Blog Twenty Four: One Week In the Ole Folks Home

 “Family” is a funny word.

The traditional family structure in the United States is considered a family support system involving two married individuals providing care and stability for their biological offspring. However, this two-parent, nuclear family has become less prevalent, and alternative family forms have become more common.

…So says Wikipedia.  

I’ve spent much of my life in turmoil with this concept.  Only nowadays am I on the precipice of accepting what my family of origin is, has been, and is not.  Acceptance is the golden tool of all tools.  So simple, yet so challenging to actually practice.  Especially if you’re somewhat controlling.  Which I am.

I’m deep in the fold of Northern NJ, visiting my Mother who has recently relocated to a senior living complex, i.e. old folks home.  She’s in the “independent” living section.  Her apartment is cute.  One bedroom, full kitchen, laundry, with a bevy of paid for services and most importantly, 24 hour EMT on call at the pull of a string.  There are three emergency call outlets in her space.  My Mom is stubbornly independent and socially resistant at best. The apple never falls far from the tree.  After the initial shock of 24/7 immersion time with her, something miraculous started to happen.  Instead of reacting to her outbursts and upsetness, there was a flicker of compassion.  This is good news for everyone.

I have to say I really like the old folks home.  It’s kinda wonderful.  This one is, anyway.  Yesterday I went exploring the many arms of this tentacled building.  Every wing is attached and every building has an indoor “link” so the residents can mosey along under sheltered pathways.  When I eventually found the gym, I had a private chuckle about being the only one there.  

I’ve made friends with a lovely man who works the entrance gate.  Oddly enough, he is also a musician by trade and has been in a famous, working band for decades.  When I first arrived, my mom was amiss.  This man was kind enough to let me into her apartment.  My mother, being independent, most of the time to her detriment, is still driving.  She eventually arrived, after getting lost for a four hour plus window, teasing the borders of Pennsylvania.  Mind you, that wasn’t her intention.  She clearly needs to stop using her car, but no one has the heart (or energy) to break it to her – or implement new rules on this resistant old woman.

My parents were pretty hands on while we were growing up.  Hands-on in a fearful, helicopter mom & dad kinda way.  When I analyze my experience, I can see that they made many of their choices based on their own fear set.  Not on what might create a valuable life experience.  I can witness more contemporary child-rearing methods and what that success looks like in my former sister in law, who has proven herself to be the truest definition of “family” in this clan of crazies.   She has the wisdom to put her children’s best interests first.  I also witness this trait in some of my friends who have children.  The comparisons are interesting to watch, but painful to experience.  That human reaction in the pit of my stomach about “how things might have been, could have been” had my folks been raised by a different sort, in a different culture, in a different era.  

*Insert that “acceptance” tool here.*

My “family” has been riddled with mental illness.  That’s the only description for behaviors of the untethered mind I have up my sleeve.  My parents surely white-knuckled my mom’s early marriage depression and attempted suicide when I was 3 years old.  I remember one scene as it’s still etched in my brain.  Sitting on my aunt Rosie’s lap, eating fruit loops or some cereal of the like, staring at our front door on Kipp Avenue in Elmwood Park.  In this time frame, our town was still called “East Paterson”.  Staring at the diamond shaped windows of the apartment door, waiting for my mom to come home.  Many years later I remember a sit down I had with my father and mother, and my dad was recounting my mom’s suicide attempt.  She nodded in agreement as he retold his story.  A handful of years later, after my father had died, I was sitting with my mom at that same table.  She denied ever having tried to take her own life.  That it was the cause of sleep aids the doctors had given her and that it was just a stomach pump of sorts.  With no witnesses around to cross-check information, it’s hard to know what happened when I was that little girl.  My mom’s memory has been dwindling at a rapid pace for the last decade.  As her hard drive gets wiped, the truth gets reconfigured into more palatable folders of information.

For years I have been mad at New Jersey.  The entire state.  On this trip, among other transformative perceptions, I realized how lovely this place is.  And her people.  Life is much harder in the east.  People are more weathered and more like characters out of a Charles Bukowski novel.  Then again, living in Los Angeles, my gauge is a little off the reality barometer.  On my early trips back to New York, I noticed how most of the worlds best-looking people migrated west to the land of film stars and shiny, sun-drenched bodies.

I’m not sure if my mom will open up to this new living environment, and all its elderly people – which she finds ways to separate herself from with fiery contempt.  “Those ugly, old fucks” as she likes to call them.  I asked her on my last day of the week-long visit “why are you so mad at them?” well knowing the mirror she’s facing in herself.  Her response was sobering and real.  “I hate being old, I hate it”.  Now that’s something I can see in my own mental formatting, the absurd resistance to “what is” that causes so much suffering and unwellness.

On the morning of my departure back to LA, my mom was a no-show.  She had left early for her ritual “hairdressing” at the old beauty shop she’s been a patron at for over 40 years.  The one place she was able to find her way “home” from, now has her getting lost in the spirals of New Jersey’s highways and backroads.  As I walked to exit the old folks home and grab my Uber to the airport, I got a call from a sweet serviceman in Flemington NJ.  “Hi.  This is Bill.  I’m with your mom and she’s very lost”.  Kind Bill went on to hand write directions for my mother, who still can’t figure out her Nokia flip phone from the 90’s.  “Mom, are you ok?  Maybe you need to think about not driving yourself around anymore.  It’s so dangerous when you get lost for hours at a time, without your insulin or any food”.  “Stop criticising!” she yelps from the other end, and quickly hands the phone back to Bill, sans goodbye’s or niceties.  Sweet Bill assures me he’s sending her off with his handwritten instructions and her flip phone “she doesn’t know how to use”.  A few minutes go by as wait outside in the Northern chill for my ride.

“Hi, it’s Bill.  Your mother just drove past me, going in the wrong direction.”

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Cynthia Catania Written by:

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