Let Me Call You Sweetheart: This Week with Mom

My sweet mom fresh from the beauty parlour

This week Clive and I have been visiting my mother in New Jersey, following last weekend’s wonderful time with my son and daughter-in-law.

Mom’s Alzheimer’s continues to progress and, as I wrote on our last visit, I loathe the disease more and more as it takes away more and more of my mother.

Mom still knows me, for which I am extremely thankful. She’s still getting around with her walker, though she’s having increasing difficulty getting up out of her seat without assistance. Occasionally, when a program is held in one of the more distant rooms, an aide pushes her there and back in a wheelchair, though this is still fairly rare. She’s a real trooper walking back and forth on her own, one of countless ways she is, as she always has been, my inspiration.

Mom loves her special friend, the woman who was once a nurse. They have meals together and often sit side-by-side in companionable silence, at programs or in the lounge. Their faces light up whenever they see each other.

This week, we were able to attend a variety of programs with Mom and at other times, just sit with her in the lounge and in her room. I hung out with her in the beauty parlour one morning, which I try to do on every trip and we both enjoy.

Mom under the hair dryer in the beauty parlour

Mom continues to love anything musical most of all, and in the church service and several lovely music programs, she remembers lines to certain hymns and songs. I love watching her and joining her when she sings out ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’.

My mother is in every way a sweetheart. One afternoon as I was walking with Mom down a long corridor, an elderly man with a walker came up behind us and asked in a rather loud voice, ‘Is this your mother?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Dorothy is my mother.’

He nodded and as he passed us he said, ‘She is a VERY nice woman.’

Smiling in the mirror (and thanks to Donna for your wonderful work!)

I pray my mother remains content within herself as her Alzheimer’s advances. She long ago stopped reading and watching TV, and is having more trouble speaking and getting words out. But she still understands much of what is said to her, even if she forgets it right away, and we can still look at photos of her parents and talk about parts of her childhood.

During the week we had a few ‘ups and downs’ when Mom became anxious or agitated, but in hindsight I think the incidents were probably more upsetting for me than for my mother, thankfully.

Alzheimer’s is sometimes called ‘the long good-bye’. That is not a bad way to describe it.

As always, I wish we had more time to reconnect with more family and friends. I’m thankful we were able to see my cousins Sharon and Ron and Connecticut friends Sandy and Chris, along with my son and belle-fille.

God bless you, Mom and all our US loved ones. Counting the days until we meet again.

with my mom in the beauty parlour

Cheers and thank you for reading. Happy autumn or spring to all.

A Quick Trip to New Jersey

With my mom in NJ

Last week Clive and I made a short visit to my mother, son and daughter-in-law in New Jersey.

I wanted especially to see Mom in person, spend time with her and check up on how she’s doing both in her physical self and in her spirits. She always sounds okay on the phone, but that’s not the same as being together in person.

Nearly two years ago I wrote about Mom and the memory thief. Her Alzheimer’s continues to progress, faster now than in its earlier years. I haven’t changed my feelings about the disease; I just loathe it more and more as it takes away more and more of my mother.

Mom is still in her same room, still getting around very slowly with her walker and making the long trek to and from exercise, music and other programs at her assisted living facility. (A nurse there once told us they work very hard to keep residents walking because once they’re in a wheelchair, they often don’t get up again.) Mom used to hitch a ride once in a while on the motorised carts, but she’s become too anxious about stepping on and off (she shrieks or sometimes screams) so rarely does this now.

For several years, my mother enjoyed the company of a male friend, or ‘boyfriend’ as she called him. Since we saw him quite frail and unwell in May – it’s been many months since we could take her or them out in the car — he was moved to a separate nursing facility. Mom now has no memory of him. In some ways this is a blessing, I suppose, since she doesn’t miss him and never asks for him. In other ways, it signifies a greater memory loss that is crushing, though thankfully only to her loved ones and not – at least that we can tell — to Mom.

Mom has a wonderful new friend, a Jamaican woman who was once a nurse. They have meals together and often sit together at the programs; an aide told us they are ‘best buddies’. Mom doesn’t remember her friend by name, but recognises her on sight. Her friend is very kind to everyone, as is my mother. After spending several afternoons sitting with both of them, I believe that despite their respective Alzheimer’s, they recognise, at some soul-deep level, this quality of goodness in each other and for this reason are attracted to and appreciative of one another. Who knows? Two kind-hearted women are best buddies at the care home and this is something I thank God for every day.

