My grandma has been in a nursing home for several years now.  The decision to move her there was difficult and painful at best.  She adjusted and we adjusted.  She made new friends and adapted and we felt like she was safe, it was good.  Life reached a new “normal” and we all went about our daily routines. 

About three weeks ago she began a decline.  She has experienced several over the past couple of years and has always bounced back or,  at least, reached a new “normal”.  She’s been a little confused, an elderly mind stuck in a relatively healthy body.   She has had numerous minor strokes over the past two decades.  This last one though, wow!  It changed things. 

The call came from her favorite nurse.  She gently, kindly explained to my mom that perhaps it is time for hospice to be called.  It became apparent that my mom, as her POA, needed to go check on her.  Now, my parents are getting older themselves, and more and more they need me.  I am a newcomer to the Sandwich Generation and not quite established in my role as such. 

 My dad is not in the best of health himself and it was decided that I would go with my mom to check on grandma.  We set out for our 7 hour drive.  I drove all but about a half hour of the trip.  Normally, mom and I would split the time between us.  It seemed odd that she really needed me to drive it all.  As I relived the events of the previous twenty-four hours, in actuality, it was my decision to make the trip in the first place.  She vacillated between going now or next weekend.  I picked now as it appeared time was of the essence.  She seemed strangely relieved that I had just taken charge of the situation.  I felt as if I had stepped into uncharted territory.  It was a new thought process and its apparent discomfort made me dismiss it from consciousness.

We arrived.  We met with hospice.  Mom signed all of the paperwork.  We met with the funeral home where grandma had already made arrangements many years ago.  We received information about the dieing process and we began the difficult task of looking death in the face, of saying good-byes and letting go.  As I sat holding my mom’s hand, she suddenly looked a little old herself; a little less certain, a little more fragile.

Grandma met us with a blank stare.  When she finally accessed her long-term memory and zeroed in on my mom we were relieved.  At least she knew who mom was!  This was progress!  She slept through a lot of the visit.  In between were words spoken sporadically as though they were just randomly picked from the air.  We tried to derive their meaning in much the same way you try to decode a toddler’s one word sentences.  It was sad, just sad, and haunting.  She seemed to be teetering on the brink of one world, all the while, gazing cautiously into the next.

We checked into a local hotel that evening.  The next day we would try again. 

To our surprise, she was more alert the following day.  She was able to use three word sentences and express some complete thoughts.  One exchange went like this:

Grandma:  You have big teeth!

Me:  Yes, I do.  Mom and dad spent a lot of money on my teeth!

Grandma:  Pretty.

Me:  I love you!

Grandma: Yes.

This went on throughout the morning with various states of awareness.  Suddenly, there was a burst of lucidity, a shot of adrenaline from who knows, or cares, where! 

Grandma:  Did you graduate?

Me:  Yes.  I finally made it!  (I actually graduated some 19 years ago, but hey).

Grandma:  I love you!

Me:  I love you too!

We continued to weave in and out of the present with brief stops at various “past’ places along the way:  an old college play, the birth of my children, my marriage, states I have lived in over the years, candy she used to keep in her dish, card games and songs, hymns actually.  We shared some chocolate and the hour got late.  It was almost dinner time and we needed to head for home- another 7 hour drive.  Grandma needed to head to the dining room- the new one they moved her to, the one where they feed you. 

Good-byes are always hard, but this one, knowing it might be the last one, was about more than I could bear.  She kept holding onto me as if she too were afraid of the finality it might hold for us both.  This fiercely independent woman now sat with a grip on me that she was unwilling to loose, much like my children did when they were preschoolers trying to “keep me” from leaving  them.  I lingered a few minutes more.  When I finally sucked up all of my remaining strength and walked out of the room I moved quickly, jaw set, eyes forward.  I found myself almost running to the door, suddenly gasping for air, clean, cold, thin air, free from the odors of old age.  As the sharp wind hit my face, I became aware of the hot, stinging tears running down my cheeks.  I had held them in with great effort, but they were suddenly too large a load to shoulder.   I walked faster and faster, leaving my mom behind in my hurry.  I made it to the car and once again, gained composure, suddenly aware that my mom was also crying and needed my comfort. 

And right then, in that moment of enveloping my mom in my own arms, in this awkward reversal of roles, with the northern Illinois wind whipping my scarf in its wake, I stepped across an invisible stage into another of life’s chapters- uncharted territory indeed.

Yes, Grandma.  I graduated.  Today.


You Never Really Own A Cat

I had the heart-wrenching experience of having to put my cat of  18 years “down” today.  I can say it was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made.  She had experienced a fine life, a well-to-do life for a cat.  What more could a cat hope for?  I mean, really?  I picked her up off of the streets, brought her in and made her right at home.  Well, sort of. . .

