my declaration with,


“BECAUSE THAT’S BEEN YOUR DREAM FOR YOUR ENTIRE LIFE…to build surfboards, to own a surf shop…you’re doing it! Wow, Tom…so great…I’m SO happy for you,” I gush all over him.

This is how we are. I’m overflowing with excitement and love and he’s not finding too many words. But what I see, what I know…whatever that was, that wave that overtook me, that didn’t even give me a chance to wonder if I should say anything at all, if maybe I should just sneak out and get back in my car and drive like hell toward the “edge”…whatever that was…it washed over and through both of us. We made it. We both, in our completely different ways of perceiving, felt that unspeakable, unavoidable bond of love that will exist between us for the rest of our days, even if we never see each other ever again, even if we do. I know we both knew that. Finally. The meeting I had hoped for all those years ago; we had the meeting and THAT is a miracle.

And then it’s time for me to leave, because, after all, I’m going to the “edge”. This is a pretty good warm-up for whatever awaits me there.

I cannot recall how I found my way out of that tidal wave of love, or out of the Co-op, for that matter. The love is what I remember.

the Tree

For Dodie

on her Ninety-Eighth Birthday

with so much love

I’m on the floor, lying on my side. My right arm is bent so that my head rests in my hand. Eventually my forearm will be covered with squiggly indentations because of the rug but I don’t care, and my left hand is twirling little pieces of the gold-colored, wall-to-wall, shag carpeting that I think is fancy compared to what we have at our house.

The rule is that we kids have to go around to the back door; no kids allowed in the living room. Except for this time of year. Then the rule changes…if we’re careful not to make a mess. These days, the living room is home to the most magical thing I’ve ever seen and I visit it as often as I can. The room is dark and quiet. It’s just me, lying there on the floor. I don’t know where my best friend is; maybe she’s in her bedroom in the back of the house, or maybe in the den, watching TV.

I came to see The Tree.

I came to see The Christmas Tree.

The Tree lives at 5253 Beeman Avenue, and I live at 5219 Beeman Avenue. There are five houses between my house and where the Tree lives. Sometimes I count them when I walk by.

At my house, we celebrate Chanukah and we are not allowed to have even the tiniest little bit of anything to do with Christmas. I don’t really know much about Chanukah or Christmas, besides that Chanukah means we get to light candles every night and I love watching the candles burn down and melt all over the place…but it is nothing compared to the Tree.

I want to have a Tree so bad, but my mother says, “NO. Absolutely not.” And my father says, “It’s up to your mother.” So I go down to 5253 Beeman Avenue to visit the Tree as often as I can. It’s hard, because I’m shy, but I do it anyway because the Tree is so beautiful.

I love this tree and when I sit with it I am in a world where there is no one else but me and the Tree.

I have so many favorite parts of the Tree, but the very most favorite part is the lights. They are what make everything else magical. They are clear glass and in the shape of little candles. When the electrical cord that goes to the lights is plugged in, the glass lights light up and they are beautiful, but slowly, real magic happens. As I lay there quietly looking at every single detail of the Tree, the little glass candles begin to bubble inside and I wonder if a fairy just waved her magic wand all around the tree. It is a wondrous mystery every time.

The Tree has long strands of silver tinsel and they shiver and shimmer when the heat starts to come out of the vent over by the hall doorway. The tinsel begins to dance and by then the lights are bubbling and I am in heaven.

Here’s another dream-come-true special thing about the Tree. On the ends of some of the branches there are striped candy-cane shaped      C O O K I E S. They are red and white and my friend’s mother, Dodie, bakes them every year. And she bakes lots and lots of other kinds of Christmas cookies too. I know because sometimes I’m there when she opens up the cupboard where they’re stored: there are shelves filled with boxes and tins of all kinds of beautiful cookies. I have tasted some and they are so good. I hope I get to taste more. She bakes and bakes and bakes. I always wish I could help her but I go to school everyday and besides I would be so shy to ask her. My mother doesn’t bake cookies…or really anything else either. She thinks it’s amazing what Dodie bakes, too. I really want to learn about baking. But I’m not brave enough to ask.

There’s something else that wraps itself all around me when I’m lying there watching the tinsel dance and the candles bubble and the little reflections of light that bounce off of colored glass balls that hang on the branches. It happens as soon as I walk in; it’s the smell of the Tree. I breathe it in and out when I come and I know it’s the Tree saying hello to me.