Unfortunately there were no music programs the days we were with Mom, though she likes them the best. I chatted with her in the beauty parlor while she sat under the dryer, watched her one-on-one exercise program and held her hand while the long-suffering podiatrist cut her toenails. She screamed often and even Clive’s ‘close your eyes and think of England’ didn’t work this time. We spent most of the time just sitting and visiting with her.

In her room, we brought out her 90th birthday photo album and paged through, jogging her long-term memory about her parents and the house where she grew up in Paterson, NJ. She recognises photos of them and several of her childhood friends, but few others.

I remain thankful my mother is happy and well cared-for, grateful she has a new friend and still knows me and my son and usually Clive, too, though she doesn’t remember his name. I’m terrified of the day she doesn’t recognise me, but I try to appreciate the present and not look ahead this way.

I wish I’d taken more photos of Mom during this trip. For some reason, I only asked Clive to take one on our arrival evening (top of this post), when we’d come directly from the airport, weary and jet-lagged, and Mom was due to have her hair done the next day.

I struggle to know what to write about this dreaded disease, only that I wish we could be in multiple places at once so I could spend time with my mother more frequently. I know we are fortunate we can visit regularly and cherish every hug.

On a happier note, we enjoyed a wonderful catch-up with dear friends C&S from Connecticut (thank you so very much C&S for driving down), and spent time over the weekend with my son and belle-fille (a favourite French term meaning daughter-in-law, literally ‘beautiful daughter’). They are both doing great with work, family and life in general.

Already counting the days until we meet again.

My son and belle-fille in NJ

Cheers and thanks for reading. Happy almost-autumn or almost-spring to all.

London Diary: A Few Days of Walking, Shopping and Time with Clive’s Son

Statue of William Shakespeare in Leicester Square, London

Clive’s son, Jason, had a business trip to London and arranged to spend the first couple of days with his father and me in Felixstowe.

With Jason’s blessing, we decided to tag along to London. Our goal was to maximise the available time with Jason, meeting him for one or two evenings if he was free, and maybe taking in a West End show. Otherwise our days would be clear and we always have a list of galleries, shops and sites we’d like to see in London. Using accumulated hotel points, we booked four nights, Tuesday evening through Saturday morning, the longest we can recall staying there.

Tuesday: Evening on Piccadilly

After a wonderful time in and around Felixstowe, the three of us took the train to London on Tuesday afternoon. We arrived to a beautiful evening and, after checking in to our respective hotels, reconnected for dinner.

The streets of London were buzzing as always at peak hour, with pedestrians rushing to and from the Underground, taxis speeding by and flags promoting the West End flying overhead.

Evening on Piccadilly

Wednesday: Books, Shopping and Miles of Walking

While Jason worked all day, Clive and I enjoyed a slow start in a crowded café. A stroll to Clive’s favourite men’s shop, Charles Tyrwhitt on Jermyn street, followed; Clive wanted to buy a few replacement collar stays but the lovely young saleswoman gave him six at no charge.

Then came my favourite part of the day: a visit to Waterstones on Piccadilly, one of London’s best (and biggest) bookshops. I especially love their lower-ground floor travel and travel narrative section, with guidebooks, classic fiction, nonfiction and memoirs shelved together by location (similar to the also-wonderful Daunt books on Marylebone High Street). I could spend hours in this section alone, though we also had a look in a few other equally-enticing areas on different floors.

Jason texted Clive while we were having lunch in the Waterstones café, letting us know his work colleagues were taking him out to dinner that night.

In the afternoon, we headed out for my shopping chore, selecting new jeans at Long Tall Sally, a wonderful shop on Chiltern Street. A customer here once complimented Clive for accompanying me on my clothing search. This week, I worried it would take a while to try on endless jeans (oh, the uncommon delight for a tall woman, when they are ALL long enough!), so Clive was happy to camp out in a nearby café. I could always text him if needed.

