not bad

We all knew this would probably be the last Thanksgiving at Dad’s house. Growing up, our cousins fondly called it, “Aunt Rose and Uncle Ted’s house”. My parents, that house; they were always there. I remember when one of my cousins visited them after being out of town for years. Gleefully and with a broad smile across his face, he announced, “Your dad’s still sitting in the same position, on the same couch.” I laughed along with him and also rolled my eyes a bit. But it was true…no matter how crazy the world was, we could return to Beeman Avenue to that safe, solid, and yes, maddening consistency, if even just for one evening.

The years rolled on, we cherished the house and all the memories it held for our family. For the last five or ten years that my folks, and then my widowed father, lived in that house, it fell to our family to host the Thanksgiving feast. For all the years that it was her responsibility, this assignment was mom’s nemesis, her unraveling. She was a mother, and a wife who, like most women of her time, cooked all the meals for her family. She’d try some new recipe now and then, but cooking did not make her heart sing…never had, and my father was…well, he was how he was. A man of few words, a man who never, ever, tasted food before dousing it with salt, he was also not one to praise unnecessarily, which from my perspective meant…there was no praise.

So it was no surprise each year as Thanksgiving loomed near – mom’s dread increased. My sister and I in our various ways inherited some of her dread or resistance or insecurity or whatever it was, so sadly we were not the triumphant daughters who would come home and just take over the task.
We helped out for sure and we made a great team. We created the beauty that Thanksgiving at 5219 Beeman Avenue became known for: we ironed all the vintage table linens inherited from mom’s folks, we polished every piece of beautiful silverware and serving pieces that sat hidden the rest of the year in the deep drawers of the breakfront that came out of grandma and grandpa’s living room. We set the tables with the lavish, gold filigree-edged dinner plates that had graced my grandparents’ Sabbath meals as my mother was growing up.

To my astonishment, in those last years, dad found his own tenderhearted way of contributing to the beauty of our evening. Using a tray, which in earlier days would have been piled with his “famous” hamburgers, cooked every weekend on his old-fashioned barbeque, and with a pair of scissors that mom had forbidden anyone else to use, and dad of course broke her rule every time, he’d disappear out into his beloved backyard and cut mountains of bougainvillea flowers bursting with life. What a sight he was…close to ninety-years-old, skinny as a rail, carrying his collage of tangerine, magenta, and scarlet hued flowers into our home.

The tables were rich, sumptuous and oddly out of place, pasted on top of the plain interior of our home. It was a little fairy tale that we all traveled into, together. The den that held our feast began as a large, 1950’s era screened-in porch complete with sloping concrete floor. Dad helped remodel the room in the ‘60’s, keeping the original floor, tiling it with linoleum. This was a great feature if you needed to hose down an outside porch, or if you were a kid rolling toy trains across the floor, but bizarre and unsettling for a bunch of octogenarians, some who were losing their eyesight or hearing, and some gaining dementia in exchange. Dementia was definitely beginning to move into dad’s life in inconsistent but obvious ways. Tinged with bittersweet, we all knew, without speaking of it, this might be the last time.

Neither my sister nor I were up to the task of taking on the actual preparation of the turkey. In mom’s absence we marveled that she had done it for so many years. No matter what several of our well-meaning friends told us about how easy it was to roast a turkey – we knew we could not manage both dad’s increasing unpredictability and our grand lack of confidence around cooking a meal for so many relatives…several of whom had also slipped into the realm of “unpredictable”.
Enter the Angel of Thanksgiving. My sister’s childhood friend happened to be coming down to L.A. for the holiday and she came from a family of fabulous cooks…she loved to cook. After hearing my sister’s description of our dilemma, SHE VOLUNTEERED TO COOK OUR ENTIRE FEAST. Our anxiety-ridden circumstance appeared on her horizon and she was happy to get the opportunity to cook an elegant meal, and to offer a treasured gift to our family.

We, and our home, had never seen such a feast. Yes, we had green beans, but for the first time ever, we had FRESH, delicately cooked green beans, with FRESH herbs. The deliciousness went on and on throughout every detail of the meal. The menu equaled the elegance of the crisp linens, sparkling silver and riotous flowers. It was magnificent.

The air was thick – collectively we were in a food stupor. I sat next to my father and watched him go through the motions he’d made every single night of his married life to signal that he was indeed, finished with his meal. He pushed himself away from the table slightly, took his grand, sage-green, linen napkin, which any other night would have been a small, white paper napkin, and with both hands, gently wadded it up and placed it in the center of his plate.

“How was your dinner, dad?” I asked, truly expecting at least some small amount of praise even though praise was not his style.

After a long silence and looking straight ahead, he responded.

“Not bad.”

I burst out laughing at the absurdity of his reply. How far I’d come, that my unscripted response was pure laughter where years before it would have been anger or resentment or rage. All I could do was laugh.

“Not bad?!” I thought to myself.

“Not Bad?” I flung at him, inside my head.

“NOT BAD?!?!?” I said out loud, incredulous.

