Saturday, October 21

Birthday Love and Rainbows

Songbird in the Sun

Apple Blossom Bounty

Love and Rainbows

A Birthday

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water'd shoot;

My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;

My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;

My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;

Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;

Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;

Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.

Birthday Presents are Welcomed!

Battle for Birthday Mountain from MEL Films on Vimeo.

Friday, October 20

The 99th Birthday

What happens when a party-girl turns 99 years old? The human shell is there, charming those of us within her sphere, intriguing us with imaginings of our own mortal end, living with great difficulty but alive all the same.

She has spent a lifetime being beautiful, witty, talented and slightly off. For someone like me who is barely average most of the time, this persona is magnetic. I’ve tried to penetrate her magical and shiny surface to drill down to a core protected by myth and fantasy. Only in recent years have I unearthed fragments of real life recalled from the 1920s through the 2010s. She has buried so much history beneath layers of “expect a miracle” Pollyanna beliefs and practices that her remembrances are devoid of reality. She has little or no memory of the hard times of post WWI, 1920s Depression, WWII, 50s, 60s, and 70s. I met her in the late 1970s as she was in the prime of her central coast California realtor days. By this time, she had created her wealthy-celebrity persona recounting the highlights of her greatest achievement: singing in big bands on the west coast of pre-WWII America. In this early phase of our relationship, she never revealed her origins in Biola, California, and barely spoke about her marriage to her first husband, a lieutenant colonel in the US Marine Corps and an itinerant golf pro who was not into celebrity, society, and being wealthy – a mismatched pair if ever I saw one who produced three amazing and accomplished sons that any mother would be proud to list as her #1 accomplishment.

In those early days of our relationship, she was focused on the cocktail party life with her second husband, a former water quality engineer and current realtor. Both in their sixties, closely connected to country club friends, they specialized in selling multi-level marketing “opportunities”, golfing, entertaining, and networking. For an average person like myself, these preoccupations were foreign and slightly alarming. She and her husband impressed me as somewhat superficial people living above their means. This impression was reinforced the longer I knew them. The California central coast eventually lost its luster and she and husband #2 moved to Scottsdale for a couple of years. It was during this time that she began to talk about her past.

She was born and raised in the Fresno area of California. Her parents were Okies that managed to evade the Dust Bowl and land in the Fruit Bowl of the west. Her father was an entrepreneur and her mother a descendant of Native Americans and an excellent seamstress. When speaking about her childhood she recalls working in the family fruit packing house, loading produce onto the nearby train, playing with the Armenians and Mexicans who worked the fields and surrounding towns, wearing beautiful clothes made by her mother, and being her father’s favorite beautiful girl. One of her shiniest memories is when she was elected the Queen of the May in her town of Biola. She often tells people about her father’s pride in accompanying her to the local department store for a new dress. Only recently does she mention her five other siblings and has proudly boasted that “she’s not a family person” when asked to report on details about her parents, sisters, brothers, children, grandchildren. This often repeated quote relieves her of the tedium of having to be concerned or curious about family members she’s lost contact with.

In her late teens, she was recruited by big band leader, Jan Garber, to sing briefly in the Jan Garber Orchestra for engagements in Northern California. Sometime later, the band was travelling through Los Angeles, and Garber found a lounge gig for her there and moved on. It’s unclear how long she lived in Los Angeles, or anywhere else. These days and several years after, are filled with fantastic recollections of being a Rosie the Riveter in Burbank; meeting Hollywood semi celebrities, singing with other groups in Seattle, Portland, Florida – wild times filled with excitement and fun. It is only recently that she tells of the struggles of paying rent, booking places for her bands to play, being abandoned by companions in difficult places. I detect glimmers of the real grit needed to polish her celebrity shine, but no one will ever really know how she managed to survive as a singer in Depression era and WWII era America.