Sometimes Dodie talks to me but sometimes she’s busy making dinner. She doesn’t mind that I come to see the Tree. I think she feels the same way I do about it, but she has so many things to do. Maybe later, when she’s finished with the dishes she gets to sit with the Tree.

When it’s time for me to go home for dinner I have to say goodbye to the Tree. Sometimes I take so long to say goodbye that my mother calls Dodie to find out where I am. Then I really have to run home fast. It’s dark outside and I’m a little bit scared. I walk down the two front steps then RUN all the way home. Sometimes I look behind me to see if anyone’s there. Usually there is and you know who it is? It’s Tiger, my cat.

He follows me down to 5253 Beeman Avenue and I don’t even know it. He waits for me in the bushes. As soon as I start to run like the wind Tiger jumps out of the bushes and gallops all the way home, right behind me. When I get to our house, with the porch light shining bright, Tiger runs into the bushes by the front door and then pounces on me, like I didn’t see him running all the way home behind me. His fur is a little puffed up and he jumps a little sideways. I pick him up and he wants to get down and run again when he hears the door open.

When I go inside sometimes I get in a little trouble because I stayed away so long. They don’t know that I was visiting the Tree. We light the candles and I love to watch them, but I can’t wait to go back down to 5253 Beeman Avenue tomorrow night to see the Tree again.

What’s STICKS Got to Do With It

The first stick I held in my hand with awe was a branch from a Manzanita bush. Manzanita is a scrubby shrub with a growth habit of uncanny twists and turns. It grew along the paths of the camp I went to as a kid. One of the choices for a craft project was to find a stick and sand it until it was silky smooth. I was in heaven – that’s all I wanted to do the entire week. I grew up in North Hollywood, California and sanding sticks was not a common form of entertainment. Most of the kids at camp who went to the “craft room” wanted to use GLITTER; they glued it on rocks or sticks, or painted with thick, sticky, tempera paint and then glued glitter all over the paintings. Not me. I wanted to sand my stick and then at the end, when it was so smooth, I rubbed it with linseed oil and it turned a shade of deep, rich ochre-brown.

In my twenties, while living in the Coast Range of Oregon, in a very small town that was really too small to be called a town at all, I met an elderly couple that lived an extremely simple life, long before such a thing was splashed across the cover of magazines. She was in her late 60’s, he in his early 80’s. Their only heat source was a wood cook-stove. Firewood for the stove needed to be fairly short in length, and small in diameter. At the time, my former husband and I also heated and cooked with wood, although we were woodstove-rich…we had a wood cook-stove which took small wood and a wood-burning heater that took big wood. As part of our livelihood, we cut and sold firewood. I had my own chainsaw and in the spring and early summer spent hours each day cutting big logs up into pieces and then splitting the pieces up with an axe.

Jim and Ros on the other hand, had a whole wall of wooden cubbyholes on one end of their cobbled-together garage/machine shop, each filled with various diameters of sticks. It was a beautiful collage of wood…but I in my cocky, youthful arrogance thought their wood supply looked kind of wimpy. During one conversation, Jim shared with me that he was surprised we would waste so much time, and fuel, to start with big pieces of wood and “whittle” them down into smaller pieces. “Why not just cut up branches that are already the right size?” I didn’t exactly have an answer to his question, and it planted itself in my brain to be used later on in my life.

Well, that time is now. I am a stick collector. I pull branches out of my landlord’s burn pile. When I first moved to this cabin I could be seen walking up the dirt road dragging good-sized branches up to my own private stash. I imagined that I looked like some kind of human “stick dog” – my name for dogs that basically LIVE for sticks. I use a folding pruning-saw now to cut my firewood. Occasionally someone I know shares with me a gift of firewood in its more common form…the firewood from my youth…and I will get out my axe to split it. But now, Jim’s question is often at the tip of my tongue.

Having a good stash of sticks is more than just a practical matter to do with firewood, although that is certainly part of it. I have several piles going and when I see them I feel wealthy in a way that has nothing to do with the definition of wealth commonly used in our culture. These days when I cut up wood for heating, often I am standing outside sawing away with my pruning saw, listening to birdsong instead of the fierce scream of a chainsaw. It’s a deep pleasure.

While showing my stick piles and stacked wood to a young friend, I realized that I had become Ros and Jim. There I was, sorting and saving, relishing the beauty of all these sticks, not knowing yet what I would use any particular one for. But knowing for sure that they were important to gather around me.