Eventually I chose two pairs of jeans; the staff are so helpful and make the process as easy as possible. It’s always quite an experience, to have virtually all the staff and other customers my height or taller. Figuratively I’ve looked up to many women in my life; physically not many.

Purchases complete, I met Clive at the café and we walked more miles, until we were both desperate to find a bench. Thankfully, London has many lovely parks and squares and soon we plonked ourselves down in Berkeley Square.

Benches in Berkeley Square

Since Jason wasn’t available for dinner and our feet and bodies were worn out from all our walking, we treated ourselves to … a trip to M&S Food, a selection of salads, breads and cheeses and a tasty hotel room picnic.

Thursday: Fortnum & Mason, More Books and ‘An American in Paris’

Before going out this morning, we booked tickets for tonight’s performance of ‘An American in Paris’ at the Dominion Theatre, a new venue for us. Clive originally suggested this musical, after reading rave reviews about it several months ago, and of course I eagerly agreed.

Again we walked for miles, beginning at Fortnum & Mason, my favourite London department store. I love its ground-floor coffee, tea and chocolate displays; its stationery section with turquoise leather desk accessories; the store’s atmosphere, which I find classy but much less over-the-top than Harrods; the tearooms (where we split an order of scones, jam and cream); the location on Piccadilly across from the Royal Academy and the turquoise carry bags which say, ‘By appointment to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’.

A few little surprises for my son’s upcoming birthday, from Fortnum & Mason

Two steps from Fortnum & Mason (and not far from Waterstones) is Hatchards, London’s oldest bookshop, which oozes character and atmosphere and *always* warrants a visit. How heavenly it was, to have time for a lovely browse on several of its well-stocked floors. Apologies for the lack of bookshop photos – too busy with the books!

En route to pick up our tickets and suss out the exact theatre location (knowing it’s in the midst of the huge construction works around Tottenham Court Road, for the new Crossrail train and underground line), we paused for some people-watching in Leicester Square. A statue of William Shakespeare, shown at the top of this post, stands in the centre of the square.

More captivating than the street performers and jolly tourists were three little girls in pink princess dresses, though unfortunately they were feeding the pigeons – urrgh!

The mother attempted a selfie photo with the girls but the youngest pushed them all away, insisting with indignant shouts that she could figure out the selfie stick by herself. I tried to be discreet in snapping a photo of the little miss.

Girl with selfie stick at Leicester Square

On our trek up Charing Cross Road to the theatre (I can’t write that street name without saying Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road is one of my favourite books of all time), we OF COURSE had to stop for a browse at Foyles, yet another large, excellent bookshop. We found seats in the Level 5 café, downed cool drinks and Clive kindly minded my bag so I could come and go unencumbered on my expeditions throughout the store.

Finally we made our way to the theatre, picked up our tickets, made a quick turnaround at the hotel to drop off our bags and headed out again to meet Jason for an early, pre-show dinner.

Picking up our tickets at the Dominion Theatre

After catching up on Jason’s day over dinner, we walked back through Leicester Square and I snapped this father-son photo on our way to the show.

Clive and Jason at Leicester Square

As for ‘An American in Paris’, it’s a terrific musical with beautiful, clever Paris set designs and amazing ballet and dance numbers. My favourites were when the two leads, the young lovers, danced with each other. We felt a few of the dance numbers could have been shorter, but still thoroughly enjoyed and recommend this show.

Friday: Farewell at Paddington Station

After our two long days walking, shopping and theatre-going (no galleries this trip, unusual for us but the bookshops were calling), Clive and I had a slow start on Friday.

We spent the morning strolling around, ending up in Green Park where we found a bench and sat and read for quite a while.

Clive with the mapbook, planning our next move, Green Park

Jason texted that afternoon, saying he was finished with work and could meet us an hour earlier than planned. We met late afternoon at a café in Paddington Station, for this trip’s last get-together.

Saying good-bye is never easy and the older we get, the more emotional Clive and I become about it. It was difficult for this dad to say farewell to his boy. We’re already looking forward to the next visit.

Farewell at Paddington Station

Get-togethers with loved ones always pass too quickly. My strongest memory of the past week is simply the sight of Clive so happy to be with his son; a close second is the sound of their voices chatting away. Sometimes ordinary one-on-one conversations, especially with adult children, are the most extraordinary gifts. Thank you, Jason, for making the effort and taking the time to include us in your business trip to England. And thank you too, Jennifer, for holding down the fort while he was away.