I began to describe the subtle and exquisite flavors that Paula had included in this feast that defied any inkling of anything we’d ever eaten as a family. I was on a roll, flinging words right and left. Finally I noticed that dad’s body language had changed ever so slightly. He was still facing straight ahead, but his arms were now crossed, resting at his belt (he had no belly to rest them on) and his shoulders were shaking ever so slightly. That subtle smirk formed across his lips.

“That meal, to quote mom, was ‘INCREDIBLE’,” I informed him.

He nodded his head slightly, saying,

“That’s what I said.”

Time stopped. The earth stopped its rotation. I stopped breathing. Everything stopped.

“THAT’S what NOT BAD means?”

He nodded again, showing a little more movement in his shoulders now, doing his level best to hold back his laughter.

In a complete state of shock, and in the brief space between one sentence and the next, my whole world had been thrown on its head. I had spent a great deal of my childhood and a good chunk of my adult life consciously or unconsciously seeking approval from my father. What I was hearing from him right now was pointing to the very real possibility that much of my quest for approval stemmed from a problem with translation.

Not bad = Incredible

I honestly will never know if my father was only shaking with held back laughter at my reaction to his response about dinner, or if he had a glimpse of our life-long struggles and this issue of mistranslation.

Thankfully, by the time this extremely disorienting discovery arrived, I was able, rather gracefully actually, to take it in stride. TAKE IT IN STRIDE? Well…pretty much.

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The Queen of the Flowers

I met Teodore Thorvendal, a tall, lanky, ninety-five-year-old Swedish man with a sometimes explosive temper, while living in Seattle in the early 1990’s.

Soon after his wife Crossed Over he lost all of his short-term memory. Every morning when his nephew Stefan, a new friend of mine, came out of his bedroom, Teodore would lunge at him, thinking he was a burglar. Somehow Stefan would convince his uncle again, who he was and why he was living with him. This happened every single day until after a year; Stefan couldn’t take it any more. He was going back home to Sweden and on this particular day, I would be driving Stefan to the airport.

I knocked on the front door and I was relieved that Stefan answered. I was afraid of the old man…the one other time I had come to the door of the house, he pulled the curtain aside an inch or two, peered out at me through the window, wild-eyed, and cursed at me to get off his property. So yes, I was anxious when Stefan invited me to come inside on that last morning. They were just finishing breakfast and he motioned for me to join them in the kitchen. Timidly I followed him in and there was the crazy old man glaring at me. I sat there while they both finished eating; metal spoons scraping up the last of their cereal the only sounds that broke their silent meal. Before I could stop him, Stefan jumped up and said he’d go out and load his luggage into the back of my borrowed truck.

That left me alone with Teodore. He put his spoon down on the table, pointed his long, crooked finger at me and said, “Please. Come with me.” I was afraid – afraid to go with him and afraid to disobey him. Against my better judgment, I followed him through the dark living room and out onto the front deck; the same deck I’d stood on when he cursed at me and told me to get off his property.

“She planted them every summer,” he said, speaking to me softly, shaking his head. “Look at them now – they’re all dead.” At first I didn’t know what he was talking about – I was nervous being so close to this man that could become so agitated without warning. I followed his gaze and realized that the entire deck was lined with planter boxes that were filled with dead bedding plants – flower heads in tact, but stone dead. “Please,” he begged me, “please plant them.”

How did he know? How did this man that I had never spoken with, this man whom I was still not sure was safe to be around at all – how did he know that my most favorite thing in the world was to plant flowers and tend them? We stood there silently, then Stefan found us and he and I were off to the airport – Teodore’s request went unanswered.

Back home from the airport, I replayed the conversation with Teodore in my head. Did he really ask me, a total stranger, to plant his flower boxes for him? It seemed that he had, and I decided to do a good deed. The next day I rode my bicycle to the nursery near my house and loaded up my saddlebags with potting soil and bedding plants. It was an unusually hot summer day and by the time I rode my bike back up north to Teodore’s house I was sweaty and tired. And, I have to say, quite proud of myself. I was helping this “poor old man” with his dream to somehow bring back part of his wife’s memory by replanting her garden.

I leaned my overloaded bicycle up against the edge of the deck with a bit of a thud. The front door flew open and there he was; the crazy, wild-eyed man screaming profanities at me, demanding that I get off his property. I was mad now. Hadn’t I just spent my own money, not to mention my sweat equity, to get all these supplies? Isn’t this what he had asked me do? Yes, I was afraid of him, but now I was pissed off. He wasn’t going to beg me to do something and then threaten me when I did it. It was too late – I’d had it with him. I flew around in a rage and told him it was none of his business, that I’d bought the plants after he’d asked me to, and now, like it or not, I was going to plant them. I glared at him hard. We stood there for a few moments, both of us stubborn and fierce. He wheeled around, went back inside and slammed the door.

I have to tell you that this was a first for me. I had never challenged someone, anyone, like this before. There was something about him, or about the combination of the two of us that gave me the courage or the strength or the foolishness, to stand up to him…or maybe it was fueled by my big, fat, bruised ego.