This particular pile of sticks that you have been drawn to is similar…only words instead of wood. When I began this blog I had no idea why I was doing it. No idea. I heard, in my inner guidance, that it was something I needed to do. At the time, I barely knew what a blog was, but I followed my instructions. I began to share my writing and over time the cubbyholes have begun to fill with different kinds and sizes of sticks.

Last year I finally spoke some big words, first to myself, and then out loud: “I am writing a book.” I have a friend and neighbor who has been a great source of encouragement and yes, also a little nagging and so I give my thanks to dear Grace for pushing me enough to speak those five words. I continue to revise a working title on a piece of scratch paper with as many cross-outs as words…but I’m getting closer. It has to do with learning to communicate within the language of dementia.

I began learning this language first as a friend, then as a caregiver, and finally, miraculously, as a daughter with my own father, when dementia crept into our world. In 2001 I traveled to my childhood home to assist my elderly parents, stayed for four years and along the way, learned to communicate with a man who was utterly familiar, completely changed, and everything in between: together we entered the uncharted territory of dementia.

These posts are scattered amongst all the sticks. If you’re looking for them specifically, you can find them by clicking on the icon within the left-hand margin on whatever page you’re reading. Or, scroll all the way to the bottom of the blog where you’ll find a listing beneath the Archives, entitled Grace Within the Great Forgetting.

Thank you so, for taking the time to explore a pile of sticks.


The Man We Were Dealing With

When I first suggested to my father that he keep a key hidden somewhere outside his house in case he locked himself out, he refused, saying that someone would discover it and rob him. Old and vulnerable, leaving a key outside was too great a risk for him. But truthfully, by the time he really needed to have a spare key stashed somewhere; he wouldn’t have remembered where it was. Yes, people told us to put a key on a cord that hung around his neck, or around his wrist, or attached to his belt or belt loop – all great suggestions, IF he’d remember to do these things. But that’s the catch…it was his memory that was part of the problem.

Not to mention that he hated to have things ON him. He’d get rid of anything like that, within minutes, and if he couldn’t unfasten it, he’d cut or rip it off. When I first saw him yank something off his wrist, I realized that he and I were not so different. I could not stand it either and smiled to myself wondering if, at his age, I would be like him. When I was a little girl I so wanted to have a nightgown with lace edging on the sleeve-hems, but when I felt the constriction from the elastic bands in the ruffled cuffs, I found a scissors and cut the elastic off – I couldn’t stand the way it felt.

That first time when I suggested to him that he keep a spare key outside, he said he didn’t need it. I asked what he’d do if he locked himself out and with no hesitation he replied with a sneer,

“I’ll bust the door down.” He was true to his word.

I noticed he did not say he’d go across the street to ask the neighbors for help. He was close to 90-years-old at this point, and busting the door down continued to remain his best, his only solution. That’s the man we were dealing with.

The first time he locked himself out, he dragged the old paint-splattered, five-foot aluminum ladder from the garage in the backyard around to the open, kitchen-window in the front of the house. He was planning to climb through that window but it was a little more complicated than he anticipated. There was a flower box on the outside of the window he’d have to climb across, the window had a screen on it and it was a double-hung window with only about an 18 x 24 inch opening so he would have had to do some pretty fancy yoga to fit through it, and finally, the window was above the kitchen sink; that’s why he needed the ladder to reach it. If he’d been successful, and been able to somehow get through the window…he would have landed right in the sink. Maybe if he was sixteen, or thirty, or even fifty-years-old he could’ve pulled it off, but NOT at age NINETY. Luckily for all of us, he didn’t have a chance to get too far.

“Ellen, YOUR FATHER IS STANDING ON A LADDER OUTSIDE THE KITCHEN WINDOW. I think he’s locked out. Barry’s gonna go help him.” That’s the phone call my sister received from Pam. She and her husband Barry lived across the street from dad. These dear neighbors had a spare key to his house, and they weren’t the only neighbors that had been willing to take a key, “just in case”. Barry somehow got dad off the ladder; an act I wish I’d been able to witness. With the distraction of Barry seemingly appearing out of nowhere, dad never even noticed that he had an extra key.

The second time he locked himself out he took a different approach. Back in the 60’s he’d been involved in remodeling the screened-in porch at the rear of our house into a den. I’m sure that he’s the one who chose a hollow-core back door…less expensive, yes, but also less sturdy than a solid door. Forty or so years later, he had that fact stored away somewhere in his mind: the back door was hollow-core and therefore a door that he could bust down…with the right equipment.