I think we met our goal of spending as much time as we could with Jason and, during the days, enjoyed the rare luxury of a slower pace and time to browse, walk and enjoy London’s green spaces.

After a good-bye wave as Jason’s train left Paddington station, we opted for another hotel room picnic and a quiet night in the room. I know Clive was reflecting on their time together as we packed our backpacks and he tracked the first leg of Jason’s flight.

As at last night UK time, Jason is safely home in Australia and we are back in Felixstowe, looking forward to our next family visit, a trip to New Jersey to see my mother and son. Until then we are beside the sea, and our dear little tree, in England.

Home to our tree by the sea, Felixstowe

Cheers and thanks for reading. Whether near or far, wishing safe and happy travels to all.

Visit with a Beloved Ho-Ho-Kus Piano Teacher

Miss T, a wonderful teacher to hundreds of piano students

Once in a while, an unexpected opportunity arises and we do something we wouldn’t normally do. Such an occasion happened for me today.

Without calling or writing ahead of time, I rang the doorbell at the Ho-Ho-Kus home of my former piano teacher, Miss Takayama, or Miss T, as I’ll call her (though she later married and became Mrs I and is now widowed). The petite but très formidable Japanese woman pictured above opened the door and greeted me with her beautiful smile.

I’m not sure Miss T remembered exactly who I was, but she welcomed me warmly and invited me in; I told her Clive was waiting so we stepped back outside and the three of us talked there.

Miss T told us she taught piano for 72 – seventy-two!! – years. She said, beaming, ‘I’ll be 99 next month!’ – that she was born in 1918 and her birthday is June 4. She lives on her own in the same house in which she taught hundreds of children to play the piano.

I was fortunate to be Miss T’s student from kindergarten through eighth grade (then took up cello, to join the high school orchestra — sadly, Miss T only taught piano). Every Wednesday I trudged up the hill, walked down her driveway, through her garage and into her basement studio. She reminisced about this today, saying because her mother, then her husband, lived upstairs she never felt it would be right to have her teaching studio in their family space.

I must offer huge thanks to this blog’s readers Sue and Candice G for their recent comments about Miss T, especially Sue who wrote that Miss T still lived at her Ho-Ho-Kus home. These comments appeared this week on one of my most frequently-read posts, Downtown Ho-Ho-Kus: 1960s and Today. Originally published in 2009, the post continues to receive regular comments from former residents. A number of us, when sharing special Ho-Ho-Kus memories, include piano lessons with Miss T.

When I read Sue’s comment, I knew I only had a day or two to react, if I wanted to try to see Miss T on this trip. This morning, I bought a birthday card. Though I normally consider it rude to ring someone’s bell without calling first, we leave tomorrow so I decided this afternoon, after spending time with my mother, I’d take a chance.

For any of Miss T’s former students who may be reading this, she is as bright and vibrant as ever and I’m in awe of her strength and determination to remain in her own home. ‘All my memories are here,’ she told us today.

After chatting for a short while and not wanting to overstay our welcome, I asked Miss T if we could take a few photos. She kindly agreed to stand beside her front door plaque, which reads, in addition to her name, ‘PEACE to all who enter; GRACE to all who depart.’

I found this very moving as it truly captures the spirit of this wonderful woman. She was a part of my life, week after week, for nine years, not only at each Wednesday lesson but also on the days in between, knowing she expected me to practice and I’d better do so! Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, Miss T was a steady, demanding (in a good way) and reliable figure throughout my childhood and early adolescence.

Thank you, Miss T, for your expert instruction, your encouragement and enthusiasm for my playing and for giving me the gift that whenever I was joyful or grieving or just needed to vent my emotions, I could turn to the piano and find comfort.

Clive took this final photo, which he promptly labelled ‘the long and short of it’. I couldn’t be happier Miss T opened her door to me today.

Thrilled to see this petite but très formidable teacher again

Heartfelt thanks from me and all your grateful students, Miss T. Wishing you the most joyful of birthdays as you approach your 99th year.