 . . .  Actually, she showed up 18 years ago and just never left.  She sat outside my apartment 24/7 like some sort of regal guard cat.  I tried to shoo her away, tried to ignore, tried to crowd my porch with “stuff” so that there was no room for her free-loading self to lay claim (literally) to the real estate and stake out her space- all to no avail.  She picked me.  Somehow, I had fallen into her good graces, met her criteria, passed her “pet owner test”, and was chosen.  Apparently, she had squatter’s rights.  She was undeterred by the flower pots, grill, chairs, etc., strategically placed to encourage her to find another patio to claim.  She simply scooted them out of her way and lay basking in the sun all day, every day, until fall came.  When the temperature began to drop, so did her patience level, because, up to that point, she had been, for all purposes, an amazingly long-suffering animal.  However, when nights got chilly she took measures into her own paws. 

She meowed and knocked on my door at all hours of the day,and,  more annoyingly, night.  She tripped me on my way out each day and basically made a pest of herself in the most affectionate, cute, demanding, in-your-face  kind of way.  In an exasperatingly weak moment, I brought her inside, took a photo copy paper box, filled the lid with shredded newspaper and a small bag of cat litter I had stored in my trunk, (I’m from Northern Illinois.  We carry it for traction in the snow if we get stuck.)  and dared her to relieve herself anywhere but in that box.  With that, I turned off the light and went to bed. 

In the morning, there she was, sitting in front of the TV,  as if this were a normal day and she had been doing this day after day for years.  She stretched and yawned a great big, “Good morning!  Sleep well?”   In retrospect, it was at that precise moment that I was “owned”.  I inspected, and to my surprise, found no “deposits” anywhere but in the litter box I had so haphazardly fashioned the night before.  Still, I thought it was a fluke and put her back outside.  That evening, the same process, and the next and the next, and . . .  well, you know the “rest of the story”. 

So, I decided that if she were really going to be “mine”, since my neighbors, who were obviously “in” on her scheme, kept referring to her as “your” cat, well, perhaps a vet trip was in order.  I loaded her up and off we went.  When we checked in, the tech handed me some forms to fill out and asked me her name.  I froze.  “Umm, well, she doesn’t have a name.  She’s not really mine.” 

As the words left my lips, the absurdity of what I had just  blurted out, to the very confused tech hit me.   Seriously?!  Who gets healthcare for an animal that doesn’t belong to them???   “Well, I have to write something here.  What would you like to call her?” 

And,  in that instant, she became Shadow, because that’s what she was, my Shadow, Mine.   Everywhere I went, she followed. 

 And it stayed that way, for eighteen very blessed years.

To Grill or Bar-B-Que, THAT is the question!

Having lived all over the country, and being a huge fan of all things grilled, I have learned that there is appropriate nomenclature for each locale.  We learned all of the socially acceptable terms for each area.  We attended festivals and ate all manner of things from a grill, including, but not limited to:  Beef, Lamb, Pig, Fruits and Veggies. 

What about you?  Do you BBQ, or, do you Grill?

For instance, at “home” we were always going to “grill out”, . . . as opposed to grilling in?  I mean, I’m sorry but, your George Foreman, really doesn’t qualify.  Where else is there to grill except “out”? 

What you grill is also a question.  We usually grilled hamburgers, bratwurst or hot dogs, the occasional steak or chicken, but never pork chops (my mom lived in fear that she would not get the internal temperature high enough and we would all get food poisoning and DIE!!)  and almost always, over charcoal.  MatchLight and a match- that’s all you need.  Oh, and if you say BBQ, you mean you are actually going to put BBQ Sauce ON whatever it is you happen to be grilling. 

Simple, to the point.  It wasn’t an art form, just a means to an end- dinner.

Then I moved to Texas!  Wow!!!  In the southwest, they “BBQ or Barbecue or Bar-B-Que”, and how!  In Texas and Oklahoma, BBQ generally involves some specialty wood (Mesquite) and smoke.  Lots of smoke.  Hours and hours of smoke.  It’s a slooooooooooow cook; long and drawn out, much like their speech.  And, it IS an art form all unto itself!  Most of the time the meat of choice involved is a beef brisket. 

There are, evidently, no pigs in Texas.  Brisket was, and I’m sure still IS, the meat of choice and they are readily available at your local super market.  Where I grew up, the only brisket I knew anything about was a corned beef brisket for St. Patrick’s Day.  However, in the southwest, they speak of brisket as if it were a blend of royalty and deity all slathered in some special blend of home-made BBQ sauce and “rub”.    Rub???  What in the world? Yeah, that was my question too?

