When my partners Holly Hanson, Judie Suit, and I started Elders’ Eden, our dream was to create for our mothers (and Judie’s aunt) a real home — a place where they were loved and valued as the remarkable people they are, each with special skills, achievements, and quirks. We wanted them to have close and continuing relationships with caregivers, children, and pets. And we wanted them to be able, if at all possible, to die at home.
For my mother, Elinor Kester Driedger, this dream was a reality and I am so very grateful. Her last years were rich with love, and every day was full and meaningful because of our wonderful family of caregivers. And they really ARE family to us all. She was deeply contented in these last years, and her gentle passing is exactly what I hoped to make possible.
Mom moved to Rockford in 2000, when dementia had already begun to take a toll. Her caregivers know she could be feisty. Most of you who met her met the lamb. I remember the lion…
Let me talk a little about my mother, the lion — a woman who packed her chain saw when she came to visit, when she was well over 80, just in case we needed something cut down.
She was basically an artsy person. She loved music, books, poetry, theater, and dance. She taught me many Gilbert & Sullivan songs, sparking my interest in music, language, and rhyme—for instance, this song from Pirates of Penzance: “When a felon’s not engaged in his employment, or maturing his felonious little plans, his capacity for innocent enjoyment is just as great as any other man’s. Our feelings we with difficulty smother when constabulary duty’s to be done, take one consideration with another, a policeman’s lot is not a happy one.” I know I was NOT over four when I learned this; I remember asking the meaning of most of the long words.
Elinor whistled; she didn’t hum or sing. She whistled a LOT. Her repertory included show tunes, classical music, and pop tunes of her era. Many of her favorites I learned from her whistling.
She was determined, and not given to compromise. Not about anything. I couldn’t leave home until I made my bed. When I missed the school bus, I walked the 7 miles to high school, and she was never apologetic about my extreme lateness to the school administration.
Elinor was aggressively honest. In my high school, there was no after-school activity bus, so after sports or band practice, kids would call home to summon a ride. Most had a code to avoid paying for the phone call: put your money in the phone and let it ring a certain number of times and hang up. But I never had a code. My mother believed that was cheating the phone company, and she wouldn’t do it. That made an impression. I suspect that was her goal.
I learned to play piano because she strictly enforced a daily hour of practice – and an hour meant a full hour with your fingers on the keys. I’m grateful that when I wanted to make the New Jersey All-State band in high school, I had developed the discipline to practice clarinet the hour or two a day it took to get in that band.
She was incredibly compassionate — always concerned about people who were poor, or exploited, or coping with disabilities or health issues. Wherever we lived, she was active in one or more social service organizations. Over the years, she worked to help recent immigrants and people with disabilities — physical disabilities and mental illness. She worked on race relations, open housing, and women’s rights and probably other things I wasn’t aware of.
Our parent’s friends were diverse and interesting. My mother was intrigued by differences, and actively sought out relationships with a wide variety of people. Our lives were richer because of the several families of new Americans who were welcomed into our home and became a large part of our lives. The autistic child of family friends was a frequent playmate. I was nearly 8 when it dawned on me that my friend Dimi didn’t talk.
Many years ago, the YWCA in Baton Rouge started some groups to plant the seeds of better race relations. “Dialogue groups” of about 20 women, half white and half people of color, were signed up for 8 weeks of meetings to get to know one another. My mother’s group didn’t disband. After many, many weeks, they moved out of the Y and started monthly meetings. Over the years, their lives were entwined…they shared weddings, funerals, trips, parties, and vacations together. When my folks left Baton Rouge, her Dialogue group had been meeting for more than 20 years.
She had such a variety of interests and hobbies. She loved archeology and relished each of the many trips my folks took around the world. She loved gardening, and she was a serious about her compost. Nearly every time we visited our favorite fancy restaurant in Louisiana we had to stop at the kitchen before we left so she could collect a big bag of shrimp and crawdad shells because “these are good for the compost.” She brought a lot of strange things home because they were good for the compost. Living with this woman was always interesting.
And she was fiercely independent. She had hoped to drive until she was 100, and you may all be thankful that she eventually forgot that idea. When she was in therapy to recover from a broken hip, she told the gait therapist “I’ve been walking for nearly 90 years, and I don’t need any lessons.”
We have a very large framed photo of my dad, and after my dad died, she would carry that from room to room so he could be with her. As the mist of memory loss descended, he seemed quite real to her. I once arrived in her apartment to find her sitting with the TV facing away from her, and the photo on a chair facing the TV. When I asked her “What’s going on here?” She said “Oh, he’s watching sports or something.”
Eventually Elinor lived only in the present. Memory loss is not such a terrible thing once you learn to appreciate the new opportunities it presents.
Once I brought her flowers, which we put on her dresser. The next day, as we walked by those flowers, I pointed them out …and she said “Oh yes, they’ve been there as long as I can remember.” And she laughed – I think she knew that was a great line.
In her last years, she was not able to speak very often or very well. While she could still talk a little, I asked her if we managed to understand what she wanted and what she meant, and she said yes. It took me a while to realize why that was true. If she had not stopped talking, I never would have realized how very expressive her face was. She had an incredible variety of expressions: a raised eyebrow, a furrowed brow, a big smile, a slight nod of the head, and a devilish wink, augmented by a few key sounds, .the most notable being what we called “the whoop.” We always knew what she meant.
I loved my mother….I’m grateful for her spirit, her eagerness to embrace life, her love and her example of integrity, compassion, and community involvement.
We have an Elders’ Eden blessing:
May there always be work for your hands to do
May you share your home with a pet or two
May your life be filled with growing things
May you know the comfort that family brings
May the sun always shine on your windowpane
May a rainbow be certain to follow each rain
May the hand of a friend always be near you
May love fill your heart with gladness to cheer you.
I’m grateful for Elders’ Eden and my friends there who gave my mom love and support and dignity, and made it possible for her to have her toes in the grass in summer, a child by her chair, a cat on her bed and a smile on her face, for so long.
This lovely piece appeared at the bottom of a long page on my website, Aging with Grace. Seeing how neglected it looked at the bottom of that page, and how unlikely to be seen, I have moved it to its own page here, where I hope you have enjoyed reading it. Thanks again to Ruth Little, for writing it and allowing me to publish it here.