I see how animated my mother is and realize how wonderful it is that she is able to have such fun in her 90s, especially considering the terrible ordeal she has been through. Dottie has given my mother a new friendship. Dottie has enabled her to have fun.
This is part of a series on aging in the Delaware Valley called “Gray Matters: New Tools for Growing Older” from the WHYY Health and Science Desk. The six-week series will feature audio and video stories as well as personal essays. The following is an excerpt from “Mother Care at Home: Fun, Love, Money, and Other Ways to Make It Work” by Mona Forman Doyle.
My mother is more active when there is no caregiver around. Except when the caregiver is Dottie. Dottie’s presence makes my mother energetic and frequently enthusiastic. Knowing that Dottie is rather inept, my mother tries to make Dottie look good, to cover for her. She understands that Dottie’s job needs protection from my expectations and standards. I am the grumpy employer who finds Dottie’s helplessness hard to take. My mother finds protecting Dottie an exciting challenge.
One day, when she and Dottie are in cahoots about something, I see how animated my mother is and realize how wonderful it is that she is able to have such fun in her 90s, especially considering the terrible ordeal she has been through. Dottie has given my mother a new friendship. Dottie has enabled her to have fun.
Dottie has even enabled my mother to re-live a behavior pattern that she had enjoyed her during her early career days, when she often covered for her charming but sometimes-tipsy boss. My mother had been able to make him look good and keep the big bosses from knowing how often he was impaired. Dottie doesn’t drink anything stronger than skim milk, but she seems tipsy on the fun she has being alive. The analogy between covering up for Dottie’s ineptness and covering up for her boss’s drinking may be a stretch, but I am proud of my creativity in hiring Dottie her in spite of her limitations.
From Dottie’s first days with us, my mother turns a blind eye to her ineptitudes. They go out in Dottie’s car whenever the weather and my mother’s health don’t make it impossible. I am grateful to have them out of my space, but it feels like having a teenager going out in a car with someone you don’t really trust to drive.
Friends, neighbors, and even doormen share stories about Dottie’s bumbles and fumbles. “Do you know that the little blonde you have taking care of your mother doesn’t know what she is doing?”
I shake my head, tell them I know, and explain that my mother loves Dottie and that all her inadequacies are forgiven. I remember struggling with the effort to reconcile my children’s needs and perceptions with my own.
With my mother and Dottie, I look away from what I know until and unless it causes real trouble or major expense. I do lose my temper when Dottie loses my mother’s newest and most expensive hearing aid in her excitement at trying on some bargain jackets. “Dottie, it’s really important to check the hearing aid before and after each try on. A $1.00 jacket my mother doesn’t need doesn’t replace a $1000 hearing aid.”
It’s one of the few times that Dottie snaps back at me. “I know that. I know how much things are worth. And I am sorry that the hearing aid got lost, but your mother lost it. It wasn’t in my ear. I didn’t lose it.”
There’s not much I can do but grind my teeth and buy another hearing aid.
Dottie’s appeal as a funny dumb blonde attracts attention and helps my mother meet and talk with many people in the building. Neighbors rush to help when they see her struggling with my mother’s wheelchair, coat or hearing aid, or trying to figure out how to get my mother from the wheelchair into the hairdresser’s chair or the pool without dropping her. My mother welcomes their help and soon has an army of assistants who help Dottie do transfers (from chair to chair or wheelchair to car) and other kinds of things that other caregivers find easy or have been trained to do.
Thanks to Dottie, inviting new people in the building to have Friday dinner with us becomes easier to do. People in the building know about my mother and our dinners before they are invited. Some ask to be invited. They are disappointed when I tell them that Dottie won’t be there because she doesn’t like to drive at night.
I explain that my mother is the reason for the invitation: that it is hard to take her out and easy to give her pleasure by having guests around the dinner table. They nod their heads in agreement, and tell me that they know all about our dinners and love the idea. Many have met my mother with little Dottie or big Joanna in the lobby, the grocery store, the beauty salon, or the park.