Five or six years later, she met and married her first husband, a good looking man, college educated, athletic, a lover of music, from Hanford, California, another farming community south of Fresno. They had mutual friends and decided to marry. The marriage coincided with his assignment to a training base camp in Cherry Point, North Carolina. He was afflicted with severe asthma and a war related back injury that kept him out of combat, so his mission was to train marines to fly aircraft stateside. His most distasteful mission was to train women to tow decoy planes that gunners would practice blowing out of the sky. The stories she tells about this marriage portray her as a tender miss, courageously weathering the intrigues of the military class system, following her cold and preoccupied husband from base to base, winding up in San Diego, giving birth and then following her wounded, alcoholic husband from golf range to golf range, finally calling it quits after meeting her second husband in Scottsdale, Arizona. She never felt much love or respect from him and stuck with this marriage through the 40s, 50s and into the mid-60s, raising three sons in very trying circumstances. Her life with him was restricting, often humbling especially since they both worked on rural golf courses in the Southwest among people with money while they teetered on the edge of poverty. When praised for raising her children so well despite her stories of deprivation and hard work, she refuses to take credit saying that they raised themselves. This is not an idle comment. The two surviving sons do not remember long stretches of their childhood, especially their day to day supervision and care. They both blank out about the whereabouts of their youngest brother when required to recall who lived with whom after the family broke up in the middle of their teens. Despite the turmoil, #1 and #2 sons made good lives for themselves. The youngest brother, an acknowledged basketball star at USC, died at age 46 of peritonitis complicated by alcoholism.

Neither she nor her children recall much about the family during the 60s and 70s. Thanks to the efforts of their father, all three sons received college scholarships and memories are skimpy about anything else involving their mother, father and step-father. I saw her a couple times a year in the 80s, enough time to establish a mystifying yet enduring bond with this beautiful, impractical, self-absorbed woman of to-do lists and get-rich-quick projects.

In 1989, she moved to Scottsdale from Arroyo Grande, CA, where she started selling zirconium jewelry and her husband sold water filtering systems without much success. Other multi-level marketing schemes were bought into resulting in non-stop sales pitches which killed my interest in furthering any relationship with them beyond being a daughter in law. I was not surprised that after a couple of years, they had run out of money.

In 1991, #1 son and I had just finished building a two-story duplex in Sedona, AZ, thanks to the remarkable project management of my father, an accomplished musician, educator, builder, developer and parent of six. Both of my parents had built their own homes and rentals over the years so they were able to work with us in building the new house. They were givers of material gifts and even more importantly they gave us respect and loving guidance as friends. We bought the lot in Sedona from them a few years before which was right down the lane from their own home, and we used my husband’s inheritance money from his late father’s estate. In the early 90s, Phoenix was experiencing one of its construction down-cycles making labor and materials cheaper than normal. My dad encouraged us to build and use the property as a rental/investment and ultimate retirement home. We had equity in our California property and were able to finance a line of credit creating our Sedona oasis without drowning in debt.

Recognizing that my husband’s parents were truly struggling, we offered to rent them the 3-bedroom, two bath upstairs at $800 per month including basic utilities. We rented the downstairs to my brother and his friend for $500 and calculated how far this money would go to pay off our loans and realized that we’d experience a loss on the property until we could charge higher rents in the future.  

My mother in law was 74 and her husband was 79 when they moved into the Sedona house, financially tapped out after years of living above their means and bad investments. We mistakenly believed that they would get back on their feet and find their own house eventually. They moved in and struggled with the rent claiming that they had to go to the food bank for groceries from time to time, so we eventually cut their rent in half. After two years, and to accommodate his hip replacement and open heart surgeries, we moved them to the downstairs 1 bedroom, 1 bath with large den, rent-free with utilities included for the next 20+ years. We managed to escape most of their financial tribulations and manipulations by living and working in California through most of the 90s, and 00s. Throughout these years we transitioned from being unimportant relatives to landlords and possible “investors.” We endured relentless requests for get-rich-quick investment money. In 2003, her second husband died and we expected that the schemes would diminish. We thought he was the instigator of these financial disasters. We were wrong on so many levels.