Dad went into his garage and found an iron crowbar, and somehow dragged it to the back door. He weighed 116 pounds by this time in his life, so the real miracle is, he picked up the crowbar and bashed the backdoor at a height that allowed him to reach through the hole and unlock the door. We were, of course, worried about his safety and his judgment, but I have to admit we were also quite inspired by his will. Unstoppable.

My sister and I went through the garage after the “break-in”. We poked around through the layers of discards on the shelves and removed all the tools, and everything else we could imagine him using as a tool. Garages tend to be a kind of modern-day archaeological site and ours was no different. There were tools from when dad did the remodel in the 60’s, and I’m guessing that’s the category the crowbar fit into, there were wedding gifts from my mother’s parents circa 1947, that dad never liked but tolerated when my mother was alive, like a horribly tarnished, silver-plated champagne bucket which is about as unlike my parents’ life-style as you could ever imagine. There were a series of broken microwave ovens although the most recent one wasn’t actually broken…my sister just told dad she broke it so she could get it out before he burned the house down. He’d mistakenly used an aluminum pie-plate to heat food in and then entered the cooking time in hours instead of minutes. That was another very close call that also involved a phone call from Pam.

There was an old shed out behind the garage that I knew he didn’t go into any longer – at least that’s what he told me. He’d asked me to get something out of it recently, saying that the brick path was too uneven, now that the gnarled tree roots were as much above ground as below – said his eyesight just wasn’t good enough. Now that I think about it, maybe that was just a ploy to get us to put all the tools in one spot. Well, we put all the tools and would-be tools back there, way in the back behind a bunch of old window screens, thinking that now he would be safe.

As his judgment became more convoluted, as his behavior became more risky, we continued to increase the hours that the caregivers spent with him, which was no easy task. He fired them almost every day and told them to “Get out! Go home!” and worse, I’m sure. Those two young women were amazing with him – they really understood his nature; we learned a lot about dad from them. They’d get their things, leave by the front door, and then circle around to the backyard. They’d wait whatever amount of time they thought it would take for dad to forget that he’d fired them…and then just enter through the back door like nothing had happened.

When I heard they were doing this, of course I was impressed, and so grateful for their dedication and resilience – but I was also concerned for their safety. I reminded them just who they were dealing with: a proud, fierce, and rowdy old man who was bound to have who-knows-what hidden around the house to protect himself against potential intruders. At various times I’d found a baseball bat and a golf iron between the wall and his nightstand. I warned them that they had to make sure he knew they were in the house once they returned from their banishment. His hearing and eyesight were failing and it’d be dangerous for everyone, if he were surprised by their presence.

After this “break-in”, we knew we were running out of time. My father was a force of nature – he would not be controlled. But we kept trying. We began to look around at possible housing options and at the same time couldn’t imagine him living anywhere but his own home: it’s where he’d lived for a good chunk of his life…sixty years. But there were other reasons. Yes he was old and weak, but he was still quite healthy, physically. He walked a one-mile round trip back and forth to the donut shop once or twice a day, or three times if he forgot he’d already been. And he’s the guy that broke through a door with a crow bar at age ninety.

I didn’t realize how much of a problem his good health, physical strength, and shall we say, creative problem solving skills, were, until we started visiting various residences. First of all, the ratio of women to men in this population is skewed – women outlive men by a huge factor, so they’re primarily set up for dealing with women. As a general rule, women of his generation were not thinking about busting down doors or climbing through windows. Dad grew up in a destitute neighborhood in Detroit during the Depression, and literally had to fight to survive; he’d learned to try anything and everything to accomplish his goals. Those instincts were alive and well in his psyche.

He was also used to walking a lot, every day. Many of the residents were wheelchair bound, some bedridden. It was hard to imagine how they could handle dad. One of the most disappointing and frustrating parts of all of this was that not one residence ever said that they could not handle him. We were VERY honest with them about his behavior. They always told us they were capable of taking care of him, and keeping him safe. There’s no way they could accomplish this and I know now that the system is simply not able to handle someone like dad. We would have had to hire a caregiver to be with him all the time, on top of paying the fees that everyone else paid. We didn’t have that kind of money…but they never even suggested it. We began to see the chasm between what dad needed and what any of them could offer.

