aging in place, Caring for a parent, Death & Dying

The World on a String

My mother wasn’t always old. She once had a straight spine and strong legs. Legs that rode a bicycle and climbed mountains. She met a man, fell in love, and survived the war years without him, writing and reading hundreds of letters that traveled for days, even weeks, to reach them across the ocean. She once drove a box of a car with a manual transmission to a paying job every day. She navigated a world of ration stamps and cheap retread tires—rubber going to the war effort—and shopped store to store looking for scarce products like a Schick razor to send her love in England. She found beauty in the springtime in a place she never called home. She bought war bonds with money her new husband sent her and a good portion of her own $2000-a-year income. For their future. She once could see, both what was right in front of her and the happiness well ahead. Her life used to be as big as the world.

She had a life before me.

As I stare into the past through these letters, I struggle to reconcile that young woman I never knew with the old one I know better than I ever dreamed I would.

May 21, 1944
Sunday Evening

George, my dearest –

This has been a good weekend. Two letters from you on Saturday – enough to last until Monday. They bring you close to me. Especially when I realize you’re thinking about the things that are also going through my mind: the things we need to do – the things we’re going to do.

And the things you dream about for the future are just the things I’ve thought much of. And like you I don’t know which is most inviting: the West (northwest — or Colorado) — the Tennessee Valley — or a place in the shadow of the Smokies (on the other side of the mountain).

Perhaps we can have them all. We can take a honeymoon in the West; later get a job with TVA and have a cabin not far away — maybe in N.C. But if we go west first we may like it so well we’ll want to stay. Then, as you said, if you go back to TVA first we may be so satisfied we’ll never get to the West. I’m pleased with all your ideas — they seem to be same as mine. I used to think you might want to settle down in Michigan and after I’ve spent some time here I can see that wouldn’t be hard to understand, though I used to hope you’d prefer some mountains.

I never spend a lot of time thinking about where we’ll spend our time when you get back. But I dream a lot about just being with you forever. It won’t matter much where we are — we’ll be happy together!

I’ll love you always, Stellajoe

I love this letter. So full of life, love, hope. The world was their pearl. And it makes me immeasurably sad as I immerse myself in their young love, their future ahead of them, and at the same time live in the present reality, all of it behind. So far behind.

She has no projects now, save sorting her clothes, or thinking about sorting her clothes. She tries to record her story—or rather her mother’s story—on an obsolete tape recorder she can’t see to operate and for which I can no longer buy tapes, except (hopefully) online.

Now her dreams are nightmares of dying. She struggles to dress herself. She slowly stirs on the stove the maple-favored Malt-o-Meal I measure out for her the night before. She doesn’t climb the stairs or go outside alone. She pushes her walker through the rooms of this house she has lived in for 55 years, running into furniture she used to use as markers as she walked darkly through the rooms, but in the way of the walker now. She won’t move them or eliminate them; she can’t imagine anything other than the way it’s always been. The walker bumps through doorways not built for such conveyances. I laugh to see in my mind my little sister—who never walked but ran—racing on her short legs down the hall through the same doorway into the kitchen, running into the same jamb as she wheeled around the corner.

My mother is utterly alone in spite of those of us walking this journey with her. Her love is forever gone this time. Hope is gone. All that is left is the waiting. Waiting. Waiting to leave this good life she has had and has no more.

This morning, as I transcribed another letter from 1944, I watched over the video monitor as she fumbled in her bedding to find her talking clock to see if it was time to get up or still the middle of the night. Getting up for what? How does she keep going? Is that brave woman who traveled 2300 miles across the country alone to take a job in a city sight unseen, still in there?

Someday I won’t climb mountains, travel alone, dream of the future, either. I won’t be my mother; I’ve never been my mother. I will have my own challenges—different from hers—as I have always had. I probably won’t lose my vision, or be as anxiety-ridden. I might be more grace-filled, more accepting of the way things are when the string gets short—I hope so. I don’t know if I will be as brave.

Mama in boat.jpg

[Note: My mother is back to herself after a difficult month. My sister and I, and even the hospice nurse, have come to a hesitant conclusion that it was the low-dose anti-depressant that caused the plummet in her mental/emotional/physical health. She just has no tolerance for such medications. I deeply thank you all for your concern and well wishes. We have returned—for now—to the trials with which we are more familar.]