She was the get-rich-quick queen, it turns out. The worst was the credit card project investigated by several state attorney generals. She tried hard to sell us on this sterling investment, unsuccessfully, all the while complaining about being broke. The advantage of “being broke” was that she and her husband never paid a dime for hoses, rakes, flowers, broken appliances or fixtures. Despite living in a nice place for decades, they never painted a wall, hung a curtain, or paid for any of their maintenance. So she lived rent, utilities and maintenance free from the time she was 74 years old without any qualms or offers of help. At the time, I felt a bit baffled that such fun-loving, seemingly prosperous people who regularly dined out and bought only organic, non-toxic and expensive foods, supplements, and beverages could not afford a hose or find the cash to fix a toilet or faucet. They'd keep a tally of all the house/rental maintenance expenses for reimbursement when we'd visit.

They were masters of networking and became popular and well liked in small town Sedona. Her devoted friends truly love her. One of these friends asked me if I was jealous of my mother-in-law. I said yes, I am jealous and after she chuckled and commiserated about how it must be tough to be overlooked when my accomplished and lovely mother in law is in the room, I explained that I’m jealous because when I’m 74, it’d be nice if I could count on my child to pay my rent, utilities, and bail me out when I get overextended. This person was shocked that I’d even think about burdening my child with these expenses and proceeded to counsel me on retirement financial planning. I listened vowing to avoid any meaningful contact with her in future. She had taught me a hard lesson: people can accept almost any behavior from a person with looks and a good story.

Mom was the supposed “property manager” responsible for renting the upstairs house. To this day, her favorite story is how I rented the upstairs to a drug dealer – a serious problem that she caused with her inadequate screening and a problem I solved by returning all the security and upfront money, plus! I had assumed that as a realtor, she had a basic understanding of the character and financial capabilities of people. She had rented to others successfully, so we trusted her, never thinking she’d snoop around upstairs this time discovering a hooka and stash. She had the habit of going into the upstairs unit, unannounced and without the tenant’s permission, shutting off the coolers, fans, heating units, closing the blinds, and more. These invasive practices almost cost us a lawsuit or two. She was a disaster as a property manager often promoting the interests of the tenant instead of our interests as outlined in the rental agreement. When we told a tenant that the rental agreement said no pets, they said my mother in law had changed it, charged a pet security fee and authorized it. We never saw any of the pet security fee or any other extra fees she may have charged. It became so bad that we stopped renting the upstairs for the 18 months before we moved over, costing us $18,000. Renters were not charmed by her admonishments that she could hear everything going on upstairs or her little joke that she made spot checks to make sure the plumbing, heating and cooling worked. She expected the tenants to be roommates and many potential renters had no interest in befriending an inquisitive senior who was into selling multi-level marketing programs and snooping around.

It’s now 2009-2010, and we have stopped renting hoping that she'd be less agitated, at least. Instead of complaining about upstairs noise, she complained about being lonely. She missed the people-noise she explained. Shortly thereafter she began predicting that she’d be dead soon and we began insisting that she live with us in California until we retired and moved to Sedona. She refused, so I wound up driving to Arizona from Los Angeles, 7 hours each way, missing work and losing jobs, to help her with her hospitalizations, surgeries, and household disasters. One event still enrages me. I received a call from one of her friends saying that Mom had asked this friend to accompany her to a surgery. This friend could not make it and she relayed that Mom said she’d drive herself and take her chances. Alarmed, I called Mom and asked if she needed help with her surgery. She said sure. It turned out that her appointment was late in the afternoon of the next day and after I called around, no one could help, so I drove from LA to Sedona that day, arriving around 8:30 at night tired, hungry and worried. As I walked into her living room, I saw her with two other people, eating and drinking wine, watching “Dancing with the Stars.” Before I could say hello and put my bags down, the man in the group yelled that I was an inconsiderate daughter for not calling and letting Mom know exactly when I’d be there. Apparently she had complained that she was worried sick. No one offered me food or drink. I glanced at a frowning, seemingly angry mother in law and proceeded to haul my tired ass and baggage into another room where I would be spending the night. About an hour later, I checked in and she had been crying about how worried she was. Her friends were gone and I tried to find out about the surgery. She was not going to have surgery. She had to go to an eye appointment to discuss surgery and she feared she might have to have her eyes dilated. She assured me that she didn’t need anyone to go with her, but if I wanted to, she’d be fine with it. I felt emotionally manipulated by her friends and by her. I left the next morning hoping I could still cover some of the job I turned down, but the company had hired someone else and I had burned that bridge. This was a common scenario over the years impacting my marriage and career.

