Extreme Caregiving 6: Organizing & Purging—or Not

Mama is determined to record her mother’s story. She feels she didn’t appreciate her hard life and didn’t respect her in her old age (and she is concerned that I learn the lesson before it’s too late and save myself from a life of guilt after she is gone). Anyway, to assuage her own unfounded guilt, she is determined to leave an audio record of her mother’s story. The more up-to-date recording technology is not going to happen with her, so we have replaced her broken, near obsolete, tape recorder with one nearly like it. She has tried writing it, and there are pieces of all-sized paper scattered here and there, in folders or not, that she has written in fits and starts and restarts over the nearly 30 years since my grandmother died at the age of 99. But she can no longer see to read what she wrote, or to write any more. Which doesn’t stop her from trying.

She also started taping the story some time back. But the tape has been lost. There are boxes full of poor quality tapes of sermons, church music, grandchildren playing their various instruments. I have gone through them with her three times, looking for the lost masterwork, each time suggesting she throw away the ones that are not what she is looking for and no longer needs and that confuse the search.

Me: “I have my own tape of five-year-old Emma screeching through Turkey in the Straw on the violin and Nicholas bleating through his non-melody band part on the trombone.”
Mama: “Just put it aside. I’ll see if Emma wants it.”
Me: “I’ll take it and ask her.” Get it out of the house, I figure; make her think it’s being saved.
Mama: “Just leave it on table.”
Me:  “I’m sure Jo Ann has a copy of her sermons, if she wants them. But I could send them to her.”
Mama: “Just leave them in the box.” I think she is on to my tactics.
Me: “How about the music tapes? The quality is poor, and you don’t listen to music anyway.”
Mama: “I might want to listen to them.”
Me: “How about the church services?”
Mama: “I want someone [knowing it waren’t going to be me] to play them for me. Maybe I recorded over them.”
Me: “And didn’t change the label?”
Mama: “Just put them in that other box, Gretchen. I’ll take care of them later,” exasperation and irritation putting a knife-sharp edge on the words.

We had the same conversation each time, moving the tapes from one box to another. Finally, in the “there is a God” category, she gave up on me, and got Dan the Patient Handyman on the job. They apparently located another stash of tapes, and, in another act of God, found what she was looking for. Except it wasn’t as she remembered it. And not what she wanted now. And she couldn’t really hear it.

So she is starting over with the story. Again. And Dan is putting every tape on the recorder and listening with her to see if what is actually on it corresponds to the label, and if the tape is sufficient to re-record on. I suggested that 20-year-old tapes should not be used, but it took Dan to persuade her to throw them away. He has spent hours with her, while the spring yard work languishes. Maybe Dan is God.

She also asked me to write her mother’s story, a request I had not heard before, stated this way, “I thought you would write her story.” And I did, a year ago, here. It’s based on the stories she has told me over the years, and I think it says pretty much all there is to say, but I guess it only ignited her need to fill in details, which it seems she might make up; but that is another story. It keeps her busy and gives her purpose. It’s all good.

This week, as I watched Elliot play, he pulled his shoe box of cards down from the shelf. It’s full of alphabet cards, playing cards, foreign language cards. He pulled them out, one or a handful at a time, examined them either carefully or cursorily or not at all, and dropped them on the floor. About halfway through the box, he plucked one or a handful up from the floor for reexamination. Then carefully returned one or more to the box and flung others back on the floor, to be picked up and sorted again later. He was thusly occupied for hours, in baby time. Which is the antithesis of Mama time.

Something about it seemed so familiar.

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