12 thoughts on “The World on a String”

  1. You write so vividly and with great empathy, Gretchen. Your blog posts are one of the most meaningful things I read. Our lives change so much over time. I’m glad dropping the medication helped your mom.


    1. Thank you, Sally. That touches me greatly. As I organized, boxed, and shelved the piles of stuff in the family room, I found photos of your mother. Such a sweet friendship they had, and with several others, too. There were photos of group birthday lunches. I feel like I didn’t know my mother and her life in those years I was far away. Some of those women are still here (Sandy Godsey, Audrey Kimball). I wonder if they still meet and my mother is left out, or if it all fell apart when…what?


    1. Thank you for reading and writing my friend. I just noticed I didn’t respond to you. I am loving reading about your experiences in the prison. I have an idea (for myself); I need to have a sit down with you; I think you could supply me with ideas.


  2. Dear Gretchen, This is Beth Hampton, Jo Ann’s friend. I have read many of your daughter on duty entries and am moved by your honesty and your ability to paint such vivid word pictures. I especially enjoyed hearing of your mother’s earlier life, her activities and the the love letter. Do you read those to your mother? Do you talk about her life review? Stephen Levine’s book. – ” A Year To Live” has some good exercises on life review, forgiveness, etc which the two of you might find helpful. My parents died in a car crash – ages 67 and 72 so I did not have the experience of Being with them in later life. For the last three years I have enjoyed visiting a delightful 102 year old in a nursing home. She just passed away a month ago and although we talked some about her life experience, I learned a great deal more in talking with her daughter. I feel very blessed by this experience.
    My heart goes out to you and your sisters as you continue this pilgrimage with your mom…compassion for all.
    Peace and blessings, beth


    1. Thank you for writing, Beth, and for sharing your experience. I can’t imagine losing parents in the way you did. My heart goes out to you.

      I didn’t start reading these letters for some time (three years) after I moved here, because I didn’t want to just keep them to myself. And my mother adamantly didn’t want me to read them to her. “It was a terrible time, and I don’t want to remember it.” And so they stayed in the box on the shelf, until I got the idea to transcribe them into a blog for my family to read as I read them. When I told my mother what I was doing, she changed her mind. So I started reading them to her. Then, suddenly, a few weeks ago, she had had enough; she told me not to read any more. I may try again later, after the first of the year. There are 3+ years worth from my father to her, she saved them all. But only 8 months of hers. She really didn’t want to hear those; I just read a couple of them. I still ask her questions about the letters; mostly she can’t remember the specifics (or, I discover after reading more, gets them wrong), but sometimes it gets her talking.

      I asked her a lot of leading questions the first year I was here, and wrote down her responses. I ran out of things to ask (many I found in Story Corps guidelines, others in the spiritual will or whatever it’s called). I will find the book you suggest and see what I can glean. She is also recording stories on her own. I really think she prefers doing that for some reason, than telling them to me. I don’t know, just a feeling. She’s a private person; also she tires easily. Maybe my questions remind her of what she can’t remember. Maybe she doesn’t like to have all that is lost and over brought up. Who knows. When she records, she can choose what to relive. Speculation. I have found a dozen journals she has been given over the years, because she loved to write. There are notes in long hand and short hand in spiral notebooks, on stationery, post-it notes, loose notebook paper, all over the house. The journals are empty. She has often told me she didn’t like to write sad things in beautiful books. I expect there’s a clue in that.

      Have you read, “Find the Good,” by Heather Lende? She’s an obituary writer in Haines, AK. (And has a delightful blog about small town living, and those who populate it.)

      Thank you for reading my blog, Beth.


  3. A beautiful post, Gretchen. And an amazing chronicle of two journeys. Thanks for putting it here. Sending love and good wishes your way.


    1. Thank you, Clare. I don’t know you, but I fantasize about have all the people who read this blog sitting in Circle sharing our stories. I guess it’s what we have, virtually. I want it really, though! Thank you for reading.


  4. Lordy, Gretchen, you never fail to amaze me…with your love despite sorrow, w/ the beautiful words, with your spirit, God bless you…..Sally


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s