In 2011, we retired and moved into our upstairs dream home complete with spectacular views, fabulous hiking, good friends, and a 93 year old, mother-in-law, in need of care and attention. I expected that my relationship with her would go back to being a caring relative instead of a landlord. I was disappointed. It became her frequent practice to label me as some sort of paid servant, often “her little caregiver” or “limo driver” or “shopper” – until one day when I went to pick her up from her hairdresser, she exclaimed, “Here’s my wonderful caregiver” and while I waited for her to gather her stuff, another lady took me aside and asked how much I charged for care giving because her mother needed someone. When I explained that I was her daughter-in-law, unpaid, and not a caregiver, she looked puzzled and apologized for the misunderstanding explaining that that’s what she called me as she praised my work for her. From then on, every label she gave me, I corrected her, publicly if possible, and told her to call me her daughter-in-law. It only took five years and her moving into an assisted living facility to stop the belittling labeling. She has finally stopped giving her son a to-do list of things to fix or bring her every time he visits the facility, something she started with our first visit with her in the late 70s.

In January 2016, Mom moved into a small, comfortable, assisted living home. I call it a home rather than a facility because the people that own and operate it are like family. They love Mom’s quirky, fun-loving, diva-ish personality and marvel that at almost 99 years old she’s still on her feet, ever ready to party despite her dependence on a walker or wheel chair. They are patient with her complaints and criticism and try to comfort her when she’s sad. This year and especially the past six months or so, she is showing her extreme age. Her circulatory system is shot. Blood/oxygen cannot get to her extremities, including her head, arms, hand, legs and feet. Her body is reduced to its core. She can’t recall things. She can’t feel her legs. She’s losing teeth. Her eyesight is failing. She chokes on her food. The list is long and painful. She complains and cries and struggles until she gets some one-on-one attention which helps keep her going. Her friends visit and she feels good again. Her family visits and she knows she's missed and loved. Encouraging spiritual advisors, medical professionals, activities coordinators, caregivers, cooks, cleaners all see her frequently every day and keep her going. She often remarks that her caregivers love to dress her up and she loves having her nails polished every Wednesday, keeping her looking good which has always been important to her.

It could be worse she realizes and deep down she is genuinely grateful that her sons have the will and the means to pay for the comfort and attention she needs now. She sees other residents who do not have children or devoted friends who visit them regularly and she’s grateful for her people connections. Her birthday is coming up and these good friends that she’s cultivated and nurtured for over 25 years want to celebrate her life with an evening of laughter, food, drink and fun, just like last year. Sadly, she’s not in any shape to inhabit the spotlight. She is still beautiful, witty, crafty, stubborn, and charming – a born party girl, but recent near death experiences have eroded her courage to step out of her comfort zone and brave the unknown, an unknown that is now minute to minute because of a failing memory and weak, unstable body.

I am ambivalent about any celebration right now and urge her friends to visit her instead. Both my husband and I are exhausted, tired of altering our lives to accommodate her needs and now the needs of her friends. These friends are willing to do all the work in putting together a celebration and I recognize that they are wonderful, caring people. But, deep down, I know Mom will not remember or even be pleased with whatever we do. She’s struggling hard to get up in the morning and no longer cares about being the life of the party, although she’ll go through the motions letting muscle memory guide her through the pain and confusion. I love her and at this point in her long life, she needs us to put the brakes on, to reassure her when she panics about not remembering, to praise her for still being on her feet and moving forward. We need to give her space, "dullsville" she calls it, to absorb the impact of age. She is a good teacher and through her exaple we are learning the importance of aging with dignity, comfort and safety. She does it by living only in the moment marveling at the novelty of a world that is always new and challenging.