And then there was television. He and my mom had given up on TV years ago, and by now, his eyesight was so poor he really couldn’t see what was going on, anyway. Every once and a while I’d say, “Dad, the Dodgers are on tonight, wanna watch the game with me?” First he’d just say, “Are you kidding? The Dodgers stink!” which they did at the time. But finally he admitted that he couldn’t make out anything on the screen. Dementia made television even more bizarre, and sometimes he would describe to me what it looked like to him…and we’d have a good laugh, but it had not been a part of his routine for many years. He just wasn’t the sort of old man who would settle for sitting around watching TV all day. His younger brother at age 88, still loved watching his favorite shows, and he’d come over mid-day and turn them on as soon as he arrived; right away dad would holler, “Turn that crap off!”

Most of the housing situations we looked at assumed that people liked TV and they used it just as some parents use it – as a babysitter. There was no way that would work with dad. Each time my siblings and I would go on an excursion looking for some place to move him, we’d come back utterly discouraged…he just wasn’t at all like the kind of people they were aiming for. In statistical terms, dad was an “outlier”…he was way outside their “norm”. We loved that about dad…loved that he was his own person, and boy was he. But now, that was revealing itself to be a major problem.

Sitting in the backyard with his eyes closed, dad would feel the sun on his face and listen to the sweet song of the Mourning doves – it was his oasis – and a respite from the increasing confusion that he faced whenever he went out into the world. Both his brothers spent the last years of their lives in apartments. He could never imagine that. Dad loved his home; he loved everything about it. It was his old friend, and now that mom was gone, it had become his closest old friend.

We knew this.

Once again he’d locked himself out. This time Pam’s voice on the other end of the line was frantic. She said she “just happened” to look out their kitchen window to see my father reaching his hand THROUGH a BROKEN WINDOW to let himself in at the front door. Her angel of a husband ran over and by the time he’d arrived, dad had already opened the front door. There was not a scratch on him. The hammer that he used to break the window lay eerily on the porch at the edge of the door, below the jagged window. Broken glass was strewn about, and inside, shards glittered all across his beloved couch. Barry carefully removed all the glass and taped up the window. We were running out of time. All three of us kids knew it. His caregivers knew it. Our neighbors knew it. Did dad know?

He must have been alone…where was his caregiver, we wondered? On this particular day, dad had already fired her several times by the early afternoon. Los Angeles was having a horrible heat wave and she couldn’t bear the thought of going around to the backyard again, which was in full sun that time of day. She instead walked around the corner to the drugstore where it was air conditioned, and got something cold to drink. She was not gone long – but long enough. She’d left him unsupervised…but what could she do? He’d already kicked her out too many times and it was over 100 degrees outside. Our homemade eldercare-system was unraveling.

When we heard the whole story, we knew that once again, one of dad’s angels had been looking out for him. He could have been injured, he could have slit his wrist and bled to death. We got the message LOUD AND CLEAR. Maybe you’re thinking this is the message we got: we had to move him out of his house – but that was still inconceivable to us. Instead, we concluded that we had to come up with a system that insured that his caregivers were present 24 hours a day. With hindsight I can’t believe that we didn’t see this as the last straw, but moving him out of his house continued to be a haunting image that seemed impossible.

We were able to cobble together a 24-hour presence of caregivers. It was a daunting job for those dedicated young women and for my sister who at that point was in charge. After my four-year stint in Los Angeles I distanced myself from the day-to-day activities that filled dad’s life. I became an on-call consultant for my siblings while they sorted out how to make sure he was safe and living as good a life as he could. My sister did an amazing job, and, did it while she lived out of town. Even though she had a full-time job she was on the phone day and night, she became an expert at texting when it was still a somewhat new form of communication and we spent many hours on the phone, trouble-shooting problems as they erupted. And that’s just what it was like – we were trying to control an active volcano.

One day it did become clear. Finally. Dad had just turned 94 and was on one of his daily walks. He never allowed any of us to walk with him: not the caregivers, not his kids. He’d bark at us, curse at us to GET THE HELL AWAY. At this point in his life, the only time he was by himself, the only time he retained any sense of his independence was when he went for a walk, and the walks were even more important to him now that the caregivers were there day and night. I completely understood – he wanted some privacy…some alone time. But he wasn’t safe by himself – so the caregivers followed him. Because his hearing was pretty bad and his eyesight was worse, they just followed right behind him. There was enough traffic noise added in, and it took so much of his concentration to focus on where he was going, he never did catch them at it.

