Saturday, March 03, 2012

the last threads

Ready for some trite words? Here they come:

There isn’t a trip that I take where I don’t learn something – about stuff and, too, people -- even those whom I thought I had figured out. And just getting that different perspective, on the world, on others, adds years to my life. (Or at least it adds greater complexity which, in reality, is the same thing, since a more intricate and detailed life seems longer, even if it is not really so.)

It’s amazing how much you can learn, too, if you just spend a day or two listening to someone. It may be that I learned more about my mom on this trip than perhaps in all the years when she lived in Madison, where my interaction with her, though daily, was about such things as kid events and the terrible weather out there.

In the years before she moved to Madison, meaning, before my kids were born, I was her go to person. The one she’d call to express sorrow. There were many such calls.

It became a pattern with my first family (of mother, father, sister) – to review the past and how it affected us before and affects us still. It is so not in my nature to review the past, that I have grown accustomed to giving myself a pep talk before engaging in these conversations, in much the same way that I give myself a pep talk before I enter a class when I’m not feeling well. Come on, Nina: it’s important. Take a breath and give it a go! You’ll be fine, you’ll be fine...

Early this morning, I take my usual solo walk. It is glorious day and I think even Berkeley people are surprised by it because I hear a bit of that from people I pass – isn’t it an incredible day! It’s such a beautiful day, no?


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Of course, I am more focused on flowers than on the blue sky. One thing I get plenty of back home is blue sky. Flowers in early March? Not so much.



Shattuck Avenue is buzzing and it’s fun to see how it all conforms to the images one has of Shattuck and of Berkeley. My mother would say that Berkeley has changed – more militant on the streets, more conservative on campus. Maybe. But here on Shattuck,  I’m seeing an awful lot of women my age with long gray hair tied back in pony tails. They sit in cafes with large rimmed hats to keep the sun from the skin. They eat yogurt with organic this and that. Everything in Berkeley is organic. My B&B is on the inexpensive side, if you compare it to prices in the Bay area, but even there, the shampoo is organic. It’s just the way Berkeley is.


My mother meets me for brunch at a local café. Neither of us is hungry – we ate breakfast at our respective places – but we want this last chance to sit across the table from each other. I want to ask her a burning question – one that I have carried with me for years. (Don’t we all have one burning question for our parents that we wish we could get an answer to?)

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I don’t ask it. I don’t know that it was the right call. My mom is older. Older people think they will not survive 'til the next year. Their children think they’ve got at least another ten years ahead. My grandma lived until her nineties, why shouldn’t my mom – the person who has tracked Prevention Magazine and all other preventives for such a long time live even longer?!

We ride the BART together. No, really – this is my mother: she will take the one and a half hour trip with me to the airport, even knowing that once there, I will check in and go through and that will be that.

My flight takes off. We pass mountains and lakes and all great land formations.


I’ll forever remember this visit. Time has passed. The future – our future, hers and mine – is pretty much set. So we are where we are, with all our imperfections and for once they seem irrelevant.

a day in the life

I let my mother plan this day for us. I’m here to take part in her life, not to set an outsider’s agenda.

But first things first. Before she shows up to pick me up, Mort, my host at the B&B, brings up a breakfast tray...


There is a blizzard heading for Madison today. I look outside the window of my Berkeley rooms and take note of this alternate landscape.


I ask Mort to suggest a quick walk for me before my mom comes. He says --  Go up the next street – interesting architecture, beautiful gardens. You’ll come across a middle school with an "edible school yard." Take a look at it.

I’m off. For my mom, seeing things in bloom is rather commonplace. Last night I commented on the feeling of green around me. She shrugged. Spring’s long gone, she tells me.

So I walk alone now, just for a few blocks, to take pleasure in all that greenery and of course, in the school kitchen garden, which you might know is Alice Waters'  brainchild.

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the Garden Cottage b&b


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(On one side of the school yard, I find the garden, on the other side -- a boy shooting a few baskets...)


A serene and bountiful morning.

I then give in to being my mom's companion for the day.

We do what she does. Senior water aerobics. Every weekday of the year, she is in an outdoor community pool, doing water aerobics. And so I join. True, I’m hesitant. When she first tells me to bring my swimsuit, I say what a kid would say to her mom – yeah, yeah, sure... But I intend not to use it. It’s 55 degrees outdoors! The last thing a frozen Wisconsin soul wants to do is to experience outdoor cold again!

But I change my mind. I want her day to be my day. I want to listen to the banter of the seniors pushing against the pool water. The leader is playing music from the sixties. Several of the seniors know the lyrics. I know the lyrics. I’m in the pool in Berkeley, singing sixties music with area seniors who surely remember that Berkeley from that epoch. It’s all very transformative. Suddenly, California, that state that always felt so out there, feels a little less strange and distant.

We eat lunch at Slow. Delicious sandwiches, mine with an array of good veggies. Perhaps the best part is that it’s sunny and we can eat outdoors. Surely it must be in the sixties now. Berkeley in the sixties. Makes me smile.

I follow her to favorite haunts. The dollar ice cream store. A cone for a buck? Really? She speculates that it must be a brainchild of a do-gooder who believes in keeping things affordable.


More stops. This one’s for me – to cater to my idiosyncrasies. A coffee at a local café.

And then we’re back at her place. I had toyed with the idea of doing some taped conversations. I had done that with my dad a couple of years back and so I have a treasure trove of detail from his life, right there, in the files of my computer. My mom talks less in a monologue, more with spontaneous bursts of stories and opinions and I do think that I remember her words very well – they have force and vigor and that helps – and still, having it on tape would be nice...

But I don’t record. My mom isn’t happy with technology, with recordings and so I don't want to suggest it. She hasn’t the trust, or the indifference to it all. She’s not a fan of my blogging and I am careful what I put on Ocean, because I do not want to make her unhappy with me, not now, not today, not when this day is so very lovely.

We end the evening with dinner at the retirement home. She has invited her closest friends and I have to say that the meal is, for me, a wonderful set of hours. I get it. I see her with them and them with her and I understand. And, too, I understand, I think, my place in this thicket of events and relationships.


Late, late, very late for her, somewhat late for me even, I go back to the B&B. I think about all the things that I could do for my mom and all the things that I haven’t done and cannot do. I think about her supreme generosity, her take on life, the accommodations she has made. I help her “downsize” tonight. I “disencumber” her of two albums of photos. The oldest in these is of my grandmother when she was just seven (taken in 1908).

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There are many reasons to feel happy tonight, there are some to feel a tad more somber. I’ll stay with the happy. I’m predisposed in that direction.

[P.S. Several commenters have noted problems with posting comments on Ocean. I removed some safeguards (even as I'll stick with moderating stuff -- just to keep things kind and gentle here). Please do let me know if this helps or if you still experience issues.]