Everyone in Texas and Oklahoma has their own “rub” recipe and they aren’t sharing.  Rub recipes are highly secured formulas (think  the Coke formula, or better yet, the precise amount of uranium needed in a nuclear warhead) and NO ONE will ever be told the recipe!!!!  You can’t get a security clearance high enough for that!  There are BBQ Festivals and Cook-offs too numerous to even begin to name.  If you are the winner of the Festival, well, let’s just say, everything truly is bigger in Texas- including attitudes and boasts.

In the midwest, they “Cook Out”, hmmm, okay, again, as opposed to cooking IN?  I guess that makes slightly more sense.  They use a gas grill, mostly and choose pork chops, pork burgers, hot dogs and hamburgers, or, if you are in North Central Kentucky, Mutton.  Mutton is to Kentucky as Brisket is to Texas, only greasier.  AND, as an added bonus (?) it is served with a side of burgoo (Don’t even ask).

The grilling style is a nice blend of the other two styles: gas it or smoke it.  The choice is yours.  However, it’s more of a family affair reserved for holidays or group picnics, or even restaurants, as opposed to the,  “it’s really hot and I don’t want to turn on the stove so let’s just grill out”, mentality I grew up with.  Notably, it was in the midwest that I was introduced to the likes of grilled vegetables (which became an addiction),  as well as a pizza cooked, entirely, on the grill.   It was pretty good, but seemed like more trouble than it was worth. 

In the Southwest and Midwest, I think it is just about avoiding the summer heat.  The Texans do it by smoking the poor brisket to death, thereby eliminating the need for their actual PRESENCE outside to monitor the progress.  Just asphyxiate the thing!  It’ll be awwwwriiiiiiiight.  There is the periodic flip of the meat, but all in all, it’s a long, lonely time in the old smoker if you’re a brisket.    As for the Midwest, all they want is OUT of the heat and they get out of it by gassing their food.  Get it done fast! Get back inside and save yourself from the suffocating humidity!  UGH!  ‘Nuff said!

At home, for all but the “dog days of August”, you can actually enjoy sitting out by the grill slowly basting and tenderly flipping your meat.  Depending on the evening, it might actually be nice to have that little bit of radiated heat from the grill.  You can sit and read, watch the kids play, sip some lemonade, you know, relax.  There isn’t any pressure to produce the perfect brisket here. 

I’ll take a brat (pronounced “braht”), some Jays and a nice cold drink to go with, please.

Lazy Sunday Afternoons

Growing up, every Sunday afternoon was spent at my aunt and uncle’s house with all the rest of the family who also “happened by”, as expected.  Italian families have strict codes of conduct. They are the unwritten “rules”  that everyone knows and abides by despite any personal inconvenience. 

We laughed and ate.  The adults played cards, discussed business and gossiped.  The kids, and there are MANY in an Italian family, played and watched TV and generally tried to stay out-of-the-way. 

There was always the smell of some version of sauce brewing and brewing until just the precise moment that my Uncle declared it finished.  Then, it was a “first  come – first served” stampede!  You better hurry up because NO ONE was watching out for you, making sure you ate.  When it was gone, it was gone.  Hope you liked it.

Then, there was more card playing and talking and, well, a kid could get pretty bored.  If you had not yet reached the age of card playing ability, but were too old to want to swing or ride a bike, you were pretty much stuck.  What to do? 

Somehow the TV always found its way to –  now get this-Italian family –  the God Father right?  No, oh, that we were so lucky!  No, what the older kids who controlled the dial gravitated to was:  The Beverly Hillbillies.  And, thus, began my education of all things Southern.  We did, with the advent of the VCR, eventually come to know and quote the GodFather by heart, but in those formative years, it was all hillbilly!

So, there we sat, all 15 of us, gathered around a 27 inch console TV with a color tube ready to go out at any moment, soaking up all of the Ellie May we could digest.  In the midst of the culture that ensued was always a candy dish.  There are two flavors of candy in Italian homes- anise and lemon.  Everyone I knew growing up had a candy dish and that one was ALWAYS full of anise candy.  Sometimes it was the hard red kind and sometimes, the black mints, but always anise. 


In my mind I can still smell the distinct sharpness of the dark red pieces.  It was so pretty, all wrapped in red cellophane, like Christmas all year.  Anise is an acquired taste.  My own children have probably never had it.  It’s licorice, but not exactly, and dark cherry, but with a peppery bite to it.  The smooth, tongue numbing square was exactly enough to get you through a thirty minute episode as long as you sucked on it and never crunched it up.  We ate a whole dish each week and had contests to see who could make their piece last the longest.  I could beat them all! 

As I sat writing this Sunday night, I so wished I had a piece, but there is none to be had here.  I’ve looked.  Add it to the list of groceries I need to pick up next time I’m “home”.  

Maybe what I really wanted was just a piece of that family time.  Although it was simple, and  I didn’t understand it at the time, it played a large role in making me who I am today.  Add it to the list of things that are Just Me.