He was crossing a busy street, caught his toe on the curb as he was stepping back up onto the sidewalk, and fell. And oh he was lucky, we were lucky: no broken bones, fairly minimal bruising and a scrape to his forehead which bled profusely as head wounds are known to do, but no concussion. His caregiver was at her wit’s end. She knew how close they’d come to a tragedy, and she said she just couldn’t do it any longer. It was too much of a risk: for dad, for her…for everyone.

This was the turning point for me: the place that finally enabled me to see that even though I knew it would absolutely crush dad to move him out of his home, the possibility that catering to his needs…desires…dreams, might cause injury or even death to someone else, be it his caregiver, or a pedestrian or driver trying to avoid hitting him…I couldn’t reconcile that possibility. We knew it was time and it was a sickening feeling for us, his three children. Any of the choices left to us were at best, heart wrenching. All the solutions were going to have bad outcomes. I knew this. It’s the first time in my life that I could not see any light…

This was it. We had to move him. He wasn’t safe there. He was dangerous to himself and to others. And we knew we’d been lucky…we had a good run. And we knew our luck could run out at any minute.

Years before, as it came to me that I had to move to Los Angeles to help my parents out…I had grand and noble intentions. I’d been assisting elders in many different ways for years up north where I lived. During a serious illness, probably in somewhat of a state of delirium, I just knew it was time for me to be with my parents. Intellectually this was a completely insane idea: I had a semi-estranged relationship with my father and a somewhat distant one with my mother. It was not my intellect that was standing in front of me pointing a long and firm finger to the south: it was my heart. What a mess. My intellect had plenty to say about this; “are you OUT OF YOUR MIND?????” “Los Angeles?” “Your father?”

I wanted to believe that our culture would/could somehow come together to make soft, safe landing places for our elders. That somehow I could be their village. If I had been able to think clearly about it I would have known that wasn’t possible, but a grand debate was raging at full volume in my head which took up so much space in my consciousness; I didn’t have room for clear thinking. I just went. It’s a good thing I did. It remains the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life and being my father’s daughter, I’ve done a lot of hard things. It was also a miraculous time in my life; my mother and I bonded in a most beautiful and tender way and – my father and I came to a state of grace that I absolutely could never have imagined possible, while he was still alive. A miracle.

not bad

We all knew this would probably be the last Thanksgiving at Dad’s house. Growing up, our cousins fondly called it, “Aunt Rose and Uncle Ted’s house”. My parents, that house, they were always there. I remember when one of my cousins visited them after being out of town for years. Gleefully and with a broad smile across his face, he announced, “Your dad’s still sitting in the same position, on the same couch.” I laughed along with him and also rolled my eyes a bit. But it was true…no matter how crazy the world was, we could return to Beeman Avenue to that safe, solid, and yes, maddening consistency, if even just for one evening.

The years rolled on, we cherished the house and all the memories it held for our family. For the last five or ten years that my folks, and then my widowed father, lived in that house, it fell to our family to host the Thanksgiving feast. For all the years that it was her responsibility, this assignment was mom’s nemesis, her unraveling. She was a mother, and a wife who, like most women of her time, cooked all the meals for her family. She’d try some new recipe now and then, but cooking did not make her heart sing…never had, and my father was…well, he was how he was. A man of few words, a man who never, ever, tasted food before dousing it with salt, he was also not one to praise unnecessarily, which from my perspective meant…there was no praise.

So it was no surprise each year as Thanksgiving loomed near – mom’s dread increased. My sister and I in our various ways inherited some of her dread or resistance or insecurity or whatever it was, so sadly we were not the triumphant daughters who would come home and just take over the task.
We helped out for sure and we made a great team. We created the beauty that Thanksgiving at 5219 Beeman Avenue became known for: we ironed all the vintage table linens inherited from mom’s folks, we polished every piece of beautiful silverware and serving pieces that sat hidden the rest of the year in the deep drawers of the breakfront that came out of grandma and grandpa’s living room. We set the tables with the lavish, gold filigree-edged dinner plates that had graced my grandparents’ Sabbath meals as my mother was growing up.