I began working on the flower boxes, and as always, I found the peaceful rhythm of hands-into-dirt, plants-into-soil. I calmed down. I forgot all the craziness. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that he was peering at me through the window. Again he’d pulled the curtain back and was following my progress. When he saw me looking at him he threw the curtain shut again. Sometime later I heard the door open. I paid no attention. Finally he said quietly, “No, not there. Don’t put them there, they should go over in that one,” pointing his long gnarled finger across the deck. Glaring, I told him it was my garden and I’d plant them where I wanted. He slammed the door again and watched me from the curtained window.

After dragging a hose around from the backyard and thoroughly watering these new, young plants, I stood back to view the garden. The door opened and he spoke. His demeanor had changed – back to the imploring voice he’d used on me when he first asked for this garden. How was he going to take care of it? He was an old man; a weak old man and he couldn’t drag the hose over, or lift a full watering can…the flowers would just die. He was wringing his hands. Still suffering from a rather large and bruised ego I stared him in the eye and said coldly, “It’s my garden. I’ll take care of it.” I walked down the steps, climbed onto my bicycle and rode away without looking back.

Seattle was having a true heat wave and I was concerned about the newly planted garden. Two days later I rode back up to Teodore’s house. What would I encounter with the old man? Was I in real danger? My love for the young plants propelled me to return in spite of my fear of him. They needed water. This time I snuck quietly up onto the deck. Maybe I could water the plants without him knowing. But wait – not only had they been thoroughly watered, they had all – every single planter box – been carefully tended to. As I surveyed the garden, I heard the front door open. For some reason he didn’t yell at me, he just watched. I ignored him. He remained at the door, watching me through the screen. When I was satisfied that the plants were going to live for a few more days I turned to leave. Changing my mind I faced him. He tensed. Fear, then rage, flooded his face. I tensed too. Slowly I approached him. Part of me was screaming, “Are you insane? RUN! Get away from him, he’ll hurt you!” Then his face gentled and a smile formed in the most miraculous way. “Well, if it isn’t the Queen of the Flowers,” he murmured in a beautiful, deep, Swedish lilt. “The Queen of the Flowers.”

For the rest of that summer I visited Teodore most every week. He cared for the flowers – never have I seen such a well-tended garden. The moment any impudent weed had the nerve to appear, Teodore’s long fingers plucked it out. Somehow he found the strength and balance to carry watering can after watering can to quench his beloved garden’s thirst. My visits became social calls, not garden interventions. We would sit in his dark, cool, living room, he in his circa 1960’s plaid, upholstered, rocking chair. With eyes closed he would recount story after story of his childhood in the countryside of northern Sweden: the log over the creek that he and his friends would run across, the adventures they would have. Eventually he shared with me that each night before he fell asleep he’d pray that he’d awaken in the morning so that he could care for the garden. He told me he knew that’s why he was still alive, and that he was happy to be alive. In all other endeavors he continued to have absolutely no short-term memory. How could he remember me? What, or who, did he see when he looked into my eyes?

Each visit began with me approaching the front door. He’d draw the curtain back peering out, fearfully. The curtain would drop, the door would open an inch, and before he spoke, something would happen. I’d look into his eyes, he’d look into mine and after a moment he’d sing out, “Well, if it isn’t the Queen of the Flowers.”

It’s been over twenty years now since I met this remarkable old man. The experience has woven itself deeply into my bones…into my psyche. It’s about aging, about how our minds forget and also what they can remember; it’s about what’s beneath fear. And when I moved back home far from my current life, to help out my aging father, who coincidentally (?) was named Ted (Theodore) and lived to be ninety-four, my time with Teodore was patiently waiting there to guide me toward finding a way to connect with my father who had begun his own long journey into forgetting.

To listen to a radio interview I gave on The Story, about The Queen of the Flowers, click HERE.

grace AND dementia in the same sentence

Maybe you cannot imagine these two words linked in the same sentence: grace and dementia. The more time I spend with people who are going through a shift in the way they perceive their world, the more grace I discover.

Please. Dip your toes into the remarkable stories of the ones I have come to know. Many of these stories are about my father. He was and still is, the one who is teaching me the most about the landscape of dementia, even though he’s been gone now for years. There are others as well…other grand old ones with great gifts for me – treasures squirreled away in their twinkling or terrified eyes, in their enormous hearts, whole or broken-open…always they come bearing gifts.

The Queen of the Flowers, is the tale of me as an unknowing wanderer who ends up at the doorstep of a man with absolutely NO short-term memory, and how he and I found our way deep into each other’s hearts. This man, Teodore, gave me a crash course in dementia before I’d ever heard the word, before I knew there was such a thing as short-term memory loss. Our time together was a graduate degree in dementia crammed into the span of one hot summer. And to him I make a broad and low bow for the gifts that he bestowed upon me; his unknowing, then eager, student.

I hope that you will dive into this world that continues to bless me. I hope that sparkling tears will well up in your eyes and maybe roll down your cheeks. I hope that you laugh out loud too. All of this and more wait for you inside this world that our culture has turned away from, for far too long.

Welcome. Welcome Home.