Caring for a parent, conversations, Mental health, mother daughter relationship, moving an elderly parent

Strangers in Good Company 2*

I’m growing accustomed to my visits with my mother being little more than a complaint fest, however hard I try to steer conversation. It’s what she knows how to talk about, at least with those closest to her. I have wondered what she talks about with her “too many” visitors.

Maybe she uses up her bright shiny self with them and saves the complaining for me and Rebecca, and the hospice team. Kind of like an adolescent home from school, gregarious when “everyone is looking,” sullen and uncommunicative at home. I was about to find out.

I usually don’t bring up the topic of food, though it doesn’t stop Mama from complaining about it. But when I popped in on Sunday, picking up the new weekly menu on my way in, I noticed breakfast was something she had raved about soon after she moved in—back when she liked nearly all the food. Hoping to start the visit off on something positive I said cheerily, “I see you had orange French toast for breakfast! You loved that before. How was it?”

“That was caramel French toast I liked,” she said. Dammit, my mistake. “This was orange. And the ever-present sausage,” she snarked.

“Well, last week you complained that they ran out of sausage,” I said, breaking my non-engagement vow then immediately changing the subject.

She asked what I had been doing. That was encouraging, she seldom asks about my life. I read the thank you notes she had written by herself, crossing her Ts and assuring her they were legible. Then we went for a walk around the hall before lunch.

There was a lot of activity as people geared up to go to the dining room.

Bob 2: We talked to Bob 2, whom I haven’t seen in a while. His leg has been bothering him, which might explain why he has stopped picking Mama up to walk with her to the dining room.

Monica: One of the aides came up behind us and put her arm around Mama as she passed by, greeting her warmly and asking how she was. Mama replied sweetly that she was good, asking if she had met her daughter. (Yes.) I told Monica she was Mama’s favorite, and she told Mama she was her favorite. “Well, one of my favorites; I have a lot.” After she’d walked on, Mama said, “She’s so sweet. She always gives me a kiss on the cheek when she comes to help me get dressed.”

“Where does the couple live?” Mama asked as we continued down the hall. “Her name is Beverly. She is so sweet to me. She helps me in the dining room. And sometimes she sits at my table with me when Bob (1) isn’t there.” (I haven’t seen Bob 1, who cuts Mama’s food for her, in quite a while. I’m concerned about him.)

Beverly: As we walked past the dining room, Bev and her husband were waiting in the hall for lunchtime. “My mom says you help her in the dining room,” I said to her. “Thank you!” “Oh, I love your mom,” she said. “She is very special. She’s quiet, but she never complains.”

My theory is being affirmed right and left. On the next round we met again two women we ran into (almost literally) when we came out of Mama’s room. “She really gets around,” the younger one had said. I have thought with near certainty the older woman is Native American. Mama has a history of friendship with the Chehalis tribe near our home, so I had mentioned to Mama that she looks Native American, at which Mama had perked up.

Theresa: Meeting them again as we lapped around the hall, I greeted them. Mama, following my lead, since she couldn’t see them, greeted them as well. After they passed us, the older woman turned back and said, “I’m Nisqually.” Had she heard me earlier—or read my mind? I repeated her words to Mama, then turned back and told them Mama—who had wheeled around and practically run back to where they stood—had been friends with several women from the Chehalis tribe, driven them to pick grasses for their baskets, etc.

“What’s your name?” Mama demanded. “Did you know Nancy Secena?” I gently explained to Mama that Theresa was from the Nisqually tribe, but Theresa said she had heard the name Secena, reiterating that she was from a different tribe. Mama rattled off some more names, perhaps thinking that all Native Americans should know all the others, in the “you’re from New York, I know someone from New York” vein. Or maybe she was trying to connect her past with her present in whatever way was available. Mama told her more about her relationship with the Chehalis, keeping the two elderly people leaning on their walkers longer than was comfortable, I’m sure.

Nan: On the third round, we met another woman who greeted “Stella” warmly and identified herself, knowing I assume that Mama couldn’t see her. Mama greeted her back. Nan—whose real name I have forgotten—told me my mother is so sweet and I am so good to be there so often. As we completed our journey, Mama told me Nan was so kind and always greeted her, and also helped her in the dining room.

Mert and Lorrayne: I settled Mama in the dining room with her mates quiet Mert and Lorrayne, who told me she had let the wait staff know Mama would want soup because she “really likes her soup,” as the bowl of lentil soup was set in front of her. She dug right in.

So it seems there is a lot of good relationship stuff going on that Rebecca and I don’t hear about. Mama is going to complain to us. We can’t fix it and we don’t need to try. Acknowledge and move on is my motto; and don’t take it home with me. I’m glad to have witnessed some of the alternate reality.

When we break the silence, strangers become friends.

*”Strangers in Good Company” is one of my all-time favorite movies. I wrote about it here.

“Through their shared crisis, they become a band of sisters: listening, revealing, encouraging, comforting.”


6 thoughts on “Strangers in Good Company 2*”

  1. Gretchen….I’m glad you can vent and tell your story, as you do so well. Your mother’s world appears upside down which has turned your’s inside out. (My observation only) I told my two daughters that I hope to live long enough to make life miserable for them. Kirsten said, “try me” and Marin moved to Boston. Well, that didn’t work! Complaints from your mom are like daggers. You are developing an active shield of protection that must be pretty heavy by now? I still think you are a saint. I’m sorry your mom doesn’t think so. I think I told her you were. You might challenge her on that. Blessings. John


    1. Well, I’m no saint. But I am showing up; and that isn’t always easy. It is much better now that I’m not living with her. The shield is much lighter! I’m also not earning as many jewels in my crown, but that’s okay with me. Crowns are heavy too. Thank you for writing. I think of you often.


  2. Your Mom’s way of persisting…yes?! Very unpleasant to witness, but a very common way of b e i n g in the world is to complain. Your practice, just by being your amazing beautiful self, is to remind her of the fundamental goodness that’s out there. She’s less in touch with this, I think.
    Love to you…


    1. Thank you for this, Harriet. The constant complaining does confound me. I wonder what it different in a person’s past and present that makes some complainers and some rejoicers, even as the brain fails. Are there predictors? I so do not want to be a complainer. Zen says we learn what we practice. I’m trying to be mindful of not practicing complaining. When it comes to my mother, I probably don’t do so well, complaining about her complaining. 🙂


  3. When my step-father’s mother moved into assisted living she was all complaints to the family, but according to the staff had an active social life in the community and many friends. She never admitted that though.


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