To my astonishment, in those last years, dad found his own tenderhearted way of contributing to the beauty of our evening. Using a tray, which in earlier days would have been piled with his “famous” hamburgers, cooked every weekend on his old-fashioned barbeque, and with a pair of scissors that mom had forbidden anyone else to use, and dad of course broke her rule every time, he’d disappear out into his beloved backyard and cut mountains of bougainvillea flowers bursting with life. What a sight he was…close to ninety-years-old, skinny as a rail, carrying his collage of tangerine, magenta, and scarlet hued flowers into our home.

The tables were rich, sumptuous and oddly out of place, pasted on top of the plain interior of our home. It was a little fairy tale that we all traveled into, together. The den that held our feast began as a large, 1950’s era screened-in porch complete with sloping concrete floor. Dad helped remodel the room in the ‘60’s, keeping the original floor, tiling it with linoleum. This was a great feature if you needed to hose down an outside porch, or if you were a kid rolling toy trains across the floor, but bizarre and unsettling for a bunch of octogenarians, some who were losing their eyesight or hearing, and some gaining dementia in exchange. Dementia was definitely beginning to move into dad’s life in inconsistent but obvious ways. Tinged with bittersweet, we all knew, without speaking of it, this might be the last time.

Neither my sister nor I were up to the task of taking on the actual preparation of the turkey. In mom’s absence we marveled that she had done it for so many years. No matter what several of our well-meaning friends told us about how easy it was to roast a turkey – we knew we could not manage both dad’s increasing unpredictability and our grand lack of confidence around cooking a meal for so many relatives…several of whom had also slipped into the realm of “unpredictable”.
Enter the Angel of Thanksgiving. My sister’s childhood friend happened to be coming down to L.A. for the holiday and she came from a family of fabulous cooks…she loved to cook. After hearing my sister’s description of our dilemma, SHE VOLUNTEERED TO COOK OUR ENTIRE FEAST. Our anxiety-ridden circumstance appeared on her horizon and she was happy to get the opportunity to cook an elegant meal, and to offer a treasured gift to our family.

We, and our home, had never seen such a feast. Yes, we had green beans, but for the first time ever, we had FRESH, delicately cooked green beans, with FRESH herbs. The deliciousness went on and on throughout every detail of the meal. The menu equaled the elegance of the crisp linens, sparkling silver and riotous flowers. It was magnificent.

The air was thick – collectively we were in a food stupor. I sat next to my father and watched him go through the motions he’d made every single night of his married life to signal that he was indeed, finished with his meal. He pushed himself away from the table slightly, took his grand, sage-green, linen napkin, which any other night would have been a small, white paper napkin, and with both hands, gently wadded it up and placed it in the center of his plate.

“How was your dinner, dad?” I asked, truly expecting at least some small amount of praise even though praise was not his style.

After a long silence and looking straight ahead, he responded.

“Not bad.”

I burst out laughing at the absurdity of his reply. How far I’d come, that my unscripted response was pure laughter where years before it would have been anger or resentment or rage. All I could do was laugh.

“Not bad?!” I thought to myself.

“Not Bad?” I flung at him, inside my head.

“NOT BAD?!?!?” I said out loud, incredulous.

I began to describe the subtle and exquisite flavors that Paula had included in this feast that defied any inkling of anything we’d ever eaten as a family. I was on a roll, flinging words right and left. Finally I noticed that dad’s body language had changed ever so slightly. He was still facing straight ahead, but his arms were now crossed, resting at his belt (he had no belly to rest them on) and his shoulders were shaking ever so slightly. That subtle smirk formed across his lips.

“That meal, to quote mom, was ‘INCREDIBLE’,” I informed him.

He nodded his head slightly, saying,

“That’s what I said.”

Time stopped. The earth stopped its rotation. I stopped breathing. Everything stopped.

“THAT’S what NOT BAD means?”

He nodded again, showing a little more movement in his shoulders now, doing his level best to hold back his laughter.

In a complete state of shock, and in the brief space between one sentence and the next, my whole world had been thrown on its head. I had spent a great deal of my childhood and a good chunk of my adult life consciously or unconsciously seeking approval from my father. What I was hearing from him right now was pointing to the very real possibility that much of my quest for approval stemmed from a problem with translation.

Not bad = Incredible

I honestly will never know if my father was only shaking with held back laughter at my reaction to his response about dinner, or if he had a glimpse of our life-long struggles and this issue of mistranslation.

Thankfully, by the time this extremely disorienting discovery arrived, I was able, rather gracefully actually, to take it in stride. TAKE IT IN STRIDE? Well…pretty much.