Doing the Friday dinners keeps making us new friends. An added bonus: The dinners are as good for Seymour, my significant other, as they are for my mother. He was only nine when an accident took his father’s life and his mother started working. He associates Friday night dinners with the times of his childhood when his father was still alive. He searches out the most delicious challah bread with the most soft raisins — the kind that we all like best. He wants to pour, bless, and drink glasses of wine. He loves carving chicken, which is what we usually have for dinner, because carving is something he does especially well. A retired vet, he uses a knife as deftly as the surgeon he was. He also loves presiding at the table in the role of the paterfamilias. He loves it even more when one or both of his local children join us.
The wine ritual is an important part of our dinners. My mother explores and savors, tasting and sniffing the red and the white when both are available. We all come to enjoy the sounds and fun of clinking glasses, toasting each other on each occasion, and saying all the words of life, love, health, and joy that our experience and language skills allow: “Salud! Cheers! L’Chaim! Skoll! Santé! To friends! To life! To love! To health! To friendship!”
Entertaining can be expensive at a time when home cooking seems just too time-consuming and mess-making, but our Friday night dinners cost very little. When someone is available and willing to carve, a whole chicken is very inexpensive, almost infinitely stretchable, and requires very little prep time.
My secret recipe for delicious chicken is to marinate it in a bowl for at least an hour before baking. (Marinating all day or overnight in the fridge is fine too.) Orange juice laced with soy sauce is my standard marinade: I use a three-to-one ratio, like a cup of juice to a 1/3 cup of soy sauce, but the ratio doesn’t really matter. Stirring in some drippings and boiling it down makes wonderful low-fat gravy while the carver is slicing. When I remember, I bake a few yams along with the chicken. My mother loves them, and before long, so do our guests. Add a pre-washed salad and a fresh or frozen veggie or two.
Our guests routinely bring desserts and wine and sometimes appetizers as well. Since Seymour carves and cleans up, and my mother loves setting and clearing the table, it sometimes seems that all I have to do is buy the chicken, marinate it, and put it in the oven. The only “work” is cutting away the wet plastic wrapping and pulling out and tossing the messy innards which I have learned to throw away, even though they could/should be turned into stock.
When I feel expansive and have time, I get some fish to have along with or instead of the chicken, or a package of sauerkraut to bake under the chicken. Baked sauerkraut is delicious (albeit very unhealthy in this era of cholesterol-watching) when it is flavored with the drippings of a chicken or a pork roast. The drippings make it crusty as well as tasty and including it adds only two minutes to the time and trouble of making chicken — just enough time to cut open the bag and rinse out some of the salt. I lay the sauerkraut onto the bottom of the baking pan so it picks up the flavor of the chicken sitting on top. When the chicken is done, the sauerkraut is done as well. Overdone is even better! The same is true of the yams!
Until we found Dottie, holidays and Friday night dinners were the only highlights of my mother’s quiet life. They continued to be important after Dottie, but her social life had been enlarged and enriched. She continued to get her hair and nails done, get dressed up, and choose her bangles and beads with extra care. She loved many of the people who come regularly, and many of them loved her.
The dinners enrich all of our lives, but Dottie has become the main source of sunshine in my mother’s old age. It is a great weight off my shoulders. I had come to enjoy the dinners almost as much as my mother, but worried about my mother outlook if I needed to skip one, afraid that her joy in living had come to depend on them. I hadn’t even realized that they had become a burden to me, but they had. Dottie lifted that burden without any idea that she was doing it.
Also without knowing she was doing it, Dottie showed me that what my mother really loved to do was play. Dottie and my mother played an ongoing game of dress-up and gambling and plans to dress up and gamble. They had lovely times together. If not for Dottie, I doubt that I ever would have remembered how playful my mother was. There was even something playful about her goody bags.
Mona Forman Doyle is the author of “Mother and Me: A Mother Care Memoir.“