Caring for a parent

Redefining Kind and Brave

For decades my mother has pulverized her horse-sized Centrum Silver multi-vitamin and mixed it with Gerber’s Junior peaches, which gave my father an ongoing supply of small glass jars for screws and tacks and bits of string too short to save. The large heavy mortar and now-broken pestle used for the daily ritual lives on the kitchen counter between the stove and the large Vita-Mixer she uses to puree the soup she makes at least once a week. She never uses the tamper that goes with the Vita-Mixer, but it is a permanent fixture on the counter as well. The small L-shaped counter between the stove and the sink is also home to a garbage bucket, the gathering of items for recycling, the garlic container, three jars of home-dried herbs, an EVOO mister, a plastic container of utensils she doesn’t use (the ones she does use––and many more she doesn’t––being in three drawers and hooks over the stove), Miralax (both the container of powder and the jar mixed with water), a drain tray where dirty dishes collect, dish soap, and the requisite container of sink brushes and scrubbers. Oh yes, and the new vitamin crusher she got for Christmas.

That counter to the left of the stove is also the best place for a right-handed person to prepare a meal, and there is just too darn much stuff on it, especially for me who despises clutter. I figured the fact that I cook for her every night gave me the right to ask if, since she is now using the crusher instead of the mortar and pestle, the latter could possibly be stored in a cupboard. Mama replied that she still needs it to crush the herbs that she dries; and it is too heavy for her to get out of a cupboard. I offered that since that only happens once in four months (I felt that was a generous estimate), she could ask me to get it out when she needs it. Her reply was a terse,“I don’t like clutter either, Gretchen, but I need to be independent. Someday you will understand.”

It brought to mind something I read recently in my current book about the old and the old-old in America:

Life has seasons and circumstances. In fact, good mental health at all ages is not a matter of being dependent or independent, but of being able to accept the stage one is in with grace and dignity. It’s an awareness of being, over the course of one’s lifetime, continually interdependent.

We need a word for the neediness of [our elders], a word with less negative connotations than dependency, a word that connotes wisdom, connection, and dignity. Dependency could become mutuality or interdependency. We can say to the [elders]: “You need us now, but we needed you and we will need our children. We need each other.”

The old want to be kind and strong, and, in America, they learn that to do so means they should ask little of others and not bother young people. Perhaps we need to help them redefine kindness and courage. For the old, kind ought to mean welcoming younger relatives’ help, and to be brave ought to mean accepting the dependency that old-old age will bring. By showing their children how to cope [e.g. by asking for and accepting help], they will teach them and their children how well this last stage can be managed. (Excerpted from Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, Mary Pipher, Ph.D. pp 52-53.)

My mother does not like to ask me to do things for her. My life would be so much easier if she did. She delays her eating––which already takes her three-fold the time it takes me––to get up from the table for something forgotten in the kitchen, rather than ask me to get it. She will struggle with a task alone and then later tell me she couldn’t manage it, rather than ask me to do it for her. It is maddening. Really. And to be honest, I feel just a wee bit disrespected when she doesn’t ask me to help. I struggle with when to offer help and when to do so will insult her. All of her life she has considered it a gift to help others, and yet she denies others the gift of helping her. (And yes, I have tried that reasoning with her––several times––to no avail.)

Will I share Mary Pipher’s insight with her? I thought about reading it to her: she likes intellectual discussion. But I fear it will hit too close to home. She is 96; she is change-resistant. She feels disrespected and ganged up on when my sisters or I suggest something that could make her life easier. Or maybe it just feels too damn hard. (Though she is using the vitamin crusher.) It does make me wonder: would she be less depressed if she lowered her expectations of herself and accepted help rather than becoming discouraged by what she can no longer do for herself? Perhaps I will share it in mortar and pestled form, mixed with  sweetness.

There is no transfiguring Mama, but I offer the re-imaging here for my generation, and the next. It is a philosophy we could all use now, not just when we are old-old. Does our “do it myself” attitude at home, at work, at play get in the way of a brave new culture of interdependence and mutuality? Would we do well to learn to depend on others and be depended on by others now? Can we redefine independence and release the shame this culture––though not all others––has assigned to dependency? Can we learn to embrace the limitations born of our life-stages and welcome––perhaps even expect––the help of others when needed? Worth thinking about.

4 thoughts on “Redefining Kind and Brave”

  1. Gretchen, I feel your pain, I am having some of the same type issues with my dad. He needed a Home Health person to come to the house once a week to take his BP etc. and he was so upset that he got sick over it. When I asked him why this was such a big deal, he said that they should be checking with someone that is old and sick, “not me”. Well he will be 90 this year and has COPD along with some of the other things that go with more and more birthdays. So I told him that it would make ME feel so much better if he would allow a person to come and check on him, since I’m so far away. ( he lives alone right out the back door of my sisters house) He was ok with that. Proud man. Each time i get flustrated with him, I am glad that I have a few of his genes. For the sake of my younger sisters, or some home some place, I hope that they are the health kind. Think of you often lady,


    1. Well done. I like the tone and the substance that these writings have evolved. My thought on reading this one is that it also takes children like you who are willing to serve in order for elders to learn to accept help, it’s not a quality I see so much in the generations after us (but I also may have too small a data sample)


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