Thoughts on Air Travel — Wearying but Worth It

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Heathrow airport yesterday, London

The UK is home for me and Clive, for reasons of choice, necessity and compromise.

Family is also important to us, which means – as regular readers of this blog are aware – air travel is an unavoidable part of our life.

More and more, we’re finding air travel to be an endurance test. This is no doubt due in part to having made three long-haul trips in the past three months, in part to age and in part to airports’ and airlines’ ever-lengthening procedures for screening and security.

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There is much we can do to make air travel as painless as possible, which I’ve shared in my Passion for Travel  series, especially packing as light as we can, following our pre and post-trip checklists and managing jet lag.

There is also much about air travel we cannot control — delays (like the time it took us 42 hours from Sydney to Paris – via Beijing – but that’s another story), the weather, seasonal crowds and the behaviour of other travellers.

The reward, of course, comes at journey’s end. We give thanks for safe arrival and joyfully reunite with loved ones.

Yesterday we deplaned in the US, savoured our first evening and this morning with my son and belle-fille (a beautiful French term and my beautiful daughter-in-law) and then drove north to be with my mother. This week we’ll spend time together and help celebrate her 93rd birthday.

We try to keep calm and carry on. Our motto remains, ‘Travel while we can.’

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Thankful to have this time with my mom

Cheers, thanks for reading and happy travels.

If your trip involves air travel, you have our great empathy and best wishes for a start-to-finish smooth journey.

Nine Goals for May

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Part of the plan: Paris is always a good idea

  1. Spend time with my son and belle-fille in New Jersey.
  2. Spend time with my mom in NJ and help her celebrate her 92nd birthday.
  3. Find time to connect with friends in the U.S., if not on our short visit in May, then on our next trip in July.
  4. Resume work on my Paris memoir. Try to complete the next chapter but don’t overly stress as long as good progress is made. Write in Paris before going to New Jersey.
  5. Enjoy being out and about in Paris when we return there from New Jersey.
  6. Keep up with friends, activities and appointments in Felixstowe before we depart.
  7. Remind myself we knew the first 6-7 months of this year would involve a great deal of travel, mostly to see family. Try to be mindful of the need to pace ourselves along the way.
  8. Get over lingering jet lag and weariness I’m still feeling from a month Down Under.
  9. Be grateful we’re able to, as per our motto, ‘Travel while we can.’
Clive calls it our travel roundabout

Clive calls it our travel roundabout

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Why I’ve Run out of Energy: 15 Reasons

Five year-old at top of climbing wall

Five year-old at top of climbing wall

  1. Watching Clive’s grandchildren at the amazing climbing centre, including miss no-fear five year-old reaching the top of high walls over and over again.
  2. Watching Clive in his jet simulator session, a birthday gift from his daughter and son.
Clive at the controls

Clive at the controls

  1. Cheering the NSW Central Coast Mariners soccer team in their final game of the season.
  2. Going to church in the morning and bushwalking in Rumbalara Reserve in the afternoon, with views over Brisbane Water.
View from an Aussie bushwalk

View from an Aussie bushwalk

  1. Going to the library, where each child selects 10 books. At home, clever mum gives each one a separate shelf for his or her stash.
  2. Walking through the Japanese Garden and art centre.
  3. Going ten-pin bowling (to be exact, watching Clive and his grandchildren ten-pin bowling).
  4. Watching the boys swim in our hotel pool.
  5. Watching ‘Inside Out’ on DVD and ‘Zootopia’ at the theatre.
  6. Watching swimming lessons.
  7. Walking (adults) and scootering (kids) on the Gosford-to-Woy Woy pathway.
Scooting around

Scooting around

  1. Dinners with the family, including snags and chicken on the barbie, meat pies and home-made nachos.
  2. Dinner at the Star Buffet at Central Coast Leagues Club. So many choices, especially Asian treats, and all so good.
  3. Playing jewellery shop, colouring-in and having my hair twisted and ornamented by little hands.

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  1. Hanging out with three blessedly happy and healthy bundles of energy and their hard-working parents, for all of whom we are very thankful.
Clive & grandchildren at Japanese Garden

Clive & grandchildren at Japanese Garden

We still have four days to go before we head to Sydney airport. Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.